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Willamette Week: PBOT bike counts down in 2009 — updated

Posted by on December 16th, 2009 at 12:27 pm

[UPDATE: The Oregonian’s Hard Drive blog has an update on this story]

Bike traffic - N. Williams-3

(Photo © J. Maus)

The Willamette Week has gotten their hands on a preliminary report of this year’s bike counts from the City of Portland Bureau of Transportation that shows a decrease in bicycle ridership for 2009.

Here’s a snip from Willamette Week reporter Beth Slovic’s story (emphasis mine):

“That preliminary report, the 2009 “Portland Bicycle Counts,” shows the number of bicycle trips across Portland bridges (and at more than 100 other locations citywide) has fallen a combined average of 6 percent compared with the same time period in 2008.”


The Willamette Week points out that the the decrease “comes at an inopportune time for city officials, who are just now launching their most ambitious plan yet to upgrade the city’s bicycle infrastructure to meet what they say is strong demand.” They’re of course referring to the Portland Bicycle Plan for 2030.

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PBOT usually releases their bike count numbers in November, but this year we were told the numbers wouldn’t be ready until January. On November 19th, one PBOT staffer told us that we couldn’t see the numbers yet because they needed to, “Closely examine the numbers to adequately explain the findings.”

We’ve been told by PBOT staffers that work on the Bicycle Plan has taken time away from analyzing the bike counts. But this news from the Willamette Week could suggest that PBOT was merely stalling once they realized the decrease.

There are obviously several reasons that can help explain a decrease in ridership — from the unprecedented gas prices in 2008 to the currently high unemployment rates — but no matter how it’s sliced and diced, a decrease in bike usage in Portland would put City officials in a peculiar position (and, as Slovic reports, other cities did not experience a decrease).

A drop in bike use could also be awkward PR-wise for bike advocates. If the rallying cry has been “Our numbers are skyrocketing, we need more money” than anti-bike interests could potentially say that the opposite should happen when the numbers go down.

We’ll have more on the bike counts as we hear back from PBOT and other insiders. For now, read more analysis on this story over at the Willamette Week.

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46 Comments
  • scotth December 16, 2009 at 12:38 pm

    6% of the counters fell asleep on the job, that explains the findings.

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  • chelsea December 16, 2009 at 12:39 pm

    Well, I was not riding my bike as much because I spent half of the month in bed with the flu…sorry Portland.

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  • Lance P. December 16, 2009 at 12:45 pm

    It should also be noted that auto trips were also down in 2009. This all has to do with unemployment.

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  • Dave December 16, 2009 at 12:45 pm

    I think it’s important to note that those counts are for a very specific time period too – what I mean is, while the counts may be down in the summer, I feel like there have been more people who have continued riding once the weather turned this year than there were last – so even if we don’t have quite as high of numbers, perhaps they are more consistent across the year than they have been in the past, which would still argue strongly for better cycling infrastructure.

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  • Bob_M December 16, 2009 at 12:49 pm

    Employer incentive programs got cut due to the economy and that diminished the number of bike riders at my office

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  • Anne Hawley December 16, 2009 at 12:55 pm

    Do I detect a note of triumphalism over at WW? The implication seems to be “Yay, bike-riding is decreasing and now we can funnel all that money into street repair” as if bike-related spending at PBOT would fix the potholes in one major boulevard, let alone all of ’em.

    A real decline in bike commuting–assuming they can correct for unprecedented economic factors–means we need MORE bike infrastructure and outreach, not less. This isn’t the same as saying, “Hey, fewer cars–let’s not widen that road this year.” This is more like saying, “Hey, people aren’t coming to the farmers’ markets this season–what can we do to bring them back?”

    Because bikes and bike-riding, unlike cars and car-driving, are actually GOOD for the community as well as for the individuals using them.

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  • Anonymous December 16, 2009 at 12:56 pm

    People getting more neighborhood focused, working and living in the same area, reduces commuting across the river.

    Finding new routes, avoiding high traffic areas where counts are taken.

    Plenty of reasons for a drop

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  • h December 16, 2009 at 1:02 pm

    Did PBOT count cars? If its count is down, it has to do something to do with economy. Bus rideship has gone down too. Gas becomes somewhat affordable.

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  • Todd Boulanger December 16, 2009 at 1:04 pm

    The key is in the end are long term trends not just one year’s data point… and comparing it to annual changes in motorized traffic counts – as mentioned.

