Portland Is Top Bike-to-Work City as Lawyers Hit Street

In other cities, welders pull up to a job in oversize pickup trucks rattling with tools and pressurized tanks of gas. In Portland, Oregon, at least one arrives by bicycle, towing his gear in a two-wheeled trailer.

Mike Cobb pedals around town fixing iron handrailings and welding kettle stands for coffee-roasting companies. He built the frame on one of his six bikes himself and souped up his trailer with racing wheels and high-pressure wheelchair tires.

“I do a pretty good job of avoiding cars,” Cobb, 42, said one morning outside his garage. There’s no automobile inside. He hasn’t owned one since 1995 and only rarely catches rides with friends, he said.

Portland is No. 1 for bike commuting in the U.S., according to 2010 Census figures for cities with more than 250,000 workers. A study of the data by Bloomberg Rankings shows that bicycles carry 5.4 percent of workers in Portland, ahead of second-place San Francisco, at 3 percent. Seattle is third at 2.8 percent, and Washington, D.C., is fourth, with 2.2 percent.

Portland, on the Columbia River across from Vancouver, Washington, is also the fastest-growing city for bike commuting, up 1.3 percentage points since 2006. San Francisco, by comparison, grew 0.7 percentage points in the same period.

Riders such as Cobb are pushing the limits on how far they can go, and how much they can carry. Portlanders haul kids and groceries on specialized cargo bikes. They gather with trailers to move friends by bike, barn-raising style, then post the video online. They play polo on bikes and, at least once a year, thousands assemble for an evening of riding naked.

Eco-Friendly Industry

An eco-friendly industry is growing amid the mania. Portland-based Metrofiets LLC builds bikes with large cargo bays up front. Trailhead Coffee Roasters makes deliveries with one. Splendid Cycles is the largest North American dealer of a line of slender cargo bikes from Copenhagen, said Joel Grover, the shop owner.

At least two dozen companies build bikes by hand in Portland. Sweetpea Bicycles caters to women. One model is called the “Little Black Dress.” Sacha White’s Vanilla Bicycles isn’t taking new orders for its custom models until it works off a backlog that once stretched six years.

A 2008 study found Portland’s cycling-related industry brought $90 million a year into its economy. Those businesses keep money from leaving town, Mayor Sam Adams said.

“Every dollar spent on a car in Portland is a dollar that leaves the city,” Adams said in an interview. “We don’t make cars, we don’t have oil wells, and we don’t have a major car insurer headquartered here.”

’Drippy’ Weather

One reason for cycling’s popularity in Portland is the temperate climate, said Ray Thomas, an attorney who twice a week for the past 20 years has ridden in the lunchtime “Lawyers Ride” into the hills west of town. The region’s notorious rain comes mostly as drizzle. Snow sticks on the streets about four days a year, according to the National Weather Service, and summer days rarely breach 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius).

“It’s mild and kind of drippy,” Thomas said.

Political leaders have also pushed biking. Bud Clark, mayor of Portland from 1985 to 1992, biked to City Hall most days and encouraged others to follow his lead.

Earl Blumenauer, a city commissioner under Clark who now represents the area as a Democratic congressman, cycles to his office on Capitol Hill in Washington. For years, he fought for the passage of 2008’s Bicycle Commuter Act, which permits companies to offer bike-commuting workers a monthly $20 fringe benefit.

Priority for Bikes

Portland has had a bike master plan since 1973 and has 318 miles (512 kilometers) of bike lanes, paths, and so-called greenways -- residential streets where cyclists are given priority. The latest plan calls for a quarter of all trips to be made by bicycle by 2030.

Local brewer Christian Ettinger opened the Hopworks BikeBar on one of Portland’s busiest cycling routes in June. Two stationary exercise bikes generate electricity to help power the business.

“People can turn their valuable beer calories into electricity,” said Ettinger, 38.

For $10, customers can get a bottle of beer that fits in a water-bottle holder on their cycle, and a sandwich wrapped tight to fit in another.

On a bigger scale, Portland-based Alta Bicycle Share Inc. won the contract to operate New York City’s 10,000-bike rental program. Mayor Michael Bloomberg said it will be the largest in the U.S. when it starts in July. The mayor is founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.

Citigroup Sponsorship

Citigroup Inc. agreed to pay $41 million to sponsor the system, which will use solar-powered docking stations that allow people to check out a bike at one location and return it at another. An annual membership will cost $95.

In absolute terms, New York is the only city in the top 25 that has more cyclists than Portland. New York had 23,986 in 2010, compared with 15,871 in Portland. Sprawling Los Angeles, the nation’s second-largest city by population, had just 14,710 regular bike commuters.

Cycling is catching on in unlikely places. Chicago -- where the mean temperature in January is 24 degrees, according to the National Weather Service -- ranked ninth in the U.S. for bike commuting, with 1.1 percent of the workforce braving Midwestern extremes.

Robert Keenan, a Chicago accountant, said he’s been riding to work every day for five years, frostbite be damned.

“It doesn’t matter what kind of weather, I ride,” said Keenan, 62, who makes the three-mile trip from his River North neighborhood along streets and sidewalks. “You gotta be careful.”

Blizzard Ride

Keenan said he pedaled his $100 mountain bike through the February 2011 blizzard that dumped more than 20 inches of snow on Chicago. “It wasn’t that bad,” he said.

In general, having more bikes on the road has made cycling safer in Portland, said Thomas, the lawyer. His personal injury firm Swanson, Thomas, Coon & Newton, specializes in bike injuries.

“The more of us there are, the better drivers are at driving around us,” said Thomas, 60.

Portland cyclists got a terrible reminder of the dangers that remain on May 16, when a 28-year-old woman was run over by a semitrailer truck that turned right and hit her, according to the Portland Police Bureau.

Ghost Bike

Tradition in Portland and elsewhere is to lock so-called ghost bikes -- painted deathly white -- at the places where riders were killed. Fifteen Oregon cyclists died after collisions with cars in 2011, up from seven in 2010, according to the Oregon Transportation Department.

Cyclists such as Steve Komp, a 52-year-old lab assistant at Legacy Emanuel Medical Center, say there’s little that will get them off their bikes and back into cars or buses. Komp rides 12 miles each way to work from his home in Vancouver. It beats driving his 1996 Ford Windstar minivan, which gets terrible gasoline mileage, he said.

“If we get snow, I generally don’t ride,” Komp said. Otherwise, like the rest of Portland’s bikers, he’s out there.

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