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Census: Portland bike commuting laid low again in year before Covid

Posted by on September 29th, 2020 at 11:14 am

This is a guest post from former BikePortland news editor Michael Andersen. He now writes about housing and transportation for Sightline Insitute, a regional sustainability think tank.

In its final snapshot of pre-pandemic travel habits, U.S. Census surveys found that 2019 was another year with little growth in bike commuting, in Portland or elsewhere.

Nobody knows, of course, exactly how the COVID pandemic will change all this. It’s just certain that it has.

Portland’s bike commuting rate was 5.2 percent, the Census found in its annual compilation of surveys collected throughout the previous calendar year, down from an average of 6.3 percent over the previous five years and the lowest single-year estimate since 2007. The new finding served as a likely confirmation of last year’s discouraging indication that Portland’s mid-decade boomlet of bike commuting seemed to have receded.

The ratio refers to the percentage of Portland residents who headed to jobs primarily by bike over the previous week.

Across the Portland metro area, the estimated bike-commuting rate was 1.9 percent, down from an average of 2.3 percent over the previous five years. The national estimate, too, was flat to down: 0.5 percent from 0.6 percent.

Other large U.S. cities with significant bike commuting were also flat or on the low end of their five-year averages.

Some Oregonians might be particularly interested in one spot of bright news: After several years of lagging seriously, Eugene’s bike commuting estimate ticked back up to 6 percent. Oregon’s third-largest city can once again claim to have more bike commuting than its largest.

Unfortunately, even that rise is well within Eugene’s larger error margin.

It’s still a complete mystery how the pandemic might change commutes

Traffic on NE 21st Avenue overpass on May 26th, 2020.
(Photo: J. Maus/BikePortland)

These 2019 estimates aren’t a big surprise.

Portland gas prices spent most of 2019 above $3 a gallon, but never flirted with $4 as they had after the recession. Despite regular incremental improvements, momentous decisions in 2018 like the Central City in Motion plan and a few major projects in the pipeline, little new infrastructure has actually hit the ground on Portland’s key commuting routes in years. In fact, one significant bike commuting pinchpoint, the Burnside Bridge, spent almost all of 2018 and 2019 pretty bad to bike on before getting an upgrade as 2020 began.


And speaking of 2020…

Nobody knows, of course, exactly how the COVID pandemic will change all this. It’s just certain that it has.

Even in 2019, Portland’s work-from-home rate hit an estimated 9.1 percent, another all-time high and one of the nation’s highest rates for a major city. (In case you were wondering, the exact question is: “How did this person usually get to work LAST WEEK? Mark (X) ONE box for the method of transportation used for most of the distance.”)

That work-from-home figure will surely soar in 2020 and 2021, perhaps especially for one of Portland’s core biking populations: people who work downtown. Meanwhile, the collapse in transit ridership and the boom in bike sales are introducing many more people to bikes as both recreation and transportation. And for many victims of this chaotic economy, bikes are of course a way to save money.

It’s my own belief that infrastructure investments alone don’t lead to much change in commuting habits until some sort of external force gives many people a reason to reconsider their daily routines at once. This scrambling of transportation trends can come from a gas price shift, a global pandemic, maybe even whatever other catastrophes might await us next.

— Michael Andersen: @andersem on Twitter.
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Matthew in PDX
Matthew in PDX

I normally bike to work from mid-spring to mid-fall, from N Portland to Clackamas. This year was a no go as I couldn’t shower at my gym before work.


I just wrote a similar post on the local numbers here in Madison: It’s quite depressing from an advocate’s perspective. My overall take is that for medium and large-size cities there’s a threshold somewhere in the 5-8% mode share range that, as you said, Michael, is hard to overcome with just adding some bike infra here and there. National trends and/or more drastic measures at the local level are probably what is needed.


Wow, Portland bike commuting is now thirteen years into its plateau. You’re finally building some protected infrastructure, e-bikes are now approaching mainstream, there’s more awareness of our climate catastrophe, but … no growth. Of course some of this is because many potential middle and lower-income bike commuters are being displaced further from the bikeable core, but all the top biking cities have followed similar curves, plateauing since the late ’00s.

Two words explain it all: cheap gas.

The never-ending battle for second place continues, with my current home of Minneapolis in the usual virtual tie with the usual contenders of DC, Seattle and SF. A whole percentage point below Portland. Some things never seem to change.


As for the pandemic’s effect on the stats, I wouldn’t get my hopes up. Most of this year’s bike boom has been in recreational riding, not captured by the question “how did you usually get to work last week?” I know that commuting overall is way down, reducing the denominator, but the numerator will drop too. Did this spring’s transit restrictions and empty roads encourage more of the few who still commuted to get in their cars? Or maybe the opposite: I know in my case, I found myself spending a lot of time on roads that used to be too busy for me to dare ride on.

