Biking in Portland 101

Portland's new bike-sharing program doubles down on its status as a cycling mecca. Photo by Jon Shadel.

By Paul Lask

Stand anywhere in central Portland and there’s a good chance you’ll see dozens of neon orange bikes zipping by — just a few of the 1,000 bicycles emblazoned with Nike’s iconic swoosh logo that are available for the public to ride with BIKETOWN. The city’s new bike-sharing program is just one more jewel in its cycling crown.

Often called America's bike capital, Portland is the largest U.S. city to attain platinum status by the American League of Bicyclists. Only here does a publicly visible "bike barometer" run daily into the thousands. Well-marked bike lanes keep cycling routes safe and fun. Ample staple-shaped bike racks, found outside our food, arts and shopping hotspots, make it easy to hop off and lock up — experiencing the City of Roses with none of the hassles of city driving. 

Below, we outline an introductory cycling tour that follows bike-friendly roads, many of which have dedicated cycling lanes. While Portland drivers are known to be friendlier to alternative forms of transit than their counterparts in other American cities, don’t let your guard down — be mindful of traffic (including MAX trains and the Portland Streetcar), signal appropriately and pick up a copy of the city’s bike map to stay on course. Alternatively, you can book a guided cycle tour of the city from tour operators like Cycle Portland Bike Tours and Pedal Bike Tours.

A good place to start and finish a downtown slow roll is Tom McCall Waterfront Park. Voted one of America's greatest public spaces by the American Planning Association, the park is named after the Oregon governor who pledged urban beautification, a throwback to the turn-of-the-century City Beautiful planning, and a national model for the pedestrian pleasures that can result with freeway removal (the Harbor Drive freeway was taken out in 1974). 

Follow the flow of the Willamette River north along the Waterfront Park Trail. If you're here on a weekend between March and December, check out local artisanal wares at the Portland Saturday Market (open Sunday, too!), the largest continually operated outdoor market in the United States. Past the Burnside Bridge, you'll notice a mix of bronze reliefs, stone engravings and curated landscapes — including our famed cherry blossom trees — that collectively tell a century-long story of Japanese American life at the Japanese American Historical Plaza.

PSM Old Town Sign

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Photos above courtesy of Portland Saturday Market. 

From the Plaza head west on Couch Street, before turning north on Fourth Street into Chinatown. You'll know you're here by the red-painted lampposts. Consider visiting the serene Lan Su Chinese Botanical Garden ($9.50 for general admission), a harmonic blend of art, architecture and landscape design that may transport you, as the garden’s staff claim, to “another era in a faraway world.” Here the Tower of Cosmic Reflections offers tea prepared by the Tao of Tea, a renowned fair-trade certified company whose traditional serving methods include pure leaf teas served in various vessels.

Now mellowed, follow Flanders Street west to the elm tree-lined North Park Blocks into the Pearl District, a dense neighborhood full of formerly crusty factories and industrial-era buildings converted into galleries, high-end shops and restaurants. The alphabetical street names on your map tell another story — do Flanders, Kearny or Lovejoy ring any bells? For Simpsons fans, these streets are named after characters created by Portland native Matt Groening.

Lan Su Garden
Relax in the Lan Su Chinese Garden. Photo by sstrieu/Flickr

Hungry yet? Tie your lunch break into an appreciation of sustainable architecture, cruising up Ninth Street to the Ecotrust Building, the first U.S. redevelopment building to receive gold-rated LEED Certification. Here you'll find a mix of private and public businesses that balance profit with social and environmental responsibility: Solar panels help heat the ovens of Laughing Planet and Hot Lips Pizza; an onsite rain catchment system reuses 95 percent of the building's stormwater. The building also hosts a Patagonia store, whose Footprint Project documents their transparent supply chain, making them a trendsetter for companies trying to reduce adverse social and environmental impacts. 

Crystal BallroomAfter lunch swing by Tanner Springs Park, whose urban-wetland design includes repurposed steel beams made into sculpture, as well as replanted native grown trees salvaged from outside the city. If you're thirsty, consider stopping at the nearby Bridgeport Brewing, Oregon’s oldest craft brewery, or head down to McMenamins Crystal Ballroom, a hundred-plus year old city staple that hosts top local and touring talent.

For the last leg of the ride, head southeast on Stark Street, toward Broadway. Stop by Portland State University, whose campus is nestled among the tall trees of the South Park Blocks. On weekends the blocks host the largest farmers market in town, punctuated by the nationally landmarked Benson House and a streaming four-headed water fountain (known as Benson Bubblers, reportedly installed by lumber baron Simon Benson to keep his workers out of saloons at lunchtime!)

If you're still feeling energized, head east via Madison toward the Hawthorne Bridge. Once atop the bridge, pull over to take in the stunning views. On a clear day, you can see Mount Hood to the east and the recently opened Tilikum Crossing to the south. Named after the Chinook word for tribe or people, Tilikum Crossing is a suspension bridge for pedestrians, cyclists, light rail, streetcars and public transit — the first bridge of its kind in the country to exclude automobile traffic.

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The Eastbank Esplanade (pictured above) offers views of the skyline reflected in the Willamette River. 

To wrap up your ride, you'll pump north for the last mile and a half along the Eastbank Esplanade, which includes the longest floating walkway in the United States. Under the Burnside Bridge you'll see the concrete hips and bowls of the popular Burnside Skatepark. Cross the double-decker Steel Bridge, one of the world's most multimodal, including a vehicle road, freight and light rail tracks, and a pedestrian-bike path.

Back downtown, hop off, unstrap your helmet and take a well-deserved break: you've earned it.

(Photo of Crystal Ballroom above by Heidi De Vries/Flickr.)

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