Portland’s (Bicycle) Path Through Crisis

The COVID-19 pandemic, unprecedented wildfires, and 100+ nights of protests against racial inequality have dominated life in Portland over the last six months. 2020 has presented this city with crisis after crisis extensively chronicled by local and national headlines. But innovative efforts to build a better, more resilient Portland are stronger than ever, even if the news feed doom scroll doesn’t reflect that.

The City That Smart Bikes

There are many silver linings. Portland recently became the first city in the country to get an all-electric bikeshare fleet. These “smart bikes” are easy to find, rent, and park throughout the city’s 32-square-mile service area. For low-income Portlanders, the “BIKETOWN for All” program offers an affordable alternative to public transit and makes biking more accessible.

BIKETOWN originally launched in 2016 with regular bikes and became an integral part of the already bike-friendly city’s transportation offerings. BIKETOWN 2.0 extends the program’s service area into east Portland, a part of the city that is home to a diverse but underserved community.

A BIKETOWN stand in Portland, Oregon | Photographer: Devin Hutchings

Expanding the program was a logical next step for the city, but in light of the pandemic and months of protests with no end in sight, the timing of its launch proved challenging.

What the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) and Lyft, the program’s operator, couldn’t have predicted though, were the worst wildfires the west coast has seen in a generation. Five million acres burned across California, Oregon, and Washington, and thousands were evacuating their homes as the shiny, new e-bike fleet hit the streets on Wednesday, September 9.

The raging wildfires were caused by the perfect storm of a hot dry summer and strong winds. Although the wind was quite literally adding fuel to the fire, it kept the ash and smoke moving, keeping the air clear in Portland while the flames raged in southern and central Oregon. But as the winds calmed, the air quality plummeted. By Friday, two days after the launch of the e-bikes, the air quality in Portland was by far the worst in the world and stayed at hazardous levels well into the following week.

Portland’s smoky skies on September 10, 2020 | Photographer: Emily Pfeiffer
An eerie scene in Portland on September 14, 2020 | Photographer: Anna Miltenberger

The Car Makes a Comeback?

With many businesses closed or limited because of the pandemic, people were trapped in their homes—occasional trips to the grocery store aside. Going outside was dangerous, even for the healthiest of people. Understandably so, for the safety of employees and riders, the city temporarily pulled the plug on its newly launched bikeshare fleet.

A micro-mobility system established to further the mission of combating climate change and provide an affordable transportation option to low-income communities shut down because of hazardous air quality. Meanwhile, trains and buses have waned in popularity as people seek to avoid public transport and reduce their risk of exposure to COVID-19.

Personal vehicles, while clearly the safest way to get around in this context, are also an undeniable contributor to the climate change crisis fueling the extreme weather patterns behind this year’s wildfires. The irony of the situation was not lost on anyone.

As one angry Twitter user pointed out:

Innovation and Inclusion

The issues Portland faces have always been just beneath the surface—now we’re experiencing more of their symptoms. In crisis mode for much of 2020, a lot of what is being done in the city is reactionary, but this moment has also created a sense of urgency that is laying the groundwork for innovation to thrive.

The fight for racial justice is center stage in the conversation thanks to the activism of Black community leaders. PBOT, the bureau tasked with contracting and regulating BIKETOWN, is no stranger to the complex intersection of community and urban planning, but has pledged to do better.

As a bureau with a history of contributing to gentrification for the sake of sustainable transportation, the expansion of the bikeshare program’s service area into the city’s most diverse neighborhood, along with an affordable offering for low-income Portlanders, is a genuine step in the right direction. (Although it’s worth noting that the previous iteration of the program was entirely free for low-income individuals.)

PBOT Communications Director John Brady says, “If anything, recent events have shown the need to make bicycling even more accessible to more people, and the wildfires here in Oregon underscore for us the need to reduce carbon emissions across the world.”

With thoughtful and innovative solutions that address climate change and accessibility, Portland is making slow but steady progress toward building healthier, more inclusive communities.

Blueprint contributor Devin Hutchings

Devin is a writer, communicator, and policy nerd. Most recently she was co-director of Bridgeliner, a local publication in Portland, Oregon.


(Photo credit: Caroline Smith)


Leaving so soon?
Get great content straight to your inbox