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Metro travel survey shows major shifts in how we get around

Posted by on October 23rd, 2012 at 10:34 am

Summer bike traffic-14-14

Survey data released by Metro this morning
shows huge spikes in bike traffic.
(Photo © J. Maus/BikePortland)

Almost every transportation statistic you see has to do with one kind of trip: commuting to work. That’s the only one the Census Bureau asks people about.

But once in a while, someone outside the Census Bureau does research into the 85 percent of trips that don’t involve going between home and work: the coffee shop, the dinner party, the soccer field. And a new survey released by Metro Tuesday morning has some surprising insights about how Portland’s transportation transformation since 1994 has affected our non-working lives – especially the ways biking has competed with and complemented other forms of low-car travel.

All of these numbers are demographically weighted estimates based on a 2011 survey of 6,450 households in the Portland metro area, including Clark County on the Washington side of the Columbia River.

The key to low-car life: dense neighborhoods. Across the region, the number of people living low-car lives doesn’t look too impressive. Use of bikes rose from 1 percent of all trips in 1994 to 3 percent in 2011; use of transit rose from 3 percent to 4 percent of trips. But break that down by geography, and the story changes fast.

For residents of the “Central City” immediately surrounding downtown on both sides of the river – neighborhoods like Goose Hollow, the Pearl District, South Waterfront and east side as far as 12th Avenue – biking leaped from 3 percent to 13 percent. Transit use in that area jumped from 10 percent to 22 percent.

Public transportation doesn’t seem to be driving low-car life on the middle east side and North Portland – bikes are. Transit use is up across the region. But north of the Fremont Bridge, and between 12th Avenue and I-205, it’s been stalled at 6 percent for 17 years. Since TriMet has spent several hundred million dollars to build the Yellow, Red and Green MAX lines and a network of frequent service bus lines, this is pretty surprising.

And guess what? Bike trips in this area quadrupled, from 2 percent to 8 percent.

All transit growth in Portland since 1994 seems to have come from people who own cars. Transit trips by zero-car households dropped from 35 percent of trips to 31 percent of trips.

It may seem as if no-car households don’t have many other options. But look at those numbers again: even in 1994, car-free families had lots of options. Sixty-five percent of their trips weren’t happening by transit – they were happening on foot, by carpool or by bike.

If all the transit improvements since 1994 were substantially improving the lives of car-free households, you’d expect transit use to increase. It hasn’t. (Unfortunately, the survey didn’t report on bike use among car-free households, but in an asterisk, Metro staff noted that they suspect more zero-car households are turning to bikes.)

Who loves public transit? Young people. In every age group under 45, transit use nearly doubled. The fastest growth: 35-to-44-year-olds. Their transit use jumped from 2 percent to 5 percent. The most popular ages for transit ridership? High school and young adulthood. Transit ridership for people age 15 to 24 is up from 5 percent to 10 percent.

The only age group that now uses public transit less: people between ages 55 and 64.

This is another question Metro didn’t measure among bicyclists, probably because the sample size was too small to be reliable. But to me, it suggests two possibilities: that Gen Xers and millennials are embracing low-car life far more than their parents did, and that the faster growth of transit use among the middle-aged suggests an even faster growth of bicycling among young adults.

There are plenty of other stories to be told with this fascinating data – I’m especially interested in the ways walking has changed – but have a look at the numbers for yourself; and add your own thoughts in the comments. And while you’re doing it, ask yourself which of the Portland area’s transportation investments seem to be paying off the most.


In a follow-up interview, Metro Councilor Rex Burkholder said these initial figures support his conviction that “we should be spending more” on bike and pedestrian infrastructure.

“If we get a 5 percent drop on a freeway for a major expansion, that’s considered a victory; here we’ve got 13 percent of people in the central city getting around on bikes,” Burkholder said. “That’s huge.”

The shift was also, Burkholder said, cheap.

“Getting bike lanes on the road was a policy decision that cost almost nothing,” said Burkholder, who co-founded the Bicycle Transportation Alliance in the early 1990s.

