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Bike commute numbers ebb nationwide; in Portland, they’re flat

Posted by on September 25th, 2018 at 10:01 am

(Photo: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

American bike commuting rates seem to have entered a post-recession skid in 2017. Here in Portland, meanwhile, they once again stayed about the same, according to Census estimates released this month.

About 6.3 percent of employed city residents got to work by bike in 2017, exactly the same estimate as in 2016.

About 27,000 fewer Americans reported daily bike-commuting routines last year compared to 2016, which was the second of two full years of low gas prices and the fifth year of rebounding suburbanization.

In Portland, the estimate was slightly more upbeat: about 6.3 percent of employed city residents got to work by bike in 2017, exactly the same estimate as in 2016.

In absolute terms, the estimated number of Portlanders who bike to work edged up by a statistically negligible 700 people, to 22,647.

New high for working at home, new low for driving alone


All charts: BikePortland. All data: 2017 American Community Survey, U.S. Census Bureau.

Public transit (13 percent), walking (6 percent) and carpooling (9 percent) were also virtually unchanged in Portland from past years.

The good news: Driving alone hit a new all-time low estimate, at just below 57 percent of workers. Ten years before, in 2007, the figure was 64 percent.

At this rate, drive-alone commuters would become a minority in Portland starting in 2027.

The total number of car commutes in Portland keeps growing, sadly. But it could be worse. If Portlanders still drove solo at the rate they were before the recession, the streets would be carrying 24,000 more autos per workday. Instead, those workers are biking, walking, riding transit, or working at home — which hit a new all-time high last year at 9 percent of Portland’s workforce.

That mix of improving options may help explain why Portland’s auto ownership per capita has fallen. This month’s data showed the estimated percentage of Portland households that include more workers than automobiles hit another high in 2017: 24 percent, enough to account for about half the city’s net household growth since 2007. (No wonder there’s a continuing market for new homes without much auto parking.)

Nationally, the share of “low-car” households with workers is 13 percent.

The only big U.S. cities where biking probably rose were having major transit problems

Bike-commuting estimates, which are averages calculated from rolling surveys taken throughout the year, dipped noticeably last year in several leading U.S. bike cities, this month’s data revealed.

San Francisco reported a seven-year low of 3.1 percent biking; Oakland, a seven-year low of 1.8 percent; Seattle, a 10-year low of 2.8 percent.

(In Seattle’s defense, mass transit use hit a modern high of almost 23 percent.)

Minneapolis (3.9 percent), New Orleans (2.9 percent), Tucson (2.5 percent) and Chicago (1.7 percent) all continued statistical plateaus that may have dipped slightly over the last few years.

Showing upticks in biking were Washington, D.C. (5 percent), New York City (1.3 percent) and Philadelphia (2.6 percent). All three of those were all-time highs — but all three came amid significant subway issues that have driven transit commuting down faster than bike commuting in those places has risen.

Estimates for smaller cities are more volatile and less reliable, but this year’s trend in the nation’s college towns seems to be no better than in the cities. Eugene’s bike-commuting estimate was just 4 percent, down from the 7 to 9 percent range a few years ago. Madison and Missoula also posted 4 percent, their lowest in years. In Davis, Calif., the nation’s bikingest city, the 2017 estimate was 16 percent, down from a recent peak estimate of 25 percent in 2013.

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Is Portland’s next bike boom around the corner?

Bike traffic on N Williams in May 2016.

There are three caveats to include with any Census data, especially one-year estimates like these.

The first: these are just estimates. The figures listed are more likely to be true than any other figure is, but in every case the truth could be a bit higher or lower. That’s why what really matters is multi-year trends: sample that piles on sample that piles on sample.

Second: These ratios aren’t good ways to measure which cities are “best for biking,” because they fail to reflect the presence of other good options like mass transit and they’re ultimately based on arbitrary city limits. (The national advocacy nonprofit I used to write for, PeopleForBikes, recently came up with what I think is a much better system for comparing cities to each other, but it relies on data that won’t be out until December.)

Third: These ratios reflect the investments we were making a few years ago, not the ones we’re making now.

So for Portland, it’s worth thinking about what these numbers mean. After a surge and dip, local biking rates are about where they were nine years ago — despite a new 40-mile neighborhood greenway network, public bike share system, five awesome open-streets festivals every summer and thousands of new homes and jobs close to the city center.

