Portland official speaks to Richmond audience about bike-friendly initiatives

One of the leading figures that made Portland, Oregon the most bike-friendly city in the U.S. spoke in Richmond last night, along with other leading cycling proponents to a sold-out crowd. Can Richmond become the next Portland, or will it remain “the little city that could” in the cycling world


Just south of 200 people sat and stood inside the RF&P Railroad Company Forum in the Science Museum on Tuesday evening to listen to several bicycle-related discussions, including Mia Birk, author of the new book Joyride: Pedaling Toward A Healthier Planet. Among the attendees were local politicians as well as local police. Sargeant Brand of the Henrico County Police Department attended the event on behalf of his department to better learn “what we can do to help.” The Virginia Bicycling Federation sponsored the event.

Eric Weis of the East Coast Greenway Alliance spoke first. His hour-long presentation highlighted the Durham, North Carolina-based non-profit’s goal to strengthen and expand the East Coast Greenway (ECG). The ECG is a 2,900 mile coalescence of bicycling, pedestrian, and even equestrian trails that runs from Calais, Maine to Key West, Florida. Currently 26% of the trails are traffic-free (those not connected to roads trafficked by automobiles). Their long-term vision is to make all conjoined trails traffic-free, including existing trails in Richmond, as well as in surrounding counties.

Tim Miller of Richmond 2015, a group bidding for Richmond to host The UCI World Road Cycling Championships in 2015, spoke next. The UCI Championships is a world-class event and, as Miller maintains, would invigorate bicycle-friendly initiatives in Richmond as well as feature the city to a global audience. Richmond’s remaining competitor in the bidding process is a city in the middle-eastern country of Oman.

The final speaker was Mia Birk. She became the Bicycle Program Manager of Portland in 1993, helping to make Portland the most bicycle-friendly urban area in the United States. Birk supports a common-sense approach to implementing bicycle-friendly policy. She realizes that not all people can travel via bicycle. “It’s not an extremist approach,” she says of her cycling evangelism. But she also maintains that there is a desire, even among the non-cyclists, to transition at least some of their commuting to a bicycle.

A green lane in Portland.

60% of Americans would like to bike, said Birk, but are intimidated by the lack of safe bike lanes. Birk presented keys for communities that would like to spur bike-friendly initiatives and policies. She maintained that leadership is crucial, both at the political and community levels. A “bold, visionary plan” is also necessary–one that considers a 20-year time frame, one that is “doable.” A necessary step for Richmond to take, said Birk, is to have a bike lane coordinator. According to her, Richmond is “close” to filling such a position for the first time–to which the audience applauded.

She also stressed patience. Currently, Portland has 320 miles of bike paths, a number that caused several in the audience to gasp with envy and hope (Richmond has only two bike lanes in the entire city). Safety has also increased in Portland with the rise in bicycling. “As bike usage has gone up, crashes have gone down,” said Birk, which was immediately followed by applause. The more biking became an acceptable form of transportation, the safer both bicyclists and motorists became.

In the 20 years that Portland created and implemented its bicycle-friendly initiatives the city invested $60 million, which amounts to less than 1% of Portland’s transportation budget. The same amount of money, Birk said, would provide only one mile of urban roadway.

Birk recommended the NACTO Urban Bikeway Design Guide as a resource to both inspire and guide local bike-friendly initiatives.


Photos by: Daniel Farrell & neighborhoods.org

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Nathan Cushing

Nathan Cushing is a writer, journalist, and RVANews Editor.

9 comments on Portland official speaks to Richmond audience about bike-friendly initiatives

  1. “In the 20 years that Portland created and implemented its bicycle-friendly initiatives the city invested $60 million, which amounts to less than 1% of Portland’s transportation budget. The same amount of money, Birk said, would provide only one mile of urban roadway.”

    This is really what struck me the most during the event. The accompanying pie chart showing the tiny, tiny, tiny sliver of green representing the percentage (0.7% I believe) of the transportation budget used to create such an amazing infrastructure overhaul was astounding. I look forward to seeing what happens next in Richmond — where will this initial enthusiasm take us?

  2. Beth on said:

    I grew up in the burbs of Richmond, and can’t imagine feeling safe on a bike there. Just moved to Berkeley last fall and am living car free! I can get most of where I want to go on bicycle boulevards, where traffic is light and bikes rule.


  3. Tony on said:

    My question is this: in those heavy biking cities, do bicyclists obey the traffic laws? Because what bikers there are in Richmond seem to do whatever they want (ride the wrong way, ride on sidewalks, blow through red lights and stop signs), and I don’t think adding more of that is really a good idea, bike lanes or no. I’d love to hear that adding in bike lanes and upping the number of bicycle commuters encourages more responsible biking. (This is in no way trying to excuse rude/dangerous drivers who don’t share the road with cyclists.)

  4. @Tony — this was discussed, and from what I gathered, bicycle-motorist relations improved (less crashes, too) as biking initiatives were vamped up. There were also examples of bike lights which could certainly help regulate cycling traffic. (There were some chuckles all around as Birk noted that yes, *some* bikers don’t obey the laws, but it’s never any of *us* in that room!)

  5. Julie on said:

    Former Virginian living between Seattle & Portland here…

    My community near Olympia, WA has TONS of bike lanes, some of which are exclusive and off-limits to cars. In areas where bike lanes are present and marked, cyclists seem to obey the regs better than motorists do. I’ve seen people in small cars try to use a bike lane as a right-turning lane (!) but by and large it’s a pretty smooth system. The difficulty comes when cyclists must use roads that are not yet bike-friendly, and motorists are annoyed by the necessity to slow and pass. The more bike lanes, the more bikes…the more necessity for still MORE bike lanes… But out here, they tackle a whole big segment of road at a time, shut it down for half a year, upgrade public utility lines under the street and bury exposed wires etc, repave and re-landscape, expand the road, add bike lanes, sidewalks, streetlights…generally pretty it all up. One little bit at a time. It’s great, especially for a state with no income tax or tolls (though we’ve got sales & high property taxes.)

  6. Citizen Tom on said:

    In the 70s I lived in the fan and rode my bike every day for 10 years and it was my major form of transportation, but in those 10 years I was knocked off my bike twice by cars and almost crushed by a bus on Belvedere Street.

    Once a German tourist was biking through town and following the bike lane east on Floyd Ave when it ended at Harrison Street. He was befuddled, wanting to know where it picked back up and we had to tell him that was all there was!

    Once the new Huguenot Bridge is finished I expect an upswing in commuter biking from Southside.

  7. Good luck. Construction in Richmond seems designed to force bicyclists into traffic where they can be hunted down by cars.

  8. Beth on said:

    There’s a hoard of cyclists in Berkeley that ride really stupid (blowing through stop signs without looking, etc), and it drives me insane. As a pedestrian I even got yelled at by one who said I should yield to bikes and treat them like pedestrians (and that they clearly weren’t required to follow any traffic laws…).

    That being said, when I got slammed with a $220 ticket during a bike “crackdown” (rolled through a stop sign on campus where there are almost never cars), the media pointed out that all FOUR cyclist deaths since the 1980’s were the cyclists’ fault. Given the number of cyclists here, 4 in 30 years ain’t bad. I think it’s so low because there are tons of stop signs, and the speed limits are almost never above 25.

  9. Drew on said:

    Bike lanes can change the entire attitude of a city, making folks healthier and happier. Sidewalks and bike lanes – democracy.

    The question is what can we do as citizens here to make it happen?

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