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Article: The History of Biking in Portland 🚴‍♂️

The History of Biking in Portland 🚴‍♂️

Maybe it’s our proximity to nature. Maybe it’s our progressive eco-conscious spirit, or just our love for the city itself. No matter how you put it, one thing remains true - Portland is a biking city. Spurred by enthusiasts and athletes alike, Portland’s biking culture has been fostered by community cycling gatherings since the turn of the 19th century. From the Portland Bridge Pedal to the largest Naked Bike Ride attendance in the world, the city has the highest national average of bike riders. Earning the moniker of “America’s biking capital,” the Rose City today was been built by bikes; with over 150 miles of bike lanes, 85 miles of bike paths, and nearly 7,000 publicly-installed bike racks, Portland is almost synonymous with biking. Almost every Portlander has a memory involving at least one bike, and if you don’t, you will soon! Rentable bikes populate the streets of downtown, and there are monthly events that promote and celebrate riding. What are you waiting for! Get out there and ride!

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The Reign of the Wheel was declared by the Oregonian as early as January 1st, 1895 - not even social class could define who was on a bike. Rich, poor, young and old people in early Portland were obsessed with cycling. There were even cycling maps denoting road quality, popular routes to take, and even the nearest taverns. Noted by the Oregonian, it wasn’t uncommon to see groups of 20 at a time partaking in a leisurely ride. Roadside farm houses provided fresh produce and refreshments for riders around the city.

Portland Gear

On Independence Day in 1895, Portland saw about 1,000 bicyclists form what the Oregonian referred to as “without a question the greatest street pageant ever seen in the Pacific Northwest metropolis at night” - the spiritual beginnings of the estranged and whacky biking events we have today!

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Fast-forwarding over 100 years, the spirit of cycling stays strong. As of 2017, about 6.3% of commuters go by bike - compared to the national average of 0.5%, Portland has the highest percentage of cyclists in the country. Between 2000 and 2017, there was an increase of 374% of people who biked to work. Nearly 400 miles of bikeways are on the ground in the Rose City, including 94 miles of Neighborhood Greenways and 162 miles of dedicated bike lanes. Garnering the status of “platinum” by the League of American Bicyclists, and holding the #1 title for bike-friendliness from Bicycling magazine, Portland truly is the biking capital of America.

But why? Why Portland and not Chicago? Nashville? Kansas City? While there are many speculations, there’s an equal amount of empirical data to support. 

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Infrastructure development in the 60s was taking off, and so were the revolts against unwanted highway building in Portland. Taking note, the local government took the federal funds allotted for highways and instead put them towards transit. Then, in 1971, governor at the time Tom McCall signed the “bike bill” - requiring one percent of all highway funds to be spent on making all new roads accessible to cyclists and pedestrians. This was in alignment with and happening in tandem nation-wide “cycling boom” due to the excitement in new biking technology.

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In 1996, the Providence Bridge Pedal saw it’s juvenile beginnings when 7,500 people biked across the Freemont and Marquam bridges for the first time since their construction 30 years prior. In 2002, Shift, an organization committed to promoting inclusive bike fun, hosted Bike Summer - a month-long celebration of bicycles and bike culture, drawing more than 5,000 Portlanders. This turned into Pedalpalooza, a three-month long celebration of cycling featuring organized rides and community events. 

And who could forget the Naked Bike Ride - it doesn’t get more Portland than that.

You can guess and speculate all day long about why Portland loves biking so much - was it policies from decades past or excitement over the latest and greatest in biking innovation? But we think the answer to why Portland loves bikes so much is simply because it’s fun. It’s a bikeable city - small enough to walk from end to end, but big enough to have an enjoyable ride out on two wheels. The storied past of Portland’s biking culture makes hopping on the pedals that much more special.

Grab some friends, and get out there and ride!