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Portland’s new surge in bike commuting is real – and it’s gas-price proof

Portland’s new surge in bike commuting is real – and it’s gas-price proof


Rush hour on Williams Avenue in May. Once again in 2015, 7 percent of Portlanders said their main commute to work is by bike.
(Photos: J.Maus/BikePortland)

Gas prices? What gas prices?

The great gasoline plunge of late 2014 hasn’t cut the rate of Portlanders biking to work, at least not in 2015.

In fact, drive-alone commuting among Portland residents hit a modern-day low last year — the fifth such record in six years — and public transit commuting jumped to a modern high of 13.4 percent.

Thursday’s data was the first to reveal whether the recent gas price drop has reduced bike commuting nationwide.

That’s according to the Census Bureau’s annual commuting estimates, released Thursday.

The number of low-car Portland households, those with more adults than autos, was stable for the fifth year in a row. At least 24 percent of all Portland households remain in this category, and they account for 49 percent of household growth since 2005.

Bicycle commuting surged in many U.S. cities, most dramatically in Portland, during the gas price spike of the 2000s. More recently, the drop in gas prices has led to a rebound in driving. Thursday’s data was the first to reveal whether that shift had also reduced bike commuting.

It didn’t.

That’s good news, Portland Transportation Director Leah Treat said in an emailed statement Wednesday.

“Portland is growing, but our roadway space is not,” she wrote. “If we want to avoid choking on congestion, we have to reduce our reliance on single occupancy vehicles. That’s why I am heartened by these latest Census numbers.”

Bike commuting rates hold steady nationwide

big five bike commuting

Bike commuting trends in the country’s five bikingest large cities.
Data here, via Census Bureau American Community Survey. Charts: Michael Andersen.

Portland’s estimated bike-commuting rate was 7 percent in 2015, statistically equivalent to the 7.2 percent estimate from 2014.

That makes it nearly certain that the 2014 surge in bike commuting — 5,000 new commuters, ending a five-year plateau — was no polling fluke.

Also in 2015, Portland’s bike-commuting gender balance ticked closer to parity, reaching 37 percent female. The national figure is 29 percent. Portland’s ratio was 29 percent in 2005 and has been trending mostly upward since.

Elsewhere in the country, bike commuting rates were mostly stable in 2015. Nationally, they remained at 0.6 percent, continuing a four-year plateau.

What might be called the “Big Five” bike commuting cities — Portland, Minneapolis, San Francisco, Washington and Seattle — all held more or less steady. Of that group Minneapolis saw the biggest uptick, cracking 5 percent biking for the first time.

Among the nation’s biggest cities, Chicago continues to show the steadiest growth. Powered by major bike infrastructure investments, the city (which happens to be Treat’s previous employer) doubled bike-commute rates over the last decade and is up to an estimated 1.8 percent bike commuting.

New York City and Los Angeles both posted 1.2 percent in 2015, continuing their plateaus of the last few years.

Driving hits a new low thanks to public transit rebound

drive-alone decline

Data here, via Census Bureau American Community Survey.

Thursday’s figures brought TriMet some of its best news in 10 years.

Portland’s regional transit agency has had a rough decade. First, the new Yellow and Green MAX lines delivered no large payoff in ridership; later, an 11 percent service cut during the Great Recession sent wait times upward, especially at bus stops.

In Portland, transit commuting slipped to a long-term low of 11.1 percent in 2012. Until today, it seemed as if that might have been the start of an indefinite downward shift.

But things seems to have turned around in 2015, at least among Portland commuters. An estimated 13.4 percent of Portlanders got to work by mass transit last year, well up from an average 11.8 percent over the previous five years. If the trend holds, it’d bring mass transit commuting back to 2005 levels.

alternative transport

Data here, via Census Bureau American Community Survey.

Thanks to the transit increase and to a smaller rise in foot commuting, Portland’s drive-alone commuting rate slid to 57.2 percent, probably its lowest level in decades.

Alan Lehto, TriMet’s director of planning and policy, said Wednesday that he wasn’t sure what had driven the apparent rise in transit commuting by Portland residents.

“There’s not one obvious thing to point to,” he said. “We’ve clearly made some improvements in service throughout the city.”

TriMet service finally surpassed its 2009 levels this year, Lehto said. But he said most of those bus frequency improvements were midday, not during rush hours.

Oddly, though, he said it’s midday TriMet service that seems to be struggling most for riders lately.

“Our overall system annual ridership is pretty much the same this year as it was last year, and it’s been running in the same range the last few years,” Lehto said.

Lehto said the agency is “doing some more analysis” to study its current ridership strengths and weaknesses.

This is a sign that Portland policy is working – but a course change is being planned anyway

I-5 at Rose Quarter

Widening Interstate 5 at the Rose Quarter would cost an estimated $350 million as of 2013.

Portlanders’ continuing decline in driving to work, in the face of a strong economy and falling gas prices, follows decades of investments by the state and city in non-car transportation like bikes, buses and light rail.

At every level, Portlanders have elected politicians who say they support lower driving rates, especially within the city.

Thursday’s Census figures are the latest sign that this is working. Each of the last eight years, drive-alone rates have fallen by eight-tenths of a percentage point on average. If that continues, by 2025 less than half of Portland commuters will drive alone.

But the state and city are currently planning a major investment in driving.

The agencies are beginning a push toward funding what would be the biggest freeway capacity expansion within Portland city limits in many years: new lanes on Interstate 5 at the Rose Quarter.

A major goal of that $350 million project, of course, is to make it easier for more people to drive on Portland’s freeways during rush hours.

