How much does the City of Portland know about the decline in cycling and when did they know it?
As I continue to do research around the decline (following the release of the 2022 Bike Count Report two weeks ago), I’ve been struck by this question. In some respects, the City of Portland is saying they don’t know what’s causing the decline. But in others, they’ve offered relatively detailed explanations. In this post, I want to share the theories for the decline offered by Portland Bureau of Transportation Bicycle Coordinator Roger Geller and compare those to what we’ve heard from other city officials.
First let’s start with the most recent official statements. In the report itself, PBOT wrote, “That a decline is occurring in both numbers of people bicycling and in mode split is undeniable. Why it is happening is difficult to determine.” And in a story published yesterday on MomentumMag.com, PBOT Public Information Officer Dylan Rivera also declined to share a specific rationale. “We see a need for scientifically valid public opinion research that can help us understand attitudes towards biking,” he said. “Until we know more about why people are biking less, we won’t have any new recommendations on how to address this.”
Those statements struck me as odd, given that I know PBOT has already put considerable thought into exploring the cause of the ridership decline. If we go back to the July 2022 PBOT Bicycle Advisory Committee meeting, we learn that longtime PBOT Bicycle Coordinator Roger Geller has put considerable thought into this question.
Geller, who’s worked in PBOT as a bike planner since the 1990s, shared a presentation with BAC members titled, Why has bicycle commuting/bicycling been in decline in Portland (2014-2019)? (PDF)
“I’m really kind of stumped,” Geller said at the outset of his presentation, “I’ve been in this position for a long time and the general thinking has always been, ‘build it and they will come.'” Geller explained how PBOT built new bike infrastructure each year and the rise in bicycle use followed up until a peak of 7.2% of commute trips in 2014. “But then things changed and the numbers began to drop,” he said.
“The network has grown, the quality of the network has grown,” he continued. “And so this is why it’s kind of confounding because our strategy of ‘build it and they will come’ is just not working anymore.”
Geller’s candor was appreciated. But is he really “stumped”? At that same meeting he shared some theories as to why it’s happening.
The first theory Geller shared was that Portland saw a “tremendous increase” in the number of commuters between 2000 and 2019 — and far too many of them drove cars. According to the U.S. Census, there were an additional 95,211 new commuters on our roads in 2019 compared to 2005. Thanks in part to progressive transportation policies and projects, Portland has able to keep driving at a minimum until about 2014 (see chart below).
In fact, between 2000 and 2014 bicycling (blue line in chart above) did more than any other mode to absorb those new commuters. In 2013, the number of new commuters who used a car was about half the number who biked. Just three years later, it jumped to twice the number of bike riders! And the number of drivers continued to skyrocket (relative to other modes) every year after that.
This led Geller to share what is perhaps one of the biggest understatement in the history of Portland bike planning: “Portland’s bikeway network is better than it has ever been, but perhaps it is not able to withstand an average annual growth of 6,700 drive alone commuters.”
And that’s not good, because not only will our transportation system eventually grind to a halt (it already would have if not for Covid’s impact on congestion), but if people keep driving at these rates, our city will become a much worse place to live. “One thing [more car drivers] causes,” Geller continued. “Is there’s more aggression on the road, there’s more aggressive behavior, there’s more overflow into the neighborhood greenways…”
Geller is rightfully worried about the quality of cycling on neighborhood greenways, because those streets shoulder the majority of the load in our bike network. “If people are overflowing… cutting through greenways [with cars],” he said. “Then that’s a problem and people are not going to feel especially comfortable there.”
The second theory Geller fleshed out at the BAC meeting last summer was about demographics. He thinks one explanation is that as younger, lower-income, bike-inclined residents who lived in Portland’s most bicycle-friendly neighborhoods moved out, they were replaced by people who weren’t well-versed in cycling. “Maybe wealthier residents don’t know about bicycle transportation?” he posited.
This trend was a double-whammy because not only did some new residents lack awareness of our bike network and/or an inclination to use it even if they did; but the folks who moved away now live in places where bicycling was an even less attractive option due to longer trip distances and a relative lack of safe infrastructure.
Why would new residents be clueless about our bike network? Geller has some thoughts about that too:
“If you don’t live on a neighborhood Greenway, you may not know that there’s a bicycle transportation network in your neighborhood that you can access… our bikeway network is a little bit hidden to new people coming to town.”
The last of Geller’s theories I’ll share today is related to the one above and I haven’t heard it talked about a lot yet: He thinks it’s just too easy to drive in Portland.
“Depending on where people are moving from, people are moving here from areas where it’s much more difficult to drive, and Portland remains a very easy city in which to drive,” Geller explained. And he continued:
“The congestion here isn’t bad, there’s relatively inexpensive parking… despite complaints you hear, parking is plentiful here. And so it’s possible that Portland is just too easy a place to drive, it’s a very attractive means of transportation, it’s effortless, it’s relatively quite safe — an urban driving paradise for people who are accustomed to congested cities they come from.”
I think all of Geller’s theories are very important pieces to the puzzle. They also lend themselves to a road map on how to turn these trends around: make driving less attractive, build more high-quality bikeways more quickly, defend greenways against drivers, build a stronger culture around cycling, and so on. Even with these solutions seeming like obvious steps, it might take some hand-holding to help city officials connect the dots.
At a city council meeting one day after Geller made this presentation at the BAC, a former BAC vice chair, David Stein, testified about it in front of Mayor Ted Wheeler and other councilors. After hearing Stein’s concerns about the cycling decline, Mayor Wheeler said, “I’ve often wondered if safety is really the primary question here, or whether there isn’t something else. I just don’t know.” (Also at that meeting Wheeler said he would visit a BAC meeting last fall, but that still has not happened.)
And after sharing his insights at the meeting, Geller himself seemed to not know the best way forward (or at least he’s unwilling to share them publicly). “It’s hard to know what to do because we don’t yet have a grasp on… what are the barriers to increasing bike use?”
Geller knows. PBOT knows. City Hall knows. The question is, will they have the guts to put that knowledge into action?