Maybe all those things are part of why our rates haven’t fallen further, like those in some of our peer cities.

At the recent rate, Portland won’t reach its 30 percent target for drive-alone commuting until 2055 — 25 years behind schedule. With every tick and tock of climate news I see, my own sense of urgency to reach that goal gets sharper.

But personally, for once, I’m optimistic about the future of biking in Portland. From the new freeway-crossing bridges in Lloyd and inner Northwest to Gateway’s bikeway network, years of activism are about to bear fruit. The long-awaited downtown protected bike lane network project is finally here, and it has the potential to be game-changingly good. It’s funded; it’s mostly planned; it has no organized opposition.

If a good chunk of it is built, it’ll not only be a dramatic upgrade to biking in the part of our city where people most want to bike, not to mention the complementary modes of walking and transit. It’ll also be an inspiration to the whole region, introducing hundreds of thousands of people to quality bike infrastructure and giving them a reason to fight for their neighborhoods to have some, too.

The biggest risk at this point is that not enough people will tell the city that they’re excited about it — and block by block, street by street, the forces of stasis will chip away at its quality.

But I don’t think that’s going to happen. When the political rubber hits the road, Portland’s dedicated biking community is second to none.

— Michael Andersen: @andersem on Twitter and mike.andersen@gmail.com.

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PDXCyclist
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PDXCyclist

I’m between the interested but concerned group and the “fearless.” Even a buffered lane makes me feel better. I don’t know if cycling deaths are increasing year over year, but the presence of instantaneous news and twitter has made me more aware of cycling deaths (as in, driver kills a cyclist) and made me more and more reluctant to do things by bike.

Yes, i acknowledge it may be low statistically (chances of dying on a bike), but I also have an immediate family, parents, etc to take care of and take all that into consideration. The bus takes the same amount of time as the bike, but I *feel* safer. You can tell people like me statistics all day, but it’s not going to get me bike commuting 5x a week.

I enjoy biking for exercise and continue to do it, but I don’t want every commute to be a gamble and for me to arrive at work stressed. FWIW I think Portland does a significantly better job with bike infrastructure/commuting options on the east side than it does in the SW area (and Washington County fails miserably).

Portland and the suburbs will have to invest more in infrastructure if they want me to commute. I don’t know if this applies to other people; maybe I’m an outlier. I also think BP’s crowd skews towards “fearless.” Someone wrote something to the effect of “Better Naito is pointless I feel fine on Naito bike lanes” when Better Naito closed. Well I don’t and didn’t. I don’t want to be a vehicular cyclist.

Better Naito was pivotal to me getting around downtown on my bike and feeling safe. Protected bike lanes are good for fearless riders too, but that’s not the target. Their target is people like me. Hopefully more of the dedicated BP readership/commenters consider this when upvoting/downvoting projects and giving feedback.

Dan A
Subscriber
Dan A

I always have to question how these rates are determined. When the chart says “Portlanders Most Common Commutes”, is it adding up every commute trip by mode? Or is it defining each road user by their most common mode? Many people travel to work by different modes depending on the day, or they travel by multiple modes, or they work from home.

SilkySlim
Guest
SilkySlim

Really appreciate this article and the analysis.

It is particularly interesting to me to map commuter trends against our cities growth. I don’t have the stats to back it up, but a very solid hunch that average commute has grown in LENGTH, which I’m sure doesn’t help active transportation rates. Certainly true among my cohort, the folks that once rented quite central (I remember once thinking that a friend at 50th and Woodstock was was “out there”) now buying in the realm of 60th-120th.

Another stat I can’t back up: I bet average commuter AGE has gone up. I bet active transportation skews younger for a whole slew of reasons (health, lack of kids being the top two).

Last, I’m also oddly optimistic about things…. albeit in a kind of roundabout fashion. As solo driving gets worse and worse, people will eventually make the leap to alternatives. At first a trickle, then a stream, then hopefully that tipping point where it becomes a no-brainer (hopefully thanks to the infrastructure built in anticipation).

bikeninja
Guest
bikeninja

I agree that Portlands next bike boom is just around the corner. Turning the corner on the next economic cycle, an untenable debt bubble in the U.S. oil patch, a middle eastern situation that is not going our way, and a trade war that may last for a generation will change things more quickly than most people realize. These trends will not be kind to car ownership and we here in Portland are ready to show people a better way.