The Rose Quarter freeway widening might wind up as a piece of a possible transportation bill under discussion for 2017. It’s also possible that Measure 97, the corporate sales tax on November’s ballot, could accidentally send the state transportation department enough new money that it wouldn’t need to ask for a gas tax hike.

In any case, Treat focused her statement Wednesday on helping people escape congestion without setting aside more urban space for driving.

“Portlanders continue to get out of their cars and into alternative modes of transportation,” she said. “At PBOT we will continue to do our part to support these important trends. We will continue to work on initiatives like Biketown, the Central City Multimodal Project, making freight delivery more efficient and Vision Zero to make it easier and safer for Portlanders to get from place to place.”

— Michael Andersen, (503) 333-7824 –

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Multnomah County’s drop in auto ownership since 2007 would fill 287 acres of parking

Multnomah County’s drop in auto ownership since 2007 would fill 287 acres of parking

Everyone knows Multnomah County is growing, and that most new residents are buying or bringing in cars, too. In all, state records show, 8,709 more passenger vehicles are registered in the county than there were in 2007.

But a review of car registration statistics shows that if passenger vehicle ownership were still as popular in the county as it was in 2007, it would have had to find room for 47,210 more cars and trucks instead.

How many cars are we doing without? Well, if we built a parking lot to hold the 38,501 cars that didn’t show up and assumed a standard 325 square feet per space, we’d need about 287 acres of land. For the sake of scale, that’s everything between NE Killingsworth, Skidmore, Rodney and 16th:

alberta parking lot larger

Or, if you prefer, it’s the entire Foster-Powell neighborhood west of SE 73rd Avenue:

fopo parking lot larger

Or it’s Portland’s central business district:

cbd parking lot larger

Or about half of Oxbow Regional Park:

oxbow park parking lot

(Of course, that’d only be enough room to park each car once. In a U.S. city, there are something like 3.3 parking spaces for each car.)

But because of the 7 percentage point drop in per-person car ownership in Multnomah County over the last eight years, those 38,501 cars haven’t arrived.

That’s despite a regional economy that continues to rocket out of the recession, especially in Multnomah County. Despite a U.S. economy that’s been sending off mixed signals, the Portland-area jobs market keeps doing well. It’s ranked 15th of the 50 largest metro areas for job creation since 2008; in the year to April 2016, local jobs grew 3.2 percent, about twice the average rate for metro areas.

But for whatever reason, all the additional money pouring into Portland hasn’t been spent on more cars. Car registration rates have ticked up a bit since the recession, but only slightly.

passenger vehicles per resident

Data: Oregon Department of Transportation and Portland State University. Chart: BikePortland. For readability, axes do not start at zero.

That’s not the case nationwide or in Washington and Clackamas counties. Unlike in Multnomah County, car registration rates there have basically returned to their long-term average rate.

When we last looked at car registration rates, I asked Todd Litman of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute why this ebb in car ownership might be happening.

He said it’s a combination of the Baby Boomers entering retirement and the improvement of non-car transportation options.

“Somebody who 10 years ago would have driven to work is now not only seeing better bicycle facilities and hearing about the importance of healthy lifestyles and getting lectures from their physician about the benefits, but they’re also seeing their neighbors make that shift and it’s a little more socially acceptable,” he said. “When the car breaks down, they’re not going to replace it.”

You can explore the parking lots that weren’t needed on this Google Map we made.

— Michael Andersen, (503) 333-7824 –

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Portland is finally adding homes almost as fast as people are moving here

Portland is finally adding homes almost as fast as people are moving here

pop and housing growth

The population is up 16 percent since 2005, but the number of homes is only up 11 percent.
*The 2010 jump is related to better data from the decennial Census.
Data: American Community Survey. Chart: BikePortland.

After 10 years of falling further and further behind the number of people moving to Portland — and paying the price in rising rents, especially in bikeable areas — Portland nearly kept up with its own migration last year.

That’s according to American Community Survey figures released Thursday, which showed Multnomah County adding 4,688 net new homes in 2015. That’s the most to be reported from this data set since at least 2005, the first year it was available.

Since that year, Multnomah County’s population has grown 59 percent faster than its housing supply. That’s combined with relatively rapid growth in high-wage local jobs to rapidly drive up housing prices.

Last year, according to real estate analysts at Norris Beggs and Simpson, monthly rent at the average Portland-area apartment rose $100 — with the sharpest hikes in older, cheaper units.

Until local property owners actually start to see their rentals or sale listings sit open for more than a few weeks, housing prices are unlikely to fall. And the figures released Thursday show that the county’s population is still rising slightly faster than its housing supply: Multnomah County added 1.6 percent more people in 2015 but only 1.4 percent more homes.

“Based on the continued shortage of units and the steady to increasing demand in the coming years, we do not expect vacancy rates to approach 5 percent for at least the next 12 to 18 months and possibly longer,” the Barry Apartment Construction Report, a respected source of local housing data, wrote last month. “During 2016 and 2017, we expect a total of 12,000 to 14,000 new units to become available. The current levels of construction are meeting the new demand, but are failing to make up much ground on our low vacancy rates.”

skinny house

Was: One home in a bikeable neighborhood. Will be: two homes in a bikeable neighborhood.
(Photo: M.Andersen/BikePortland)

A study of California housing prices released in February concluded that in neighborhoods where more new market-rate homes are built, fewer people get displaced, presumably in part because the new, additional units gave wealthier households somewhere to move into other than the home of a less wealthy household.