    And remember that the Portland Mercury is really the more bike friendly read vs the WW. ;-]

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  • todd December 16, 2009 at 1:04 pm

    clearly this is due to the rise of high-occupancy velos in our fair city, with families packing on one bike where before it required 2-4 or more: http://totcycle.com/blog/high-occupancy-velo-manifesto.html

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  • Eric December 16, 2009 at 1:06 pm

    Salem’s summer count also showed a decline. It’s the economy, principally, and not just something about Portland. Though it will be interesting to compare data to NYC, DC and other places where apparently there were still increases.

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  • Anne Hawley December 16, 2009 at 1:09 pm

    Dave @4: good point. I didn’t start bike commuting till this year’s BTA Bike Commute Challenge in September. The cut in Tri-Met’s service at the same time (they eliminated my whole route!) has made me a 100% bike commuter.

    Last year at this time, when gas prices were soaring, Tri-Met was still rolling along at the prior year’s fares and service levels. I had no motivation to change my public-transit routine.

    PBOT should probably find another way to count.

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  • are December 16, 2009 at 1:24 pm

    oh, well, that’s it then, game over. guess we’ll just have to pack it in.

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  • Peter W December 16, 2009 at 1:32 pm

    More people are kayaking across the river.

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  • peejay December 16, 2009 at 1:41 pm

    How can they report this without reporting what the change in car usage is? It’s meaningless without context. It’s like saying fewer red-haired people live in Boston without mentioning that the overall population of Boston went down.

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  • Lenny Anderson December 16, 2009 at 1:56 pm

    Bike count down? We need more and better bike facilities to get them up where they need to be for everybody’s sake. When I bike I do not take up a motor vehicle lane…to the benefit of those who do drive. But all modes are down…we have 11+% unemployment!

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  • Chris December 16, 2009 at 1:57 pm

    We can also consider that there had been some run-down cyclists (NE 122nd or 102nd) this year and safety has always been cited as a top apprehension of potential commuters. Perhaps we should take this as an indication that we need more money, a real separation, and safe bike crossings at the connections. Safer crossings, more car discouragement on the bike boulevards, and more signs for the entire network are the things I’d like to see get city planning priorities still.

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  • jim December 16, 2009 at 2:10 pm

    Gas was $1.00 a gallon more in 08. Don’t worry- we have a president that dosn’t mind the price of gas being high, so unless he wisens up it will go up again

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  • q`Ztal December 16, 2009 at 2:25 pm

    Also consider that this drop is relative to the 2008 level. 2008’s high counts were due to primarily to the price of oil. As the oil$ went down so did the fair weather cyclists and those that needed to save a buck on gas.

    The context that I see here is that Portland has proven that even small investments in bike infrastructure allowed our city to weather the recent fluctuations in the oil market. Yes, we need to do better but our roads ability to accommodate vast numbers of cyclists is a strength of our local economy that we need to enhance as a way to buoy the revenue stream of the government.

    By increasing funding of safe bicycle infrastructure now we insure that should Portland need it a large segment of the population could be absorbed on to the roads without catastrophe.

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  • Heidi December 16, 2009 at 2:32 pm

    I hope people making useful comments here are also posting on the WWeek site!

    #15 peejay — I notice this lack of context frequently in all forms of journalism, like recently in my husband’s alumni magazine. I don’t think journalists get enough training in reporting stats.

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  • bruce December 16, 2009 at 2:46 pm

    What is the change in TriMet ridership during same period?

    Also: though gas prices have been heading back up in general they were somewhat lower in 09, I think.

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  • buzz December 16, 2009 at 3:05 pm

    My hope is that PDOT does not take one year’s count and make decisions based on that. I would hope they realize that 11 percent unemployment would mean fewer people would be riding to work and continue to look at counts when that was not the case.

    However, I did find it interesting that other cities did not see such a big decrease.

    Another thing I wonder: Are younger people (who may be more likely to bike) moving to the suburbs to get cheaper rent or buy an affordable house, or be closer to the jobs?

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  • Michelle (BTA) December 16, 2009 at 3:37 pm

    It is a shame the WWeek article did not report how much travel by ALL modes (driving as well as transit) decreased in the last year.

    Normally when the economy is down, people take fewer trips of any kind (and traffic jams ease up).

