Portland wants to ‘prescribe a bike’ to Black Portlanders with chronic diseases

Dovie Salais

Portland is proposing what transportation leaders say is a “truly innovative effort” that would allow health officials to prescribe an annual Biketown membership to Black residents with certain chronic diseases. The city transportation bureau is collaborating with the Multnomah County Health Department on a $200,000 grant application. The City Council […]

Portland is proposing what transportation leaders say is a “truly innovative effort” that would allow health officials to prescribe an annual Biketown membership to Black residents with certain chronic diseases.

The city transportation bureau is collaborating with the Multnomah County Health Department on a $200,000 grant application. The City Council is expected to sign off on the proposal Wednesday. If approved, the grant would be for two-and-a-half years and the city and county would each contribute $10,000 to the program.

City and county officials say they built the proposal on a similar effort in New York City, which has had positive results. They say it’s a way to make the on-demand bike rental service more accessible to people of color while also encouraging more bike riding.

Charlene McGee, who leads the Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health, a federally funded program housed at Multnomah County, said eight out of the 10 leading causes of death for Black Portlanders are chronic diseases.

If Portland is awarded the grant, she said county officials would look to prescribe a bike to Black Portlanders who are pre-diabetic, diabetic or have hypertension. Her program reaches out to African immigrant communities in Portland as well as other Black Portlanders, all of whom are more likely to have those chronic diseases.

The proposal is to provide patients with a one-year membership to Biketown, the city’s bike rental program. Biketown’s fleet is now all electric assist, or “e-bikes” that can travel up to 20 miles per hour and have a range of roughly 25 miles, depending on the rider. Patients would go through an orientation before picking up their “prescription.” That orientation would include safety discussions.

McGee said research shows that e-bike riders tend to ride for longer distances and for longer stretches of time, which would benefit people with certain chronic diseases. An hour of exercise per day, that can include cycling or walking, is key.

“It’s a powerful health intervention that has far-reaching benefits,” McGee said of cycling.

She said the power in prescribing a bike opens up possibilities that just suggesting a bike to a patient does not.

“We know that when a provider writes a prescription for someone, they want to adhere to what the provider is saying,” McGee said. She said bike riding is positive for mental health as well, and can be a communal activity, all of which can improve mental and physical health for those patients.

McGee said New York City and Minneapolis have similar programs.

The grant application is through the Better Bike Share Partnership, a national group that awards grants to cities nationwide.

Dylan Rivera, a Portland transportation spokesperson, said the city believes it is in good position to receive a grant for this “truly innovative effort” that will make “the health benefits of Biketown more accessible than ever.”

One of the city’s employees worked on New York’s program, Rivera said. If awarded the grant, Portland hopes to have the program in place in 2021.

— Andrew Theen; [email protected]

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