As the city council crosses some of the last t’s today on a new comprehensive land-use plan and gets ready to start putting it into action, it’s worth considering what Portland can do keep adding more homes at least as fast as it has been for the last few years. If it doesn’t, be ready to keep saying “goodbye” to people who’ve helped make Portland the place it is.

— Michael Andersen, (503) 333-7824 –

The Real Estate Beat is a regular column. You can sign up to get an email of Real Estate Beat posts (and nothing else) here, or read past installments here.

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Even in suburban Oregon, drive-alone trips are a shrinking share of new commutes

Even in suburban Oregon, drive-alone trips are a shrinking share of new commutes

Beaverton to Tualatin ride-2

Bike commuter Jim Parsons in Washington County.
(Photo: J.Maus/BikePortland)

The Portland metro area seems to have already discovered how to slow the growth of traffic congestion, the city’s bicycle planning coordinator said Friday. But it’s not investing in it very quickly.

Between 2000 and 2014, the three Oregon counties in the metro area added 122,000 new commuters. And inside the Metro urban growth boundary, less than half of that net growth came from people driving alone in cars.

The “primary reason” rush-hour traffic hasn’t gotten worse twice as fast over the last 15 years, Portland Bicycle Planning Coordinator Roger Geller concluded in an exploration of Census data presented at Portland State University Friday, is “Portland’s significant growth in bicycling and working at home.”

Inspired in part by other Geller comments, we’ve written about this phenomenon before. But we haven’t written about just how much difference the decline in driving rates has made not only in Portland but in suburban areas.

Looking at the region as a whole, these blue bars in Geller’s presentation show the number of new commuters (including telecommuters and other work-at-home folks) by mode from 2000 to 2014:

regional commuters actual

And the orange bars here show what this would have looked like if metro-area transportation behavior hadn’t changed since 2000:

regional commuters hypothetical

Fortunately for the area, those patterns did change. In Multnomah County, the biggest factor was biking, with work-at-home a close second. (Again, the orange bars show what would have happened without a change in people’s transportation behavior and the blue bars show what actually happened, so it’s useful to look at the difference between the two bars.) The rate of mass transit use, unfortunately, declined a bit despite the Yellow, Red and Green MAX lines all opening during this period.

multco commuting trend

In Washington County (that’s Hillsboro, Beaverton, Tigard and points west), transit, biking and work-at-home were approximately equal factors in defraying the growth of driving:

washco commuting trend

And in Clackamas County (that’s Milwaukie, Clackamas, Lake Oswego and points south), the big change was work-at-home, with an assist from bicycling and to a somewhat lesser extent the other modes:

clackaco commuting trend

Geller is, of course, proud of the role bicycling has played in keeping the region moving despite so many new residents and jobs. But he’s also frustrated by the amount of driving that’s still happening.

“Clearly, not enough people are choosing to use transit,” Geller, who noted that he is “not a transit expert,” said in his presentation. “Driving is very easy in this city, and once you own a car it doesn’t cost very much.”

As the Portland region continues to grow, the stakes are high. This is the scariest slide in Geller’s presentation: a projection of new commute trips created in the next 19 years if the region remains at 2014 driving rates.

Screenshot 2016-05-17 at 12.19.39 PM

Geller has pointed out that unless Portland can reduce driving, this number of additional car trips would require “23 Powell Boulevards” to lace through the City of Portland alone.

Another thing Geller seems understandably frustrated by: the fact that even though biking has been such a huge factor in reducing drive-alone trips over the last 15 years, the region is investing almost nothing in it. He shared this chart, pointing out that even though the region’s biking-walking infrastructure plan is far cheaper than its driving and transit plans (and even though it’s been delivering such high returns on investment so far) the bike infrastructure plan isn’t on track to be funded until the year 2209.


This Thursday, Metro’s regional JPACT committee will make a key vote over how to divvy up $17.4 million created by the new federal transportation bill among biking/walking infrastructure, transit infrastructure or road widening. The Bicycle Transportation Alliance is currently fighting to try to persuade to at the very least not spend this money on road widening.

Here’s Geller’s full slideshow from last Friday, which you can also download as a PDF.

And here’s the video of his presentation, with questions at the end:

Correction 1:30 pm: An earlier version of this post overstated the amount of non-car driving in suburban areas.

— Michael Andersen, (503) 333-7824 –

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Vancouver BC doubles biking rates in four years, likely passing Portland

Vancouver BC doubles biking rates in four years, likely passing Portland

planters downtown

Hornby Street in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 2013.
(Photos: M.Andersen)

Three years ago, I got back from a trip to ride Vancouver BC’s new downtown protected bike lane network and promised every BikePortland reader a Japadog if our northern neighbor didn’t see a “substantial increase” in biking over the following three years.

I’m relieved to inform all of you who read that post that I was right.

Less exciting is the fact that the long-funded downtown Portland protected bike lane network that led me to title that 2013 post “A preview of Portland?” has yet to even start its public outreach process here in the south.

In any case, an amazing slideshow of survey results presented to the Vancouver City Council on Wednesday are a rock-solid reminder that good bike infrastructure can have a spectacular payoff, even in a city that already has quite a bit of biking.

According to Vancouver’s annual transportation panel surveys, bike commuting is up to 10 percent of the resident working population as of 2015:

work trips

Vancouver’s 2014 bike-commuting estimate was 9 percent, up from 4 percent in 2011. According to the U.S. Census, Portland’s bike-commuting rate in 2014 was 7 percent.

