Special gravel coverage

What caused Portland’s biking boom?

Posted by on July 2nd, 2013 at 3:57 pm

Chart by Rutgers University professor and noted bicycle researcher John Pucher. This was one slide from a presentation he gave last week in Seattle.

2002 to 2008.

When we talk about the amazing growth of bicycling in Portland, those are more or less the years we’re talking about. Before 2002, to look at the behavior of Portland commuters, this was just another outdoorsy city on the West Coast; since 2008, it’s been just one more mid-size metro area with an increasingly lively central city.

But something strange and wonderful happened in between. Over the last week, people around the country have been asking why, and we’d love to know what the BikePortland community thinks.

Noted bicycle researcher John Pucher got the conversation going with an email that was discussed last week by Seattle Bike Blog. Pucher used Census data to show how, in 1990, Seattle was one of North America’s leading bike cities. In fact, Pucher wrote, “Seattle had considerably more cycling than in Portland with 1.5% vs. 1.1% bike mode share.” But by 2011 there had been a “a truly stunning reversal” with Portland bouncing up to 6.8% compared to Seattle’s 3.7% (and all the other cities had similarly unimpressive growth).

What happened? Why did Portland cycling rates increase so much more than other leading bike cities?

It’s not because of our bike lanes. Many Portlanders know how non-driving Mayor Vera Katz, bike-friendly Transportation Commissioners Earl Blumenauer and Charlie Hales and hard-charging Bicycle Coordinator Mia Birk worked together to create a great network of basic bike lanes in the late 1990s, culminating with widening the Hawthorne Bridge sidewalks in 1999 and opening the Eastbank Esplanade and lower deck of the Steel Bridge in 2001.

According to PBOT stats, between 2002 and 2008 we added only 29 total bikeway miles to the entire network (going from 253 in 2002 to 274 in 2008).

So what gives? Gas prices spiked from 2004 to 2007, of course, but that happened everywhere, so it doesn’t explain Portland’s unusual behavior. And part of the story is definitely that it took Portlanders a few years to realize how solid our bike network had become. But we think there’s more to this conversation, so Jonathan and I want to share five other theories worth thinking about.

1) Bike Fun.

This is probably our favorite theory — this blog, after all, began in 2005 as the “Bike Fun Blog” on Oregonlive.com. As you can read on the website of the bike-fun group Shift, the PedalPalooza bike festival began as Bike Summer, a traveling event that came to Portland in 2002 and fizzled a few years later. Zoobomb also began that year, made possible by a recently built light rail line that happened to include the deepest station in the Western Hemisphere — and an elevator.

The Critical Mass movement, which mixes fun and protest, was also strong in Portland for years but died down around 2006.

But when it comes to improving biking, bike fun is no laughing matter. The influence of Shift and the impact of the hundreds of fun and creative bike events in Portland each year cannot be overstated. Just look at the numerous local activists, advocates and city employees who’ve taken part in everything from bike moves to Breakfast on the Bridges. Attend any big hearing on bike issues in this city and you’ll see many people who regularly attend bike fun events. It make look like just a bunch of happy people in funny costumes and freaky bikes, but it’s a source of social connections, institutional knowledge and collective action.


PBOT staffer Greg Raisman is a safe streets advocate who goes
above and beyond to make biking better.
(Photos © J. Maus/BikePortland)

2) Great city staff.

Bike lanes aren’t the only infrastructure that matters. Think about details like the timing of downtown traffic signals so that a vehicle traveling at 14 mph will catch all the green lights — a change made in 2002 thanks to a grant from the Energy Trust of Oregon — or the openings for bikes at traffic diverters on NE Tillamook Street or SE 20th Avenue. Those touches require City staffers we like to call “advocrats” (a combination of advocates and bureaucrats).

Not all bikeways are created equal, either: good lanes, even when they’re marked only by paint, require careful choices about width, placement, color and so on. For various reasons, Portland’s been lucky enough to attract and retain people who’ve become nationally known experts on bike-friendly street design. Some of them even helped write the definitive guide to urban bikeway design and they’re often asked to share their knowledge to audiences around the world.

Blind Pilot and KBOO Bike Show New Years Party-13

The KBOO Bike Show is one of many ways bike-related
information is spread throughout Portland.

3) Mature communication channels.

Most growing cities hire experts to build ever-larger roads for more and more cars. In 2004, the City of Portland decided to hire a small team of experts to persuade people to not fill up the roads with their cars in the first place.

The city’s SmartTrips program, which started as a contract job in 2004 and was brought in-house in 2005 and 2006, employs a handful of city workers who encourage people to drive less by targeting an area of the city and organizing bike events, mailing them free bike maps and generally swamping them with bike-related resources.

SmartTrips is just one of many mature communications and marketing channels in Portland that spread cycling. We are also lucky to have: the KBOO Bike Show (founded in 2001); the Bike Commute Challenge, a Bicycle Transportation Alliance contest ramped up during the aughts that is basically a spiffy marketing operation for bike commuting; OR Bike, which promotes the many fun organized rides in the region; and of course this website, which has become a widely read media source in its own right (it’s also worth noting the vast increase in cycling coverage from other local media outlets who get their story ideas from us).

Rally - We are all traffic-8.jpg

The “We Are All Traffic” rally held after two tragic fatalities in 2007 was attended by then Police Chief Rosie Sizer and many city staffers. It helped cement the narrative that Portlanders value safe streets.

4) Active activists.

Portland is lucky to have many residents who care deeply about bicycling and are willing to invest their own time to make it better. We have more non-profits per capita than any other city in America (so says the National Center for Charitable Statistics) and enough smart and engaged citizen activists that we can tackle issues of almost any size without asking for permission. Over 1,000 people have graduated from through the free PSU Traffic and Transportation Class armed with the knowledge to make change in their neighborhoods.

Groups like Active Right of Way, Friends of Barbur, Swift Planning Group, and many others know where, when, and how to push their agenda forward. The savvy and smarts of these activists combined with the work of professional advocacy groups like the Bicycle Transportation Alliance and the Community Cycling Center — which is then amplified here on the Front Page — creates a powerful force that politicians and policymakers must reckon with.


The Pedal Bike Tours mural between SW 2nd and 3rd south of Ankeny.
(Photo: Matt Haughey/Flickr)

5) A positive feedback loop.

This one is pretty simple: Once a city becomes known as great for biking, it attracts people who like bikes. These people support bike culture and vote for politicians who build bike infrastructure. And as the bike scenes everywhere from Indianapolis to Pittsburgh keep getting better, Portland’s reputation may be the strongest thing we have going for us.

Those are our best theories. What are yours?

Publisher/Editor Jonathan Maus also contributed to this story.

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NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are productive, considerate, and welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

  • spare_wheel July 2, 2013 at 4:11 pm

    The largest jump occurred in 2008 (3.9% to 6.0%) and was almost certainly caused by massive increase in gas prices (and the cratering economy).

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    • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) July 2, 2013 at 4:24 pm

      Right. But the question is, why did Portland jump way more than other places?

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      • spare_wheel July 2, 2013 at 7:24 pm

        Like Nick below I think many did not realize how good our infrastructure was until gas prices cajoled them into giving it a try.

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    • AMA July 2, 2013 at 4:57 pm

      Now see that a jump like that makes me nervous. Are we sure the methodology of the county didn’t change?

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      • Michael Andersen (News Editor)
        Michael Andersen (News Editor) July 3, 2013 at 8:18 am

        They’re Census survey numbers, AMA, and the methodology didn’t change, but there’s definitely some margin of error in them. That’s mitigated by the fact that these numbers have held up year after year, though.

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  • Dave July 2, 2013 at 4:24 pm

    Part of it has been slow-cooking. Anybody remember the Bicycle Commuter Service, or Tri-County Bicyclists United? The names Ann Wiselogle, Jan Schaeffer, or Ray Polani ring any bells? This process has been pushed along for nearly forty years of advocacy, it’s just that it was not very noticeable before maybe the last ten years.

