A little over a year ago, Representative Patrick McHenry (R-NC) called the bicycle a “19th century solution” for “21st century problems.” He thought of it as antiquated and essentially a toy. He might not have known that a little over a century ago, before the auto’s ascendance, the bicycle was leading edge technology, more like an iPhone than a Schwinn Sting-Ray. Many leaders in government enjoyed bicycling for transportation and for recreation. Residents of Salem and Marion county enjoyed a lively bicycle culture, and the Oregon Legislature even passed a law to create a state-wide network of bicycle paths. Today no one remembers the law or the paths. Continue Reading »


From DIY to Public Funding: Financing Portland’s First Bicycle Paths, 1896 – 1899

I’d like to thank Timo Forsberg and the Portland Office of Transportation for the invitation and opportunity to speak today.


In the summer of 1899 a bicyclist wrote a letter to the editor summarizing the case for cycle paths and the bicycle tax:

First, it is necessary outside of town to have a place where the wheelman can be safe from the road hog; second, outside of the town the county roads are generally unfit for a bicycle; third, it is fair that all should pay for what all enjoy; and finally I take no stock in the wheelman who says that neither he nor his family has any use for a bicycle path. One Sunday spent in watching that little three-mile path to Vancouver is sufficient to meet that objection.

Even in the late 1890s sharing the road wasn’t always easy. Carts, buggies, and livestock could crowd the roads. Deep, gloppy and manure-fertilized mud in the winter, and dust in the summer, made many roads difficult and unpleasant to use. Reports on road conditions and information on grades, road surface, and waysides were especially welcome to bicyclists.

1-1896-bike-maplarge.jpgTo this end the Multnomah county bicyclists published the Bicyclists Road Map, Portland District in the spring of 1896. It graded major thoroughfares as “good,” “fair,” or “poor.” The following season, in 1897, the League of American Wheelmen, Oregon Division, published a book of 60 city-to-city routes in Oregon, The Road Book of Oregon. Clearly bicyclists needed information for “how to get there.”

10-white-house-mini-map.jpgAlmost hidden in the 1896 map are two references to a “proposed cinder path” to the White House Tavern and track. As best as I can tell, this was the first bicycle path in Portland. The White House was a popular resort located on the Willamette River, just below Dunthorpe and directly across from Milwaukie. We know the road to it as Macadam, but it was also known as Riverplace Drive and The White House Road.

About one mile out of six total was built of the White House bicycle path. I want to talk about this path, the reasons it was not finished, about a few other paths built the following two years, and finally about the paths built with the funds provided by the 1899 Bicycle Tax.

In general, we see a shift from paths devoted to serving recreational sites to paths serving residential sites. The most successful paths were those that were part of the transportation infrastructure connecting home and work, suburb and central city. We also see increasingly sophisticated kinds of financing, culminating of course in the state-administered Bicycle Tax. Continue Reading »

“Weather Prophet Pague, Governor Geer, & Portland’s first Bicycle Paths”

I’d like to thank Professor Jennifer Dill & the Center for Transportation Studies here at PSU, my friends at the Bicycle Transportation Alliance, Jonathan Maus of BikePortland, and all of you for joining me here. Thanks for coming.

My talk represents a work-in-progress, and I hope at the end you’ll share comments and questions. My email is on the slide and I’ll show it at the end again.

small-geer-headline.jpg“Geer has a wheel. Governor-elect learned to ride in two lessons. He will bike from his home to the State Capital during half the year.”

Governor Geer was the first in an series of illustrious politicians for whom the bicycle was an important part of their image & self-definition, their activities, and their policies. The context of bicycling a century ago was a little different than it is today, of course. At that time the bicycle was leading edge technology! Even so, Governor Geer deserves to be better known. Together with “Weather Prophet Pague,” he was part of the first Golden Age of Portland Bicycling.

At a time when Portland seeks to gain Platinum-level recognition as a Bicycle Friendly Community, we can look back at a few of the ingredients and people in Portland’s first golden age of bicycling. Continue Reading »