Biking matters most to lowest-income local households, new data shows

34% of Portland-area bike commuters come from the poorest 25% of local working households.
Source: Census Transportation Planning Projects. Chart by BikePortland.

Last week, we shared some new Census data showing that people who bike to work in Portland have quicker commutes than you might expect. This week, let’s look at a different question: who bikes?

“We have to prioritize investments in communities that have not been prioritized for investments in the past.”
— Gerik Kransky, BTA

It turns out that in the Portland metro area, people of every household income level bike for transportation. But the lower your household’s income, the more likely you are to use a bike to get to work.

That fact — which national data has shown for years but had never been available at the local level — is part of the thinking behind a rising focus in the bicycle advocacy community on the ways that biking can help underprivileged groups.

“People living with multiple resource constraints are in the best position to benefit from increased access to healthy, active transportation options,” Mychal Tetteh, CEO of Portland’s Community Cycling Center, said Thursday. “If we want to see bike mode share increase, a focus on historically underesourced populations will result in the greatest return on investment.”

According to the new estimates, which are based on Census surveys that include margins of error, the poorest 25 percent of Portland-area households are home to about 34 percent of the metro area’s bike commuters. The other three quartiles are quite evenly split, suggesting that bike commuting is both a useful necessity for some and a desirable choice for most.

A bill introduced yesterday in the U.S. House of Representatives reinforces this concept. The bipartisan measure championed by the League of American Bicyclists would create a low-interest long-term loan program for communities to build biking and walking networks, with one quarter of the cash set aside to be used in low-income communities.

U.S. Rep. Albio Sires (D-NJ),
lead sponsor of H.R. 3978.

H.R. 3978 is worth just $11 million for the whole country — about enough for each state to get either one new stoplight, several blocks of sidewalk, a few bike share kiosks or a few miles of bikeways.

On the other hand, it’s showing (yet again) that the appeal of active transportation can cross party lines in a deeply divided Congress.

“It’s a good idea, it’s a good bill and we should certainly support it,” Bicycle Transportation Alliance Advocacy Director Gerik Kransky said in an interview Thursday. “It takes a small but important step toward acknowledging that we have to prioritize investments in communities that have not been prioritized for investments in the past. … These are the kinds of policy decisions we’re going to have to make to let low-income communities make their own decisions.”

Kransky said the risk that a bill like this becomes an excuse for politicians to avoid bigger changes is “always out there.” But he hopes the small amount of money could prove that there’s public support for further shifts, including increased “self-deterimination” by poorer communities of the transportation investments in their neighborhoods.

“A bill like this passes, the process is set forth, money is spent, the outcome is fantastic and the community support is there, then all of a sudden we have a working model for engagement and communication,” Kransky said. “If this works, we can use it as a model at the state or local level.”

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Robert M.
Robert M.
9 years ago

Well, of course. People with less income can’t spend as much on cars so they bike or take mass transit. Yet, infrastructure like good mass transit and safe bike routes are often not in poorer areas. Hmmmm….

davemess
davemess
9 years ago

I’m amazed how it’s relatively evenly split (with an advantage to lower quartile).
Michael, since I’m lazy, can you list the cut offs for each quartile?

davemess
davemess
9 years ago

Great point. I hadn’t thought about the fact that many single people who would still be middle/upper middle would fall into the lowest quartile category. With that in mind, I’m even more surprised that the lowest 25% limit is at $46K, as there are a lot of single people in this town!!!

Alex Reed
Alex Reed
9 years ago

Would household income per capita be a better metric? Not sure if the data access allows it….

Mindful Cyclist
Mindful Cyclist
9 years ago

Michael, any data about the average or median age of a bike commuter? While I certainly see all ages out there, it seems the majority of people are under 40. Certainly younger people are not going to be as established in their careers yet and probably would not be making over $46K/year yet.

Kris
Kris
9 years ago

Hm. My understanding, which I’ve just confirmed via the census website, is that the median household income in Portland is closer to $50K, and was lower during the years of this survey, so I’m confused by this quartile breakdown. Do you happen to know why this doesn’t match census data?

davemess
davemess
9 years ago
Reply to  Kris

That seems exceptionally low. My neighborhood is supposedly around $46k and we’re one of the lower ones in the city.

And doesn’t the quartile breakdown in this graph mean that the median is $75k? That actually sounds about right to me.

I guess if you looked at the census data (I couldn’t make any sense of the above linked site), you must be correct.

Michael Andersen
9 years ago
Reply to  Kris

The difference is that the Census data you’re looking at is based on a wider set of people (a different “universe,” in the Census jargon): all households. The above data applies only to households with workers, a group whose household incomes will trend somewhat higher since it excludes people who are unemployed, on disability, on social security, full-time students, etc.

Kris
Kris
9 years ago

Thanks for the clarification.

Paul Manson
9 years ago

Depending on the data – and I assume it is American Community Survey – the cross tab of income and commute type is likely to cause larger error bars in the higher income ranges due to sampling. I also suspect there is more of a story in the lower quartile since that is not too far from a median household income number. (So the chart over represents the wealthy as three slices, and the rest in one.) Fun with stats!

Jeff M
Jeff M
9 years ago

The old saying, ‘correlation does not imply causation,’ comes to mind; the data presented here does not prove the statement, “the lower your household’s income, the more likely you are to use a bike to get to work.”

