A glorious autumn afternoon here in Portland means the wife and I plan to do the thing that Portlanders do: we will sling the child into his Limo bike seat and pedal around our little piece of Pacific Northwest new-urbanist paradise with annoyingly smug looks about us. Look, every city has its traditions. Buffalo has wings. Los Angeles has cosmetic surgery. With our nation-leading bike commuter rate and our 300 miles (or some such, depending on who’s counting what) of trails and lanes, this is ours. You will pry our bicycles out of our cold, chain-grease-stained hands.
One destination for our afternoon ramble is Dreams on Wheels, a traveling exhibit on Denmark’s amazing cycle culture now in town as part of the impressive, slightly overwhelming Oregon Manifest. The Manifest is basically the ultimate Portland bike-nerd event, with challenge races for bike builders, art exhibits, a dress-up ride and a pop-up headquarters that has become the temporary collective frontal cortex for the many, many people here who spend much of their time thinking about how bikes can remake cities.
I’m excited to check out the Dreams show for many reasons. I am already on record with my enthusiasm for images of attractive bike-riding Scandinavians. And to a resident of an American city that considers itself all radical and forward-thinking for spending almost one whole percent of its transit budget on cycling infrastructure, even a second-hand glimpse of a really and truly serious bike town should be both refreshing and humbling. Places like Copenhagen and Amsterdam have already figured out that, rather than a fringe novelty for a relative handful of devoted eccentrics and anti-internal combustion fanatics, cycling can and should become the nexus of urban environmental, planning and economic policy. In short, for cities, bikes are good for business. When a Dutch cycling expert addressed some local government types here this week, he noted that if Amsterdammers suddenly stopped riding, “The city would come to a standstill. There would be no economy. Because of traffic, you could not get from point A to B.”
A few months ago, writer Toby Barlow suggested that cycling could help save Detroit. Barlow focused on the half-abandoned city’s endless miles of peaceful road and the strength of a few small, explicitly cycling-oriented retail shops, but he may have been on to more than he knew. In Portland, cycling has become a major rallying point for local manufacturing, design and other light industry. Custom frame builders like Ira Ryan and Vanilla seem to have all the business they can handle. The brilliant British apparel firm Rapha moved its North American headquarters to an office just a few blocks from my house. The components manufacturer Chris King moved here several years ago. In many neighborhoods, small businesses are eagerly replacing car parking places with bike corrals—a move that never fails to horrify auto apologists, but which, at least according to anecdotal evidence and some preliminary studies, seems to boost sales.
In other words, a little pro-cycling urban policy goes a long way. Imagine what could happen in this town if the city spent 2 percent of its transit budget on cycling? The wife and I wouldn’t be going for a ride this afternoon—we’d be looking for angel investors for some scheme to get in on the Silicon Valley-style bike boom.