Burkholder also said it makes sense that public transit has grown faster among work trips than overall trips. “Transit still is growing mostly for that work commute,” he noted. “It tends to be people’s longest trip. … That’s why light rail is good.”

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42 thoughts on “Metro travel survey shows major shifts in how we get around”

  1. Avatar Ethan says:

    And here I sit waiting for either of the mayoral candidates to look at the growing evidence of significant ROI for bike infrastructure and truly CHAMPION it because it is a very wise investment. With mode share achievements like this, we deserve more than paint and speed bumps.

    1. Avatar Allan Folz says:

      I’ve been saying for about 4 or 5 years that due to budget constraints cyclists have already won, all that’s left is the timing. Churchill said it, “Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing…after they have exhausted all other possibilities.”

      1. Avatar Allan Folz says:

        July 1862, June 1942, August 2008

  2. Avatar Allan says:

    Very interesting report. I like how it was a shared google document, so you can see how many others are viewing it. What I think is clear is that Clark County is a leech on Metro’s area and should not get a huge subsidized bridge to enable more traffic to Oregon

    1. Avatar Chris I says:

      I can’t view it at work. Care to elaborate on this observation?

    2. Avatar Paul in the 'couve says:

      This Clark County (non-leach variety) agrees totally. Although not all leaches live in CC nor is CC the problem, rather a symptom.

  3. Avatar Champs says:

    Bike-only for me. I’d occasionally take transit if the MAX platform ticket machines weren’t such a joke.

    1. Avatar q`Tzal says:

      But they DO work as ticket machines just not fare machines.
      Riders see them, try to use them and when that fails they board the train.
      Then Fare Compliance can write tickets to increase revenue.

      The System works!!!

  4. Avatar Esther says:

    Thanks for the great article Michael (and Jonathan)!
    I have an issue with this paragraph:
    But between 12th Avenue and I-205, it’s been stalled at 6 percent for 17 years. Since TriMet has spent several hundred million dollars to build the Yellow, Red and Green MAX lines and a network of frequent service bus lines, this is pretty surprising.
    Yellow Line shouldn’t substantially impact “between 12th Avenue & I-205” because it doesn’t run through that area at all. The Red Line west of 205 serves stops that the Blue Line already served, as does the Green Line until it turns south- at which point it is right next to 205, so a healthy percentage of its ridership may live on the other side of 205. So comparing spending on these rail projects to that specific geographic area is a bit specious.

    1. Good question, Esther! That’s my fault. That should say “everything north of the Fremont Bridge, and between 12th Avenue and I-205…” So the Yellow Line area is in the part of Portland Metro describes as “not the central city, east side, west of 205”

      Jonathan’s actually on a plane right now, but I’ll ask him to tweak when he’s online again.

    2. Avatar nuovorecord says:

      Well, there might be a tertiary impact. Anytime you add lines to a transit network, you’re increasing the pairings of origins and destinations. So the Yellow Line opened up a rail connection to N. Portland that didn’t exist before and made trips from inner E. Portland possible (or more desirable).

  5. Avatar 9watts says:

    Very cool statistics. Thanks for writing about this.

    While bike use is not reflected in the ACS statistics, for Portland’s inner East Side (between the river, I-84 and I-205) the 2010 American Community Survey statistics indicate about 14% of households did not own a car, split into 24.1% of renter households and 4.6% of owner-occupied households. The distribution is as Jonathan pointed out pretty uneven. One interesting thing for census tracts I’ve looked at more closely is that the shift between 2000 and 2010 away from cars is increasing among renters (21.7->24.1%) and decreasing among homeowners (5.7->4.6%).

  6. Avatar Andrew Seger says:

    Great article. Love this giant dataset to slice and dice for the future. It seems like the other half of TriMet’s light rail investment should be judged on the amount of Transit Oriented Development its fostered in the suburbs. By that criteria I’m not sure light rail really succeeds by that criteria just yet either. It’ll be interesting to see how these numbers weigh in the SW corridor, which was just announced that Light Rail and BRT are a part of the study area (

    Given the return on investment, perhaps drilling a tunnel for bikes through the west hills isn’t such a far fetched option after all

    1. Avatar Sunnyd says:

      Or make bikes free between goose hollow and sunset.

