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‘Day without the bicycle’ follow-up: How to make 1/3 of Portland’s bikers vanish

Posted by on August 7th, 2014 at 9:46 pm

bike count decline

The other day I did a fun post with some back-of-the-envelope math to estimate what it might look like if every Portland bike commuter switched to a car for one day. Here’s a tidbit I didn’t have room to include: massive temporary shifts from bike to other modes already happen regularly.

They happen every time it rains. Rain eliminates about one in three bike trips citywide, to be precise.

Two weeks ago, we had a rare rainy spell on Tuesday and Wednesday. The Hawthorne Bridge bike counter showed a drop of 37 percent from the July average for those days.

Not all of those trips switched to cars, of course — it’s likely that a lot of them switched to public transit or (especially with non-work errands) were just skipped or delayed until the rain stopped.


This isn’t just something that happens in the summer. Last November, city traffic count expert Tom Jensen sent BikePortland a chart that used “some more or less random samples” of bike counts to find a similar drop in bike traffic population that week:

jensen bike counts

So there’s both a seasonal variation in local bike traffic, and day-by-day variation.

Aside from the trivia about how many bike trips go away in the rain, we’ve got two quick takeaways from this:

No, this is not because Portlanders are wimps, etc. It’s because people find it more pleasant to bike when it is not raining than when it is raining. Generally mild weather is a big reason why a lot of people bike in Portland, San Francisco and Seattle (not to mention Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Copenhagen) in the first place.

Portland’s transportation system absorbs all these trips without much trouble. There’s definitely a slowdown in traffic when it rains, but some of that is due to the weather itself. On the other hand, rush hours are also noticeably more crowded on TriMet in heavy rain. Go figure.


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  • Spiffy August 8, 2014 at 8:49 am

    rain always causes major traffic in Portland… it must be because it’s such a rare thing…

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  • johnny August 8, 2014 at 8:53 am

    “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just soft people.”
    ― Bill Bowerman

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    • q`Tzal August 8, 2014 at 9:43 am

      Then where was everyone when I biked to work 3-5 winters ago when Portland got +6″ of snow?

      I mean, sure: I have deep lugged 2.5″ wide carbide studded bicycle tires and 5 years of riding experience with them from Nebraska.

      But in my ride from 185th to the Beaverton MAX station and from downtown through Pearl and out to the NW industrial rail yard area (about an hour, definitely slower going) I never saw another bicycle rider. What made this day safe-ish is I saw very very few automobiles either; mostly chained up buses.

      I’m a doughy, lazy bum. I am by no consideration “fearless”.
      By your supplied quote however I should assume that all should bow at my feet because I’m the toughest.

      Please leave your testosterone at the door. We don’t need the “Self Worth Olympics” here. Everyone has their own reasons for what they do and we don’t need sanctimonious judginess.

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      • Champs August 8, 2014 at 9:59 am

        I’ve ridden in weather you could describe as “dishwasher” or “ice planet Hoth” myself, and used a similar mantra: “there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad gear.”

        It’s only a mantra, though. You don’t have to take it literally. It is motivation, not an absolute.

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        • q`Tzal August 8, 2014 at 1:54 pm

          Any time a city is going to be empty or nearly so in the middle of the day…
          <valley girl affect>
          I simply HAVE to be there.
          <valley girl affect>
          A good old fashioned blizzard is one of the few remaining stand-ins for what also used to happen Thanksgiving & Christmas days. Streets would be empty enough you could hear timed traffic lights clicking through cycles from blocks away. Wind twisting through metal & glass canyons. Bird calls spreading through perfect echo chambers. Not a rude, impatient, self absorbed zombie anywhere in sight.

          It’s a riding or walking experience that holds pleasant memories where I get the impression it just creeps everyone else out.

          Recommended Thumb up 4

      • spare_wheel August 8, 2014 at 10:18 am

        I made excuses to commute every day. i hope we have more of that this winter!

        Recommended Thumb up 1

    • Granpa August 8, 2014 at 9:52 am

      No such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing”

      There, fixed.

      Recommended Thumb up 5

      • q`Tzal August 8, 2014 at 1:42 pm

        Wool. Wool, wool, wool.
        Like spicy food it was something I couldn’t appreciate the magnificence of until I was older

        This message brought to by The Council of Wool Fanatics.

        Recommended Thumb up 3

    • Alan 1.0 August 8, 2014 at 9:55 am

      “They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful…” ― F. Scott Fitzgerald

      Recommended Thumb up 0

    • My Magic Hat August 8, 2014 at 3:58 pm

      “There are no stupid questions, only stupid people, mmkay?”
      - Mr. Mackey

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  • wsbob August 8, 2014 at 8:54 am

    No surprise that there’s a big drop in numbers of people riding when it rains. It’s generally less pleasant to ride in the rain, particularly if the temperature is cold. Rain calls for more gear for riding. And, the danger level for riding, increases with rain.

