For the past several decades, since the great hippie invasion of the ’60s, Eugene has enjoyed a reputation as being one of the most progressive cities in the nation. A quick internet search confirms this fact, with Eugene routinely appearing at or near the top of list after list on the subject.
But what makes a town more or less progressive? History and politics both play a role, of course, and it can certainly be argued that Eugene’s history of progressive politics is as long and distinguished as any in the post-Civil Rights era.
However, much like the people in them, cities change and grow over time, and it takes a concerted effort on the part of both citizens and civic leaders for communities to maintain any kind of cultural identity.
In practical terms, this means moving beyond ideological inclinations, and looking at concrete actions people take every day to help shape the character of their community.
In Eugene’s case, perhaps no other aspect of its cultural identity speaks more strongly to the community’s progressive roots than the pervasiveness of alternative lifestyles, especially as they concern outdoor activities and environmentally-minded personal choices.
This is particularly true when it comes to how Eugeneans choose to get around, and bicycling has been a long-time favorite, not just as a pastime, but also as an everyday way to get to and fro.
According to census data on “mode-share,” a term used by planning and transportation professionals to describe how citizens move around in different ways, per capita there are more commuters in Eugene choosing to bike than in many other cities its size, or any size for that matter.
For instance, even though Eugene and Tempe, Arizona, are similar in size, and both towns have a “gold” rating for bicycle friendliness from the League of American Bicyclists, Eugene pulls slightly ahead in percentage of commuters who choose to bike.
Additionally, Eugene placed 18th among the top 50 cities for cycling in Bicycling Magazine’s 2016 biennial rankings, just behind Boston, Massachusetts.
Of course, none of this is by accident. The city of Eugene began installing bike lanes in earnest in the 1970s, and today boasts more than 150 miles of bikeways, bike lanes and shared-use paths connecting almost every part of the city.
Perhaps even more important, however, Eugene is home to a large and active community of cyclists and advocates who have made it their life’s work to promote cycling as a lifestyle choice and make cycling more accessible so others might choose to ride more frequently.
One of those cycling enthusiasts and advocates, Jan VanderTuin, came to Eugene in the early 1990s by way of Massachusetts and New York, where he had been building cargo bikes after having seen them while living abroad in Switzerland in the early ’80s.
When he moved to Eugene, VanderTuin joined a small yet passionate and dedicated community of cycling engineers, designers and builders making up a kind of pipeline to then-new Burley and Bike Friday, two companies still deeply involved in almost everything bike-related in Eugene.
After working with Bike Friday, VanderTuin opened the Center for Appropriate Transport (CAT) in October of 1992 with the idea that, if he could make it easier for people to access affordable biking options and spark a DIY ethic at the same time, he could help foster growth in Eugene’s cycling community.
In other words, for VanderTuin, it’s about culture — and if Eugene’s bike culture is going to grow, it needs more people on bikes.
“The thing that’s important to me is the connection,” VanderTuin said. “You’re not just one person out there riding, but you’re connecting with the community, and that’s just a huge piece of it for me.”
Today, VanderTuin and CAT are, in turn, attracting aspiring builders from around the country and even the world, having hosted dozens of apprentices for Human Powered Machines (HPM), the company he founded to build and sell cargo and electric-assisted recumbent bicycles.
If you spend any amount of time on the road in Eugene, you’ve probably seen one of HPM’s cargo bikes — Pedalers Express, another business run out of the CAT location, is Eugene’s premiere bike currier service and has a large fleet of cargo bikes frequently seen zipping around town.
(Full disclosure: Pedalers Express is contracted to deliver the paper edition of Eugene Weekly to our boxes and stands across the city.)
VanderTuin isn’t the only bike builder drawn to Eugene’s bike community who then decided to stay and add to the culture.
