The assignment:  Find two plans written on a common theme from cities with similar attributes and compare them. The purpose is to start reading plan documents produced by firms, agencies, and organizations around the country. Furthermore, the comparison should include a critique of each plan. For this assignment, I compared the bike “master” plans for Seattle and Portland. The cities have a similar population, and are geographically close.

The class: Making Plans, Making Plans Studio. This class has a lecture and a lab. The assignments are due in the lecture session, which have little to do with the single assignment for the lab. In the lab, students write an actual plan. I took this class in Spring 2009 and each of the four labs independently write an economic development plan for Blue Island, Illinois.

Portland and Seattle are very closely located cities and have a population difference of only 20,000. Portland is recognized as the bicycling capital of the country, but Seattle desperately wants to compete. I reviewed each of their bicycle master plans, but Portland’s is in need of an update. Seattle released their bicycle plan in 2007.

Organization and Design

Portland is definitely known around the country and world as the United States’ premier bicycling city. The leading hobby magazine, Bicycling, identified Portland as such back in 1995 (according to their Bicycle Master Plan). As such, I was expecting their plan to be near perfect. I found that its organization was haphazard and difficult to follow.

Portland installed its first bike boxes in 2008 in response to deaths caused by right-turning trucks.

For example, the plan is 159 pages long but does not use paragraph or section identifiers (i.e. Objective 1.2) or page headers or footers that can tell the reader where they are in relation to the other sections of the plan. The only understandable section identifiers are in the table of contents and the objectives labels. The objectives labels are taken straight from Portland’s comprehensive plan and all come from the same section of that plan (section 6). Eventually you may find that the Portland bicycle plan does have a chapter for each subsection of section 6 in the city’s comprehensive plan. Unfortunately the label is written once at the beginning of the section and is blurred into a black and white photo.

The Seattle plan smartly follows the Chicago example of heavy sectioning and sub-sectioning. This method makes it easy to reference, locate and describe an exact strategy in the plan. In this way, each strategy, or action item as Portland calls them, has a distinct identifier. By following the Chicago example, plans can also more easily internally cross-reference. The one cross-reference in the Portland plan tells me to find Section IV B3. Section IV is only labeled at the beginning of that section, so a reader first has to find that page. Then within Section IV, “B3” is nowhere to be found. There’s no way to infer what B3 could mean. It could mean “benchmark” but Section IV has no benchmarks for the strategies described. Cross-referencing in the Seattle plan is helpful: the links usually take the form of, “For more information, see Chapter 4.” Sometimes the Seattle tells visitors to go online.

Both the Seattle and Portland bicycle plans have great initiatives to improve bicycling, but Seattle’s document surely makes their future work much easier to find!

Bicyclists are the first customers off the ferries in Seattle. On an average day, over 50,000 trips are taken by ferry.


Both the Seattle and Portland bicycle plans provides a lot of extraneous but relevant information, including tips on safe cycling, traffic laws, maps, facility design guides, and crash data. This makes for a long plan but provides governmental and transit agencies the information they need to make decisions available in a central place. The plan document can also act as a self-promotional tool: information contained within the plan is identical to the information that the plan makers want to educate people. For example, within the Portland plan, safe cycling guidelines are included. The necessity of its inclusion in the plan document is debatable, but it doesn’t distract from the plan’s reason for existence.

Portland also includes in its plan a streets and bikeways design guide. This is a separate document that explains to traffic engineers and roadway constructors and planners how to design and build streets, including signage, that make it safer for bicyclists to ride upon.

Both plans have very similar strategies, but because of Seattle’s more recently developed plan, it includes recently accepted innovative traffic calming techniques as well as new bikeway designs (like bicycle-only left turn lanes).

The Portland plan’s age might become a disadvantage to the city and its bicyclists if uninformed agencies are strictly following its guidelines. The Portland Bureau of Transportation, in which sits the Bicycle Program, has fortunately not stuck to strategies listed. PBOT has installed several bikeways and bike parking facilities that are not mentioned in the plan, namely colored bike boxes between pedestrian crosswalks and motorist stop bars, as well as on street bike parking.

UPDATE: Portland closed on November 8, 2009, the public comment period for the 2009 Bike Master Plan Update. Read the draft plan.