I've spent the past two weeks in Oregon, getting a taste for life in the Pacific Northwest. One of the most enjoyable aspects of my trip has been biking around Portland. The city is known to be one of the most bike friendly in the country, with about 6% of the population commuting to work by bike.*
When I got here, I quickly realized why people like to bike: 1. It's not too hilly; but more importantly 2. The streets are extremely quiet, as in devoid of cars.
Seriously, every time I rode down a street in Portland, I was amazed at how pleasant it was. I'm used to biking in New York City, which is mentally exhausting in order to avoid cars and pedestrians. In Portland, it's relaxing and delightful as you pass by adorable houses and gardens on quiet side streets.
Portland has actually facilitated this by designating certain streets as "bike boulevards" with 20 mph speed limits, speed bumps, stop signs, and traffic circles in the middle of intersections, which cause cars to slow down and eliminate lefthand turns. These barriers discourage cars from taking these roads, which frees them up for bikes. Instead, cars take streets that run parallel to bike boulevards with higher speed limits and stoplights.
Bike boulevards go a step beyond bike lanes and traffic calming - not only making streets safer, but also healthier, since you're not riding next to vehicle exhaust. It's important to note that slower and fewer cars makes streets safer for pedestrians, as well.
I think this works well in Portland because the population density is just right. The number of people and hence cars is low enough that there don't need to be cars on most streets at any given time, so cars can stick to certain streets. Yet, it's dense enough that it's feasible for people to walk or bike short distances, also reducing driving.
I don't see this strategy working in New York City, which has traffic calming measures in place to slow cars down, but too many people and cars to actually keep vehicles off certain streets. (Portland covers nearly twice the size of Brooklyn with a quarter of the population.) Feel free to disagree with me, though. I'm sure there are other small cities or even downtowns of large towns where bike boulevards would help make transportation more bike-friendly. Could you see this working where you live? Does your town have any bike-friendly infrastructure in place?
* Interestingly, the 6% of Portlanders commuting by bike equals about 18,000 people; and while it sounds meager that only 0.8% of the NYC population bike commute, that's actually 30,000 people (source).