Matthew Corson-Finnerty, who also came to Eugene and ended up working for Bike Friday, has tapped his passion for cycling to start a new venture focused on a different kind of human-powered machine — machines that harness power from motion generated by people, often in the form of modified bicycles, for any imaginable purpose.
Called Bicimakina (pronounced Bee-See-Ma-Kee-Na, a take on the Spanish word for bike-machine, bicimaquina), Corson-Finnerty’s goal is to draw attention to the builders of these machines in the hopes of increasing awareness of alternative technologies based on what he calls “freely available human power.”
The inspiration for the project came to him, he said, when he visited southern Central America to take part in an NGO community project in San Andrés Itzapa, Guatemala, called Maya Pedal.
That project, which is still in existence today, provides locals with bikes and human-powered machines that perform everyday tasks like de-graining corn, preparing coffee beans and pumping water, among other tasks.
In an area where access to electricity and fuel can be scarce and expensive, it is not an exaggeration to say the project has been a lifesaver.
Incidentally, the experience proved to be a life-changer for Corson-Finnerty, who says he had never built bikes, let alone bike machines, before volunteering for Maya Pedal.
Now he wants to take his experience on the road in the form of a web-series that will follow him as he travels the country, by bike of course, interviewing builders along the way. He plans to start the trip with a sendoff in Eugene in September.
“My vision with this project is to create the go-to resource for all things human powered, and to foster a community of makers that’ll have a multiplier effect,” Corson-Finnerty said. “Because singularly, we’re doing some interesting things, and together it’ll just up the ante.”
While Bicimakina’s main goal isn’t necessarily to promote biking as alternative transportation, the fact that it came into being in Eugene speaks volumes about the bike culture here, and how invested the members of the bike community are in promoting and growing that culture.
AND THEY WILL BIKE
However, an active cycling community is just one piece of the long and complex process comprising the growth and maintenance of a vibrant, sustainable bike culture in Eugene.
There is likely very little that would dissuade the most diehard cyclists, but in order to bring more people into the fold and get more people to choose to bike instead of drive, it is incumbent on city government to provide adequate infrastructure.
The convenience of driving, especially when gas prices are low, is enough to keep the majority of commuters in their cars. That is a fact unlikely to change any time in the near future.
But that isn’t the only reason more people aren’t biking. After convenience, the most often cited reason for not commuting by bicycle is the perception that biking isn’t safe, and a lack of awareness of existing options (see also Brad Foster’s piece in this issue).
While it is true that Eugene has more biking infrastructure than most cities its size, much of that infrastructure is outdated and doesn’t meet current safety standards.
Of the streets that do feature bike lanes or are shared-use, many also have adjacent parking, creating a hazard known as “dooring,” where a motorist will open their door in front of an oncoming cyclist before they can react.
Additionally, many bike lanes are uncomfortably narrow. For the novice cyclist, these two factors alone can be enough to discourage them from biking more often.
Fortunately for cyclists, city officials are aware of these problems and are working to address them. Somewhat less fortunate is the fact that the necessary improvements can be costly, and with increasingly scarce resources, those projects can be difficult to fund.
But at least two major improvements are likely to be finished in the next two years.
Reed Dunbar, the city’s bicycle and pedestrian planner, said two major priorities for Eugene are an expansion of the Amazon bike corridor and installing a protected bikeway on 13th Avenue between downtown and the University of Oregon campus.
Dunbar said those projects should be completed in time for the 2021 IAAF World Championships, a much-anticipated, world-class track and field event to be held at Hayward Field that summer.
So, while there are challenges for Eugene in terms of growing its cycling culture, it also has a firm foundation on which to build — a foundation that has benefited from a passionate and dedicated cycling community and a city government that has been willing to support that growth, even when resources aren’t abundant.
Dunbar said the ultimate goal is to reach a platinum-level status in the near-term, and even shoot for being the first city to be rated as a diamond-level biking city.
Those are ambitious goals, to be sure. But if there’s a city that can do it, Eugene may very well be it.▪