There are a few technical apples-to-oranges type reasons that it’s not certain whether Vancouver’s bike-commuting rate is higher than Portland’s. But as we’ve written before, citywide bike-commuting rates aren’t actually very good at comparing cities with one another, because they depend so much on where the city limits happen to fall.

However, statistics like these are good at showing how cities change over time. And the pace of changes in Vancouverites’ transportation have been extraordinary.

cycling trips

distance driven

The Vancouver metro area has almost exactly the same population as Portland’s, 2.3 million. Like Portland, it spent much of the 20th century as a working-class port city and then began to see rapid job growth and migration with the urban economic boom that began around 1990.

As in Portland, that’s led to a prosperous economy compared to other North American cities but also to a deep and costly housing shortage.

So what has Vancouver been doing differently on transportation over the last few years, enabling it to add tens of thousands of new commutes but hardly any additional auto trips?

“If we want to get to the 10- or 20-percent mark, we’re going to need facilities.”
— Rob Wynen, Vancouver bicycle advisory committee, 2010

Among other things, it’s been taking heat.

Starting in 2010, soon after electing Mayor Gregor Robertson, the city began lacing a grid of protected bike lanes through its very dense downtown, displacing parking and passing lanes in an effort to open up a central city that was described as “the Bermuda triangle for cyclists.”

As of 2011, citywide biking rates were at approximately 4 percent — well below Portland, which hit 6 percent in 2008 and then plateaued.

“If we want to get to the 10- or 20-per-cent mark, we’re going to need facilities,” said Rob Wynen, vice chair of the city’s bicycle advisory committee.

The Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association was upset, warning that removing parking would kill business downtown.

“Some parts of our downtown are well serviced by off-street parking, but others aren’t, and losing even a little in the street has an impact,” said Charles Gauthier, DVBIA’s director.

Others disagreed.

“What I object to is the assumption that removing parking and putting in a cycle track is bad for business,” said Gordon Price, a former city councilor. “I’ve got studies which indicate it isn’t. What do you have?”

Price and his allies won the argument. By the time I visited in 2013, they’d built arguably the best connected downtown protected bike lane network in North America.

many bikes

three stoplights


downtown map

Then Vancouver kept going. In summer 2013 the council took a difficult vote, in the face of intense criticism from residents of a wealthy seaside neighborhood, to use traffic diverters to convert a busy arterial called Point Grey Road into a residential street and all-ages bikeway.

“Do we feel like this is going a bit too fast?” asked Duane Nickull, a former bicycle racer who lived in the Point Grey area and led opposition to the bikeway.

But Vancouver’s council voted for the change anyway, creating a spectacular, continuous new “Seaside Greenway” along English Bay and across the Burrard Bridge into the new downtown biking network.

Here’s what happened next:

burrard bridge biking

And along the way, another funny thing happened: the downtown business association completely changed its tune.

“It’s obvious that separated bike lanes [are] working in the downtown area.”
— Charles Gauthier, Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association, 2015

“It’s obvious that separated bike lanes [are] working in the downtown area and I don’t think any politician, regardless of what political party they’re with, would ever dare take them out,” Gauthier told a local radio station last May. “We’re seeing obviously a greater demographic of people of all ages and abilities in the separated bike lanes because they’re obviously more safe and providing more comfort. At the end of the day, we don’t want to tell employers that we’re not accommodating maybe a portion of their employees that are coming to work by bike, nor do we want to turn away customers that are making that decision.”

Steve Da Cruz, owner of The Parker restaurant just east of downtown, had loudly objected to removing parking spaces on his street to add a bike lane in 2013. By 2014, he was telling the media that business had actually gone up.

“We definitely have benefited from the increased usage of the bike lane,” Da Cruz told the local business journal.

As for Mayor Robertson, who has made biking a core part of his political identity, he was handily re-elected to his third term in 2014.

Does this mean that every protected bike lane project will boost retail sales? No, of course not. But Vancouver’s success in rapidly boosting biking to a rate we’ve probably never seen in a major modern North American city is an encouraging sign of the payoff that could be possible in Portland after just a few years’ worth of political courage.

Thanks to the Vancouver Sun for reporting the data.

— Michael Andersen, (503) 333-7824 –

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The lower Northwest District is Portland’s invisible capital of bike commuting

The lower Northwest District is Portland’s invisible capital of bike commuting

invisible capital

Hidden in this street is an important lesson about bike transportation in the United States.
(Photos: M.Andersen/BikePortland)

Part of NW Portland Week.

Almost every map or chart you will ever see of “where people commute by bike” is incomplete.

Nineteen times out of 20, it’s based on only half of the picture: the locations people commute from. In the United States, we make almost no effort to calculate where people are bike-commuting to.

Little-known fact: according to the best data available, almost nowhere in Portland brings in a larger percentage of its commuters by bicycle than the lower section of Northwest 21st and 23rd, between Marshall and Burnside.

You can only find this information in an obscure Census dataset maintained by the association of state transportation engineers. But according to that estimate, about one in 10 of the 3,000-odd people who work on these 24 city blocks got there by bike during the years 2006-2010, the most recent available.

That’s double the estimated rates for the Lloyd District or downtown Portland.

bike commute destinations

We omitted a few census tracts with higher biking rates because they have only a handful of workers total.
(Data: CTPP 2006-2010. Chart: BikePortland.)

One in 10 employees of this little Census tract isn’t actually a lot of bike commuters: just a few hundred, barely enough to fill a secure bike parking area at Portland State University. That’s why nobody notices them.