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    • Kimberly Kinchen July 3, 2013 at 10:14 am

      Yes, what would you find going back even 10 years? I lived in Portland in 1998 or so and I recall reading longingly of — I don’t recall the details — and seeing in the Lloyd district bike facilities with bike parking and maybe lockers and/or showers available. The bigger and better street infrastructure was not so much in evidence, though, and that kept me on the bus. Also, I recall pulling into campsites along the Columbia and the coast in my bf’s car to find that some of the sites were set aside for cyclists. So my money’s on the long tail with you, Dave.

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    • April July 5, 2013 at 3:30 pm

      Yes, My husband and I were part of Tri-Country Bicyclists United in teh early 80’s. I remember the organizing meetings at the library, doing the work to get Salmon Street (SE) designated as a bike route and button-controlled light installed at 39th, among other things!

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  • MossHops July 2, 2013 at 4:36 pm

    I think the feedback loop has a ton to do with it. People and businesses (think Velocult) are moving to Portland because we bike, bringing more people who bike.

    I moved here in 2007 in part, because of the bike culture in Portland. Also, when you see others bike, it creates more interest, awareness and desire for other to do the same.

    We like to think that we are all individual snowflakes, but people certainly like to follow the lead of others.

    All that being said, what caused the feedback loop to begin with? We had to have some sort of critical mass (not Critical Mass) to get the loop started.

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    • Justin July 2, 2013 at 6:15 pm

      +1 on the feedback loop. And another +1 to the larger question: What was Portland’s “biking big bang”?

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  • Scott Lieuallen July 2, 2013 at 4:39 pm

    Jonathan, I think you’ve got it about right. I would add a population that was apparently favorably disposed to what Mia and the BTA were doing. I would also add a growing sector of the economy that is bike oriented, from boutique retail, including 70(?) bike shops, more frame builders than I can keep track of, distribution, commercial and industrial companies. All these elements feed each other and ratchet each other up, creating this phenomenon.

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  • Anne Hawley July 2, 2013 at 4:42 pm

    I’m glad you included yourselves in the mix, Jonathan and Michael. This blog deserves a lot of credit for keeping ideas flowing and expanding people’s ideas about bikes.

    I can’t help thinking that a Goldilocks combination is the only way to explain Portland’s boom. The weather is milder than Minneapolis, the geography is flatter than Seattle, the city is smaller in population and land-area than many other top cycling cities, it’s been a fairly cheap place to live, a fairly safe place to ride, a progressive green bubble…one thing builds on another. It’s Just Right.

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    • q`Tzal July 2, 2013 at 5:44 pm

      Yes, thank you for bringing your old media savvy to the Portland bike world and helping us all to keep “their” feet to the fire.

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  • Psyfalcon July 2, 2013 at 4:56 pm

    Induced demand from the late 90s construction? You also need to look at why the trend has not stayed so high.

    Have we filled up those late 90s bike lanes and the bridges are nearing capacity.

    Are the inner bike friendly areas just priced out of reach of the younger and more likely to bike demographic?

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  • V$ July 2, 2013 at 4:57 pm

    Two Words: Traffic Sucks. Four more words: The Bus sucks more.

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    • q`Tzal July 2, 2013 at 5:49 pm

      One bus sucks less than multiple cars.
      One bus driver is required by law to have better training and is subject to more draconian consequences if they screw up.

      Truly old dirty diesel (cleaner burning diesel engines these days are cleaner by emissions per ton/mile than any gasoline engine) buses driven by stereotypical angry civil servant bus drivers “suck”.
      Don’t discount the cumulative “suckage” of a bunch of unprofessional essentially untrained automobile drivers that are no longer driving because they are on the bus.

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      • Rita July 3, 2013 at 8:16 am

        Riders of the Portland buses shout out “Thank you” to the drivers as they exit. Speaking of feedback loops, this helps promote friendly drivers, which makes them more willing to deal with change like bikeracks on their bus-nose and green painted bikeways which make for a better partnership with pedalers. So add the geniality of the populace to the boom in biking equation.

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      • A.K. July 3, 2013 at 8:17 am

        The bus sucks less than multiple cars, yes.

        However if you’re looking at individual decisions being made to ride or not ride, unless you live on a bus line and work on a bus line, most trips take significantly more time by bus than car (or bike), and is a big reason I feel to why people will waste so much money on a car in order to avoid the dreaded bus.

        I live in Brooklyn and work out on airport way past 205. My car commute is usually only about 20-25 mins. My bike commute is 45-55 mins.

        I have no idea how long the bus would take, I would need to transfer multiple times. I’m guessing 1.5-2 hours. No way I’m doing that.

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        • q`Tzal July 3, 2013 at 5:06 pm


          I was reading it as all buses in general are bad not poor bus service is bad.

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        • CaptainKarma July 4, 2013 at 2:26 pm

          I could deal with all that if the bus ride was more realistically priced. For a $5 round trip, I’ll ride bike or drive the car. For $3, I’d be on that bus and/or bike combo every day

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  • Nick Falbo July 2, 2013 at 4:59 pm

    How about something bigger: an urban form predisposed to pleasant, human-scale trips.

    Even in Portland we define the bikable areas of town in terms of the barriers that must be crossed. West of Cesar Chavez. North of Powell. Now imagine if those streets were not streets, but rather freeways cutting straight through the 2-4 mile sweet spot for bicycle trips.

    Many american cities the size of Portland did just that, adding freeways and widening arterial streets until they were unbearable to cross in anything other than a car. These places are forever at a disadvantage for encouraging non-auto use.

    Combine that with a balanced distribution of cute mixed-use neighborhood main streets and you have a recipe for success.

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    • davemess July 2, 2013 at 5:16 pm

      I think that many are also overlooking the centralized, smaller size of Portland. Biking is most popular in the central and inner areas of the city. And this city has a lot of pretty dense, residential areas in or right next to it’s core. Compare that to a city like Denver, which has better weather for much of the year, but is incredibly sprawled out, with neighborhoods miles and miles apart. Denver is similar to what most cities are in the US. Portland is not like that, and we have to give a big thumbs up to the UGB for that.

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      • Chris Sanderson July 2, 2013 at 10:00 pm

        There was a PBS special called Blueprint America: The next American System (can’t find a video on the web), and they point out that Denver and Portland were both comparable in the early 70’s. However, Denver accepted a lot of highway $$$ from the federal government, while Portland diverted more funds to alternative transit. Of course, the two different paths that the two cities took could not have more different!

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        • davemess July 3, 2013 at 8:09 am

          Interesting. I lived in Colorado for five years and didn’t think Denver had that many more highways than they do here. I just assumed that since there was cheap relatively flat land, they were okay with building outward. The Willamette Valley has an advantage in that it is mostly good farm land. Around Denver the land is really only good for cattle. Thus the farm land is a little more valuable than ranching land.

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          • Chris Sanderson July 3, 2013 at 10:29 am

            I grew up in Denver (Arapahoe and S. Downing), and I sometimes feel that Portland has a bit of that neighborhood feel from when I was a kid, when I used to putz around the South Suburban area on my bike.

            When I go back to “Denver” and visit my brother in Parker, I see a much different place than what I remember. I remember my dad taking for drives on what was then Countyline Road, and it was a barren ranch land area. Now it is C-470, and a sprawling Highlands Ranch suburb.

            I am sure the land was cheap, and the growth can now be viewed clearly as unsustainable, since water supplies are strained by that level of sprawl. Where my brother lives, one literally has to drive 10-15 minutes to get a gallon of milk. Ridiculous!

            I don’t know where I am going with this, but my two cents on Denver.

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            • davemess July 3, 2013 at 4:10 pm

              Parker is different beast entirely. My in-laws live there (in a small ranch development (yes that’s actually a real thing) that was there 20-30 years ago). Now they are surrounded by McMansions.

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            • John Murphy July 3, 2013 at 8:50 pm

              I grew up in Boulder County, now live in the Bay Area. I was back last Xmas and was just amazed at the amount of driving people do in Denver, this coming from someone in a place noted for bad congestion. We have bad congestion, Denver has tried to build past it. I-25 coming into Denver is a 12 lane superslab. I probably spent more time in a car in one week in Niwot than I do in 3 months, even now living in far flung Healdsburg.

