People-powered Portland: car-free ways to explore the city

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If you spend any amount of time in Portland, two things quickly become apparent: bicycles rule and car traffic is terrible. The city’s population has grown more quickly than its infrastructure, leading to the type of gridlock and bottlenecks that usually only happen in much larger urban areas.

A woman rides her bicycle on the waterfront Eastbank Esplanade in Portland, Oregon © Ryan J Lane / Getty Images

It can be frustrating, especially for a visitor trying to see a lot of things across the city in a short time – but it doesn’t have to be. All you have to do is think outside the boxy four-wheeled vehicle. Why not try seeing Portland without ever strapping yourself into the driver’s seat?

We’re not just talking public transport, although that’s a great option: Portland has an efficient, affordable system of buses, light-rail trains and streetcars. Getting into the city from either the airport or the train station via public transit couldn’t be easier. But what if you reimagined your whole approach to the city once you’re here, building an itinerary around your chosen mode of transportation?

By cycle

We’ll start with an easy one. As we’ve mentioned, Portland is a bicycle-friendly town. A network of dedicated bike lanes and good maps make it easy to get around on two wheels, and several shops have bikes for hire (Everybody’s Bikes is a great option). There are bicycle-centric public events on the calendar nearly year-round; visit the Travel Portland website for a current list. As you plan your explorations of the city, let your trusty steed shape your pace and agenda – you might start by cycling gently along the Springwater Corridor, a rails-to-trails project that goes through Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge and several parks. From here it’s a smooth return ride to the industrial Southeast neighborhood full of tempting brewpubs, restaurants and distilleries.

Cyclists travel over Hawthorne Bridge © Kevinruss / Getty Images

After some refreshments, cross the river to Tom McCall Waterfront Park and downtown Portland, or ride north along Williams Avenue, a major bike thoroughfare lined with shops and restaurants. Not quite Portlandia enough for you? There’s also the pub-cycle option: a 15-seat bicycle-powered mobile hut that lets riders pedal their way from one brewpub to the next along a themed route (dive bars, microbrews, etc.). Both BrewCycle and Pedalounge offer these tours.

Skate or die

If you like the idea of seeing Portland at street level, there’s another option: skateboarding. Unlike most cities in the US, Portland allows skating on all its streets and sidewalks outside of the downtown core (where skateboarding is allowed on most streets, but not sidewalks). The city has designated ‘preferred skate routes’ marked similarly to its designated bicycle routes, and the rules of the road are the same as those for cyclists (skaters under age 16 are required to wear helmets). Need some gear? Head to Cal’s Pharmacy, one of the city’s oldest skate shops. In addition to the routes through town, there are skate parks in just about every part of Portland, the most famous being Burnside Skate Park (at E Burnside St and SE 2nd Ave). A handful of skaters built the park without permission nearly 30 years ago. The city later sanctioned it, and over the years Burnside has become a model for community-built parks everywhere.

A skateboarder uses a ‘skateboard lane’ in Portland ©Ian Sane/CC by 2.0

From the air

Maybe you’d prefer a bird’s-eye view – the Portland aerial tram provides an entirely different vantage point over the city. (OK, so it’s not really a tram…it should probably be called a gondola or cable car.) On a clear, sunny day, the tram is one of the best ways to get a feel for the layout of the city and the scale of the Willamette River, usually with a bonus glimpse of Mt Hood in the distance. It also lets you explore two oft-neglected areas: the modern, shiny South Waterfront neighborhood, at the lower terminal of the tram line, and the hiking trails that lace through Marquam Nature Park, a lush green space nestled behind the OHSU hospital at the top of the hill. It also gives you the opportunity to appreciate Tilikum Crossing, Portland’s newest bridge across the Willamette, notable for being the only bridge in the US that is strictly for pedestrians, bicycles, buses and light-rail – no cars allowed.

The Portland Aerial Tram with the Willamette River and Ross Island Bridge in the background © Ricardo DeAratanha / Getty Images

On the water

Speaking of the Willamette River, another unique way to see Portland is from the water. Kayaking provides an entirely new perspective on the city, and it’s easy to arrange. If you already know what you’re doing, you can get a rental kayak starting at around $14 an hour. Need a bit more guidance? Most shops also offer lessons and tours – check out Portland Kayak Company, located right at the water’s edge in the southwest part of town, for guided tours that circumnavigate Ross Island (three hours, $49 per person). It’s designed for beginners or experienced kayakers alike, and your odds of seeing ospreys, bald eagles and blue herons are excellent. If your timing is right, try a paddle tour beneath the light of the full moon. Classes, tours and rentals are also available from Alder Creek Kayak, with several locations in the area – it also offers stand-up paddleboard and canoe classes, if kayaks aren’t your thing.

Take in the Portland city skyline-from the seat of a kayak © LynnMarie / Getty Images

On foot

One consequence of the heavier car traffic in Portland is that some of the most appealing neighborhoods are also the ones you least want to drive into. Cool new storefronts pop up practically every week along Southeast Division Street, for example, but parking there is a nightmare, and driving along the street in the evening is like one of those games that make you dodge zombies.

The TriMet Max Train passes through downtown Portland © Deebrowning / Getty Images

Take a TriMet bus to either end of the commercial stretch – bus 4 runs the length of Division Street, and bus 75 gets you to Division and SE 39th Avenue, a good starting point – so you’re free to walk at your leisure, stopping anywhere that looks inviting. The same principle holds true for SE Hawthorne Boulevard, another commercial stretch whose quintessentially Portland character has made it a favorite of visitors for decades; bus 14 runs up and down Hawthorne. And the pedestrian-friendly core of Northwest Portland – mostly along NW 21st and 23rdAvenues – has long been a parking hassle. It’s much more pleasant to arrive by public transport and wander the pretty, tree-lined streets on foot.

Whichever option you choose, ditching the car means you’re sure to see Portland from a new and different perspective.

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