    I do not know the answer to that question, but it would put the relative decrease in cycling in perspective.

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  • cold worker December 16, 2009 at 3:46 pm

    i stopped “commuting” in may when i was laid off.

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  • Oh Word? December 16, 2009 at 4:00 pm

    Bruce … #21 OregonLive picked up this story too, they said TriMet rides are down 2.9%. I can’t wait to read all the comments people will put on that site!

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  • old&slow December 16, 2009 at 5:05 pm

    Wiily weak is an embarrassment of a newspaper. If they don’t print some “scandal” or sensationalize a story nobody would pick up their rag. They are always trying to be “too hip for the room”, so naturally cycling would be their next “controversy”. There isn’t a Sam Adams scandal this month so they will try something to offend somebody to get anyone to read their little “weekly”. They have music reviewers who pan artists before they play, restaurant critics who pan restaurants if they aren’t given the meals for nothing and basically just a tired old paper. Just say no!

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  • n8m December 16, 2009 at 5:22 pm

    In my world it seems there are so many people moving to portland. I’ve had quite a few friends move here recently. Maybe they’ve been laid off in another city, or have heard Portland is cool, etc. and move here. Many of Portland’s imports seem to bring their car-culture mentality with them (along with their car), and I’ve found it often difficult getting (most of) them on a bike.

    I love introducing pdx newbies to their new city by bike. Sometimes the most difficult thing is just finding them a bike that fits them well – esp when it is not their priority to purchase a set of wheels & discover how rad this city is by bike. Anyways… To an increased ridership in 2010!

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  • Donna December 16, 2009 at 8:48 pm

    I’m not surprised. Is there anyone at PBOT paying attention to the unemployment rate in this state? I’m sure bicycle commuters are just as affected as everyone else in this abysmal economy.

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  • Borgbike December 16, 2009 at 9:02 pm

    I’m surprised by this. It seemed to me that the summer of 2009 ridership was amazing. It felt like the summer of love for the bicycle in Portland.

    Perhaps there is a margin of error in the count and the margin for 2008 was on the high side and the margin for 2009 was low.

    Again it just doesn’t seem to fit with my anecdotal impressions for the Broadway Williams/Vancouver commute.

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  • BURR December 16, 2009 at 9:26 pm

    a six percent drop is statistically insignificant compared to the double digit growth of the past several years.

    plus I agree that 2009 seemed like the summer of love for bikes in Portland, maybe there were technical difficulties with the automated traffic counters, like they were set for cars instead of bikes or something?

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  • Schrauf December 16, 2009 at 9:44 pm

    Does anyone monitor weather the day or week of the count? A wet day in 2009 vs. a sunny day in 2008 could easily cause a 10% – 25% swing. How is this adjusted for?

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  • John Reinhold December 16, 2009 at 10:00 pm

    Posts have been pretty spot on…

    Anecdotaly, it seemed to me as well that there were far more bikes this year. I biked more, and and more varied times and bikes were everywhere.

    I don’t know the answers to these questions, but here are the ones that I have:

    1. Are the counts taken at the same spots every year, and for the same time frames in the same time windows?

    2. What was the weather like during the counts, during each of the years?

    3. Compared to the same times, and previous years, what was the automobile count like? Transit count?

    4. What is the unemployment rate compared to the same periods in previous years?

    5. What was the cost of fuel during the same periods for this and prior years?

    6. What happened with the population during the past years. Has it increased or decreased? Are demographics changing?

    7. Is bicycling perhaps up but more dispersed ore spread out and less likely to get “counted”?

    8. Could “Cash for Clunkers” have had an impact – if lots of people had shiny new cars?

    9. What was the telecommuting rates for the various years? Are more companies telecommuting to save money?

    10. Did swine flu, flu season, or flu fears and panic potentially impact the counts?

    11. Has the job base shifted? Are there fewer jobs in the city core compared to other places? Longer commutes discourage cycling, or are people riding places that didn’t get counted?

    I don’t know if any of these can be answered easily, but I would bet that when adjusted for some of these factors such as current bus and auto use, and unemployment – it might not actually be a drop at all…

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  • jim December 16, 2009 at 10:47 pm

    a lot of people tried max for a while and then gave it up after they became deisgusted wiith it

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  • cyclist December 17, 2009 at 2:26 am

    Seems like BS that folks here have unquestionably accepted their numbers every year until there’s a decrease.