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              • Aylene July 4, 2013 at 1:44 pm

                Ok – I actually live IN Denver – not the suburbs. But I am from the suburbs of Portland. Central Portland and Central Denver are not THAT much different (yes, PDX has higher quality bike facilities). However, the suburbs of Portland are much more dense than the suburbs of Denver and yes, the suburbs of Denver have far more highway capacity than the suburbs of Portland. Lets compare apples to apples people.

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      • Jb July 9, 2013 at 8:38 am

        How big is the Central Portland area? We are coming to Portland next month and aren’t necessarily going to bike, but take light rail and walk.

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    • Jim Labbe July 2, 2013 at 11:07 pm

      I don’t want to discount the hard work of dedicated visionaries and community activists but I think the relatively flat topography and Portland’s short city blocks make it inherently more bike friendly than other West Coast Cities.

      But I would also wager that another factor may have been Portland’s once affordable neighborhoods that attracted lots young active people. I believe the uptick in young adults coming to Portland began after 1990, and has continued during recession years. This may have been a Pacific coast trend, but I’d guess it was stronger in Portland due to cheaper housing.

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    • Dave Miller July 3, 2013 at 6:32 am

      This. I thank the urban growth boundary for the continuous chain of low traffic pleasant residential neighborhoods that are between my house (North Tabor) and my work (downtown).

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  • davemess July 2, 2013 at 5:02 pm

    I disagree that more bikelanes didn’t have anything to do with it. We all keep saying that there is as slow trickledown effect, and that you have to build the infrastructure and then wait for people to start using it. Just because there was a lag doesn’t mean that bikelanes didn’t have anything to do with it.
    I’m not claiming they are entirely responsible, but the more prevalent than other major cities bike facilities in this town are a factor in our bike growth.

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    • Nick Falbo July 2, 2013 at 5:41 pm

      I think you’re right. When gas spiked in mid 2000, Portland’s bike lanes and bike boulevards were waiting with open arms. Other cities didn’t have the comparable infrastructure.

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    • Carl July 3, 2013 at 8:30 am

      Agreed. I moved here 7 years ago expecting to have to buy a car, then realized there were these things called “bike boulevards” and they could get you just about anywhere.

      Today, I STILL have friends who are JUST discovering them…

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  • RJ July 2, 2013 at 5:10 pm

    Not sure if this research has already been done, but it would be interesting to know the proportion of people who bike as their primary means of transportation who arrived here since 2002 vs. the proportion of people who primarily drive who arrived here since 2002. My guess is that a much higher proportion of bicyclists are recent migrants to Portland, and a relatively higher proportion of drivers are people who already lived here prior to 2002.

    This would point to Portland’s infrastructure and culture attracting people who are already predisposed to bike. Inmigration, therefore, would be the biggest reason for rising bicycle mode share, rather than the creation of new riders out of people who were previously “interested but concerned” or whatever.

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    • Help July 2, 2013 at 5:44 pm

      That first paragraph summarizes my guess as well. Young people already predisposed to being very activist and environmental are moving to Portland after school and cycling.

      I’m curious if it starts to slow down for those folks after they start to marry and have kids and only the new influx continues to keep the numbers stable or growing?

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    • Angela Goldsmith July 2, 2013 at 8:42 pm

      Yes, there is a significant “newbie” bike culture that is evident, mostly in their lack of courteous riding. With the tremendous increase in bike traffic on busy thoroughfares, it is apparent that the bicycle education factor is losing momentum.

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      • A July 3, 2013 at 8:37 am

        That it’s summertime presently certainly doesn’t help, fair weather riders are on average a fairly inexperienced bunch.

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      • RJ July 3, 2013 at 8:50 am

        I don’t have a problem with new riders. We all have to start somewhere, and we usually start when the weather is nice. All good things come with increased bike mode share — more funding, safety in numbers, more political muscle, etc. Let’s thank those awkward new riders!

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  • dwainedibbly July 2, 2013 at 5:16 pm

    #5 on your list is a big part of what got Mrs Dibbly & me here. Not simply bicycling opportunities per se, but what having that infrastructure says about the values of a City. Also, there may be an opposite effect as well: the more bicycling that happens here, the fewer anti-bicycle people move here. There might even be an outward migration of people who were already here but decided that (for whatever reason) they didn’t want to be around so many people who ride bikes. Or they’re simply dying off.

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    • ladyfleur July 3, 2013 at 10:17 am

      I agree. When a city puts in significant pro-bike infrastructure and stands up to motorist complaints, it says to people that the city believes bicycling is normal behavior, not just for a fringe group. I think that matters a lot, especially to women who are less inclined to do something if the general public thinks of it as risky.

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      • spare_wheel July 3, 2013 at 11:12 am

        the vast majority of bike infrastructure predates the two abrupt major bumps up in mode share. one can argue that infrastructure might help keep people cycling but it clearly did not *cause* them to start cycling.

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  • zuckerdog July 2, 2013 at 5:28 pm

    #5 was a big reason I moved here.

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  • Todd Boulanger July 2, 2013 at 6:00 pm

    I remember visiting Portland from Honolulu in 1999 during the split APA conferences for researching more exotic topics like car sharing and traffic calming…bike infrastructure here was lower on the list and was not too dominant in transportation wonk circles other than in the KEY work City staff and the BTA did on making a few bridge crossings bike accessible (let alone bike friendly). Seattle had the Burke Gilman (sp) trail and other facilities that had better national exposure vs. Portland at the time…until 2000 when things seemed to take off…blue bike lanes, Hawthorne Bridge, etc.

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  • Paul in the 'couve July 2, 2013 at 6:04 pm

    #6 – OHSU and other Employers getting behind cycling and realizing that healthy cycling employees who arrive awake and happy and don’t need a parking space are an asset.

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  • Paul in the 'couve July 2, 2013 at 6:39 pm

    Overall I’d say all of the above in combination and although taking one out might not have foiled the equation, taking any two out and I doubt we’d be where we are now.

    The bike lanes and the voices where out there on Sept 11, 2001 when the world stopped for a few hours. I’m not sure exactly why, but my personal observation was that I saw more cyclists in both Vancouver and PDX shortly afterwards. Then there was the economic crunch and a couple of gas price spikes. It’s like a ratcheting effect. Each time something shakes up folks routines, and disrupts the status quo, we pick up a few 10th of a percent, but most of the gain holds until another event ratchets the share up again. That brings in another feedback loop. There are always a group of people out there who are interested but haven’t jumped on the bike to get to work yet. Eventually they change jobs or apartments, or there child care situation changes and seeing everyone else out there they make the choice and adjustment to try a bike commute.

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    • Paul in the 'couve July 2, 2013 at 6:43 pm

      were not where

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    • Anne Hawley July 3, 2013 at 12:03 pm

      I think your “ratcheting effect” idea is very important. Even on an individual basis, in my own case: I set an initial goal of riding to work just once, with a long-term goal of becoming a daily rider within a year. But that one time was just so damn fun that I became a daily rider within three weeks. Two years later I sold my car. Now *that* is a ratchet.

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  • Mike bodd July 2, 2013 at 6:42 pm

    Bike commute is my FAVORITE part of my work day! Always an adveture!

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  • Clarence Eckerson July 2, 2013 at 7:14 pm

    For me? It is all about the bioswales. The bioswales. If it weren’t for them none of us would be riding.

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  • Joe Adamski July 2, 2013 at 7:15 pm

    All of the above would be my guess. One thing Portland has going for it is the Office of Neighborhood Involvement which provides an avenue for change through citizen involvement. When I took the PSU transportation class sponsored by ONI it drew me into a network of neighborhood activists who understood the importance of transportation choices.
    Pre -Goldschmidt Portland was pretty top down, administratively. When ONI was created ( Thank you Margaret Strahan!) it provided an avenue for change from the grassroots, and cycling was well represented.
    Mt Hood Freeway was repudiated not only by its rejection, but the energy that coalesced in the battle became the new leadership and changed the direction,ultimately.

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    • Linda Ginenthal July 3, 2013 at 10:42 am

      Hey Joe – That class isn’t an ONI initiative. It is a project of PDOT in partnership with PSU. Has been since 1992.

