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City releases bike count report, explains first decrease since 1995

Posted by on January 8th, 2010 at 2:03 pm

BTA New Year's Day Ride-9

Bike traffic on the Hawthorne Bridge.
(Photo © J. Maus)

The City of Portland Bureau of Transportation has released a full report and analysis on their 2009 bike counts. Last month, an unauthorized and incomplete version of the report leaked to the Willamette Week revealed that bike ridership in Portland had taken its first dip since 1995.

Many theories cropped up to account for this dip and PBOT’s just-released report (which was also partially leaked to the Willamette Week yesterday) explains what they feel are three key factors leading to the decline.

But first, here are some 2009 numbers presented in the report (PDF here):

  • Bike traffic on Portland’s four main bridges (Broadway, Hawthorne, Burnside, Steel) and at 101 count locations showed a one-year decrease of 6 and 5% respectively.
  • On the Hawthorne Bridge, bikes make up 21% of all traffic, up one percent from 2008.
  • Trips by car and transit were also down and the overall percentage of bike traffic on the four bridges remained constant at 13%.
  • Overall, bike traffic has gone up 180% since the 2000/2001 counts.
  • Helmet use and the number of female riders also decreased slightly in the last year.

Although the message from PBOT is that this slight dip in bike traffic isn’t a big deal, they still decided to present analysis in their report as to why it happened. According to them, three main factors account for the decrease; the down economy, people returning to their cars after trying bikes during 2008’s gas price spike, and the low-hanging fruit phenomenon.

Story continues below


PBOT says auto traffic counts in 26 locations around the city show a 7% decrease in 2009. PBOT also cites Oregon Department of Transportation data that shows a 5% decrease in northbound travel on I-5 and an 8% decrease in the southbound direction between the Oregon-Washington border and Wilsonville. TriMet’s average weekday boardings are also down 7% from one year ago.

The pool of people willing to use a bicycle for transportation is almost exhausted given the appeal of the city’s current bicycle transportation infrastructure.”
– From an analysis by PBOT on why they counted fewer bike riders in 2009

In their report, PBOT says that the 2008 gas price spike likely had a lot to do with the 30% growth in bike use between 2007 and 2008. To explain why fewer people used bicycles in 2009, PBOT feels “it is reasonable to expect that some who rode in 2008 may have returned to driving.”

Perhaps the most interesting reason PBOT gives for the 2009 biking decrease (and something Geller already mentioned in the original Willamette Week article) is that Portland’s existing bike network appeals only to a limited number of people, most of whom are already riding. Geller has said on several past occasions that he feels Portland’s bike infrastructure is not keeping up with ridership. On a similar note, here’s how the PBOT report explains it (emphasis mine):

“While Portland has seen rapid growth in bicycle ridership in the past decade, without the development of world-class bicycle facilities this growth will logically end at some point… the pool of people willing to use a bicycle for transportation is almost exhausted given the appeal of the city’s current bicycle transportation infrastructure.”

PBOT shared this graph of bike/car
use in Copenhagen to illustrate
that a dip in ridership is no big deal.

Regardless of why the numbers are down this year, PBOT says it’s nothing to get too worked up about. In the conclusion of their report they share a graph of bike use from Copenhagen that shows several dips — the point being that the overall trend is what’s important, not a one-time dip.

As for why it’s taken so long for this report to come out (it’s usually released in November, and the Willamette Week’s reporting speculates that PBOT wanted to hold back this news until after their 2030 Bike Plan was adopted by City Council), Geller maintains that they have simply not had time to devote to it. He told me today that, “It wouldn’t even be coming out now if it weren’t for the fact that it leaked out.”

Download the full 2009 bike count report and analysis here (750kb PDF).

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  • John Lascurettes January 8, 2010 at 2:26 pm

    Definitely like the crash-trend line on p.11 of the report: straight, steady and down!

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  • Mary Sue January 8, 2010 at 2:49 pm

    Has anyone looked at the correlation between unemployment and the across the board decrease in transit use?

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  • Richard January 8, 2010 at 2:53 pm

    If we really want to increase ridership it’s not only the bicycle infrastructure that should improve but the density of the city as well. By doing that we increase the convenience of bicycling. People will remain in their cars as long as it’s more convenient than bicycling.