TonyT
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TonyT

Until PBOT stops building boondoggles like the 20s bikeway, we’re not going to see much growth.

Greg Spencer
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Greg Spencer

This is a terrific article backed up by loads of interesting data. I was encouraged by the glimmers of hope that you cite here — the falling share of single-passenger car commutes and the biking boost we can expect from infra projects that are just around the corner.

Mark
Guest
Mark

The city is making it more difficult for its own employees to bike commute. The portland building remodel does away with cubicles and is replacing them with a small open work space with no place to hang up riding gear except for a chair back. And very limited storage. Employees will get one half locker to store riding gear which doesn’t meet the needs of summer commuters much less all year riders. There is no way for wet clothing and bags to dry out. And it still rains here.

One more thing to make commuting harder courtesy of city managers.

pdx2wheeler
Guest
pdx2wheeler

The benefits of integrating cycling into your activities of daily living far out-weight the associated risks of a sedentary lifestyle. So many are fearful because of the years of horror stories having been drilled into their heads. When in actuality it’s statistically one the safest modes of transportation. People are so focused on the here and now, they neglect the long-term damage they are doing to their bodies by embracing a sedentary lifestyle. Regardless of how you live your life your number could get called at any moment. Don’t let your life be dominated and control by your fears. A better life exists beyond the one being bought and sold as the ‘American Dream’. Ride on!

Johnny Bye Carter
Subscriber
Johnny Bye Carter

Taxi should be in with Carpool, and Motorcycle should be in with Drive Alone.

Al
Guest
Al

Nationally, we are way overdue for a shortening of the work week. A 10% workweek reduction from 40 to 36 hours would facilitate a four 9 hour day workweek. If this is still kept to a M-F schedule and employers work with their employees on which four days M-F they work, then this would translate to huge reductions in traffic across all metro areas. So many transportation projects currently in the planning stages could be pushed out years or even a decade. This translates to tangible savings and carbon reduction. The one “drawback” climate wise is that it would also likely grow the economy which would negate some of the carbon savings.

The best part about this solution is how many problems it mitigates across society as a whole. Income inequality? Check. Traffic? Check. Unemployment? Check. Climate change? Check. State and local budge shortfalls? Check. Standard of living? Check. Slowing economy? Check. Employee productivity? Check.

There’s just one problem. Nobody is talking about shortening the work week so it seems politically impossible. This is where I come in.

Ted Buehler
Guest
Ted Buehler

For the record, the bicycle commute mode share in Davis, CA has been steady at 14 – 16% for the last 18 years. The 2013 25% figure is some sort of a data collection glitch.

Thanks for the well-discussed and presented data, Michael.

Ted Buehler
Reporting from Davis, CA

Mike Owens
Guest
Mike Owens

I have so many thoughts, hopefully I can make this short and clear.

I had hoped that EVs would move us away from fossil fuels. But my calculations and news about how much the climate is heating faster than previously thought have changed my mind. There isn’t time for EVs to replace ICE. (Yes, cars also have many other issues when used for transportation). Instead, my only hope is that cities like Portland can do something bold, along with the e-transportation revolutions of e-bikes and e-scooters.

The summer experiments and use of low-traffic steets for greenways has been important as a proof of concept, and to ease folks into the idea of cars being restricted.

Now it is TIME TO CLOSE STREETS TO CARS. There are too many examples in other cities showing how the move increases the desirability, economy and livability along such areas.

1. Greenways need many more diverters and “local traffic only signs”. Keep cars out unless someone lives there.
2. Make the Sunday Parkways happen without cones/volunteers every day. Critical mass and 1. above are needed to solidify these routes as safest of all for kids. The greenways are already park to park. Allow some food/coffee trucks at the parks. Greenways are how neighborhoods get to the central loop. Neighborhoods get lots of say on what works best for their greenway.
3. Connect the 40-mi loop with protected bike lanes. The PBOT 18 project bundles are not enough. It would take bold leadership, but remove parking along the most desired routes to make protected lanes for bike and scooter travel along this central asset. Double or triple the current budget with a carbon tax. Win-win.
4. Build car drop-off/pickup spots at key access areas to car free shopping/entertainment streets that are also along the 40 mi loop. Encourage ride-sharing to downtown to these spots. Give tax incentives to builders to change surface lots into parking garages at key locations.
5. Put the squeeze on the large employers to cut down on the thousands of Intel/Nike/Etc. folk driving solo out to these areas. Tie their tax benefits to % of employees using other methods. Their workforce is a major reason for the costs we all incur from gridlock on roads.

