Feeling safe on two wheels

By Hannah Jarman-Miller

Sunday Parkways was hosted in my neighborhood this past weekend. Organized in partnership by the City of Portland and Kaiser Permanente, Sunday Parkways is a free event where streets are entirely or partially closed to car traffic so that community members can discover and engage in active transportation in a safe and welcoming space. It is an amazing feeling to move through a street where pedestrian safety and mobility is the clear priority. Families with young children learning how to be on a bicycle in the public realm, and not feeling threatened by a vehicular presence.

Photo: J. Maus/PikePortland

Even more stark is the emphasis this puts on the lack of that safety in my daily bike commute. Just the other day, as I started through and intersection at a green light, a left turner with his window rolled down yelled at me to ‘hurry up!’. This was surprising, and threatening, and made me feel, as a cyclist, that I somehow did not belong on that road.

Fostering a sense of safety around biking in an urban community is intrinsically tied to understanding the influence of the built environment on travel behavior. There are factors unique to the urban built and physical environment that undermine the positive potential for being physically active, even though the urban form in principle facilitates being active[i]. These can include problem land use issues, infrastructure maintenance and investment issues, and social realities such as neighborhood crime, which can result in an environment where outdoor exercise becomes risky and unappeallingi. In Portland, despite being represented in popular media as progressively bike friendly, there are very real dangers in choosing to walk or bike. The City of Portland addresses these issues through Vision Zero, an initiative to end traffic violence in our communities. Recent project proposals to promote safety within the high crash network focuses on manipulations of the built environment, interventions such as protected multi-use paths, narrowed motor vehicle lanes, enhanced crossings, street trees and bike paths. Within Vision Zero we have the perfect opportunity for public health and urban planning to join forces. Built environment solutions enacted from the planning perspective alone will not allow us to entirely eliminate traffic violence and promote a culture of active transportation. An integrated approach that acknowledges how health interacts with the built environment, and applies behavioral as well as environmental measures, will be necessary to create a safe environment for walking and biking in Portland.

Comic © bikeyface.com


Portland is changing, and as our city changes, so do our options for transportation. Now more than ever, it is essential that we contextualize the impact of the built environment on our feelings of safety in transit, within the political, social and demographic inequality that formulate the unique reality of our city[ii]. Whenever you walk out your door, ask yourself what factors are influencing your decisions on how to get where you’re going, and how we can all get on the path to better transit. To learn more about this topic and more, please consider attending our conference, where Jessica Garner, Senior Community Health Planner within the San Mateo County Health System, will be discussing tools and techniques used to increase active transportation in San Mateo County.

[i] Lopez, R.P., and Hynes, H.P. (2006). Obesity, physical activity, and the urban environment: public health research needs. Environmental Health, 2006, 5(25)

[ii] Hoehner, C. M., Brennan, L. K., Brownson, R. C., Handy, S. L., & Killingsworth, R. (2003). Opportunities for integrating public health and urban planning approaches to promote active community environments. American Journal of Health Promotion, 18(1), 14-20