But hidden in the fact that the Northwest District has a large share of bike commuters is an important fact about bike transportation in general.

To be sure, Portland has changed a lot since this data was collected. But take a walk or ride through this little corner of northwest Portland and you’ll see the sort of employers that don’t often make headlines as bike-commuting powerhouses, but are secretly the bedrock of American bike commuting: neighborhood retailers.

More specifically: bars and restaurants.

One in 10 Portland jobs (and one in 11 jobs nationwide) is some form of food service. And across the United States, an estimated 2.9 percent of people who work at “eating and drinking places” get to their jobs by bicycle. The only major employer category that comes close to that level of bike commuting are colleges and universities.

bike commuting by job category

(Data: IPUMS. Chart: BikePortland.)

You’ll almost never see this fact mentioned by pro-bike politicians, urban planners, biking advocates or journalists, who love to talk about tech workers. But the combination of low-ish incomes, odd hours, youth and (probably) an affinity for after-work hijinks has made food service workers the footsoldiers of American bicycle transportation.

And that’s made the lower Northwest District, a dense hub of bars and restaurants with mediocre transit and terrible parking, a significant Portland bike commuting destination despite the area’s near-total lack of bike infrastructure.

It’s enough to make you wonder how much biking there would be if the bike infrastructure were actually improved.

On Tuesday afternoon I walked down 23rd from Overton toward Burnside, asking in each shop if any employees were bike commuters. Here are the first four bike commuters I met, in order.

Alfredo Reyes


Reyes, 27, has been the manager at Little Big Burger for three years. He was given his first bike by his father, a biking buff who once biked across several states in his native Mexico.

Reyes lives near Portland State University and is also taking business administration classes from Portland Community College. On one day, he has to get from class to Northwest in 10 minutes; on those days he drives his car. Other days, he bikes.

“I really love bikes, and I believe in sustainable cities and saving a lot of natural resources,” Reyes said. He added, self-deprecatingly: “Probably that’s my super liberal thing.”

Reyes said that when he gets “philosophical” about his commute, he bikes because of the “sense of freedom” — “you feel your own being,” he said.

Reyes mentioned that he’s also proud that his commute preserves urban space.

“I read an article that a car takes up 25 square feet,” he said. (Note: It’s probably more like 250, but it wasn’t important to his point.) “Times two for work and home. Times three for school. People in developing countries live in 50 square feet.”

Mark Nunziata


Nunziata, 35, is a barista at Barista, the award-winning coffee joint. He’s been biking in Portland since he first moved here in 2001 to attend PSU, and was soon involved in biking activism, “Critical Mass stuff.”

“It was a very different scene back then,” he said. Biking was his main transportation from then until 2005, when he moved home to Vermont for a few years. There, he got interested in motorcycles, and started building those into his commute when he returned to Portland in 2009.

He lives in north Portland and now usually uses truck and motorcycle, but just bought a “sweet new road bike” to bike-commute this summer.

“Being at work at 5:30 in the morning does not help your motivation to start pedaling when the truck and motorcycle are staring me in the face,” he confessed.

One of Nunziata’s main frustrations about bike-commuting to Nob Hill is the lack of comfortable east-west routes.

“I’ve done it tons of times and I still don’t think I’ve got a good way to get from the Steel Bridge across Naito and into Northwest Portland,” Nunziata said. “How cool would it be if we had a Going Street here? Stop signs, speed bumps — it’s almost like cars aren’t welcome. It’s great.”

Jason Elstad


Elstad, 34, is a cook at the cafe Papa Haydn. For the last three years, he’s been biking seven and a half miles each way to work from his home near 82nd and Fremont.

“I come in and I pass everybody who’s stuck in traffic, and I’m coming home and I pass everybody who’s stuck in traffic,” he said happily. “Not paying for parking is a huge bonus.”

A bike racer in his spare time, Elstad sometimes worries about parking his bike at work, which doesn’t offer secure bike parking. But he hasn’t had any problems yet.

Ann Greisser


Greisser, 52, works the counter at Escape from New York Pizza, a restaurant she started biking to as a customer more than 30 years ago. A Portland native, her first bike-commutes were to high school and Portland State University.

These days, she’s working two food service jobs, seven days a week. That includes four double shifts that keep her busy from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m.

“I bought a condominium and I’m just trying to work my savings back up,” she said. “I don’t mind working. I like where I work. These are casual places.”

Her late and early shifts mean she doesn’t have good public transit to and from the Pearl District home she bought after many years of saving. She could walk, but feels safer on a bicycle.

“You get your sketchers” when you’re a woman walking solo through northwest, Greisser said, especially after 11 p.m. Actual problems have been rare, but on the bike she can cruise past drunken frat boys and aggressive street dwellers alike.

Greisser says biking in Portland has gotten worse as the streets have gotten more crowded.

“I used to enjoy it more,” she said. “My friend and I would get off at 11 and we would do a night ride out to Sauvie Island. That was in the 90s.”

Today, Greisser described herself as “a cautious rider.”

“I can’t afford to get hurt,” she said.

— Michael Andersen, (503) 333-7824 –

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In some metro areas, bike commuting is nearing the scale of transit commuting

In some metro areas, bike commuting is nearing the scale of transit commuting

bike commuting transit commuting

For better comparisons, this data from the U.S. Census includes both urban and suburban areas.
(Chart: BikePortland)

The unfortunately named new federal transportation bill, the FAST Act, is headed for a presidential signature after passing the House of Representatives Thursday.