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  • Allan January 8, 2010 at 3:02 pm

    Its interesting to see that (perhaps because of the change in the RQTC alignment) there has been a shift of bike traffic between the Broadway Bridge and the Steel Bridge 🙂 Broadway went down by 490 but Steel went up by 119. Causation probable

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  • Allan January 8, 2010 at 3:26 pm

    I wonder how much the burnside and Hawthrone bridges will lose in traffic to the new Morrison Bridge Bike path

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  • the other one January 8, 2010 at 3:55 pm

    I also wonder about the unemployment effect on cycling, and price of gas.
    Should be a way to correlate unemployed in the inner city to decreased ridership.
    Now if we could just get gas to go up to 4 dollars a gallon, and the price of shoes to go down. Everybody buy crocs, ha ha!

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  • spare_wheel January 8, 2010 at 4:06 pm

    “I wonder how much the burnside and Hawthrone bridges will lose in traffic to the new Morrison Bridge Bike path”

    i personally enjoy the challenge of dodging dogs and their leash booby traps, left-right challenged tourists, 5 abreast suburban “power” walkers”, drunk festival goers, zig-zagging toddlers, double-wide baby carriages and scowling moms, adult tricycles (wtf?), dragon boat paddlers and their ninja paddles, “insert charity here” walkers/runners, the “miller” family vacation, motorized scooters, etc.

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  • Jackattak January 8, 2010 at 4:28 pm

    spare_wheel you just made my Friday! I can’t stop laughing!!

    That was so on-point with the Hawthorne Bridge. Of course, I’ve been a couple of those things you’ve dodged before, but if you can’t laugh at yourself, then you aren’t enjoying life!

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  • Allan January 8, 2010 at 4:31 pm

    its all fun and games until someone knocks you onto the steel grate 🙁

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  • Adam in Ohio January 8, 2010 at 6:15 pm

    “Helmet use is highest in Southwest
    Portland, where approximately 88
    percent of riders wear helmets. It is
    lowest in East Portland where only 60
    percent of riders were observed wearing them.”

    according to the chart next to this, NW was 27.7%. did they not get sufficient data so they aren’t counting it?

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  • Mark January 8, 2010 at 7:38 pm

    I agree with Richard above. I believe we have to continue to build infrastructure that reaches farther and farther out. However, it is unlikely that folks living 10+ miles from town will ride to Portland or that we can ever build enough infrastructure to conveniently connect Lake Oswego to Beaverton. The Land-Use-Transportation-Connection has been explored by many groups, notably 1000 Friends, and there is a clear correlation there. Copenhagen has just recently begun to grapple with the notion of a bicycle “highway” to connect those living 10 kilometers beyond the core of the city. That is a sort of normal commute here. No easy problem to solve.

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  • Steve B. January 8, 2010 at 8:06 pm

    I’m a little suspicious of the reported crashes, just as anyone might be suspicious of reported unemployment numbers. That is, these numbers don’t necessarily represent every accident, just those that have made it into the system.

    Does anyone know how a crash makes it into the system? Does it require a police report? Could I report a crash that wasn’t corroborated by a police report?

    I have no doubt we’ve made great strides in improving road safety in Portland, but I have a gut feeling that the reality is a bit worse than these numbers paint it to be.

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  • TVCommuter January 8, 2010 at 8:12 pm

    I think Mary Sue & the other david are probably spot on -Unemployment has increased almost 5% from ’08 to ’09 & that percentage correlates closely to the drop in trips taken (both bike & car trips).

    I think it’s also well reported that public transportation use has increased. Buses/MAX will tend to scavenge car users more than bikers, which may explain the higher drop in car trips.

    If overall the number of bike trips has decreased less than car trips then that sounds great to me – less overall traffic and a higher bike to car ratio. What’s the problem? (other than the lousy economy!)

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  • Clutch J January 8, 2010 at 9:35 pm

    Perhaps people of all stripes are spending more time on Facebook and the like.

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  • chris January 9, 2010 at 12:17 am

    The lower salaried people tend to ride bikes more. (Heck, if I could afford a porshr…i might drive too!) The riders were the first fired in the current depression (or resession if you like). Not a character thing, just a fact.

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  • Bob_M January 9, 2010 at 9:22 am

    My company dropped incentives to cycle commuting, and our office numbers have similarly decreased. When the economy picks up so will the cycle commute numbers.

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  • Stig6 January 9, 2010 at 9:34 am

    So trips across ALL modes are down significantly and bike mode share remains roughly the SAME?

    Why is anyone surprised? Are cyclists and their jobs supposed to be recession proof?

    Trip counts would be more useful as part of a mode share report.

    Bike trips may have been affected by the deaths and serious injuries of cyclists in the Portland/Vancouver area.