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      • Joe Adamski July 3, 2013 at 2:32 pm

        Linda, ONI paid my tutition, but thanks for the correction. Still, ONI and its grassroots emphasis has turned a lot of bike folks into neighborhood activists..and the result has been a stronger voice in advocating for improved bike and pedestrian improvements in neighborhoods.
        It’s not the only thing that improved bike counts and bike safety, but its all part of the puzzle.

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  • T.A. Barnhart July 2, 2013 at 7:35 pm

    i switched to bike commuting several years ago when i got tired of the horrible long bus ride. i was able to get to work on a bike in half the time – and that included crossing the Ross Island Bridge (ugh). it’s just a lot easier & faster to get around town on a bike, and once you learn to deal with the logistics (bags, rain gear, etc), and you have your routes worked out, getting around by bike is quicker, cheaper & a lot more fun.

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    • Concordia Cyclist July 3, 2013 at 12:15 pm

      Me, too. And now that I’ve been doing it year round for a number of years I’ve convinced the wife (and a few co-workers) to join me. The best advertisement is seeing me come to/from work quicker and happier because of my bike commute. The bus always made me grouchy coming home.

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  • Kyle July 2, 2013 at 7:44 pm

    I would add surface geomorphology to the discussion. When comparing the terrain relief of Seattle or San Fran vs. Portland, it’s clear we are much flatter, which makes it much easier for people to take up bike commuting. There is less of a physical barrier to getting people to begin bike commuting.

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  • peejay July 2, 2013 at 7:47 pm

    I’d like to see some data on helmet laws. Seems to me that Vancouver was the runaway leader for biking back in the day, but its current level, while still second overall, is near the bottom in terms of percent improvement. It’s one of the cities that has mandatory helmet laws for all ages, and I wonder what effect that has had on bike use in that city.

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    • peejay July 2, 2013 at 7:48 pm

      I’m not saying don’t wear a helmet! But shouldn’t people get to decide?

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  • Evan Manvel July 2, 2013 at 8:22 pm

    Quite sure Bike Commute Challenge started way before 2005; probably before 2000. What’s your source on it starting in 2005?

    And I don’t think of it as a spiffy marketing campaign, at least in the traditional sense — I see it more of a peer-to-peer and employer-support system for encouraging bike commuting. Here in Seattle we had over 14,000 participants this year, including 3800 new commuters. The energy around it is about people connecting to people and showing biking is doable and fun.

    And that’s the key piece to Portland’s faster growth – it not only has installed safe infrastructure (academic research shows bike lanes – and better – boost ridership; though there is a point where you get an actual network that’s bigger than its parts) but supplemented it with the culture, people, reputation, etc. in a way other cities haven’t done as well, and the land forms that some cities can’t emulate. And that’s led to the feedback loop. My two cents.

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    • Kasandra July 2, 2013 at 11:27 pm

      Evan is right about the BCC — it was already well-established by 2005, and I say that with absolute confidence, because Brita and I ran it that year, and we weren’t creating it from scratch.

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      • Michael Andersen (News Editor)
        Michael Andersen (News Editor) July 3, 2013 at 8:13 am

        Thanks, you guys! My error. Fixed.

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      • Karen Frost July 4, 2013 at 1:28 pm

        Thanks Kasandra, the first incarnation of the BCC was in 1995 or was it 1996 as the Business Bicycle Challenge for only Portland businesses (credit to Diane Bishop at the city of Eugene for inspiration) then on to a state-wide project in the following years, spreading bicycle advocacy to hundreds of workplaces. Kudos to BTA staff in every year.

        And if I may add my (defensive) two cents to the conversation, the BTA deserves a little more credit for laying the foundation for bicycle advocacy in Portland. Spinoff groups amplified our bike culture, but we were in the trenches for the big infrastructure and cultural wins: Hawthorne Bridge, upholding the Bicycle Bill in the Oregon Court of Appeals (1995) after suing the city of Portland (Sam Oakland and Rep. Don Stathos get credit for passing the bill in 1971.), lobbying the city to hire Mia Birk, bike lanes that couldn’t be done, and more including the first Safe Routes to School program. Citizens testified, signed petitions, wrote letters, held signs, led rides and just showed up. The BTA set the agenda and organized citizen advocates who laid the foundation for the explosion of today’s bike culture. Luckily the BTA is still going strong. So join up!!

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  • GlowBoy July 2, 2013 at 8:54 pm

    I think a lot of Jonathan’s 5 points helped contribute to the perfect storm, and to some degree we may have been a degree better than other cities on those things, but I don’t think we had a total monopoly on bike fun, activists, feedback, city staff or communications. Nor did we have a total monopoly on new bike lanes, with 1990s ISTEA dollars slapping new bike lanes down in small and big towns across the land.

    I agree with Anne Hawley that what made Portland unique was not only what we did better than other cities, but some of the drawbacks we DON’T have. Look at the other cities in the top ten:

    – Washington, Montreal, Minneapolis, Denver and Toronto all have snowy winters. Except for a few diehards (God bless them!) most people hang it up for the snowy and icy part of the year. The ability to ride year round makes a huge difference.

    – Seattle, San Francisco and (parts of) Vancouver are much hillier than Portland. I think that’s the main reason Portland leapfrogged Seattle (where I lived in the early 90s, when Seattle still beat Portland for bike commuting). Besides making it harder to ride, hilly terrain equals narrower streets and more difficulty carving out space for bikes.

    – I can’t say I know that much about the other city in the top 10, New Orleans. Maybe it doesn’t have as many natural obstacles to biking. Or maybe the steamy weather and personal safety issues still take their toll. Not sure.

    And as others have said above, Portland’s compact growth pattern, thanks largely to the UGB, makes stuff closer together and more within bike range (except for the obvious problem of the West Hills).

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    • A July 3, 2013 at 9:10 am

      I have to wonder how much Seattle’s topography is the direct cause of our (I live and ride in Seattle) lower share of biking. A big difference between Seattle now and when you were here in the 90s is that there has been an enormous influx of transplants from the midwest, a region known for its zealous addiction to the automobile. Like Portland attracts people who ride, Seattle attracts, well, tourists who bring their midwest mindset regarding transportation with them.
      I started riding regularly about a year and a half ago because I got a job where commuting a bike took less time than taking the bus (30 min bike ride vs 45 minute – 1 hr on the bus). When I started doing this I was profoundly out of shape, and it was a challenge for the first month, but if I could do it, practically anyone can. The hard part for a lot of people here isn’t the hills, it’s that an increasing majority of them come from places where they were steeped in such an extreme environment of automobile addiction that to give that up is an emotional severance and not a question of practical or reasonable behavior.

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      • GlowBoy July 3, 2013 at 12:45 pm

        “A big difference between Seattle now and when you were here in the 90s is that there has been an enormous influx of transplants from the midwest, a region known for its zealous addiction to the automobile.” – A

        I disagree. Portland’s been seeing plenty of people moving from the midwest. Like Seattle 20 years ago, the in-migration to Portland today seems dominated by Californians, midwesterners and urban Northeasterners.

        And Seattle had plenty of migrants from the midwest back then, not just now (though at the time, the locals complained loudly about transplants from California – also a region known for its zealous addiction to the automobile!). Like Portland today, Seattle back then was comprised of more people born elsewhere than born locally. At least people coming from the midwest and the east coast tended to seem more genuinely interested in coming to Seattle for the culture than just finding a cheaper west-coast alternative to California. And I knew lots of people who came from overwhelmingly car-dominated cultures like the Midwest and found themselves taking transit and biking much more than they did back home.

        I don’t think Seattle has had any more people moving from the Midwest than Portland has. The difference, however, may be that many people moving from the Midwest (and the South) are coming here deliberately to escape the car-dominated culture they came from (see comments from Terry D and others in this thread) whereas they may be moving to Seattle for other reasons.

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        • A July 3, 2013 at 1:46 pm

          I think we’re actually in agreement, but the nature of internet makes it seem otherwise. People come to portland with bikes in mind. People coming to seattle, not so much, thinking they can maintain the sprawl mentality they had back home.

