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It’s true: Portland bike counts show first decline in five years

Buffered Bike Lane with a bike symbol and arrow pointing forward

“What we want to do is put the bike counts into the context of… Were all trips down? We’re thinking that’s the story.”
— Roger Geller, PBOT bike coordinator

When Willamette Week reporter Beth Slovic broke the story about PBOT’s 2009 bike count numbers yesterday, we were shocked. Our surprise was two-fold: First, although we’d heard speculation that the counts would be down compared to 2008, it was still surprising to learn it had actually happened; and second, we had asked PBOT repeatedly for for the results of the counts (which have historically been released in November) but were told that no numbers would be released until January.

Slovic was called out by Joseph Rose of The Oregonian yesterday because a PBOT staffer told him the report didn’t exist. Today, Slovic produced a PDF of that preliminary report in order to prove she was not making it up. Much of that report includes information from 2008 (PBOT was using it as a template), but we’ve confirmed that the 2009 numbers presented are accurate.

PBOT spokesman Dan Anderson told us today that no report of the bike count (in either draft or final form) has been made public. He also confirmed that no public records request was filed for one. This leads us to believe that Slovic was likely tipped off to the report by someone inside PBOT.

Now, let’s move on to the numbers.

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Here are the some of the key findings from the draft report made public by the Willamette Week today:

Here’s a chart taken from the preliminary report that shows how non-bridge counts from various parts of the city compare with years past:

That chart illustrates that, taken as a long-term trend, bike traffic is still headed in a very positive direction — which is certainly something PBOT will hope becomes the focus of attention when the full report is released in early January.

If we take out the anomalously high numbers in 2008 and compare 2009 to 2007’s numbers, we see an increase that maintains the previous upward trends:

Trend of bike traffic on 4 main downtown bridges.

Now that we know the numbers are indeed down, the question is — why? Many people have offered theories, but we were curious if PBOT bike coordinator Roger Geller had any hunches of his own.

Besides the obvious reasons of the recession and the huge spike in gas prices last year, Geller offered two main theories. The first is that it’s likely trips for all travel modes were down in 2009. Geller says unfortunately they don’t have any motor vehicle count data but that PBOT staff are searching their databases for auto counts done as part of transportation projects in similar locations to where they counted bicycles. They’re also looking into fuel purchase data. “What we want to do is put the bike counts into the context. Were all trips down? We’re thinking that’s the story.”

Geller, as he already stated elsewhere, also feels that we could be reaching a “plateau with our current infrastructure.”

“We can’t expect continuing increases unless we really begin to make improvements to our infrastructure that approach world-class design standards. Part of it might just be that the pool of people that are going to ride on these types of facilities are limited. And we know they’re limited… and that’s what the Portland Bicycle Plan is all about.”

That perspective is likely to be repeated by Geller and other PBOT staffers when they testify in front of City Council on behalf of the Bicycle Plan on February 4th.

The plateau hypothesis is very interesting. If indeed it’s true, it could foretell a similar trend in other cities. After all, Portland is still the nation’s top big city for bike traffic and trends we see here are likely to occur elsewhere in years to come.

As for how this report was leaked to the media, Geller told us he has “no clue really” how it happened. Yesterday we wondered whether or not PBOT was trying to stall these numbers. That’s not the case according to spokesman Dan Anderson. He told us today that, “There was no strategy behind not releasing this thing. It was just a matter of staff time and prioritizing.” Geller echoed Anderson’s line, saying he still hasn’t really had a chance to delve deeply into the numbers.

While PBOT has certainly been putting a full-court press on the Bicycle Plan, it still seems to us like they were stalling a bit in getting these numbers out. The sharp rise in bike counts in recent years has become a pillar of Portland’s transportation story (with Geller being it’s main storyteller), and these numbers, regardless of what accounts for them, change that to some degree.

A small dip in bike traffic (especially one that seems to be mimicked across all other modes) is nothing to be ashamed of, and there’s no reason to keep us in the dark about it. We look forward to seeing the full report. Stay tuned.