Breaking Away

Portland vies to become not just a great biking city, but the world’s top biking region.

By Randy Gragg May 21, 2010 Published in the June 2010 issue of Portland Monthly

When Bicycling magazine announced in April that Minneapolis had dethroned Portland as the most bike-friendly city in the country, the news wasn’t just shocking, it was a splash of ice water in the face for local cyclephiles. We had worn the crown of top cycling city in America for so long—15 years—that it had become a cliché, on par with coffee, beards, and patchouli.

But somewhere amid the cacophony of grinding teeth and gnashing gears, there lies the murmur of change. Bicycling pointed out that Portland’s second-place status had more to do with the rest of the country catching up to our spoke-centric ways than to any failing on our part; little do they know that plans are already afoot to break away and, once again, leave the competition in the dust.

After all, there’s no need to settle for being merely the best biking city in the country when you can become the best cycling region—in the world.

From bike taxis ferrying tourists through downtown Portland to beguiling, pedal-powered trips through Willamette Valley wine country and even a planned cycling mega-path to Mount Hood, the next step is to merge bicycling with tourism and economic development.

“People are realizing that the best way to experience the kind of beauty we have in this region is not from behind the windshield,” says Alex Phillips, bicycle recreation coordinator for Oregon’s Department of Parks and Recreation.

Already home to the 132-mile Willamette Valley Scenic Bikeway—the only such regional beauty ride in the country—Oregon is currently mulling over seven additional bikeways that would potentially cover another 900 miles, Phillips says. Among them is a proposed 240-mile loop centered around Bend, a town that, according to a study by professor Kreg Lindberg at Oregon State University, raked in an estimated $1.44 million in tourist dollars from one major cycling event last year.

“Oregon is low-hanging fruit,” says Jerry Norquist, executive director of Cycle Oregon, a 23-year-old, 500-mile ride through Oregon’s rural areas that earned $125,000 for local businesses last year. “It’s the perfect place to promote the type of cycling and agro-tourism that’s on par with the world-class rides in Italy and France.”

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Closer to home, Oregon’s future as a regional biking Valhalla hinges largely on the ambitious Bi-State Regional Trails System, 250 miles of interwoven trails and greenways in Oregon and Washington designed to seamlessly connect 32 cities, six counties, and two states to nature on both sides of the Columbia River.

Mike Wetter is a senior advisor with Metro and the de facto executive director of the newly established Intertwine Alliance, the umbrella coalition of park, city, and regional officials that is overseeing the creation of the Bi-State Regional Trails System. The future jewel in their master plan is the Mount Hood Connections trail, which will carve a path from the skyscrapers of the state’s most populous city to the subalpine firs of its highest peak.

“Can you imagine the draw?” Wetter says. “You start in downtown Portland, stop on the Clackamas River and camp, then get up the next morning and ride to Hood. It’s tremendous.”

Only problem is, right now the trail will get you only as far as Boring. Like many of the Intertwine’s trails, it exists in a series of fits and starts, nowhere close to completion. And at the current rate of construction, the Intertwine would take another 190 years to complete.

A big obstacle, of course, is a lack of funds. While cities that earn a scenic bikeway designation will have access to small start-up grants and help with signage and printing materials, they’re pretty much on their own when it comes to finding money to complete any project. Congressman Earl Blumenauer has requested a $2 million appropriation to help complete the Intertwine’s bike paths, including $280,000 for the link to Mount Hood, a nice gesture that still falls far short of the route’s final $75 million price tag.

Naturally, Wetter is frustrated, but there’s reason to hope. “You look at Intertwine meetings, and at the table are people who haven’t typically worked well together—people from TriMet, Metro, the City of Portland, and nonprofits—saying, ‘We’re ready to think bigger than we are,’” Wetter says.

And bigger than Minneapolis, too.

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