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      • Paul in the 'couve July 3, 2013 at 1:10 pm

        I lived in Seattle two time periods in the 80s and one in the 90s each time for around a year. I was just in Seattle this past weekend. I cycled in Seattle, but mainly for sport / racing. I don’t think it ever really occurred to me to use a bicycle for actual transportation except maybe as a weekend whim. I haven’t followed closely enough so correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems the divergence really comes about in the mid-90s. Portland had groups getting on the campaign for cycling. If there were any in Seattle either grass roots or within the city I don’t think they made much noise. At the same time Seattle transportation politics has been focused on a variety of other “bigger” projects / problems (I-5, SR520, Alaskan Way, and going back to the 80s perpetual issues about bridges and freeways) but not just freeways, the votes and failures on the light rail front, the ferry system. Meanwhile the city itself has massively redeveloped much of Bell Town, and Lake Union.

        Summing up rambling 1st point – I suggest Seattle focus was just plain elsewhere until after 2000 at least. So in that sense I think they lost about 10 years on Portland.

        Partly that might also be a “victim of success” story, because I was reminded on my recent visit just how many long distance trails network around the city and how many rides are available that link from various outlying areas into Seattle. Perhaps there was a bit of complacency because recreational cycling was pretty good?

        Now Second point. In contrast with many comments here I think Seattle could be very well poised to jump forward fairly quickly and make up much of that lost time. I agree the hills give Seattle a relative disadvantage. However, Seattle has a lot of other natural and systemic advantages. The extensive trail system along the canal and around Lake Washington and through a # of parks. Especially after the recent re-development, Seattle has a lot more city like density than Portland. Even in many of the inner neighborhoods that are more residential, I think there is more density mixed in. Like Portland, Seattle has many vibrant shopping and street life districts. Also, with UW and a # of other good sized colleges, art institutes and such, there are plenty of young people in Seattle. Once the push to promote cycling gets going, and they are building a lot of infrastructure right now, I think the “tipping point” mentioned above may come fairly quickly.

        Further, partly as result of the lost time focus on Freeways and light rail and bus tunnels etc… The recent failure of the transportation budget is just one more piece of evidence for Seattle that big project money and thinking isn’t going to solve their problems. Seattle congestion, despite the commute numbers, is overall way worse than PDX. The time cost driver and frustration driver I think will be significant in the economic equations.

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      • Kathy July 9, 2013 at 9:01 pm

        I agree with A. While I don’t live in Seattle, I do live in Syracuse, NY, which is also quite hilly. I’m 59 years old and overweight, but my leg muscles are pretty strong, and I have a bicycle with lots of gears, so I can ride pretty much anywhere. As you may have heard, we get a lot of snow here in the winter. Even so, usually there are only a handful of days each year where the roads are too icy or it’s too cold to ride. (The DPW does a great job of clearing the roads.) After the first five minutes of riding at 20 degrees, it’s really quite pleasant, as long as your ears are covered and you have good gloves. Bicycle infrastructure? Low-car culture? Not so good here.

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    • Anne Hawley July 3, 2013 at 12:10 pm

      I’ve corresponded a bit with a New Orleans bike enthusiast who states, “New Orleans isn’t bikey in the same way that your part of the country is. We don’t have much by way of elite/intentional/down-shifting* bike culture, but we have a huge population of urban poor. Biking is cheap for folks who need to get to work just a few miles away. Our drivers all know how to drive around and share the road pretty well, too. ”

      And also: “We bike as a way of life, and go cups are the norm. Every bike shop in the city sells cup holders in every color. In Boston, it shocked me to see bikes without cup holders.”

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      • Paul in the 'couve July 3, 2013 at 1:12 pm

        Thanks for that insight! NOLA sounds awesome! ride on!

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  • Eric July 2, 2013 at 9:20 pm

    Here in Cambridge, MA, we’ve also seen commuting jump about 6 percentage points since 1990, and in our case at least I think it’s largely your feedback loop idea (the rich get richer) and that we are a very flat city. It also helps that we have tons of young people. Anyway, may the percentages keep increasing.

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  • Kevin Mayne July 2, 2013 at 9:30 pm

    There is some evidence from Europe that many cities have experienced a similar growth curve. Somewhere after 4% mode share is a tipping point beyond which cities can grow quite rapidly even as high as 10%. This can also be seen on corridors on a smaller scale. Like all tipping points it is a complex mix but ultimately reflects a change in social norms – in this case normalising cycling. We can predict that other US cities should see a similar growth, but only after tipping point.

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  • Nick July 2, 2013 at 9:45 pm

    Positive feedback loop, infrastructure, and the perfect climate. Not too hot or humid. Rare snow. Ideal.

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  • Chris Sullivan July 2, 2013 at 9:53 pm

    I lived and biked in Tucson and Davis prior to moving to Portland, and the big difference I noticed between the three places is all of the bike evangelists we have here in Portland. We don’t just get around on bikes; we love them–every aspect of them–and we spread the good word everywhere. We’re like Mac users in the world of computers and smartphones. And as is the case with Apple products, our love of bikes is a result of years of thoughtful, courageous planning and execution by masses of teams of people. (And I should add that I’m a Windows and Android person.) It won’t surprise me if that steep adoption curve maintains its trajectory.

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  • Chris Sanderson July 2, 2013 at 10:05 pm

    I moved here from San Francisco in 2010, because that city is too dang expensive when you only make $15/hour. Anyway, one of the things that drew me up here was the bike culture, and the fact that I did not need a car to get around the city. I’d imagine that I am not the only one to say that.

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  • Reza July 2, 2013 at 10:09 pm

    I know that I moved to Portland (and have stayed here) partly because I love how compact and contiguous the city is. Portland really shines in this regard compared to the typical sprawled-out Western US city. It is so easy to get around, as opposed to a place like Seattle where there are numerous manmade and natural obstacles in the way, not to mention the brutal topography. Whereas the travel time between neighborhoods there can take an eternity (Ballard to Capitol Hill, for example), here everything is relatively close to each other. There is an incredibly wide swath of Portland that I feel like I can access before I reach an impenetrable (or rather unpleasant) physical or psychological barrier.

    To the north, Columbia River.
    To the south and west, the Tualatin Mountains.
    To the east, I-205.
    To the south, the Clackamas County line? Haven’t traversed south of the Springwater.

    And that’s on bike power alone. MAX extends my reach to literally every corner of the city that was otherwise unreachable (except, of course, for the elusive Southwest Corridor).

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    • davemess July 3, 2013 at 8:16 am

      FYI, part of the Springwater is in Clackamas County.

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      • Reza July 3, 2013 at 10:03 am

        Thanks daveness, I’m well aware of that fact. I was trying to make the suggestion that the Springwater is more of a psychological boundary to me than an imaginary line on paper.

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  • John Liu
    John Liu July 2, 2013 at 10:25 pm

    I think we shouldn’t overlook the geography and layout of the city, which is almost ideal for cycling. 1) Pretty flat, at most some mild hills. 2) Pretty small, 3 to 5 miles gets you from most points A to most points B. 3) Pretty small and slow speed streets, for the most part, and for each higher speed street there is a quieter parallel alternative because the city is a grid. 4) Pretty well connected, there’s no Puget Sound or SF Bay that has to be crossed on a daunting freeway bridge, just the lil’ol Willamette.

    Of course, the foregoing describes primarily North and East Portland. And in fact that is where bicycle riding is the most entrenched, per the studies and statistics I’ve seen in this blog, and per my own observation. Not that the diehards don’t commute up into the West Hills or out to Beaverton or down Barbur, but they are the hardy few.

    Finally, the pace of life and general civility of Portland really helps. People are, on the whole, less aggressively in a rush here compared to a lot of big cities. More are willing to take the slower pedaled mode, and to co-exist with the pedalers when themselves driving.

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  • Steve Hoyt-McBeth July 2, 2013 at 10:58 pm

    Great summary Michael and great comments. To me, the natural follow up to this post is one on what we need to do to meet the bike goals of the 2030 Bike Plan and the Portland Plan – specifically growing bike mode share ata much faster pace then we have seen since circa 2008. I am really excited about PBOT’s incoming Director Leah Treat. One of the pieces from JM’s interview with her that impressed me was her stated desire to create a two year implementation in collaboration with stakeholders and the public, and then dammit (my vanilla interjection) implement it!

