Portland Sees Explosive Growth in Bicycling

Clever hedge fund managers have figured out ways to make money off of weather futures, the electricity grid and quite a few other unlikely sources. What I want to know is if anyone can help me find a way to invest my retirement savings in bicycling in Portland, Oregon. According to the latest numbers, it’s a serious growth industry.

Between 2004 and 2005 the number of cyclists using the four bridges that cross Willamette River into Downtown Portland grew 15 percent. That’s impressive. Yet, the growth rate jumped to 18 percent between ’05 and ’06. The next year, according to a sneak peak at preliminary ’06-’07 counts, the number of bikes using the four bridges jumped 21 percent. (Check out Clarence Eckerson’s StreetFilm, Portland: America’s Most Livable City, if you want to see what these heavily-biked bridges look like for yourself).

Part of what makes these numbers so remarkable is that the growth in cycling took place during a time when bike path construction essentially flattened out.

Why are so many Portlanders taking to their bikes? Raisman points to the improving quality of the city’s bike facilities and intensive government efforts to discourage single-passenger car trips while encouraging walking, bicycling, transit and car-pooling through a public outreach program called Smart Trips.

An analysis shows that in 2006 Smart Trips shifted 8 percent of single-passenger motor vehicle trips to more environmentally-friendly modes while cutting the total number of vehicle miles traveled across Portland’s Northeast Hub by 19 million. The city government program, which cost only $319,000, also helped increase the share of bike trips to 7 percent of the total. (You can download a detailed, 19 mb Powerpoint presentation on Smart Trips right here).

It is also interesting to see that as the number of cyclists has grown in Portland over the last 15 years, the rate of bike crashes has plummeted, proving once again, the findings of Peter Jacobsen’s famous "safety in numbers" study. The best way to make streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists is to get more pedestrians and cyclists to use the street.

Gluttons for Livable Streets policy can download a preliminary version of Portland’s 2006 Bicycle Count Report here, including some wonky breakdowns on helmet use by gender. And if you are really looking to geek out on Portland transportation policy (Trams! Automated bike traffic signals! On-street bike parking! Community street reclamation projects!) download this 25 mb Powerpoint presentation of Raisman’s.

  • gecko

    In NYC cyclists otherwise use transit and safe bikeways most likely would be more important.

  • Easy. When gasoline prices started rising briskly in 2005, more Portlanders turned to their bikes. Unlike 95% of American cities, Portland already had in place the infrastructure needed to deal with rising gasoline costs. This is yet another reaffirmation of the glories of multimodal transportation planning.

  • Greg Raisman

    Aaron: I can’t prove it, but I don’t think gas prices really capture it. They certainly are part of it – but I think pretty small. But, one thing that’s been surprising to me is *dork alert* how inelastic the demand for gas has remained even as prices went up.

    To me there’s more likely a fabric of reasons that have encouraged the increases. Here’s a few:

    1) Political will. Our mayor ran on a theme of “Vote Recumbent” in 2004. Our Commissioner of Transportation (elected) ran saying he wanted to turn Portland into Amsterdam (see http://www.commissionersam.com/).

    2) Community engagement. Some estimates are showing that Portland has about 2,000 bicycle related events a year – 7 a day on average. For a little sampling, check out the the schedule from last year’s Pedalpalooza – http://www.pedalpalooza.org

    3) Engineering improvements. We have a new aerial tram that you can bring your bike on. People who didn’t ride because they don’t want to go uphill don’t have to anymore (that’s not why it was built, but it sure is a nice side effect). New bike signals and HAWK signals. New pavement markings to guide people through bike boulevards. On-street bike parking. I could keep going.

    There’s more. But, I think that what happens is that the people around you are riding bikes more and more and they enjoy it. Then, they invite you on a ride and you enjoy it. Then, it goes from there. I think our exponential growth is going to continue as riding a bike becomes a more and more normal part of everyday life.


  • Gretel

    I’d say it probably also relates to the demographics of the city and the people who choose to live in a city like Portland.

    Why are they obsessed with examining gender and helmet use? And how did they determine individuals’ genders? You’d think Portland would be more open minded about definitions of gender. I would be more interested in data about bikers’ ages (although that could get people into trouble as well!).

  • Greg Raisman

    Gretel: The link below is the best explanation I can give on the interest in gender at the moment. There will be more detail on this question as Roger Geller, our Bicycle Coordinator, moves towards completion on our updated Bicycle Master Plan (I don’t know the schedule, but it won’t be complete in the short term. The work is ongoing.):



  • Clarence

    Those Hawthorne Bridge numbers are crazy mad!

    If you want to see what the bridge looks like rush hour (and I swear this is really an average snap shot, there times when there are so many bikes pouring over it, it is incredible and might make this look paltry) just go to the freeze frame we have on Streetfilms we used for the Portland film here:


  • Greg Raisman

    One more thing: In the name of giving credit where credit is due, I am not one the people who actually deserve credit for the data collection and analysis on the ridership numbers.

    Roger Geller, our Bicycle Coordinator led the effort. Denver Igarta from Transportation Planning and Dan Bower from Transportation Options also did major work on putting the report and data collection strategies together. So, the numbers really are “the latest numbers from PDOT.”

    I just happened to be the person who sent the information on to Aaron.

  • Greg Raisman

    Sorry to be a blabbermouth.

    Clarence’s post reminded me that we did just make an improvement to the westbound approach to the Hawthorne Bridge that is pretty neat.

    We shifted the auto lanes (which actually helped straighten out an offset from one side of the intersection to the other) and increased the width of the bicycle space.

    The result is that it went from one 6′ bike lane to two side-by-side 5′ bike lanes with skip stripe separation. So, it’s essentially a short bicycle passing lane.