    70 degrees and rain isn’t such a big deal, but when the temp drops to 50 and less with rain, it takes some very serious effort at enthusiasm to keep it fun. Much more comfortable relaxing, warm, dry, with the sound system going, in the car.

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    • Champs August 8, 2014 at 11:32 am

      I suppose everyone’s got different zones of discomfort, but warmer rainy days are my least favorite. Modern fabrics like eVent are great, but a jacket is still a jacket. Wear it, get sweaty and hot. Don’t wear it, get soaked and cold—except that one warm summer day in Portland when it rains and feels good.

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      • John Lascurettes August 8, 2014 at 12:23 pm

        Right with you for the most part. Cold rainy days are easier because the rain gear makes you hot on the inside – which if fine if it’s cold out.

        More mild temp but rainy days are hard; do you put on the gear and get soaked from the inside in sweat or leave it off and get soaked from the outside and get chilly? A warm-weather rain though is tolerable with a good wool shirt – just get wet and don’t worry about it.

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      • Alex Reed August 8, 2014 at 12:52 pm

        I felt that way until I got a rain cape which is perfect for mild rainy days because you get lots of ventilation under the cape. e.g.
        http://www.carradice.co.uk/index.php?page_id=product&product_id=66

        Dorky? Yes! Non-aerodynamic? Yes! Comfortable, effective, and lets me wear whatever I want underneath? Those too.

        I find rain pants to only be necessary under the rain cape (which covers my thighs) on days with quite heavy rain.

        Recommended Thumb up 3

      • wsbob August 8, 2014 at 5:56 pm

        I think it would be interesting for people to try out the Organic Transit trikes on some of Oregons’ rainiest, coldest days for commuting. Its canopy essentially eliminates the need for rain gear, which right there, eliminates much of the clammy skin and wind chill threat that goes along with rain riding.

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  • paikiala August 8, 2014 at 8:58 am

    Most people, having never been in a crash or witnessed one, have no clue how fast things can go wrong. Slowing down when it rains is very prudent, especially the first 24 hours after a long dry spell as oils come to the surface of the street. Skid resistance (friction) also reduces when a lubricant like water is introduced between any two surfaces in contact. You might even say the basic rule covers this concept.

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    • spare_wheel August 8, 2014 at 10:36 am

      on the positive side, one also slides better when one does go down.

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  • Chris Anderson August 8, 2014 at 9:07 am

    Part of the reason we went car free was to avoid the temptation to let the weather dictate our transportation choices. I can happily report that after a year of rain, ice and heat spells we have no regrets. Hint: an ebike helps too. Also if you ride in Portland and aren’t using Dark Sky or some other weather alert app you’re getting wetter than you need to.

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    • John Lascurettes August 8, 2014 at 12:28 pm

      Dark Sky’s push alerts are indispensable for my winter riding. It’s been very handy to know when there’s a dry window to ride from work to home – and the push alerts get me to hustle my butt when there’s an impending deluge coming.

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  • Joseph E August 8, 2014 at 9:20 am

    When it rains, many people decide to avoid taking unnecessary trips… and some necessary trips! Bad weather means lots of “no-shows” at my clinic, and some of our staff don’t make it in (or are late). This helps reduce the effect of people switching from bike to cars or transit.
    I still notice that the traffic on I-84 and Burnside is worse when the rain starts, as I ride by, but it would be a LOT worse without the reduction in trips.

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  • daisy August 8, 2014 at 9:35 am

    My local bike shop says they notice a big drop-off when it’s really hot, too.

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    • Michael Andersen (News Editor) August 8, 2014 at 10:15 am

      Yeah, extreme heat is probably a bigger factor in whether people bike than rain or even extreme cold. The most recent benchmarking report from the Alliance for Biking and Walking showed that the number of days of heat in a city seems to be a more important deterrent than the number of days of rain.

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  • Patrick Barber August 8, 2014 at 9:49 am

    When it rained recently I noticed the drop in bike traffic and my first thought was, “Come on, people, show some fortitude.” My second thought was, “Any transportation system that relies on user fortitude is a broken transportation system.” Upon further consideration this statement applies to most discussions about bike facilities, too.

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    • Dan August 8, 2014 at 2:04 pm

      I generally prefer not to ride in the rain because I’m considerably less visible to drivers then (wipers don’t even reach the far right side of the windshield, where I’m riding). This wouldn’t be a problem if there was car/bike separation. I’ve never been nervous about riding in the rain on a bike path.

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      • gutterbunnybikes August 8, 2014 at 4:50 pm

        Actually being separated puts you further to the right of the passing automobile, and less in line with the drives center of focus. Toss in the grey weather and your nearly invisible on the side of the road. (You loose your ability to determine color at roughly 30 degrees and farther from the center of focus).

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  • Justin Gast August 8, 2014 at 11:43 am

    Champs
    I’ve ridden in weather you could describe as “dishwasher” or “ice planet Hoth” myself, and used a similar mantra: “there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad gear.”
    It’s only a mantra, though. You don’t have to take it literally. It is motivation, not an absolute.
    Recommended 1

    Totally agree on the gear. If you have [have = can afford] the right gear, it makes biking year-round that much easier. And, when I say “right gear,” I mean Showers Pass.

