Visualize BikeTown


Nike and the City of Portland made a splash this month when announcing BikeTown, an expanded bike share system that will begin service this summer. Nike’s sponsorship and associated marketing might will be a big help in raising the profile of this new transportation option. What remains to be seen is how Portland residents and visitors will feel about taking these bikes out for a spin on downtown streets that are, for the most part, not designed for cycling.

To be fair, there are a lot worse places to ride a bike than downtown Portland. The signal timing keeps traffic rolling at a leisurely 12mph, so it’s possible to take the lane without slowing down cars too much. Many experienced bike commuters already do this, and many drivers are accustomed to sharing the road. However, for BikeTown to be successful, it must attract a new breed of cyclist, the so-called "interested but concerned" rider. These folks don’t ride every day and may need some help learning where to ride and how to feel safe doing it.

One positive step toward toward safety can be seen in the bicycle design itself (check out more photos here), with onboard navigation, reflective tape spiraled on the lower tubes, and integrated front and rear lights. Retailers and employers might also consider offering branded helmets for use by people inclined to try biking if they just had a helmet handy. Police and parking officers can assist with education and enforcement. However to really make the downtown biking experience more safe and comfortable, there will need to be some changes in street design. This effort is already under way but it remains to be seen how long it will take.

For comparison, changes to North Williams Ave took over a year to plan and another year to implement. One thing I learned from that process is how using real-time 3d modeling can be an effective tool in helping stakeholders understand design options and work together toward a shared goal. Here is a sampling of images we created to facilitate that conversation:

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We’ve also worked with Better Block PDX to visualize and promote low cost pilot projects such as a 3rd Ave bike lane and Better Naito that provided valuable real-world data to inform more permanent design changes. Seeing new street designs in 3d is an effective way to spot potential safety issues that may arise at some intersections. Fixing these issues in the design phase can be a life-saver for those of us that will be walking and riding on the reconfigured street.

Portland has made a commitment to Vision Zero, which will require new efforts from transportation planners and engineers to visualize safe spaces for bicycle traffic on our downtown streets. If we are successful, the results will be fewer crashes, and also in higher ridership numbers for BikeTown. A true win-win!


Joshua Cohen is a Principal at Fat Pencil Studio