Portland aims to triple biking in a suburban pavement paradise

March 06, 2017

Michael Andersen, PlacesForBikes staff writer


Zoned for skyscrapers: Portland's unusual Gateway District.

Eighth in a series of profiles of the Big Jump Project's 10 focus areas.

Of all 10 neighborhoods now working to create some of the country's first all-ages bike networks as part of the Big Jump Project, the one that's most auto-oriented today might be in — surprise — Portland, Oregon.

Six miles east of the glass towers and wide bike lanes of Portland's downtown is a neighborhood that doesn't get pictured on postcards.

Not yet, at least.

In a place inclined toward unusual plans (Portland had the country's first statewide urban growth boundary, second surface light-rail line and first modern streetcar system), the Gateway District might be the most audacious gamble going. Today, it's a sea of parking lots just east of a freeway:


Satellite image: Google Maps.

...surrounded by the most ethnically diverse neighborhoods of the country's whitest major city, which also happen to have the city's most auto-oriented streets despite relatively low auto ownership rates. At nearby David Douglas High School, students speak 67 different native languages.


An assembly at David Douglas High School. Photo: Heidi's Promise.

The city's long-range plan calls for skyscrapers to spring from Gateway's pavement. It's zoned to become the closest thing Portland would have to a second downtown. Here's a map of where the city's regulations allow future housing to be built:


Image: City of Portland.

The cluster of capacity towards the left is Portland's central city. The cluster towards the right, six miles east, is Gateway.

Portland planners' idea is that a second major regional hub for office jobs and public institutions would shorten average commutes, while sending ripples of opportunity into the largely disinvested east Portland, which sat outside city limits until the 1980s.


Image: City of Portland.

Gateway already has a strong skeleton of mass transit. Since Portland annexed the area, regional transit agency TriMet has spent $1.3 billion on three light-rail lines that unite at Gateway, creating a single super-frequent trunk line to downtown.

The problem is that so far, nobody has wanted to turn one of these parking lots into a skyscraper, presumably because no developer thinks they could find enough people willing to pay top dollar to live or work in Gateway. Today, the area's only glimmer of traditional "urban" design comes from a single strip of sidewalk-facing retail shops, the only such block in all of east Portland.


Image: Google Street View.

Now, Portland is trying to get Gateway's private investment rolling in two of the ways its leaders believe in most: bicycling and walking.

Last year, the city's economic development agency released a plan for a major investment in the streetscape along Gateway's lonely commercial strip, creating safer crosswalks, curb-protected bike lanes and some of the region's first floating bus stops.

“When implemented next year with parking-protected bicycle lanes, this commercial stretch will have the most bicycle-friendly design of any commercial district in Portland,” the city wrote in its Big Jump Project application.


Rendering: Portland Development Commission.

Portland leaders hope this redesign of Halsey and Weidler streets, combined with the light rail network, will eventually have the same effect on Gateway real estate that Multnomah Street's redesign has had on real estate in Portland's downtown Lloyd District. There, restriping auto lanes into protected bike lanes combined with a streetcar line to help trigger hundreds of millions of dollars in private investment and more than 2,000 new homes on former parking lots there.

But for Gateway's retailers to grow their customer base while also removing parking lots, Gateway's little loop of protected bike lanes will need some help: A network of similarly low-stress routes will need to connect to it. And this eastward stretch of Halsey, one of Portland's deadliest streets, must become safer to cross on foot.

Those two changes are the main focus of Portland's Big Jump Project plan for the next three years.


Image: Portland Bureau of Transportation.

A new north-south neighborhood greenway (Portland's term for a series of low-traffic side streets that have been customized for biking) called the "100s Neighborhood Greenway" will run perpendicular to the new couplet like an arrow in a bow. To the couplet's west, 102nd Avenue will get new bike lanes parallel to the freeway; to its east, a planned five-lanes-to-three restriping of Halsey will also create new buffered or protected bike lanes that connect to the north-south arterial of 122nd Avenue. Two more neighborhood greenways are also planned and funded, further south and east.

BikePortland.org goes into more detail here.

Another major feature of Portland's plan: the new network will also create bike access to Gateway Green, a planned recreational area just northwest of the Gateway District between interstates 84 and 205 that'll create the city's first mountain-biking park over the next few years.

Timur Ender, a project manager for the city transportation department, called Gateway Green "a prime open space that's been neglected for decades … all of a sudden we see that there's a potential for this area of land that's been in the shadows of freeways."


The future site of Gateway Green. Photo: City of Portland.


Renderings: Friends of Gateway Green.

Ender said that though the Gateway District has a long way to go before it becomes truly bike-friendly, that's part of what makes the project exciting.

"The streets in East Portland are very wide," Ender said. "If we can show improvements and show people feel comfortable going seamlessly from a bus stop to a protected bike lane to a neighborhood greenway -- if it can work in this specific environment, then it can work in any city in the U.S."

PlacesForBikes helps U.S. communities build better biking, faster. You can follow us on Twitter or Facebook or sign up for our weekly news digest about building all-ages biking networks. Story tip? Write michael@peopleforbikes.org.

Correction 3:20 pm: An earlier version of this post incorrectly said Portland had the nation's first urban growth boundary. Oregon had the nation's first statewide urban growth boundary.

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