Friday, September 9, 2016

Goodbye BP, Hello PDX

Taking a page from Budapest, bike racks displace car parking on Portland's trendy NE Alberta Street.

Back to the US

This summer, our family made a big, long-debated move from Hungary back to the US, where both my wife and I are from. We all loved Budapest but for various reasons, we'd agreed some time ago that we would come back. The question was when and how, and to what city. For a few years, the issue hung up on such details.

But it has to be admitted that in the family discussions, I was the lone  foot dragger. The kids were eager to permanently relocate to the land of grandma and cousins and awesome vacations. My wife had been in Hungary even longer than I had, and she was ready for a change. I, on the other hand, had serious doubts whether we could do better than Budapest. We had good jobs; good day care and school; lots of friends and a great centrally-located flat in a gorgeous city (upstairs from the Bem Mozi with a view of the Duna). And importantly, everything was easy to access due to the compactness of Budapest and its superb public transport system. I lived in Budapest for 20 years and never owned a car. I loved not needing a car and the prospect of having to get one -- as most families do in the US -- was one of my biggest doubts about moving back.

But when Kristin was offered a job in Portland, Oregon, world-renowned as the American Mecca of transport cycling, that was it. I'd already given my qualified assent to a US move. Now the when, how and where were sorted out in undeniably excellent fashion. This was the time to jump.

Lance joined me for a last Budapest cycling demonstration in July -- in protest of Mayor Tarlos's unilateral rejection of the bike-friendly elements of the reconstruction of Bartók Béla út.
Kristin moved out ahead of us in May to begin work and scout out a home. The kids and I joined her here on July 13. I've been thinking of continuing with my blog, just changing the city of focus from Budapest to Portland. Originally, Cycling Solution was a fish-out-of-water concept: a look at Budapest cycling and transport through the eyes of an American. I think the idea still holds -- now in reverse. I spent so many years working and living in Europe that I practically went native -- at least with respect to my views on transport. So the blog is still a fish-out-of-water thing: cycling and transport in Portland through the eyes of a pseudo-European.

I wanted to get a feel for the place before writing about it, and now that we're going on two months, it's time to start. I've already been cycling a bit, and have spotted impressive infrastructure and other measures that promote everyday cycling (e.g. an innovative bike-share system, "neighborhood greenways", "buffered" bike lanes with wide safety zones on either side to separate cyclist from moving traffic and parked vehicles, and a cyclist-friendly wayfinding system). However, it's taken time to appreciate this. My first impressions of local cycling conditions weren't so good, which surprised me because the press on Portland cycling is generally super positive.

Biketown is the name of Portland's new public bike system. It just debuted in July.
On Portland's MAX light rail (akin to Budapest's HEV), you can take your bike at no extra charge (as opposed to the HEV, where you're charged double fare)
Neighborhood greenways are long stretches of secondary streets that prioritize cycling and discourage motorized through traffic. On a greenway, you can bike for kilometers on end without breaking stride while travelers on side streets are halted by stop signs topped with special bike emblems.

Great cycling city -- by American standards 

Although I have no doubt that Portland deserves its place among the top-rated cycling metros in the US (apparently 6% of work and school trips are by bike here -- higher than in any other large city in the country), Portland is still an American city. And not just American, but West Coast American, meaning it's much newer, more spread out and more car-centric than virtually any European city.

Portland has a small downtown core with taller buildings and apartment blocks, but most of the city rises just one floor, and the vast majority of residential development is single-family detached homes -- like the one we're living in now. We're about 6 miles (10 km) from the city center in a 100+ year-old neighborhood that looks quite a lot like neighborhoods a half mile from the center. There may be a duplex and multi-level apartment unit here and there, but most of it is detached homes with yards, driveways and garages.

This low density means that almost anything you want to get to requires a bit of a journey. For us, for example, the nearest grocery store is .7 miles (1.2 km); nearest park .6 miles (.9 km); and nearest post office 1.8 miles (3 km). We're by no means isolated -- in fact, because we're near a major thoroughfare (Sandy Boulevard), we have a bunch of nearby restaurants, bars and convenience stores (also pot shops -- marijuana being legal in Oregon). But it's not nearly as walkable as a normal urban neighborhood in Europe. On the other hand, it is bikeable. Our boy is biking to school, we bike for groceries and to get pizza and to go to judo and soccer practice. I bet with time, I'll find myself logging more distance by bike than I did in Budapest because all those trips I used to take by foot I now take by bike.

Longer trips are more of a challenge due to the comparatively scarce public transport. Again, we could do much worse than Portland. By West Coast standards, Portland is quite advanced in terms of public transport. Along with the bus system (which most cities in the US still have, at least in some vestigial form), Portland has a light rail network (connecting city to suburbs, like Budapest's HEV) as well as two streetcar lines (trams). The main public transport in our neighborhood are two bus lines along the nearest thoroughfares (buses 12 on Sandy Blvd and 72 on NE 82nd Street). The service on these lines is every 10-15 minutes during peak times and every 15-20 minutes during weekends and holidays. This service is categorised as "frequent" by the operator Trimet.

The sparse public transport in our neighborhood is another reason we're biking so much. Kristin bikes about 9 miles to work each way and I take our daughter to a school across town that's more than 5 miles away (two roundtrips a day). I believe in both cases, we save time over public transport. For trips where bikes don't work, we're relying on Uber. We've actually used Uber quite a lot, including some trips where we've hauled our bikes (for an extra fee, you can dial "Uber Pedal" and you get a car that can carry bicycles.)

Portland is certainly more of a car-driving city than Budapest. You hear about more and more people going carless, and the city has infrastructure and services that enable this if you're committed. But they'll need lots of development before car-free is the norm.