For example, let’s suppose most of the people that ride to work are under 25. People under 25 don’t, on average, make as much money as someone over 50. Therefore the statement could be, “the lower your household’s AGE, the more likely you are to use a bike to get to work.” But that doesn’t mean if you are 55 years old and make under $46k, you are more likely to bike than another 55 year old that makes $60k.

I am not claiming that the above example is correct, either. I’m just trying to illustrate that more statistical analysis is needed to prove causation… and maybe that has been done but simply not presented in this article.

Jeff M
Jeff M
9 years ago
Reply to  Jeff M

Perhaps a better example: Statistics may show that 76% of cyclists in Portland are white. However, since 76% of Portland is white, clearly that would not support the statement, “If you are white, you are more likely to use a bike to get to work.”

Marie Y
Marie Y
9 years ago

I am not understanding how “But the lower your household’s income, the more likely you are to use a bike to get to work” (from your initial post) is different than “being poor makes you more likely to ride a bike”. Aren’t those the same conclusion? I absolutely support bike infrastructure. But this is an incorrect interpretation of statistical data.

A conclusion that is actually demonstrated by your data is “as a percentage of the total bike commuting population, more bicyclists are lower income.”

Unless we are looking at what percentage of people within each income quartile bike, then we cannot conclude anything about income making one more likely to bike. I mean, how do we know that 100% of people in the 2nd or 3rd quartile do not bike? Maybe they are just smaller groups, so their piece on your pie is smaller.

Anyway, thanks for posting, and I do support this bill.

Marie Y
Marie Y
9 years ago
Reply to  Marie Y

I feel I need to clarify, since my my 100% example is hyperbole for the sake of illustration. I am interpreting income quartiles by household. Eg, census data is showing households with AN individual who bikes, and income data is by household. So, if 5 people in a high income household bike, and 1 person in a low income household bike, they each are one data point on this pie. So thus, we cannot say the poorer people are more likely to bike just because their household stat says SOMEONE bikes.

Jeff M
Jeff M
9 years ago

Michael – I did not claim that young people are more likely to bike. That was an illustration that I made up to explain that the data presented in the article neither proves nor disproves the statement, “the lower your household’s income, the more likely you are to use a bike to get to work.”

That statement may or may not be true, but the data presented does not make that conclusion and it certainly should not be presented as a “fact,” as stated in the following paragraph. It could, however, be presented as a hypothesis that may be validated with additional studies.

The only thing the data says is, if a person is bike commuting in Portland, there is a 34% chance that their household income is <$46k. That is a very different statement than if your household income is <$46k, you are more likely to bike commute.

Otherwise, the data and article bring up some interesting questions.

Jeff M
Jeff M
9 years ago

The data suggests income *may* be a contributing factor, but does not prove it to be anything but a correlation. For example, let’s assume the underlying cause is actually determined by a person’s age and 50% of commuters are <25 years old (I am making this up). Since younger people tend to make less money and commute by bike more often, we see a higher percentage of bike commuters with lower income – again, I am making up this example to show that we cannot be certain that income levels drive choice of transportation, based on the data presented.

Whatever
Whatever
9 years ago

“For example, let’s suppose most of the people that ride to work are under 25. People under 25 don’t, on average, make as much money as someone over 50. Therefore the statement could be, “the lower your household’s AGE, the more likely you are to use a bike to get to work.”

Also, it would be interesting to see a breakdown of bicycle riding using years of education. I suspect that high-education, low-income folks are disproportionately represented among bike riders.

9watts
9watts
9 years ago

An excellent piece, Michael. Thanks!

Paul
Paul
9 years ago

How would that chart compare to a household income-only chart, regardless of transportation mode?

Joe
Joe
9 years ago

I’m Rich because I ride 🙂

Charley
Charley
9 years ago

Every time some one tries to blame gentrification on cyclists or vice-versa, THROW THESE STATISTICS IN THEIR FACE! The drumbeat of well-meaning but ill-informed citizens against bike transportation can be fought with the truth that low income people benefit from bike safety improvements just as much (or more) than rich people.

davemess
davemess
9 years ago
Reply to  Charley

As Michael added above, this data is based on household income. I don’t think a single person making $46K/year would be considered low income at all, but that’s how they are categorized on this chart.

But I completely agree with your underlying meaning.

Spiffy
9 years ago

so can we stop hearing the term “gentrification” now when we want to improve bike facilities?

erin g.
erin g.
9 years ago

In New Orleans, a city marked by high rates of low income families, the bike transit movement underway is meaningful and inspiring. Thank you for shedding light on the important topic of income and how transit barriers can be somewhat improved with good access to biking.

Lisa
Lisa
9 years ago

You’re analysis is really flawed. From this data we don’t know which poor people are commuting by bikes. It could be mostly young college kids living off of loans… not a bad theory considering the extent and impact of gentrification in the inner neighborhoods.

That does nothing to help advocates for bike commuting get insight into the plights of the working poor – including people with young families, eldercare issues, disability issues, and job insecurity. As we know, there are fewer and fewer options for affordable places to live around easily commutable routes for people who fit into the above categories. The outer metro areas are the most difficult to get around in by bike, and the places where Portland’s poor have been pushed to concentrate into.

mh
mh
9 years ago

If we’d only had this when the Williams/Vancouver conflict was at its peak.

David Lewis
9 years ago

Poor people already know this, Bikeportland.org. It’s not news.

The news is the criminal abuse of transportation development funds dedicated to providing landing strips in far-flung rural counties, providing tax incentives for Walmart to pave over hectares of land for parking lots and the pièce de résistance: six-lane highways through cities.

All kinds of people ride bikes, despite the conspiracy against them.