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The 2014 Fittest City in America: Portland

In our nation’s Fittest City, 86% of the population gets regular exercise—but physical activity is just part of what makes Portland No. 1.


NO. 4: TWO-WHEEL IT AT EVERY OPPORTUNITY

In case you haven’t heard, Portland is a cycling paradise. With its purpose-built bike infrastructure, year-round mild temperatures, and relatively flat terrain (compared, say, with the thigh-burning hills of No. 2 San Francisco and No. 3 Seattle), more people get around here on two wheels than anywhere else in the country. I decide to join them when I arrive in town, and on Monday rent a road bike from Waterfront Bicycles, a friendly, no-frills shop in the Old Town District that boasts the city’s largest rental fleet.

Crossing eastbound over the Willamette River on the Hawthorne Bridge, I feel as if I’ve just merged onto a bike commuter superhighway (7.7% of men commute by bike here, nearly double runner-up Seattle).

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It’s the evening rush hour, and cyclists are leaving downtown office jobs by the dozens, streaming across the traffic-choked span past a line of idling cars full of people trying to do the same. This bridge averages an astonishing 8,000-plus cyclist trips per day—and it’s only one of four downtown river crossings.

Once I’m on the road, it’s even clearer why so many people are out riding. The city practically trips over itself to accommodate bicycles, and it shows in the infrastructure. Cruising the Southeast District, I encounter signs every few blocks pointing the way—with distances and ride-time estimates—to nearby neighborhoods and major landmarks, making navigation intuitive. Bike lanes and boulevards extend in all directions, like red carpets inviting me to explore the city, safe from traffic.

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In front of bars and coffee shops, bike corrals that accommodate a dozen bikes occupy what were once single-car street-parking spots. Green-painted “bike boxes” allow cyclists to wait ahead of cars at red lights, giving them a few feet advantage when the lights change. Even motorists seem genuinely concerned for my welfare.

I could get used to this, I think, and over the next few days I put in 80-plus miles just getting around and scoping out the city.

NO. 5: YOU HAVE TO PLAN AHEAD

Portland’s bike utopia didn’t develop by accident, or overnight. It’s the result of decades of smart planning by local government. In fact, the entire region, including three counties and 25 cities, has a single governmental agency, called Metro, that’s overseen urban growth since 1979, resulting in a built environment that, research consistently shows, encourages healthier lifestyles.

If you build it, says Jennifer Dill, Ph.D., director of Portland State University’s Oregon Transportation Research and Education Consortium, they will come. Bike parking, well-lit multi-use paths, integrated public transportation, and protected lanes all increase ridership. In fact, the number of cyclists locally has increased sixfold since Portland started earnestly growing its bike network 20 years ago.  The upshot is that it’s the only major city to have been granted platinum status by the League of American Bicyclists. 

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Next on the docket for Portland? The latest land use plan calls for “20-minute neighborhoods”—that is, areas where residents can access restaurants, markets, schools, shops, and parks all within a one-mile (or 20-minute) walk from home. These walk- and bike-friendly areas should greatly reduce car trips. And the resulting public health impacts can’t be overstated, Dill says. In her opinion, creating an environment “where it’s easy, comfortable, safe, and enjoyable to walk and ride a bike for everyday transportation” is where American cities—particularly walk defiant Nashville, TN (No. 44 overall) and bike-hating Detroit (No. 47)—stand to make the biggest overall improvements in fitness and well-being.

If you want to see the long-term fitness benefits of regular cycling, look no further than the Portland Wheelmen Touring Club (PWTC), one of the area’s largest recreational cycling groups; but when I join them for a chilly, damp Wednesday-morning ride, they’re pared down to a group of 17, mostly retirees.

“We’re not exactly kids here,” says ride organizer Bud Rice, 69, a bulldog of a man with a paunch and thinning hair. “Our average age is 60, and most of us are retired.” That’s a relief, since my abs are cramping, my legs are weak, and, thanks to Firebrand, my ass feels like I’ve just come off the bull-riding circuit.

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On their bikes, though, these old-timers are transformed. After 10 miles of winding its way through countless city streets, our slow-moving peloton hits the wide-open drag of Willamette Boulevard, and impatient riders bolt from the pack. Even Rice takes off , his thick legs transforming into twin pistons, and I have to ride 25 mph to reel him in. Seventeen miles into the trip, when we take a refuel break on Hayden Island, Rice lets me in on a little secret: He rides upward of 7,000 miles every year, and some members average 12,000. “One of our guys cracked 200,000 miles; he’s nearly to the moon by now.”

By the time my ride is over—including nine miles each way to the meetup location—I’ve put in 50 miles, but it’s starting to feel like I’ve been to the moon myself.

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