While biking and transit advocates are sounding two cheers for the latest extension of the status quo (rather than the complete car-centrism favored by Koch-funded advocacy groups), it’s a good time to consider the ways transportation differs in cities across the country.

This year, the Portland metro area will spend about 30 times more tax dollars for TriMet operations alone than its cities have for biking improvements or programs.

Here’s an interesting fact along those lines: though bike commuting is nearly insignificant compared to mass transit commuting in some metro areas, in other metro areas it’s basically a junior partner.

There’s no question, of course, whether biking or mass transit looms larger in American politics. Just look at the numbers: this year, the Portland metro area will spend about 30 times more tax dollars for TriMet operations alone than its cities have for biking improvements or programs.

At the federal level, $821 million was sent to bike-related projects last year. That’s 1.3 percent of the $65 billion that went to public transit grants.

I don’t mean to be arguing that bikes and transit are rivals, or that they aren’t complementary. The world’s best biking cities are all good transit cities. Anyway, far more tax money goes toward auto infrastructure than into either biking or transit.

But it is interesting to note that an attitude that makes sense in Washington D.C. or New York City — bikes are fine and dandy but mass transportation is the mode that deserves real money — doesn’t make sense at all in other cities like Tampa, Phoenix, Portland and San Diego.

When you start comparing transit and bike commuting directly to one another, the variation among major cities is huge.

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What’s going on here?

For some of these cities, biking does well compared to transit mostly because transit is so unpopular. Tampa, Riverside and Detroit are the three largest metro areas in the United States with no light rail or metro system at all.

But why are they right next to decent transit cities like Portland, San Diego, Denver and Minneapolis?

Well, it’s hard to say. But here’s one possible factor:

Do you see the trend?

Here’s a cheat sheet: the cities circled below are Miami, Atlanta, San Antonio, Houston, Dallas, Charlotte and Washington DC.

scatterblot circled

With the exception of most Southern cities (I’m not sure why) there’s a simple rule here: Unless you’re in the South, the more buildings you have that predate mass automobile ownership, the more transit-oriented your city tends to be. But if more of its buildings went up in the age of auto-oriented planning, your city is probably relatively more suitable for biking.

The Portland region’s transit system is pretty good, and that’s worth celebrating. But it’s not nearly as good as DC’s or Chicago’s — and unless we switch back to building 1920s style density someday, it probably never will be. Meanwhile, as TriMet prepares to use the renewed federal status quo to fund two big transit investments in Southwest and Southeast Portland, local officials ought to ask themselves: are we doing enough to make sure that bicycling isn’t an afterthought?

— Michael Andersen, (503) 333-7824 –

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Annual city survey is latest to show Portlanders biking more, driving less

Annual city survey is latest to show Portlanders biking more, driving less

Ride Along with Kimberlee Chambers

Kimberlee Chambers: one of many ordinary Portland bike commuters.
(Photo: J.Maus/BikePortland)

More and more Portlanders are choosing to bike.

That’s the great news being confirmed this year by one data point after another. The latest: a city auditor’s survey released Friday, which estimated that fully 9 percent of Portlanders bike to work during the summer — the second consecutive year of increase.

mode share

In inner Northeast neighborhoods, the bike-to-work rate is 19 percent, about twice as popular as public transit (10 percent) and more than a third of the rate for driving alone (52 percent).

The citywide figure is a bit lower than the latest Census estimate of 7 percent bike commuting as of 2014. The Census averages year-round bike commuting, while the city circulates its survey (which covers a huge range of topics) between June and August.

The auditor’s survey also estimated that drive-alone commuting is at its lowest rate on record: just 60 percent of all commutes.

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The city also asks a question that’s not on Census surveys: over the last week, what was your primary transportation for all trips, including errands and shopping as well as work? On that measure, Portland posted a much lower 5 percent biking. That was the same ratio residents reported in 2011 and 2014, suggesting that if Portland has indeed increased bike commuting, it might have actually seen small declines in biking for non-work trips.

non-work mode share

For the first time, fewer than two-thirds of Portlanders say that driving solo is their main way of getting around.

All citywide questions have a margin of error of plus or minus 1.7 percent.

The growth in bike commuting makes some sense given the infrastructure we’ve been prioritizing. In the last five years, by far Portland’s most significant biking investment has been its neighborhood greenway system, which is ideal for longer-distance trips along familiar routes but harder to use for shorter neighborhood trips, because it doesn’t connect well to the streets where most businesses are.

Another likely factor: since the last recession, a much larger share of new jobs and residents are landing in near the city center rather than in the suburbs. That’s probably helping boost biking by making short commutes more common, but it’s not having as big an impact on Portlanders’ other transportation destinations.

After the Census released its 2014 estimates in September, we called around to local bike shops to ask if they were selling more utilitarian bikes. Most said they were — and that 2015’s increase in bike sales had been even bigger.

— Michael Andersen, (503) 333-7824 –

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Progress for Portland: Surge of 5,000 new bike commuters brings city rate to 7%

Progress for Portland: Surge of 5,000 new bike commuters brings city rate to 7%

share by bike

Data: Census American Community Survey. Charts: BikePortland.

It’s not 2008. But for the first time in seven years, Portland’s bike believers seem to have the wind at their back.

The latest evidence showed up Thursday in new Census Bureau estimates showing that 2014 brought the city to its highest bike-commuting rate on record: 7.2 percent.

The change falls slightly inside the statistical margin of error, so there’s something like a 5 percent chance that the increase is just a statistical anomaly. That said, it’s enough to end a five-year plateau in the city’s estimated bike-commuting rate.