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  • Roger Geller July 3, 2013 at 7:07 am

    I agree with much of the above. It’s not just one thing, but the totality of efforts and conditions that have made bicycling relatively easy, convenient and attractive in Portland.

    One point not directly made is the nature of Portland’s downtown. As the major employment destination the conditions in the downtown will have a strong influence on the commute numbers. Portland’s downtown is very different from all other North American downtowns that I’ve seen. Most downtowns have large roads and high speeds (and, of course, no bikeways). While Portland’s downtown similarly has few bikeways, it has slow speeds because of the short blocks with signals every 250 feet that, because they’re timed to under 20 mph, don’t really allow people driving to go fast. Were Portland’s downtown as inhospitable to biking as most are, we never would have seen the jump.

    Of course, we can only attract a relatively small proportion of our population to the downtown without good quality bikeways, but we’ve been able to attract a lot more than in other cities.

    Another factor I’d emphasize is the relative completeness and connectedness of our bikeway network. That is very different from any other city in North America–though that, thankfully, is beginning to change.

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    • dwainedibbly July 3, 2013 at 8:45 am

      First, I want to personally thank you (and all of the others who have had a hand in creating the Portland that have today) for your work.

      Second, even though downtown doesn’t (currently) have fantastic infrastructure, it does have great transit options. That takes a great number of automobiles off the downtown streets, making conditions much better for bicyclists (except for the Max & streetcar tracks, of course).

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      • RJ July 3, 2013 at 9:04 am

        Another note on downtown — the Central CIty Transportation Management Plan laid out some pretty enlightened parking management policies. Parking supply downtown is intentionally limited and tied to the availability/capacity of transit, so there’s something of a cap on the number of motor vehicles that you are going to see out on the downtown grid. Just one more thing that contributes to Portland’s downtown streets being relatively calm and walkable/bikeable compared to downtown streets in other U.S. cities.

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  • David Zundel July 3, 2013 at 7:56 am

    It didn’t just happen. It took decades.

    In many US cities, bike policy and infrastructure come from the top down —
    usually mismatched with need.

    And our bikes run almost flawlessly.

    To change mode share, the roads and vehicles must work well.

    Portland has lots of great bike service.
    Service in the rest of the US — not so much.

    Fun is important. It helps the committed core. It attracts new riders.

    But reliability and ease is what gets the numbers.
    Roads and wrenches is the formula, with community to glue it all together.

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  • Terry D July 3, 2013 at 8:20 am

    I was a bike commuter and social activist in the 1990’s in Madison Wisconsin who moved here during the Hawthorne bridge retrofit. It took me a while to actually find the temporary Morrison bridge bike path when I went exploring. By the time I got my first permanent job I was comfortable enough that when the Hawthorne opened I started riding the Barbur Bl bike lane into DEEP SW Portland.

    I felt like a part of the city and not really an oddity since my manager who trained me also was a bike commuter…she showed me the way of Barbur…..but since then I have watched the bike scene EXPLODE.

    For four years (until 2004) I had an apartment overlooking West Burnside and I watched…every week….as the Zoo Bombers would ride down the mountain…..and the group kept getting larger. I saw the Portland Police harass Critical Mass demonstrations, and I saw the bike community grow…then something just slipped into place. The points made here are all important, but one is being missed:

    Portland’s LOW crime rate compared to most comparable cities. Not only is housing pricing less than most major west coast cities, but the city is safe enough so most people feet they do not need a steel cage around themselves to get somewhere.

    In many other cities people drive because they do NOT FEEL SAFE leaving their neighborhood (or house for that matter)…and will never get off of the freeway until they arrive close to where they need to go. Portland in the 1970’s invested in revitalizing the central city. This caused gentrification creating vibrant neighborhoods surrounding the employment zones. This allowed individuals, including women, to feel safe commuting to work since they did not have to ride through gang shooting galleries to get there.

    Portland is not like that as a city. We are generally safe and have a very low violent crime rate. It makes a big difference psychologically.

    The younger generation is moving here in droves because of the liberal attitudes, safety and bike culture. I am seeing it all over the place. It is not only the topography, political acceptance, and the bike lanes. Our bike lanes system is skeletal and not connected and our multi-use path system compared to some other cities need help.

    What we do have is a great climate,topography, basic conductivity, a non cul-de-sac grid pattern of residential streets, an URBAN GROWTH BOUNDARY, and few highways cutting through the central city because of MAX investment and the overall density and close proximity to everything. This city has more of a European culture than anything I have ever seen in this country. We are now reaping its rewards. We have a permanent foundation, but to continue the pace, investment in a COMPLETE network of bike corridors needs to be done.

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  • Chris I July 3, 2013 at 8:33 am

    As a native Portlander, who spent his formative years biking inner-SW and downtown, I really think that a lot of the increase is due to transplants. People that want this lifestyle seek out places where they can have it. I would say that only about 20% of the people I grew up with that I still know are cyclists. However, the majority of my friends that are transplants are also cyclists.

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    • RJ July 3, 2013 at 8:55 am

      I suspect this too…but I’d love to see research. If true, I think it would help inform the City on the best way to get to a 25% bicycle mode share over the next 20 years. I mean, it’s pretty conspicuous to me that there are a whole ton of posts on this thread that say, “I moved to Portland because of (bike culture/facilities/topography/lack of barriers, etc.),” and nearly none that say, “I lived in Portland my whole life and I started biking when they striped that awesome bike lane on 7th Avenue.”

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      • Anne Hawley July 3, 2013 at 12:19 pm

        I’ve lived in Portland all my life and started bike commuting when I realized how safe and doable it was.

        Okay, but it’s also true that my sister, who kind of re-transplanted her bicycling self here after many years in California, encouraged me by example to give it a shot.

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      • dan July 3, 2013 at 3:04 pm

        I lived in Portland (or Beaverton) my whole life and have been biking around town since I had a Schwinn with coaster brakes. 😉

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      • 9watts July 4, 2013 at 11:02 pm

        I’ve lived in Portland, on and off since 1973. In the seventies I took Trimet and walked. In the early nineties I biked. And since moving back here in 2004 I’ve biked exclusively. Not having a car helps immensely.

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  • PdxMark July 3, 2013 at 9:32 am

    In addition to the other Goldilocks factors I think we can add the urban growth boundary to prevent overall sprawl, the smaller blocks/streets of Portland’s layout that give smaller neighborhood streets, and the urban grid structure that gives us alot of parallel routes off of most (eastside) main arterials.

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  • Kagi July 3, 2013 at 9:36 am

    I agree with all your points. Just to add one more speculation: you might think about _why_ so many people started moving to Portland during the second Bush administration. Not just the practical things like cost of living and weather, but also the political and cultural climate — for those who couldn’t actually move to Canada, Portland stood out as a beacon of sanity during a fairly insane time. Since then, progressive people around the US feel a lot less besieged. Just five years later, people tend to forget how bad it was.

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    • Anne Hawley July 3, 2013 at 12:22 pm

      This is a great point! I have no idea how objectively true it is, but I’ve lived here more or less continuously since the, um, Carter Administration, and the period from 2000 to 2008 certainly made Portland *feel* like the last refuge of progressive values.

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  • Chris Mealy July 3, 2013 at 9:44 am

    I rode a lot in Seattle in the early 1990s, and I think drivers have gotten a lot more aggressive since then. I blame all the transplants too. Back then Almost Live used to joke about how polite Seattle drivers were. Nobody does that anymore. I think the number of cars registered in Seattle has shot way up in the last 20 years.

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  • CPAC July 3, 2013 at 9:49 am

    I haven’t been here long enough to know, but I can tell you that Portland’s bike (and transit) culture was one of the factors that attracted my family here from NYC. Now I get around almost always by bike, and while we do own one car, we use it as little as possible (less than 5K per year).

    NYC makes you appreciate how freeing it is to not own a car. I suspect many of the other recent transplants from NYC (and I’ve met what seems like a huge number in the last two years) were also attracted by the bike and transit options in Portland.