    You can see the before and after (photos taken immediately after construction) here:

    phew got that out of my system.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Very interesting, Greg. Where did that additional 4′ come from? Did you eliminate a shoulder, or narrow the auto lanes? How long is that section?

  • Clarence

    Damn! Is that the first ever on street bike passing lane?? In the U.S.??

    Looks like they took back some space from the car lanes. And it is in a smart place, that little uphill stretch is well served by having a way to go around the slower cyclists so that they won’t feel under pressure to go faster than they want to.

  • Gretel

    Thanks for the link, Greg. That’s really interesting and reminds me of the surveys the Bryant Park Corporation does. Their theory is that more women than men in Bryant Park = safe park. There was an amusing bit in the New Yorker about a man whose job it is to count females and males in the park.

    (But I digress.)

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Thanks for that fascinating reference, Gretel! I just found it here:


  • AM

    How many of Portland’s “quality” bikeway miles are physically separated from traffic? The ones on that bridge are in the road.

  • From the 3rd place award recipient for commuters, Seattle, WA, we’ve always looked at our neighbors to the south with a bit of pride mixed with envy.

    At the outset of the “velorution” in Portland they had an elected Commissioner making transportation decisions named Earl Blumenauer and an aide named Mia Birk. At now Congressman Blumenauer’s direction, Mia implemented first and asked for forgiveness later. To both their credit, they took what David S. Allen’s research inferred to heart – and knew that, “if you build it they will come.”

    In Seattle, we’re in the first year of a quarter-billion dollar race to catch up with our neighbor to the south. Regardless of who wins, we’ll all benefit.

    Ride safe,

    David Hiller
    Advocacy Director
    Cascade Bicycle Club

  • That is because PORTLAND IS AMAZING!

  • Dave H.

    Is that cyclists per day in the summer or the average around the year? I wonder what the fluctuation between summer and winter is and if the difference between summer and winter bike commuters, as a percentage, has increased since less traditional demographics have taken to cycling.

    (I mean by this that people who are willing to bicycle in a busy road with little bicycle infrastructure are probably pretty hardy people who will let cold weather get to them less (or don’t have children with them etc. etc). Now that there is better bicycle infrastructure and a safer environment for bicycling, people for whom risk-level and comfort-level play a greater role in deciding whether or not to bike are out in greater numbers — but what happens when the weather gets bad? I’d imagine many of them stop biking).

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Gretel, I’d argue that a person’s actual gender is less important for studies like this than what their gender appears to be. Women are seen as more vulnerable, so the more women someone sees, the greater the impression of safety. If someone looks like a woman but is “really” a man on some level, than he still contributes to the perception of safety.

    This is one reason why the “beautiful bike girls” are good publicity for cycling: if a skinny model feels safe riding in a dress and heels, how dangerous can it be?

    It’s also why I think the city and/or MTA would be wasting time with “BRT” branding in New York City. Women already ride the bus, in great numbers.

  • Greg Raisman

    AM: So, most of our bikeway miles are on the street. I don’t have the breakdown in front of me. The bike lane you see in my photos, though, does transition onto a shared path across the bridge deck. You’ll see shots of both the approach to the Hawthorne (on-street) as well as the deck in the Celebrating Portland movie on Streetfilms.org.

    David Hillier: You’re right that there’s been a generation of work that’s laid the groundwork for what’s going on now. I don’t know that I’d think of Mia as “Earl’s Assistant”. She was hired to be the Bicycle Program Coordinator in PDOT while Earl was Commissioner. From what I hear, our current Commissioner is being fairly equivalently ascertive about bike issues as Earl was.

    The other interesting thing is that there was certainly a spike of activity with the 1990’s crew (Earl, Mia, Roger, Jeff Smith, Barb Plummer, etc). However, as far as I can tell, the real work began in the early 70s. Those counts that are 14,000 people strong this year across 4 bridges had 15 — yes FIFTEEN — cyclists counted in 1974.

    David H: You’ll find answers to your questions here (Aaron, you may want to use this link in the article as it’s the 2007 report): http://www.portlandonline.com/shared/cfm/image.cfm?id=169951

    Have a nice weekend.

  • Bink

    Has the behavior of the cyclists changed in Portland – with the increasing numbers and better facilites? I ask because I hope that as cycling gets common, with more diversity of cyclists, that the yahoo factor might go down. In SF we have loads of young male (and female to a lesser extent) fixed gear and/or agressive riders.

    My hope is that when there are loads of cyclists, they are forced to behave in a more organized manner. Or, that cycling becomes less of a rebellion, and just another way to get around.

    Does Portland have that agressive

  • Bink

    Sorry – fragment left at bottom –

    Does Portland have that aggressive rider problem?

  • Yes, Portland does have an agressive rider problem. It’s no worse than it was before, percentage-wise, but with increasing numbers of cyclists it’s become more noticeable. Despite this, cyclists are getting safer. (Either that, or the percentage of reported crashes is going down)

    There are particular issues with cyclist/pedestrian conflicts at some key locations in the city and other areas in residential neighborhoods where cyclists disobey stop signs and/or traffic signals. I’ve frequently stopped at one particular intersection in Portland (Ladd’s Circle for you Portland locals) and had cyclists blow past me, even with pedestrians about to cross.

    Note that the last is nowhere near a bike-only problem. At the intersection where I live I counted 24 of 27 cars failing to come to a complete stop at the sign – the 3 that stopped were directly in response to cross-traffic.

    I’ve also had issues with “speed demons” whizzing past me on the bridges with less than a foot clearance and no advance warning, and there are a couple of cyclists who yell at other cyclists to get out of their way. It’s not that common, but yes, it’s noticeable, and yes, we have them.



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