We have studied enough. There is no impediment to the above except the will to do it. (which is a huge obstacle, but can be overcome with vision and bold leaders. )

rick
Guest
rick

I think commuter rates could rise. There are two very important road reorganizations set to take place next year between east Beaverton and SW Portland. Lake Oswego will also start on the expensive Boones Ferry Road project in Lake Grove.

Asher Atkinson
Guest
Asher Atkinson

I wish we knew where the increased numbers of working from home come from. Is that category drawing down the other categories proportionally, or could most be drawn from those who were commuting by bike? And are those ‘working from home’ frequently utilizing cycling infrastructure?

The flat biking numbers and the fact that driving always respond to changing economic conditions proves to me the loudest arguments these days are also the least effective. Rather than the heavy moralizing about fighting climate change and battling car culture, we’d be better off focusing on the financial benefits of reduced driving or ditching car ownership altogether. It is fascinating that people find ways to save by driving less during economic downturns, then give back that savings when circumstances improve. It shows most are half way there as rational economic actors. The missing half is understanding opportunity cost, but once that is understood, so is understanding just how costly driving can be for individuals.

B. Carfree
Guest
B. Carfree

I live in Eugene and have been studying our historic loss of cyclists for the past seven years. It’s an astounding loss from a peak of 10.8% in 2009 to a mere 4.4% in 2017. A best fit curve shows a modal share loss of 0.55% per year and extrapolates to zero cyclists in 2025! Had Eugene instead gained modal share at the same rate it lost it, it would now be the highest in the nation.

See my earlier comment about official “bikes are scary” campaigns regarding Davis recent run of bad years. Messaging matters. Very few people who aren’t already addicted to cycling are going to do something if they think the prevailing notion is that it is dangerous. We’re not a nation of heroes, so thanking people for riding their bikes is actually counter-productive. Advocating for separated infrastructure sends the message that bikes cannot operate if cars are present even though anyone who rides will have to ride with cars much of the time.

Other than looking at the messaging, why do I think this is the key factor? Well, Eugene does something called Sunday Streets, an open street event. There are two per year, one downtown and one in a neighborhood. Prior to doing the one in a neighborhood, city staff go door to door in an attempt to get people to try cycling. They claim they get 3% of the people contacted to ride. However, very shortly after this intense face-to-face messaging, the neighborhoods that have been targeted see large declines in ridership, as large as 40% on five-year-smoothed data (so it’s larger than that for individual years). Neighborhoods with large turnover of residents (near the UO) recover after a few years, but others don’t.

By the way, the gas price hypothesis is BS. I looked at the annual gas price average for Eugene from 2009-17 and there is no relationship to the modal share of cycling. That makes sense when you think about it. Almost all of the cost of car use is up-front (purchase, annual insurance and annual maintenance). The per trip cost, gasoline, is quite small in comparison. Very few people are going to forgo a trip by car just to save a few dimes on gas purchases.

I understand being upset by motorist behavior. However, if you are interested in having other people on bikes around you, perhaps it’s time to zip it rather than make it seem like every trip requires super-human skills. Or, everyone can keep calling for ever-more separated infrastructure that makes cycling less convenient and still has major intersection issues and you all can keep riding by yourselves. Just tonight I was at a transit meeting and the only other attendee who ever rides a bike was doing less riding now, and considering giving up altogether, because he is afraid. Nothing had happened, he was just internalizing the messaging he and his spouse have been receiving.

Kittens
Subscriber
Kittens

My first thought on seeing the headline is that PBoT’s grand scheme to passively encourage active transportation modes though negligent disregard for our increasing density and attendant traffic is failing miserably. Never before have we seen this sort of traffic in Portland.

We are stuck with horrible traffic problems and a half-a**ed bike network and almost no prioritization for bikes or transit. Congrats, dear leaders, Your inability to seriously commit to a future beyond SOVs has left us worse than if we had simply done nothing.