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  • SJE July 3, 2013 at 10:32 am

    I think its unfair to say that other cities had unimpressive growth. A doubling of ride share is impressive. Portland also got a huge influx of new, bike friendly blood. DC also got an influx, but its population base is much much larger.

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  • LoveDoctor July 3, 2013 at 10:34 am

    An interesting meta analysis of the graph at the opening: the percentage of mode share for biking went from ~1.2% across all the cities to ~3.5% during the 21 year period of measurement, almost tripling. Bike/walk dedicated funding is currently stuck at roughly 1.5%, even here in the supposed mecca of PDX. Does anyone know what the rough percentage of funding was back in 1990? I’m curious to know, if the paltry sum we spend now were to double, vastly improving active transport, what percentage of further increase we might get.

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  • SE PDX Rider July 3, 2013 at 10:55 am

    I just got older and realized I needed to improve my health and afford day care for my kids. 🙂 Maybe all the young retirees living in Portlandia got a little older and realized we better get our padded behinds in gear!

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  • Linda Ginenthal July 3, 2013 at 11:08 am

    Thanks for mentioning SmartTrips. It has been a powerhouse of a program pumping 90,000 bike maps and another 30,000 pieces on bike safety into Portland homes and visitors every year since 2005. That year we hired Timo Forsberg (Shiftie), Sarah Goforth (Sprokette and Hammercizer), and Vanessa Herald (artist) to be our SmartTrips bike team – all who are deeply committed to the fun factor.

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  • PdxMark July 3, 2013 at 11:26 am

    Another interesting comparison is the cost-effectiveness of bicycling as a transportation mode in comparison to transit. If I remember the census and budget numbers correctly, Portland’s 6% share for bicycling at an average of $3M/year over the past 20 years is quite cheap in comparison to Trimet’s 12% share at the in-Portland portion of Trimet’s $300M-$400M annual budget.

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  • deborah July 3, 2013 at 11:45 am

    Seems like all the items brought up in this article are spot on Jonathan.

    Commenters also brought up many of the other elements I was thinking of, like the size of Portland proper (lack of sprawl), the appeal of the urban vibe to transplants that are more apt to use active transportation (in 2006 me and my husband included), and the mix of bike/max/bus/flex car options make people feel like they’re not stuck in just one transpo mode if something comes up mid-day(like weather, errands, or just being plain tired).

    One thing I didn’t see mentioned that I think can’t be discounted is the visibility of the bikes. When people see that there are people ‘like them’ that are on their bikes and going places (work, shopping, errands) people start to think that it’s possible for them too. It takes that mind shift. You see someone on a pretty bike having a great time, and you think ‘If she could do that – why couldn’t I?’.

    Whatever the reason that someone takes the leap and tries to ride somewhere for the first time, the THING that propels them to think it’s possible initially is huge. Usually it starts with simply the idea that someone ‘like them’ is already doing it.

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  • gutterbunnybikes July 3, 2013 at 5:29 pm

    Honestly, though I think your 5 helped, those wouldn’t be half as effective as Portlands Urban Planning from the late 60 early 70 and the UGB. Killing the MT Hood Hwy, the co-ops that popped up in the 80’s and 90’s like CCC and Citybikes who stressed commuter cycling over raceing and offered classes on to fix them, Bud Clark, etc….

    Honestly it’s mostly the city design keeping neighborhood commercial districts every mile or two on the east/west axis of the city is huge (and largely why I always condemn the all the roads to downtown vision of city bike planners) and it will rear it’s ugly head as obvious once more infrastructure starts going in East of the 205 where the city design is more typical suburban.

    Coupled with the UGB where neighborhoods dont die but get reinvented, keeps the city compact, clean, upgraded, and safe. And it’s the perfect storm.

    As much as I’d like to say my part in Critical Mass rides and zoo bombs back in the day contributed, I really don’t think a mass of stoned hippie/punk activists(mabey) actually did much to help the cause, if anything in a few instances it possibibly hurt it.

    I’m willing to bet that ridership rates slowly follow improvments by at least 5 years. West side max was about 5 years before the explosion in 2002. And if anything being able to skip that mess on 26 for folks commuting from West side to downtown and bike the mile or two from the station home was probably a significant factor. I know I used it a few time to ride Washington County a few time when it first opened.

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  • Joy Hughes July 3, 2013 at 8:51 pm

    Peer pressure. When I first came to Portland, I was handed a bike map and was expected to use it. Can I put in a good word for City Repair too and all the traffic calming they did?

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  • Patrick McMahon July 3, 2013 at 8:52 pm

    As an outsider, I think Bike Summer was the match that lit the flame, but I think that you’re selling yourself short by not listing BikePortland as a major contributor. Some of what happened in Portland was internal, and for that I think Shift/Bike Fun was a major catalyst, but perception (internally and externally) of Portland as a place where bicycling was a thing was also incredibly important and I think BikePortland played a major role. Starting in 2005 or 2006 I was reading the blog from across the country and seeing it as a convergence point for cyclists of all stripes (commuters, hipsters, roadies, mtn bikers, etc.), particularly because of the listings of stolen bikes.

    I would also give Jennifer Dill and the other folks at Portland State a lot of credit (along with great City staff) for testing and evaluating new infrastructure, outreach, programming, and thinking about bicycling. Roger Geller’s “Four Types of Cyclists” is a major point of discussion for bike planners throughout North America and Jennifer’s research on that and other points shone the light on what Portland was doing and how it was working.

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  • Ted Buehler July 4, 2013 at 12:07 am

    A few comments, may have already been shared by others:

    * Bicycling leaders
    Portland has had bicycling leaders for a long time. When the mayor rolls up on a bike, or bus or foot or cab, then the city engineers know that they need to design for that mode.

    Similarly, when the engineers are bicycling, they can design better bikeways, because they’ve been on the streets, know what works, know what they’d like.

    * Bridging the Willamette
    The effort to put decent bike facilities on the Broadway, Steel and Hawthorn bridges welcomed bikes into the downtown. These weren’t the “low hanging fruit” but the city (& county?) made a concerted effort to make it happen.

    Most “modern” Portlanders have no idea how dismal these bridges were before the conversions. Check out these grainy pics in a 2002 document by Mia Birk, showing the before/after pics. http://www.bicyclinginfo.org/bikesafe/case_studies/casestudy.cfm?CS_NUM=106 They all looked like the Morrison Bridge does today — exit ramps at both ends, bikes definitely on their own.

    The magnitude of change was huge. It would be the equivalent of bikes getting the outside driving lanes on all 3 of these bridges today. Wide open lane, plenty of space, comfy riding conditions.

    * “Signature” Bike Fun rides
    Bike fun in itself was a key element, but the popular themed rides are a class of their own. Naked Bike Ride, Bunny on a Bike, Bridge Pedal (predated 2002), PP Kickoff Parade, Critical Mass (pre 2006), MiniBike Winter, Zoobomb.

    The popular rides are a form of entertainment and recreation that can only be done on a bike. If your buddies are having fun, doing unique activities, then you’re motivated to pull your bike out of the basement and pump up the tires. And ride 5 miles, 20 miles.

    This creates a huge number of people that know that 1) their bike works, 2) they are capable of riding it a lot of miles, 3) that city streets aren’t as scary as they might have seemed, and 4) it’s a lot of fun.

    These are key precursors to turning people into regular riders. And they get it all at once, at a single event.

    Ted Buehler

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  • Ted Buehler July 4, 2013 at 12:27 am

    Other things:

    * Low household income, low housing costs
    Other west coast cities, like Seattle, Vancouver BC, Oakland/SF, Sacramento and Los Angeles have higher salaries and higher costs of living. So “time” is worth more, and the “cost” of a car is less. You need to work your butt off to make your housing payments. And if you might save $4K/yr by riding a bike, it’s not such a big deal if you’re pulling in $100K and dropping $30K on housing. But if you’re only making $50K and dropping $20K on housing, that $4K is going to be a bigger chunk of your discretionary spending.

    * 1970s, 80s downtown planning
    Portland has long been a leader in making a bike/ped friendly downtown. In the 70s? they zoned for storefronts on the ground floor of all buildings, including parking garages. At some point they required bicycle parking in all new parking garages (if I understand correctly). They were one of the first to put in red brick crosswalks to make the pedestrians look like they belong crossing streets in the city center. In the 80s instead of adding another freeway’s worth of cars to downtown, they added a light rail line full of walking commuters.