    My own (subjective) take is that cycling is down a bit this year, or at least held steady. There was an absolute explosion last summer when gas went up above $4/gal, and it seemed to me at the beginning of the summer that some of those folks didn’t return. Of course, the number of cyclists that are on the road during commuting hours is going to decrease significantly if unemployment doubles during the year, but if the economy was the sole reason for decreased cycling rates I expect we’d see that Trimet’s ridership would decrease at somewhere close to the level as the cycling rate (it didn’t).

    2008 was a huge leap forward, a small decline in light of all that’s happened this year really shouldn’t be disheartening. Just remember, if you disparage the way the data gets collected when the results don’t go your way, don’t expect to be able to use them when they DO go your way.

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  • jim December 17, 2009 at 4:50 am

    i would ride more if there were more bike paths rather than bike lanes. I enjoy cycling when there are no cars, to ride in traffic is not enjoyable for me

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  • Michael December 17, 2009 at 7:27 am

    Cyclist #34 – your post is spot on. Anecdotal ‘evidence’ don’t mean shit.

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  • are December 17, 2009 at 7:46 am

    comment 35, the places where these counts are made are on roads

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  • PDXCyclist December 17, 2009 at 8:31 am

    I kept bunning hopping over the counter tubes thinking that they were part of a government plot to track my weight.

    my bad

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  • Kt December 17, 2009 at 8:39 am

    John, #32, good questions. I’d like to know the answers.

    Are, #37, thanks for clarifying; seems like the count can’t be all that accurate, then, because not all bike people ride on roads, as #35 Jim pointed out.

    (Here in Tigard, during the summer, the City did a bike count but only on the Fanno Creek Trail between the hours of 8am and 4pm. Of course, I go through around 7:45am and after 5:30pm, so I didn’t get counted.)

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  • Brad December 17, 2009 at 10:15 am

    How many trendsters quit?

    I’ve often felt that many people took up bike commuting because it was the “it” thing to do in PDX. Once it became harder (weather, bike maintainence costs, etc.)or not as “cool” (less ego stroking news articles, attention at work, etc.)they simply moved on to the next trend.

    I see far fewer long board skaters than three or four years ago also. That was the hipster transportation hotness for a little while.

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  • jacque December 17, 2009 at 10:25 am

    The huge numbers were due to all the efforts of the people building and consulting on bike infrastructure, not due to high gas prices for heavens sake. I’m pretty sure I read that here… over and over again. The numbers have decreased because the consultants are all busy in other towns.

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  • jacque December 17, 2009 at 10:45 am

    Since I’m always being so negative about the infrastructure building, I should say I’m so glad I live in a town that is sending a clear message that bikes belong.
    I’m mostly just anti bike lane- as they are built here in the US. Apparently they do make riders feel safe, and they do send a message that bikes belong… but I think at a cost.
    I’m all for sharrows, and I love the bike parking corrals. More of both will be great.

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  • jacque December 17, 2009 at 11:12 am

    And if the city wants to get the numbers up up up, i think we be should be focusing our efforts on slowing down auto traffic, and discouraging the use of the single occupancy vehicle… with incentives and disincentives both.

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  • IanO December 17, 2009 at 12:42 pm

    Many of the questions I’m seeing here are answered on the BTA FAQ. Look it up.

    Methodology: Counts are at the same locations as previous years, one summer good-weather weekday (chosen by the volunteer), either during the morning or evening two-hour commute window. So this really is for measuring traditional 9-5 downtown bike commuting, not alternative work schedules, not utility bike trips, not pleasure biking.

    For example, my bike commuting is not represented. I work from home most days, and when I do commute, it is outside the traditional windows of 7-9 am, 4-6 pm.

    My opinion about the drop? 2008 was higher than normal due to gas prices, 2009 was lower than normal due to the recession. And overall bike ridership likely *increased*, but not during the 9-5 commuting windows measured by this study. Also it wouldn’t surprise me if a 6% change is within the margin of error of this type of study.

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  • Ben Foote December 17, 2009 at 2:18 pm

    I know it’s not apples to apples but I’d be curious how the national count that was conducted at many of the same locations compares with the city count.

    Anyone know who has the national data?

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  • chelsea December 17, 2009 at 2:58 pm

    #38 PDXCyclist: hilarious!!

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