In a trend that could develop into a huge expense for Portland’s largest school, the number of people biking to Portland’s single most popular bike destination has continued to fall.
“The barrier’s really downtown. They don’t feel safe.”
— Ray Atkinson, vice president of Bike PSU
Last year, for the first time on record, the share of Portland State University employee bike trips to work fell, while student biking continued its plateau after a recent fall.
Estimated student biking rates are down by a third since their 2011 peak, from 12 percent to 8 percent, according to an annual survey conducted by the school each fall. The 8 percent biking rate in 2014 was the same as the rate in 2013.
The student drive-alone rate, meanwhile, has edged from 19 percent up to 20 percent in the same three years even as the student body has grown. If nothing changes, the university could face pressure to spend tens of millions on a new parking garage.
As for PSU employees, the estimated biking rate is down from 15 percent in 2013 to 12 percent in 2014.
The annual surveys ask all employees and a random sample of students to report their main travel mode to work or to their first class on each day of the previous week. The results are expressed above as a share of all trips, meaning that a single person can contribute to multiple categories if she bikes on some days and rides the bus on others. (Not listed here are a variety of less common modes including carpooling, being dropped off, motorcycling and skating.)
Mitigating the apparent bad news about student biking over the last few years is the fact that more PSU students are walking to class, which is related to the 1,000 new on-campus beds that opened in 2012. But though the University Pointe building that opened in 2012 led to a one-time jump in student walking rates, those rates haven’t risen since.
The group of people who bike occasionally to PSU has been on a sharp decline, too. The dark line on this chart shows the percent of PSU students who bike to class at least once a week. It’s down even more sharply since a 2010 peak.
PSU slips backward as other biking indicators rise
PSU’s problems shifting students to bikes seem to be somewhat unique.
The U.S. Census estimates that overall bike commuting in Portland rose in 2014, probably by quite a bit. The city’s recent clipboard bike counts suggest that central-city bike traffic continues to rise and that it’s mostly a decline in bike use in outlying neighborhoods that has been preventing overall growth.
PSU has long seen much more biking than its hilltop neighbor to the south, Oregon Health and Science University. But since OHSU opened an aerial tram in 2006, a free bike valet in 2012 and last month the Tilikum Crossing bridge, bike commuting has grown rapidly, rising 22 percent from September 2013 to September 2015. On Tuesday, OHSU’s Go By Bike Valet reported its highest-ever number of bikes checked in a single day: 363.
Though that figure certainly doesn’t count every bike commuter, OHSU has 14,000 employees and 2,900 students. Bike commuting to OHSU has a long way to go yet.
Portland State University, meanwhile, has improved some things on its own grounds, including pay-to-park bike garages, an on-campus bike shop and an ever-rising supply of free short-term bike racks.
But it hasn’t yet been able to persuade the city to change the streets that lead to and from its campus. There is no dedicated east-west or northbound bike lane in or out of PSU. The only southbound bike lane that leads to PSU, on Broadway, runs through a high-traffic door zone past the doors of several hotels that get heavy taxi and truck traffic.
As we reported last year, the route from the new bridge to PSU’s campus is slow, awkward and uncomfortable to beginner riders.
With Portland-area housing prices rising fast, it’d be reasonable to think that PSU students are living further from their downtown destination. But (at least as of 2013, the last year data was available) more students than ever are actually living within six miles of campus, and not mostly because of the rise in on-campus residents.
So last week I asked Ray Atkinson, vice president of the recently formed advocacy group Bike PSU, what he heard from fellow students.
“The barrier’s really downtown,” he said. “They don’t feel safe.”
New campus group looks to support biking
Last week, Atkinson and his Bike PSU co-founder, Gerald Fittipaldi, stood at a table at one of the school’s annual student organization fairs and worked to change PSU’s numbers one bike-commuter at a time.
Propped next to them was a corkboard with a large map of the Portland area. They invited students who came in by bike, or who were interested in doing so, to stick numbered pins in the map to show their location. Atkinson and Fittipaldi are building a database that will let them match people with ride buddies and organize bike trains to help people get used to biking to school.
“We’re over 100!” Atkinson told me when I arrived near the end of their Thursday afternoon shift.
Atkinson is studying for a master’s degree in urban and regional planning. Fittipaldi, Bike PSU’s president, is a graduate civil engineering student. Both had co-founded biking groups at their undergraduate schools and were surprised to learn, when they came to PSU last year, that it didn’t have a student advocacy group of its own. So they started one.
“Instead of going out drinking and dancing, I like to volunteer,” Atkinson explained.
The pair co-founded Bike PSU last April, so this is its first full regular semester as an organization. Atkinson said it’s got about 10 core volunteers. 48 people are part of its Facebook group. It’ll kick off the school year tonight with a “welcome meeting” this evening in PSU’s engineering building, starting to plan the bike trains’ routes.
Why two students don’t bike
Last Thursday I hung out near the Bike PSU table long enough to talk with a couple passers-by about their transportation choices.
“My friend was talking about in Southeast there’s some really cool bike path,” said Avarie Fitzgerald, looking over BikePSU’s map of the city. The fourth-year PSU undergrad who lives on campus but has a friend who lives near Johnson Creek and the Springwater Corridor. Her friend is a nurse at OHSU, she said, and has been talking about biking because “she doesn’t want to become one of those fat nurses. Those were her words.”
Fitzgerald said she hasn’t owned a bike herself since her parents sold her childhood one.
“I’ve wanted one for a while,” she said. “It’s silly to be in the most bikeable city in the world and not own a bike. … I don’t have the money right now.”
Taylor Yocum-Peckham, a third-year student who lives with his wife in Troutdale for the sake of the nature-rich surroundings there, said his schedule is set up so he only has to come to campus two days a week. He usually drives to a MAX park-and-ride in Gresham, but has considered tackling the 90-minute ride downtown sometimes for the sake of the exercise.
“I thought about it during the summer,” he said.
There are a thousand different reasons a person ends up biking or not biking, and some people never will. PSU’s challenge, like every other institution in Portland, is to find the people who can plausibly bike to school and get them to consider it.
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