    All these things made it more comfortable for the “pioneer” bike commuters of the 90s and early 2000s. Before there were hoards of bicyclists (with pretty much zero bike lanes) like there are today, there had to be conditions supportive of a modest number of bicycle commuters that could reach an early critical mass of ridership to enable slightly more timid prospective bicycle commuters to make the switchover.

    * Portland became “The City” to move to for bicyclists
    I lived in Davis, CA in the mid 2000s. Davis, at that time, had been “The” bicycle city of the US for 30 years. Lots of people self selected to move to Davis so they could get around on a bike. But, even more so, I met lots of people while travelling that wistfully said they’d like to move to Davis, but couldn’t/wouldn’t. (specialized employment opportunities, high cost of living, sleepy little college town — not for everyone).

    Other top bicycle cities of the 2000 census were similar — Corvallis, Eugene, Palo Alto, Boulder, Fort Collins. There weren’t any standout metro areas.

    Portland got on bike fans’ radars in 2006-2007, I’m thinking. As a place that they could move, and ride their bikes happily with other people that ride bikes. So lots of those types of people moved here (definitely a contributing factor for me in 2008). Portland doesn’t have the limitations that Davis does, and there was a latent demand of Americans to have a large-scale bicycle city available to relocate to. Davis is dullsville, Portland rocks. I’ve met lots of people that have moved to Portland specifically to nourish their bike fanaticism.

    Before Portland became the go-to city around 2007, those folks were just plain frustrated.

    For the future, Portland’s allure will be diluted by other big fish in the bike sea — NYC, Chicago, Minneapolis, San Francisco, all of which have percentages and growth rates comparable to Portland in 2006.

    Ted Buehler

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  • Ted Buehler July 4, 2013 at 12:46 am

    Another one —

    * Jonathan Maus
    Daily news. Up to the minute news. In depth. Accurate. Unabashed. Engaging. Covering all aspects of bicycling with passion and style. Safety, commuting, recreation, competition, entertainment, business, academic research, wonkiness. Following up when projects slow down, diligently and with a solid institutional memory. And its ordered, searchable. And it supports comments from the public which add additional depth and perspective.

    BikePortland has enabled anyone with interest to become well informed in whatever elements of biking they like.

    Elected officials and city staff know that they need to follow through with their commitments because the day the project opens, pics, commentary and criticism will be on the top of the page at bikeportland.org. With hotlinks to the original promises from months or years past.

    Do other cities have this asset? I’m pretty sure none did in 2005, I hope some have it now. San Francisco has http://www.sfbike.org/ which covers a fair bit of news, but its not the same as having a full-time reporter on the scene.

    Thanks, Jonathan!

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    • GlowBoy July 6, 2013 at 5:01 pm

      Minneapolis has http://mplsbikelove.com/. It was rated “Best Local Website” by their weekly, and has a commendably active discussion forum that helps rally and solidify the community, but lacks the kind of daily news updates we get from Jonathan.

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  • David Zundel July 4, 2013 at 5:12 am

    In the US, and most of the world, poor people ride bicycles.
    The white core and segregation of Portland reduce the stigma for an adult using a bicycle as transportation.

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  • jd July 4, 2013 at 1:29 pm

    For me, it was the fact that OHSU didn’t have plentiful car parking when I worked there. When I moved here in 1999, Portland was the kind of city where they made that kind of (bizarre to me at the time) decision, which attracts and keeps people with the flexibility to take the bus or ride a bike.

    (I doubt you’re looking for this, but I suspect having such a nice blog about cycling culture here doesn’t hurt, either.)

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  • merlin July 4, 2013 at 6:44 pm

    I think the bike boulevards (neighborhood greenways) that integrate comfortable bike riding with residential low-traffic streets are a big factor. Bike lanes and sharrows on arterials give the message (to people who aren’t riding bikes yet) that when you ride a bike, you have to mix with fast-moving traffic. When my daughter lived in Portland around 2005-2007, there was always a bike boulevard within a block or two and families could be seen riding casually through the neighborhoods. Seattle has had neighborhood activism to calm traffic with traffic circles and diverters, but the idea that bikes can contribute to safe streets has only recently come to Seattle – powerfully inspired by Portland. Thank you!

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  • jim July 5, 2013 at 1:36 pm

    I was just in Bucharest for 2 weeks. I hardly saw any bikes there at all. The drivers drive fast and aggressive. The few bike paths they do have are on the sidewalks and are often covered with parked cars. It is common to pull your car onto the sidewalk and park, even if there are bollards in the way. People there are real poor but do not use bikes. They walk, use public transit, or taxi’s, few own cars. Traffic laws are seldom enforced. If there are 2 lanes it means cars will be 3 wide. I have rode taxis in NY and SF, but they pale compared to the aggressiveness of taxis in Romania. I only saw a couple of bikes actually riding in the streets.

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    • jim July 5, 2013 at 1:37 pm

      There are close to 2 million people inside of Bucharest.

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  • Kathryn July 5, 2013 at 2:56 pm

    Swift Planning Group! 😉

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  • Ethan July 8, 2013 at 11:26 am

    We had and have great city staff because we had and have elected officials that want us to have great city staff. Mike Lindberg (energy issues generally, planning, and the environment) and Earl Blumenauer (BIKES!, among many other things) were centrally involved in making the bike culture a central part of the City story. Earl, particularly, was a bike advocate when Reagan was riding high. Thanks for putting this together!

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  • Jb July 9, 2013 at 9:45 am

    In Houston, the sidewalks are not made for bicycles and most streets don’t have a dedicated bike lane and you won’t ride a bike to the major commercial areas. We are rapidly expanding bike trails along our bayous and I have found a few places I can get a 30-60 mile ride in and stay off the roads for a majority of the time. I have commuted by bike 8.5 miles from my house to work, BUT I had a gym in my building to take a shower. It is very hot and humid here and 99.9% of people won’t give up the air conditioning, but we need more shower facilities at more of our downtown buildings. the last few times I have biked to work, I park my bike at the gym and have to walk an extra mile to my office. i wont’ ride it, since I will get sweaty again. You have to have shower facilities for people to start to ride.

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  • MartinB July 9, 2013 at 11:28 am

    Bravo Portland. En espérant que d’autres villes, citoyens et paliers gouvernementaux prendront exemple.

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  • crankycrank July 9, 2013 at 12:31 pm

    it’s important to note that the numbers for Boston are not representative of the actual urban core – which really comprises at least a half dozen municipalities and is much closer to 1.2 or so million people – at least one of these municipalities (of over 100,000 people) has a higher rate of cycling than Portland (around 10%), and in total number of daily bike commuters in the metro area, using the same (albeit, flawed) census data that Pucher is using, only LA metro has more (just USA – canadian cities listed above obviously have much higher total numbers of cyclists). And this isn’t even counting the 250,000 or so students in the area who must do some cycling to get around.

    anyway – the city of Boston didn’t have ANY on-street bike infrastructure until 2008 – and it wasn’t until maybe after bike share started that they really started rolling out a connected network – and even then they still had close to 2% mode share in spite of this. it’s still rather harrowing cycling around much of the city.

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  • Dave Campbell July 11, 2013 at 5:39 pm

    From the Oakland Metro, we also saw a huge jump in ridership in 2008 and yes gas prices really helped. Bike counts on Bike to Work Day that year were up almost 50% over the previous year, which is huge. We started from a smaller base, but are now up to around 4% bike mode share for the Oakland metro, with the Rose City in our sites. Keep up the good work!

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  • ed July 16, 2013 at 10:24 am

    As long as you’re asking for factors, I would add that the addition of shops like Clever, Splendid and Joe Bike have contributed significantly to the mix here that has increased citizen cycling so much in PDX. Obviously a lot of this is chicken or egg, but many have expressed amazement when visiting shop like this that such product even existed! Seeing and trying out this kind of gear has provided the means for many to be exposed to possibilities of bike use that were off the radar for them before.

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