    It’s a shame that the percentage of female cyclists is dropping. Who’s for dressing in drag to encourage more women cycling?

    Another barrier to cycling in Portland is the vast number of hills and the vast bellies of most Americans.

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  • Disastronaut January 9, 2010 at 1:27 pm

    I ride my bike every day, as do most people I know, we just don’t cross any of those bridges 95% of the time.

    I guess we don’t count.

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  • spare_wheel January 9, 2010 at 2:27 pm

    >I guess we don’t count.
    “Bike traffic…at 101 count locations showed a one-year decrease of …5%”

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  • Disastronaut January 9, 2010 at 3:28 pm

    Reading fail on my part. It clearly states “101 non-bridge locations” in the pdf.

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  • Borgbike January 10, 2010 at 9:38 am

    If overall auto traffic is down 7% and bike traffic down 6-5% than the real story is that car traffic is going down more than bike traffic. Bike ridership has held up better in the overall traffic downturn. Where’s that headline?!? I appreciate the soul searching but why are we focusing on the bicycles being out of favor so much?

    The real story is about overall traffic going down, and auto traffic is actually down more. Reactionaries are getting simplistic headlines about bikes being out of fashion. Thanks Lars and thanks for nothing Willamette Week.

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  • steve scarich January 10, 2010 at 11:52 am

    There is, of course, a finite number of people who will commute via bicycle, regardless of how convenient facilities are. My guess is that only a limited segement of the population is willing to get sweaty, wet, etc., to practice their favorite form of travel. We need to try to figure out what that number is, rather than spend precious tax dollars on facilities that just don’t get used. A somewhat relevant example is installing curb-cuts for the disabled. I am all for making it easy for the disabled to get around. But, in Eugene, curb-cuts were installed on intersections with 15% grades all around town. I walked everywhere for 25 years and never saw a disabled person wheel-chairing these areas. Many tens of thousands of dollars were spent on thsse curb-cuts and I venture to guess they will never be used. They are now doing the same thing in Bend, in outlying neighborhoods where they will probably never get used. Maybe an esperiment could be done in Portland, where really convenient facilities could be done in one sector, or neighborhood; then, we could observe whether it really encourages bicycle-commuting. Just a thought.

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  • Borgbike January 10, 2010 at 2:01 pm

    Headline news:
    Portland traffic down in 2009. Bike traffic declines less that other modes such as car and bus.

    The Willamette Week says “There’s no avoiding the numbers’ negative implications” going on dig at Mayor Adams for lauding the success of recent bike development. The implication is that the new numbers will politically undermine further infrastructure development. To the contrary bike advocates should stress that bikes are resisting the downward traffic trend BETTER than cars.

    If Portland biking has resisted the downward traffic trend better than autos this should be the spin of future stories. Will we get a follow up story from Willamette Week?

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  • Stig6 January 10, 2010 at 6:14 pm

    Jonathan, would you take WW to task over this?

    Backpedaling BY BETH SLOVIC

    A new city report raises questions about “Bike City USA.”

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  • peejay January 11, 2010 at 6:53 am


    Maybe you haven’t spent that much time around here, but the experiment’s been done. And the results are in. More facilities leads to more biking, and a lot of the non-sweaty kind. I’m OK with spending precious tax dollars on bike infrastructure, since the money that has been spent is far, far less as a percentage of the overall transportation budget than the mode split for bikes. I question why we need to keep spending money on auto-centric facilities when it seems to me that motorists just cannot be responsible or take care of the roads any more. Why fill those potholes when all those oversize cars with studded tires are going to make more?

    I realize you’re probably a troll, and I shouldn’t respond to you, but oh well.

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  • Roger Geller January 11, 2010 at 10:22 am

    #10 Adam in Ohio

    What you saw was an error in the table (Helmet table repeated NW data for Gender…). Corrected version is now on-line. Helmet use in NW Portland in 2009 was at 76%, down from 78.5% in 2008.

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  • chrehn January 11, 2010 at 7:29 pm

    I would prefer that bicycle ridership was up and growing, but, hey.. I enjoy riding to much to not ride.

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  • […] Ever since 1995, the bicycling community has gained riders, but that expansion has ended due to the first decrease since that run. There are many reasons why this has happened but due to a study that was put […]

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  • […] in 2007, it's worth keeping in mind that Portland, the top bicycling city in the nation, saw its first dip since 1995 this year. That decrease of five percent compared to 2008 is still a bit less than the seven […]

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