According to the Census, Portland had 23,347 bike commuters last year, give or take about 3,000. That’s a 27 percent jump over the previous year’s estimate of 18,337.

Out of the approximately 14,000 additional commutes by Portland’s workforce last year, about 5,000 happened on bikes.

As biking rates rise, car commuting rates fall
Hawthorne Bridge scenes-7

(Photos: J.Maus and M.Andersen/BikePortland)

There’s more good news, including for people who drive to work: if this year’s numbers stick around, the growth in biking will correspond to a similar drop in car commuting.

Compared to the 2009-2013 average, Portland’s drive-alone rate edged down from 59 percent to 57.6 percent.

That comes out to 1,900 drive-alone commutes that would be on the road today if not for the shift away from driving and toward biking.

This doesn’t mean that Portland’s streets aren’t getting more congested. They are. Because of job and population growth, Portlanders added 9,000 more drive-alone commutes to the road last year. As we reported last month, Portland will have to do far better than it is currently doing if it’s going to repeat its trick of the 2000s and add jobs without adding congestion.

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This brings us to the bad news. Except for biking, low-car commute options haven’t been getting more popular among Portlanders.

Carpooling, though stable recently, has been on a decades-long slide. Walk commuting posted a big jump in 2012 that turns out to have been a blip. Public transit use is also flat, despite a big effort by TriMet to restore bus service that was cut during the recession.

Working at home is edging up, but not rapidly.

For other leading cities, the stall continues
nyc traffic-2-1

Bike commuting boomed in New York City during Portland’s 2009-2013 plateau. Lately, it’s leveled off.

Nationally, bike commuting rates didn’t budge in 2014. The country added 22,000 new bike commuters — but after accounting for growth in the working population, the overall rate stayed flat at 0.62 percent.

In other major biking cities, the news was mixed.

Outside of Portland, some of the best news in today’s Census report comes from San Francisco. After big investments in its bike lane network, that city continues its upward trajectory and just hit 4.4 percent biking, a modern high.

Minneapolis rebounded to 4.6 percent, making a possible slip last year look more like a continued plateau. Seattle’s five-year plateau continues; it saw a 3.7 percent biking rate. New York City, at 1.1 percent, seems to be settling into a post-Bloomberg plateau of its own.

Washington D.C., which doubled its estimated bike-commute rate from 2009 to 2013, slipped back to 3.9 percent after several years of minimal investments by its leaders. Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Oakland and Tucson all hit new highs.

The limitations of Census data
People on bikes east Portland-6

Does he count?

The Census measures only journeys to work. It doesn’t include the commutes of full-time students, or travel by people who don’t have jobs. It ignores errands and social or recreational trips, which are about 80 percent of the trips Americans take.

It’s based on a survey, conducted on a rolling basis throughout the year, that asks people the main mode they used to get to work most days last week. If someone uses two modes — driving to a train station, for example — it counts only the one that carried them the most miles.

Despite all of those limitations, the Census is the single most reliable and useful way to measure how a city is doing on biking. Because people are legally required to answer its surveys — a mandate that Republicans in Congress are currently pushing to remove — it has high response rates and low margins of error.

Unlike Portland’s manual bike counts, the Census includes people who work nontraditional shifts — an important biking constituency because the two professions most likely to bike-commute are food-service workers and college educators.

What caused Portland’s latest bike spike?

This new leap in Portland’s estimated bike commuting sets a modern record for the city and the highest bike-commuting rate ever recorded for a U.S. city of more than 200,000 residents.

(In fact, it means that Portland’s bike-commuting rate has exceeded Eugene’s for the first time ever; that city came in at 6.8 percent. Numbers for Corvallis, Oregon’s longtime No. 1 bike-commute city, aren’t out yet.)

What could have caused this jump?

Assuming the figure doesn’t turn out to be a one-year blip — and it might — here are our three top theories.

Cherry blossoms in Waterfront Park-13

1) Workforce turnover. It’s important to remember, when we talk about 5,000 of Portland’s additional 14,000 commutes happening on bikes, that we’re talking about both old and new residents. Ten to 20 percent of Portland’s population churns in and out of the city every few years, and people are constantly switching from one mode to another as their life circumstances change. An increase like this is probably driven in part by a natural progression of less bike-oriented people leaving the Portland workforce.


Was: one home in the middle of Portland’s bike network. Is now: 50 homes in the middle of Portland’s bike network.

2) Infill apartments. Love them or hate them, Portland issued 5,000 new multifamily building permits in 2012 and 2013, and the boom continues. These apartments, which are almost all being built with far more bike parking than auto parking, account for about three-quarters of all the new homes in Portland in the last few years.

Here’s a strong clue that rising density is changing Portland’s commute habits: people who live in Portland’s suburbs didn’t see a bike spike. Vancouver, Hillsboro, Beaverton and Gresham all have bike-commute rates around 1 percent, which is pretty good by suburban standards. But essentially all of the biking growth in the metro area last year — both over the 2009-2013 average, and over the one-year estimates from 2013 — came from Portland residents.

BAC bike ride-8

3) Neighborhood greenways. The bike lanes Portland painted in the 1990s took a few years to pay off. Our network of bike-friendly side streets, mostly installed from 2010 to 2012, may have done the same. I’ve been a skeptic about the ability of neighborhood greenways to lure people out of cars, because I think the network isn’t very intuitive to new users. But that doesn’t mean neighborhood greenways aren’t awesome. They are — especially for commuting. Hopefully I’m totally wrong about their shortcomings.