I commute by bus on Foster, it is a mess now that they have knocked it down to one lane. I have seen the plans. Is this the best response PBoT can summon? Their answer is always the same in differing quantities: road diet, more ped crossings, slower speeds, more signals, new lighting and sidewalks. When they have completed this bizarre agenda of transforming most arterials into slow, congested parking lots overrun with dawdling tourists and twee millennials staring into their hands, it is going to be mighty hard to get around our city. We need real answers to real problems.

There should be a lane for traffic, one for transit and one for bikes on all our major arterials. full stop. Greenways and Sunday Parkways are great for leisure and kids but it is time to take the next step and get serious here. Time is money. We need to create a system which is faster for bikes or we are just not going to grow modeshare. It is that simple.

Joseph
Guest
Joseph

Something that is always difficult to measure is the mode share of all trips, not just commutes. I live within the Biketown service district in a building without bike storage, so I’ve put off buying a bike in favor of using Biketown for many of my inner city trips. I mainly work from home but I also go out to Beaverton and Hillsboro to meet with clients. For those times I take Trimet. If you were to ask me how I get to work, I would probably say, “Work from home.” However, this does not capture the 3 days a week I’m riding the MAX out to the west side. Nor does it capture the 7 days a week I use a combination of bike and transit to meet with friends, run errands, and travel around the city. Of course, commute mode share is an important indicator of how the transportation system is faring, for some people (such as myself) it doesn’t quite capture certain behaviors.

So, you might see that bike commute mode share is flatlining, but it doesn’t show the people who don’t commute by bike but do many other things by bike.

Jim Labbe
Subscriber
Jim Labbe

The chart above doesn’t seem to include mix mode commutes. I recall reading some 10 years ago somewhere that this category was growing the fastest, and taking the biggest bite out of “drive alone.” The growth the many different options since (including point-to point bike & car sharing) would seem to make mix-mode commutes even more feasible. Personally I often mix modes, with biking and transit both with point-to-point bike or car sharing being a common option). I am not sure how I would describe my primary mode anymore.

Jim Labbe
Subscriber
Jim Labbe

I see now my Joseph effectively just made the same comment.;)

stephan
Guest
stephan

Thanks for the update! One comment: it would be nice to see modal share conditional on going (physically) to work. The above breakdown shows how Portlanders access work, which could include staying at home and working remotely. That is useful for understanding how (much) our roads are used.

A slightly different question is whether Portlanders have changed their mode of commute if they go to work. I think we care about that as well because it tells us whether people drive every time they got to work, or whether they consider other transportation options when leaving the house. My hunch is that the share of people who drive alone if they go to work has remained the same over time and has not decreased.

chris m
Guest
chris m

It is unfortunate that mode share has been roughly flat for the last 8 years. On the other hand, it is encouraging that cycling has not dropped really at all despite a pretty solid labor market (*ducks*, I understand there are tons of problems with the economy in 2018 but it is way better here than in 2010), and steady continued in-migration. This tells me we do not need to engineer mass unemployment or halt migration to work toward our sustainability goals. Of course we are all going to read ambiguous data to justify our own preconceptions so your mileage may vary on this point :).

Jim Lee
Guest
Jim Lee

Is it really true that we pay expensively salaried city staff to travel the country accepting awards for excelling at wonk metrics?

Refer to the link on PeopleForBikes new “metric.” Must be great–they have had a Ph.D. on staff for two years!

Why is it necessary to compare cities anyway? This is not a competition. Just do the job!

soren
Guest
soren

I suspect that the increase in “work at home” largely represents people who drive for ride-share and deliveries. If so, this is bad news for active transportation and transit.

X
Guest
X

“Dan A”

It’s extremely difficult to close roads to cars. . .We’ve been trying to get permission to shut down this 1/4 mile segment of road in our neighborhood for 3 hours during Halloween. . .The County . . .is denying a permit . . .

Well, civil disobedience. Save your kids.

pruss2ny
Guest
pruss2ny

this tho….pointing out that the rise of uber/ride sharing has struck specifically at mode share typically carved out for walking/biking/public transit

https://phys.org/news/2018-09-ride-hailing-vehicle-miles.html