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Summit Big Idea: Protected Bikeways in the Burbs

For many in the bike movement, Portland has an almost mythical status — earning the distinction of being the closest we’ve come in the United States to a major metropolitan cycling uptopia. But, despite the high ridership rates and progressive planning policies, Portlandia faces the same challenges as the rest of urban America.

“A lot of people, when they come to Portland or read about Portland, they’re only seeing the central city,” says Lisa Frank, a staff advocate for the Portland-based Bicycle Transportation Alliance. “But that’s a tiny, tiny part of our region as a whole. Like the rest of the country, we’ve seen more growth in suburbs than the central city, even with all the tools we have here, like the urban growth boundary. So there’s a huge need to do work in the suburbs.”

Encouraging biking in the ‘burbs is certainly a Big Idea that’s gaining traction nationwide — an idea that we’ll explore more deeply at the National Bike Summit in just a few weeks.

Earlier this month, I spoke with presenter, Ellen Dunham-Jones, the leading expert on Retrofitting Suburbia, who will help us understand how bikes fit into the larger picture. This week, I spoke with Frank, who will share BTA’s campaign to bring protected bike lanes to Tualatin Valley Highway, a major suburban arterial.

How did the campaign get started? Well, in 2013, when the BTA updated its advocacy Blueprint, a number of the priority projects came from Washington County, a suburban area adjacent to the central city. It wasn’t a surprise that Tualatin Valley Highway rose to the top of the “Make Big Streets Safe” category.

“TV Highways runs more than 15 miles through many suburban centers, low-income housing and a huge diversity of different jobs,” Franks explaines. “The road serves as the heart of the county. A lot of it has basic bike lanes and you see some folks riding, but it really popped as an area that needed more time and energy… Basically, if this road doesn’t work for biking, it will never work on a big scale in Washington County.”

And it was already clear that folks in those suburban centers wanted to ride — if conditions were right. “Washington County did its own survey of residents around their views of biking and walking, and a huge portion of residents do bike with some regularity for recreation but not for transportation,” Frank says. “So that showed us that there’s huge demand to use this bike that they like and ride on the weekend for transportation — but there’s not the routes they need to get to their jobs. For that, they need to be on TV Highway. And they considently identified being separated from traffic as something that would help them ride more.”

To make the case for protected bike lanes in the suburbs, though, the BTA couldn’t just tweak a few talking points from its central city advocacy. Over the past year, since she was hired, Frank has been hard at work cultivating new relationships, conducting education efforts and creating messaging that resonates with suburban audiences.

And it’s working.

Thanks to BTA’s efforts, TV Highway isn’t the only arterial identified for improvements in the county’s Transportation System Plan — the county acknlowedged that the vast majority of roads are ripe for quality bike infrastructure, like buffered or protected bike lanes. 

“Doing work in the suburb is both really exciting and really necessary,” Frank says. “We’ve had successes we’ve had and lessons learned that we didn’t expect. It’s not just a harder form of urban advocacy — it’s its own type of advocacy.”

Want to learn more about BTA’s push to bring protected bikeways to the suburbs? Register for the National Bike Summit today — click here to learn more and sign up. Early-bird rates expire Jan. 31!