    Recommended Thumb up 2

  • Justin Gast August 8, 2014 at 11:44 am

    Champs
    I’ve ridden in weather you could describe as “dishwasher” or “ice planet Hoth” myself, and used a similar mantra: “there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad gear.”
    It’s only a mantra, though. You don’t have to take it literally. It is motivation, not an absolute.
    Recommended 2

    Champs
    I’ve ridden in weather you could describe as “dishwasher” or “ice planet Hoth” myself, and used a similar mantra: “there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad gear.”
    It’s only a mantra, though. You don’t have to take it literally. It is motivation, not an absolute.
    Recommended 1

    Totally agree on the gear. If you have [have = can afford] the right gear, it makes biking year-round that much easier. And, when I say “right gear,” I mean Showers Pass.

    Recommended Thumb up 0

  • was carless August 8, 2014 at 11:57 am

    i would rather ride on a cool rainy day than on a hot day. the heat is really brutal on your body – sunburns, dehydration, you get extremely sweaty, etc.

    Recommended Thumb up 5

    • John Lascurettes August 8, 2014 at 12:34 pm

      The pitter-pat of rain on my helmet is almost meditative. :)

      Recommended Thumb up 1

    • spare_wheel August 8, 2014 at 1:01 pm

      upper 40s with light rain are ideal riding conditions for me.

      Recommended Thumb up 1

  • Racer X August 8, 2014 at 12:08 pm

    Wow…I guess there is at least one more benefit of “Global Warming” other than local olive and palm trees in Portland… less rainy days and more bike commuters, for now. I wonder when the Corbert Report or Fox will pick up on the silver lining?

    Recommended Thumb up 1

    • spare_wheel August 8, 2014 at 1:08 pm

      Most models predict wetter Falls, Winters, and Springs in the PNW:

      http://occri.net/climate-science/climate-modeling

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    • 9watts August 8, 2014 at 5:36 pm

      And Portland’s increased rain intensity is tracking the shifts that were anticipated to accompany climate change. It isn’t that we’re necessarily getting less rain, but less of the light rain and quite a bit more of the heavy rain that used to be rare around here.

      Recommended Thumb up 0

  • KristenT August 8, 2014 at 1:54 pm

    I can do cold, I can do rain, I even did snow. But my body just cannot do excess heat. Up to about 90 I’m ok, but go too far above that and I start to have health issues– mostly with my brain overheating, and then I make bad decisions.

    So that means Monday, with 100 degrees forecasted, is right out as far as riding goes.

    Recommended Thumb up 1

  • benschon August 8, 2014 at 2:43 pm

    Great data analysis.

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  • Alex August 8, 2014 at 4:18 pm

    I’ve tried to ride 3 times in icy/snowy conditions over the past 6 years (going very slowly/carefully) and slammed every time. Sometimes gear matters. I’ve decided not to ride on icy roads, ever. It’s just not worth it unless you have a tricked-out snow bike.

    Recommended Thumb up 0

    • GlowBoy August 11, 2014 at 11:31 am

      Don’t need a “tricked-out snow bike”. All you need is winter-specific tires: either studded, or the new studless ice tires from Continental (and presumably forthcoming from other makers). Most bikes other than road racing machines can fit studded tires.

      Recommended Thumb up 0

  • spencer August 8, 2014 at 4:25 pm

    my favorite days are the rainy days, i get to ride the west bank esplanade by myself

    Recommended Thumb up 1

  • Mindful Cyclist August 8, 2014 at 4:56 pm

    There is no question that the amount of people on bikes goes down as the rain starts to fall. I do wonder, however, how much of that bridge count going down because people may decide to cancel any recreation riding that was planned and just go to the gym or skip exercise that day?

    Recommended Thumb up 1

  • Mindful Cyclist August 8, 2014 at 5:01 pm

    Admittedly, I have slowly had to get used to commuting in the rain. I never minded riding in the rain for shorter trips, but have just started to look at the forecasts better and really tend to only skip those days and take the bus when the forecast calls for a decent amount of rainfall. If I had a 4 mile commute downtown, it would not be an issue. But, doing 12 miles in heavy rain just gets to be a drag for me.

    Recommended Thumb up 3

    • El Biciclero August 11, 2014 at 2:08 pm

      Distance really does make a difference (I also have a 12+ mile, hilly commute). Spending an hour in moderate rain is more uncomfortable, potentially colder, and tends to pose a greater risk to my “weather-resistant” gear (e.g., lights, shoe covers, even “rain” jacket). I find that 15-20 minutes is the outside limit of effectiveness for rain gear, where it keeps the rain off, but I haven’t yet been completely drenched in sweat. Since my commute is at least an hour when it rains, it makes me much more careful and deliberate in committing to it when the radar map looks green and yellow…

      Recommended Thumb up 2

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