Portland’s latest biking surge seems real, local bike shops say

Portland’s latest biking surge seems real, local bike shops say

North Portland Bikeworks new location-11-10

Commuter-related sales are generally up across the city.
(Photos © J. Maus/BikePortland)

After a few uneasy years for many local bike shops, the people whose businesses are built around Portland’s core of daily bike commuters say they’re feeling the boom.

One week after a new Census estimate that Portland added 5,000 net new bike commuters in 2014 to reach a total of 23,000 citywide, we called a few of the city’s biggest bike sellers to see if that seemed right.

Yep. And what’s more, they said the boom got bigger in 2015.

“I know that we did sell more commuter bikes that year than we did the year before,” said Matt Karre, general manager at River City Bicycles, which operates Portland’s single biggest bike shop in inner Southeast. “For 2015, it kind of blew 2014 out of the water.”

Kelly Aicher, co-owner and general manager at the six-location Bike Gallery, said the same thing.

“When you look at the smaller, focused segments — disc-equipped hybrids, fenders, disc-brake-equipped road bikes — that’s the category that I would say we’ve seen steady growth the last couple of years for sure,” Aicher said. “I would say that this year it’s probably even stronger than the previous year.”

portland bike commute share with error curves

Data wonk Kyle James of Alta Planning and Design worked with us to create this visualization of Portland’s estimated bike commute mode share over the years. The dots are shaped to reflect the margins of error built into the data; the wider a shape is at any given point, the higher the probability that it reflects the true number of regular bike commuters.

At West End Bikes, where the focus is on racing as well as the commuter and lifestyle market, co-owner Mark Ontiveros said his business is up 20 percent in the last two years.

“It seems like there’s an uptick, and this whole town: people are moving here, and it’s interesting,” Ontiveros said. “I think we’re all doing OK because we built the bike lanes, we created this culture, and I think people are being enticed. … They’re riding bikes. And they probably can’t afford to own cars with these friggin’ rents.”

“Margins are skinnier than ever — nothing is easy,” Ontiveros said. “But service is up.”

East of Interstate 205, the jump in sales hasn’t been as big. But it’s there, at least for the Outer Rim shop at NE 106th and Halsey.

“It’s definitely better than it was a couple years ago,” said Mark Andresen, a mechanic at the shop. “In terms of repairs, definitely. We’ve increased the amount of space … that’s probably three times what we had a couple of years ago.”

“I would say a third of the bikes that we have here, people complain about having to leave it here for a day or two because they say it’s their only mode of transportation,” Andresen said.

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The Outer Rim is just six years old and West End Bikes is five years old, so some of their growth is likely related to getting established as businesses. The improving economy is another factor — though all these businesses said it was clearly their transportation segment that seemed to be growing strongly in 2014 and 2015.

“I think it’s just people moving into town. Literally every single day, we get people who say ‘I just moved to Portland and I need a bike.’ It happens every day. Sometimes more than once a day.”
— Matt Karre, general manager at River City Bicycles

“I think it’s just people moving into town,” Karre said. “Literally every single day, we get people who say ‘I just moved to Portland and I need a bike.’ It happens every day. Sometimes more than once a day.”

Portland’s unusually warm and dry weather in 2015 has also been also a big factor this year, Karre added.

Not every bike shop, though, is riding high on sales. Of the six shops we polled for this story, exactly one said that unit sales fell in 2014: the Community Cycling Center, which is based in inner Northeast Portland and exclusively sells used bikes.

“We’re still a growing shop; we’re not really suffering,” CCC Retail Manager David Kurushima said. But that’s not because of more unit sales; that’s because people are buying more expensive bikes.

“We’ve also seen declines in service overall year on year,” Kurushima said. “I think a lot of that has to do with the unique position of our shop and our position in the Alberta neighborhood. I think we’re seeing a lot less sort of older bike repairs that need to get done and more and more affluent customers who have just opted to buy a new bike rather than get an old bike repaired. Because of that, we see a lot more retail sales and not so much demand for service. … I think that’s a reflection of the changing demographic of North Portland in general.”

Kurushima said there has been a small uptick in unit sales in 2015, but he attributed that to weather.

Another factor for the CCC is that they don’t ride the rising tide of the Portland area’s strengthening economy as much as new-bike shops tend to, because demand for used bikes tends to hold up during recessions.

“We definitely see obviously increased demand in up years as do all other shops,” Kurushima said. “[But] we see a steady increase in demand in down economic years as well.”


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