      1. Avatar Craig Harlow says:

        Or at least adequately accommodated (on TriMet).

    2. Avatar rex burkholder says:

      another report of note is the Household and Employment Forecast and Allocation which projects, using economic data from Global Insight, where housing and jobs will most likely locate over next 20 years. Places like Gateway will shoot up. Since it isn’t official policy yet, not easy to find but pp 51-104 of Council worksession notes found here:

  7. Avatar Mindful Cyclist says:

    This is an interesting report and glad that this was done. I think it has been pretty myopic to only look how someone gets to work and not at other trips. I do take 10 work trips a day, but when I was looking at buying a place of my own, I factored in several things. One was that I wanted at least one grocery store I could get to on foot and could conceivably carry at least two bags home fairly comfortably. I wanted a bikeable area. I wanted to have access to trimet since I get a free pass as part of my benefits at work and do take it quite a bit when on the very rainy days.

    I have an older car, but because I have so many other options, I will probably be able to extend the life of it for quite a while longer and not have to worry about the added expense of getting a new car.

    1. Avatar Craig Harlow says:

      Me too. Ten years ago, before I cared a whit about bicycling, I chose a residence that would keep my work commute super short and off the freeways, in order to recapture time, money, and health; and one that would provide short/convenient trips to our regular school/play/shopping destinations, making our family life happier.

      It worked.

  8. Avatar Sunny says:

    Or make bikes free between goose hollow and sunset transit center.

    1. Avatar Bruce says:

      Or it’s time for a tunnel!!

  9. Avatar albyn says:

    “Transit trips by zero-car households dropped from 35 percent of trips to 31 percent of trips.”

    This is very likely a change in the zero-car household population, rather than a change in behavior of zero-car households. Mine was a 2 car household in 1994, now zero car.

    1. Well, the number of zero-car households in Portland has actually been very stable over the years, according to Census data not included here. What may be happening, though, is that zero-car households are more likely to have higher incomes. But even that trend is unclear, based on the data I’ve seen. Most zero-car folks are cost-constrained, as they always have been. The bigger shift is that those of us who own cars are driving them less.

      1. Avatar 9watts says:

        Stable and much higher than most of us would have guessed.

        It sounds like you have income data to overlay onto car-free households. I’d be interested to see that. I have found these data stratified by age but I think I missed the income tab.

        1. There’s not a lot on the direct income/vehicles available link: you can get some numbers from 1999 by searching for “vehicles available income” for various geographies.

          The Census has better data on income by commute mode choice, and that’s what I was remembering. There hasn’t been, to my memory, any really strong shift in that.

          1. Avatar albyn says:

            The question is not the number of zero-car households, and stability of that number, but whether the zero-car households are the same people now as in 1994.

            (Sorry to repost, it was meant to be a continuation of the thread)

  10. Avatar albyn says:

    The question is not the number of zero-car households, and stability of that number, but whether the zero-car households are the same people now as in 1994.

  11. Guess how The Oregonian spun this report? “Despite bike and transit gains, 84 percent of Portland region’s residents still go by car: Metro study”

    1. Avatar 9watts says:

      The Oregonian doesn’t appear to be very good at dynamic problems, behaviors that are evolving, whose consequences manifest gradually or, conceivably, abruptly.

      Looking at how many workaday folks still get around by car in 2012 is only a useful/relevant metric if we have reason to believe that tomorrow will be similar to yesterday; if the pace and direction of change over the next ten years can be expected to look a lot like the pace and direction of change over the past ten years. If that is (or might turn out to be) a bad assumption then the public’s observed inelastic travel preferences may be irrelevant or even worse when it comes to formulating policy.

      What is missing so often is the larger view, an independent, critical interrogation of the assumptions that go into these policy formulations. The military, the FAA, and other branches of the government, know the risks of making mistakes, and several of these have instituted ‘red teams’ to identify faulty logic, mistaken assumptions, vulnerabilities, to improve organizational preparedness and planning.

    2. Avatar Richard Allan says:

      And when Kenji tried to post some of the “more granular” analysis from BikePortland, the post was deleted from OLive.

