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Portland's Popular Bike Map Goes Digital

The new online version is interactive, alerting bikers to dangerous intersections and other features.

Planning a bike trip across Portland, Ore., just got easier with an online interactive map that shows where the steep hills are, “problem” intersections, and even has a rundown on the city’s dozens of bike shops.
The Portland Bureau of Transportation has been publishing and distributing its famous bike maps since the 1970s. However, the free map is now digital and accessible online, which means it can be opened on the go via a smartphone. The map is also searchable and allows for zooming in on a neighborhood or intersection.
“You can search for locations in the map, by address or by intersection,” said Kirk McEwen, GIS technician in the Business Technology Services Group at the Bureau of Transportation. “You can quickly bike to an area of the city you want to explore. You can also use the My Location button to quickly pan the map to wherever you have to be in the city, so it can be easy to find routes.”
The Portland Bike Map goes further than say Google Maps, which includes bike routes. Portland’s map distinguishes among the various bike travel infrastructure such as multi-use paths, protected bike lanes with a buffer and even what officials refer to as “Neighborhood greenways,” those calm low-traffic neighborhood streets are often favored by cyclists for their safety and stress-free riding.
“I’m a parent and I bike with my 4-year-old daughter,” said Hannah Schafer, communications specialists with the Portland Bureau of Transportation. “And I look for routes that are not on the big streets, and where we’ll feel comfortable and safe.”
The city has a licensing agreement with Esri, the Southern California-based mapping and GIS firm, which provided the technology to develop the bike map.
“It was a simple process thanks to the tools that Esri delivers,” said McEwen. “They’re a big and important partner for the city, and that’s helped us build a pretty robust GIS infrastructure.”
The map also includes indicators for steep uphill climbing, “difficult intersection” and bike shops. If the map seems too busy for some riders, there's a feature to turn off particular layers. Users can also zoom in to particular areas and link to bike shops for hours and other vital information.
“For instance, on our paper maps we have bike shops — we show where they are and we have the name — but you can’t tell exactly where it is because of the scale, so you’re left with a lot of questions about it,” said Jeff Smith, a transportation management demand specialist at the Bureau of Transportation. “This solves a lot of those problems by being able to drill down, get the information, get the link to their website and all of that.”
In 2010 Portland approved its updated “Bike Plan,” which sets the vision for cycling in the city through 2030. As part of that vision the city aims to have 25 percent of trips in the city made by travelers on bicycles. Today, roughly 6.3 percent of workers commute by bicycle, according to 2016 U.S. Census data. This is down from 7 percent in 2015 and 7.2 percent in 2014. Nationwide, only 0.6 percent of workers commuted by bike in 2016. Cities increasingly view bike infrastructure as essential components to creating the kinds of smart and sustainable communities that workers and residents increasingly want.   
Boosting bike ridership means improving the infrastructure, say officials, and a map is as much a part of infrastructure as a bike lane. Roughly 4,000 riders downloaded the map in the first month, without any communication or marketing, since the project is still in a “semi-beta phase,” said Schafer. Portland prints about 80,000 paper maps a year.
The map is “a pretty essential piece” of the city’s cycling infrastructure, said Smith. “If you’re going to spend money building bike facilities, then you better take care of directing people to them.”

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.