That feeling of the roads being safer continued well into early summer, even as traffic volumes crept back up. In the weeks after George Floyd’s execution here in Minneapolis, everyone on the streets – cyclists, marchers, walkers, drivers, Black, Indigenous, white – was SUPER respectful of each other. There was definitely a “we’re-all-in-this-together” vibe.

But now, the fraying of the social fabric is ominously palpable on the roads. Sometime in July or August, a switch seems to have to have flipped inside a few drivers’ heads. In the last few weeks I’ve been harassed multiple times by bearded white guys driving work vans or pickups. Always while minding my own business in the bike lane, within a mile of my home. In one case the guy actually came at me in the bike lane, and I had to take evasive action. I’ve also had to wash a guy’s possibly COVID-infested mucus/spit off my arm. Eccchhh. I’m now changing my riding patterns to avoid busy streets, even those with (unprotected) bike lanes. I guess with the overall spike in higher-profile crimes, the sociopaths on the road feel they can get away with anything. To their credit, and contrary to the narrative that they’re too busy to deal with anything but the most serious crimes, MPD took it seriously when I reported it.

Are you guys experiencing the same thing in Portland? I haven’t read any comments about it here at BP, but I’m wondering if the longtime low-level hostility towards cyclists of many Oregon drivers is now becoming less veiled?


Rant: I gave up most of my bike commuting. I’m glad I did, even though I think bicycles are incredibly fun, efficient, world-changing machines.

Taking the bus or Max is much less stressful than having to be constantly alert for careless or aggressive drivers, or trying to follow some poorly-signed, poorly-lit, zig-zag greenway at night, or wondering when the bike lane is going to end (see Glisan or Killingsworth) and dump you without warning into a busy, four-lane road.

I don’t think it’s too much to ask for the slightest modicum of protected bike lane on the major thoroughfares of this city, such as Sandy or Hawthorne or Powell. Despite being actively hostile to bikes, I end up having to ride on them anyway because so many of our businesses are located on those roads.

And does anyone think that the piecemeal, wildly inconsistent smatterings of “infrastructure investment”, such as the bike crossing at NE 37th and Prescott, have convinced anyone that they should be riding a bike instead of driving a car?

I wonder how many people were like me, eager to commute by bike in America’s Bike Capitol, but whose determination was worn down by frustration after frustration.

Bicycling Al
Bicycling Al

The graph pictured at the top of the article doesn’t represent what I’m seeing on the trails and roads in east county. In fact, in the past 5 years, I’ve seen a large surge in bike commuting aided in part by e-bikes. This makes me suspect that bike commuting overall has increased but simply not enough to match the inflow of people into the metro area who commute by other means.

Steve Scarich
Steve Scarich

As a former mid-level Census manager, I take these statistics with a large grain of salt. The Census maintains a very small database of citizens between the ‘big census’. It is so small, that its statistical accuracy is close to zero.


I honestly think we need to stop caring so much about the commute rate. What really matters is the mode share for all trips. Commuting accounts for a pretty small percentage of vehicle miles travelled. Think about how much people drive for daily errands, dropping people off various places (school, daycare, activities), visiting friends and family, going out of town, etc. Those trips dwarf the daily commute, and should be the focus for reducing carbon emissions.

I think the bike rate would be much higher if you look at all trips, and the highest growth potential is from non-work trips. After all, many people either choose to live fairly far from work, or they have no choice and can only afford to live far from work. In those cases, driving or maybe taking transit may be the only practical options for the work trip. But if they rode their bike for most non-work trips, that would be a net positive. And as long as they have shops and other destinations within biking distance (a distance expanded with e-bikes), there is good potential for switching away from driving.

Lazy Spinner
Lazy Spinner

Since we plateaued 13 years ago, two things not being mentioned: people aging out of bike commuting and the influx of new residents may not have the passion for bike commuting. Our demographics in Portland have changed. Our economy has also changed and the new workers coming to take jobs in the tech sector may not care as much about personal fitness, city livability, and the environment as we wish they would.

Roberta Robles
Roberta Robles

I completely disagree with his ‘belief’ that we need some mysterious external force to bump the bike commutes higher. Since we haven’t built completely separate protected bike lanes and protected ‘wrap around’ services to victims of #visionzero (ie te cops don’t care if we get hit, what if the drivers were treated like a DUI?) .

Build it and they will come is still a hopeful possibility in my mind. We need to build protected bike lanes and these numbers absolutely will go up. Michael is not a formally trained economist but he plays one in housing and transport journalism.

Regressive gas tax advocacy doesn’t count for much these days in terms of bumping up bike numbers. But the Beckys on Bikes in streets with no Trust are known to obscure tax votes with advocacy.