      1. I checked in with Joe. He’ll make sure my next post doesn’t disappear.

      2. Avatar spare_wheel says:

        the oregon live system is not run by the oregonian. its run by a company located in NJ that largely deals with midwestern and southern rags. the moderation reflects this.

        1. Avatar Kenji says:

          Joe actually called me to chat and to follow up on this. Really cool.

  12. Avatar Andrew K says:

    Reading this article and the one published by O-Live is a fascinating look at the state of journalism in the United States. Their headline alone is spin central and obviously meant to rile up the segment of the population that somehow believes not enough money is spent on their ideal form of transport (i.e. cars).

    Nothing new there I suppose.

    What I always love about the articles over on O-Live is looking at the barrage of excuses people freely and gleefully offer up as to why they won’t take public transit or ride a bike. These excuses always include:

    – MAX/buses/bikes are unsafe.
    – I don’t want to get wet.
    – I haul too much stuff.
    – I don’t have time.
    – …and much much more!

    I can’t help but read it as if they are convincing themselves it can’t be done in the same way people often talk themselves out of looking for a better job or not going to the gym.

    1. Avatar lyle says:

      The Oregonian is just appealing to their majority readership… right-wing conservative.
      The ironic part is, this hatred of bikes is coming from the (usually) selfsame conservative thought-process that highly rewards (in theory) self-sufficiency, independence, saving money, relying on only yourself, having some courage in the face of adversity, and basically getting by however you can. All things that are highly synonymous with a bicycling lifestyle, as anybody who has done it (or even thought about doing it) knows.

      Yet merely bring up bikes to most of these people, and just watch the pure, unadulterated hatred flow.

      Go figure.

    2. Avatar 9watts says:

      I like your analysis, Andrew K.

    3. Avatar spare_wheel says:

      imo, joseph rose’s slanted journalism has done enormous harm to cycling in the pdx area.

      1. Avatar Andrew K says:

        I 100% agree with you.

        I’ve called him out several times on the O-Live boards and my posts are always deleted within minutes. I’m not rude when I do it, nor do I attack him personally, but still **poof** my posts just vanish.

        He constantly goes for the cheap jabs that just make people angry rather than encouraging real discussion grounded with facts.

  13. Avatar Bruce says:

    Or make bikes free between goose hollow and sunset transit center.
    Recommended 2

    Or it’s time for a tunnel!!

  14. John Liu John Liu says:

    I had trouble understanding how significant a 1% shift from cars to other modes is or is not. So I did a little work to put some context on these numbers.

    From the survey data, we can estimate approximately how much the percentage shifts mean in terms of trips per day.

    For the overall region, the decrease in car trips amounts to roughly 200,000 fewer “all trips”/day and 82,000 fewer “commute trips”/day.

    For travel in/out of the downtown core, it looks like a decrease of roughly 23,000 “all trips”/day and 6,000 “commute trips”/day.

    Each trip is a round-trip, so the impact on daily traffic is double these numbers.

    How significant is that? Well, it looks like there are very roughly 25,000 parking spaces in downtown Portland (street parking, city-owned garages, private garages including office buildings). So 6,000 fewer car commuters into downtown looks significant, that is about 24% of available parking.

    Or, you can look at traffic on the bridges. Each of the major bridges over the Willamette in central Portland carries about 50,000 vehicles/day, except the Fremont bridge which carries about 110,000. So that is very roughly 360,000 vehicles/day crossing central Portland bridges. In that context, 23,000 fewer “all trips”/day in/out of downtown, times 2 is 46,000 (remember, these are roundtrips), looks fairly significant in terms of bridge capacity. If half of those trips cross a bridge, that is 6% less traffic on the bridges.

    1. Love it!

      Given the concentration of bike growth in N/NE/SE, I think it’s safe to say that well over half of low-car downtown commuting trips cross a bridge. Also, keep in mind that in this study, the “central business district” is just downtown proper — it doesn’t even include Old Town — and “central city” includes both sides of the river. Might want to make sure you’re comparing apples to apples on the parking figure, if possible.

      Awesome math, though. I agree that this is a great way to express the data.

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