Adron Hall was kind enough to stop as he rolled along an 8½-foot-wide bicycle lane painted neon-lime green on Portland’s busy SW Stark Street. It almost glowed in the gray of late-fall drizzle. No driver could miss the lane nor mistake its purpose.
"It really makes you feel you belong here with the cars," said Hall, 35, a software architect who rides at least 15 miles a day for his appointments. He said the lane has given his girlfriend, Kristen Mozian, the confidence to commute by bike.
"She would never have gotten out here before," Hall said. "She was too nervous."
Portland is America's top large city for cycling, with 6.3 percent of all commutes being made by bike. No other city has yet cracked 4 percent and Boston is at 1.7 percent, according to 2011 data analyzed by the League of American Bicyclists.
That still places Boston as 14th among big cities. It has been nationally recognized for its efforts to promote biking as a green alternative for commuting. The city's Hubway bike-share program clocked 675,000 trips this year. Boston Bikes interim director Kris Carter said the city hopes to increase the share of commutes done by bicycle to 10 percent over the next decade.
But the death of Christopher Weigl, a 23-year-old Boston University communications graduate student and the fifth cyclist to be killed on the city's roads this year, was a tragic reminder of the lack of safety that keeps cycling primarily a youthful and male pursuit. The white stripes that delineate a five-foot-wide biking corridor on major Boston roads remain mere suggestions as motorists slash across them to park, double park, or make right turns. Carter said the city hopes to soon release updated proposals for more-protected bike lanes in the South End, Roxbury, the Innovation District, and downtown around parts of the Public Garden.
"Obviously the tragedy raises the level of urgency and brings cycle safety to the forefront," Carter said. "We've had a great increase in cycling, but we want a city where everyone from 8 to 80 cycles. We know we won't get there until we give them the feeling that it's safe."
Boston's five deaths are more in one year than Portland's four over the last three years. Two decades ago, Boston, Portland, and many big cities had virtually the same percentage of cycle commuting, about 1 percent. But Portland led the way in taking the risk out of cycling with master planning that today aims for cycling to account for 25 percent of city trips by 2030. The lane on SW Stark was painted and widened two months ago after the city received feedback that a previous six-foot-wide, white-striped lane did not do enough to eliminate conflicts between cars and bicycles.
On other streets, Portland is shifting parking into former traffic lanes to create buffered bicycle lanes next to sidewalks. In areas of newer development, it is incorporating European-style cycle tracks completely segregated from traffic. The city is doing other little things that add up to safety, such as designating areas for cyclists to make turns ahead of cars, synchronizing downtown traffic lights for slower car speeds, and having separate traffic lights just for cycles.
"The five-foot lane was where cities had to start, to get people to say 'we like this,' " said Roger Geller, Portland's bicycle coordinator. "But that is not where we want to be. People now want more." Transportation safety specialist Greg Raisman now has a waiting list of stores who want parking spaces taken out and replaced by bicycle racks. "Shops and cafes are discovering that racks of 10, 20 bikes create more business than two or three cars," Raisman said.
While Portland's current gender breakdown for cycling remains the same as Boston's, with roughly twice as many men as women, two women I hailed down, Kathryn Doherty-Chapman, 30, and Genevieve Moore, 35, said they see more and more women commuting by bike. At the Oregon Health and Science University, several gray-haired cyclists streamed in off a new segregated track.
Bike valets Joseph Sibilia-Young, 22, and Joshua Condon, 24, said there were 250 bikes racked up from the morning commute even on this rainy day. There is space for about 400. "We're stunned how cycling has taken hold," Sibilia-Young said. "Patients are riding in just to fill prescriptions."
Portland is riding the right prescription for city cycling.