There are surely other factors at play. We’re eager to hear your thoughts.

Finally, a word of caution: something very important happened at the end of 2014, just as this survey was wrapping up. Gas prices plummeted, and have basically stayed low since.

This year, the drop in gas prices has combined with the decent economy (especially here in Portland) to create a national rebound in driving. It’d be shocking if that isn’t happening in Portland, too.

Today’s news makes Portland, at least for the moment, one of the brightest stars in the national biking movement once again. Harder days for that movement may lie ahead. Let’s savor this achievement — and keep our eyes on the horizon.

Correction 10 am: An earlier version of this post misstated the bike commuting increase in Detroit.

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As Portland’s biking stagnation continues, it faces an unfamiliar problem: more congestion

As Portland’s biking stagnation continues, it faces an unfamiliar problem: more congestion

traffic trends

A funny thing happens when you stop improving the alternatives.
(Job projections: Metro. Historical data: Census Bureau. Charts: BikePortland.)

In the last couple years, Portlanders have started noticing something they haven’t been accustomed to for a decade: Auto congestion is getting worse.

“Oregon Department of Transportation reports traffic has gone up 6.3 percent this year, about twice the national average — and it’s still going,” KATU-TV reported last week.

Unlike other fast-growing U.S. cities, Portland managed to avoid new cars on the road for the entire decade between 2000 and 2010.

“It is the sight becoming synonymous with Portland’s travel scene: packed freeways and frustrated drivers,” KGW-TV said two days later, bringing in a recent Portland Business Alliance report that found that 346,000 jobs in the state “rely on an efficient transportation system.”

But here’s something those stories didn’t mention: Portlanders have a perfectly good reason for being surprised by this trend.

Unlike other fast-growing U.S. cities, Portland managed to avoid new cars on the road for the entire decade between 2000 and 2010.

How’d we do it? More than any other factor, we did it with bicycles.

Bike traffic on Broadway-20

Traffic on Broadway near the Moda Center.
(Photo © J. Maus/BikePortland)

Of the 24,000 or so new work commutes that Portlanders added to the local economy from 2000 to 2010, only about 2,000 wound up in the driver’s seat of cars. Instead, 13,000 of the new commutes were bike commutes.

But around 2009, Census figures show, Portland’s golden decade without new rush-hour congestion ended. The percentage of people riding bikes to work stopped rising, the percentage of people using cars stopped falling, and (thanks to ongoing population growth) the number of commutes that happen in cars started to grow again.

Census estimates due next month will give us the clearest picture yet for how Portland’s six-year-long biking plateau is combining with the economic rebound to increase the number of cars on the road. (Other factors, the late 2014 drop in gas prices and the 2015 turmoil in local marine freight, won’t show up in the data for a while yet.)

If Portland doesn’t change course, its decade from 2010 to 2020 could look a lot like the decade that a fellow growing city like Austin, Tex., experienced from 2000 to 2010: a 17 percent surge in the number of drive-alone car trips.

With this at stake and so many people in Portland talking about traffic trouble, we thought it’d be interesting to ask a question.

How much would Portland need to improve biking and other options in order to prevent congestion in the future?

The chart above is the same as the one at the top of this post, except it includes biking, walking, transit and working at home as well as driving. To make it, we used Metro’s projections for job growth in Portland and assumed that those jobs will be held by Portlanders at about the same ratios that they currently are. (Important note: all the numbers in this post refer to the commutes of Portland residents, regardless of job location.)

The above chart shows more or less what would happen if Portland fails to make it any more attractive to get around on a bike, public transit or foot.

The percentage of Portlanders driving alone to work would remain at 59 percent.

Where would so many new cars go? Presumably we’d all be in densely packed robot cars, or maybe we’ll have raised taxes in order to destroy the buildings alongside major streets to add auto lanes instead, plus maybe we’ll reverse all our road diets and pay for the additional traffic collisions on our health and car insurance bills.

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The chart below shows another scenario: what if Portland improved non-car transportation just enough to keep car traffic where it was in the 2000s?

The numbers here aren’t actually too hard to imagine. In the next 15 years, we’d have to increase bike commuting from 6 percent to 9 percent; transit commuting from 12 percent to 18 percent; walking from 5 percent to 8 percent; telecommuting from 8 percent to 11 percent.

There are multiple ways this could play out, of course, such as a bigger rise in telecommuting or a smaller rise in transit. The above chart assumes that each of those non-car modes improves in proportion to one another.

In a country where many cities are setting out to double bike commuting in the next five years, this transportation vision isn’t particularly ambitious. But it’d also represent much more transportation improvement than Portland has seen in the last five years, when the city, state and TriMet have been paralyzed by funding problems and by fears of political backlash if they’re seen as investing too much money in non-car transportation.

Finally, here’s a third scenario: what would happen to local car traffic if Portland built a full neighborhood greenway network and added protected bike lanes to all major streets, increased residential and job infill faster than it is currently planning to, put decongestion charges on local freeways and bridges and approved a huge new investment in TriMet (similar to the one included in this year’s failed state transportation bill), thus achieving the transportation goals in its Climate Action Plan?

The red bar is what the rush-hour auto traffic trend would look like in a Portland where 25 percent of residents bike to work, 25 percent ride transit, 20 percent drive alone, and 10 percent each get to work by carpooling, walking or telecommuting.

If you or your business wanted or needed to get around by car or truck, which Portland of the future would you prefer to live or work in? We’ll let you try and picture each of them.

This post was inspired in part by Portland bicycle planning coordinator Roger Geller’s related research on the subject.

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