Is Portland the Cycling King?

Is Portland the Cycling King?
by the Antiplanner
Randal O’Toole

Last June, the Census Bureau was thrilled to announce that its annual survey of Americans revealed that Portland had the highest share of bicycle commuters of any city in the nation. According to the bureau’s 2005 survey, 3.5 percent of Portland commuters cycle to work. Portland is “like a Swiss city, with trains and bicycles everywhere,” exclaimed the director of the Census Bureau.

Soon after, a group called the Bicycle Transportation Alliance issued a challenge to employers in Portland (and elsewhere): which could persuade the greatest share of their employees to commute to work in September? More than 550 Portland employers who employed 118,000 full-time equivalent employees participated in the challenge. (This doesn’t include bike shops, whose employees are not very representative of the average commuter.)

Watch out for the streetcar and light-rail tracks.
Flickr photo by Salim Virji.

At the end of the month, a total of 6,906 people recorded that they rode to work at least once. On average, they rode to work about 10 out of 19 work days in September. That means that, on an average workday, 3.2 percent of people working for the companies that accepted the challenge cycled to work.

There are several reasons to think that 3.2 percent is higher than the average annual rate for Portland commuters overall. First, the data in the cycling challenge reports record the number of full-time equivalents, not the number of employees. In some smaller companies, there are so many part-time employees that they recorded more cyclists than FTEs, making it seem that more than 100 percent of their employees cycle to work. Thus, the percentage of employees, rather than full-time equivalents, who cycle would be less than 3.2.

Second, the companies and public agencies that got involved in the bicycle challenge may not be typical of all employers in Portland. Metro, Portland’s regional planning agency, participated. So did the state Department of Environmental Quality. The State Department of Transportation did not.

Third, September usually offers pretty good cycling weather in Portland. Better than October, which is iffy. Certainly better than November, December, January, February, March, and April, which are usually pretty wet and (in December through February) cold. September is even likely to be better than May, and no worse than June. Only July and August are likely to provide better weather than September.

September 2007, in particular, had a rainstorm on the 4th and a record-breaking rainstorm on the 28th. But otherwise it was sunny most of the month, with just a trace of rain on a two or three other days. Even the most fair-weather cyclists should have been able to commute by bicycle at least 14 of the 19 workdays in the month. So, if 3.2 percent of Portland commuters cycled to work this September, it is likely to be much less over the course of the year.

So my guess is that 3.2 percent is pretty high for a year-round average. Why might the census data be wrong? The census form asks how people “usually” got to work. A US DOT survey (scroll down to exhibit 1-22) found that people who say they usually drive do drive more than 99 percent of the time. But people who say they usually cycle to work actually only cycle about three-fourths of the time.

Portland still may have more bicycle commuters than other cities. Long before it was chic to do so, I commuted there by bike for many years. Even if 3.5 percent of people commuted by bike, bicycles wouldn’t do much to relieve congestion. But it is likely that the real percentage is somewhere under 3.0 percent.

This entry was posted on Monday, October 15th, 2007 at 12:00 am and is filed under Transportation. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

posted from the Antiplanner by Randal O’Toole

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  • John Fairplay

    An interesting sociology study would be to place a person on Portland’s bridges and count the actual number of people who bicycle across in the winter months. Portland claims 10,000 people ride across these bridges every day – which is obviously nonsense. Like MAX ridership figures, these numbers are simply pulled out of thin air because they sound impressive.

    More interesting would be to determine the distance so-called “bicycle commuters” actually travel. For instance, a “bicycle commuter” traveling from the Pearl District to a job in Northwest Portland might travel 10 blocks – hardly an impressive accomplishment.

    Bicycles suffer the same problem as mass transit – they simply take too long to get anywhere if traveling more than short distances.

    • Anonymous


      There was a count of riders in 2001 during morning rush hour
      by people standing on thedowntown bridges.

      The April the numbers were underwhelming
      938 bike riders during the morning rush

      Sense the bike riders had no idea we were counting them,
      they could not ride in circles and skew the numbers.

  • jared

    Randall, you have a major underreporting problem. Of the 110,000 employees, how many do you think actually report every trip they take? Having worked on the Bike Commute Challenge, I can tell you that many employees just ignore it, and only a small segment of people in a large company know about it or bother to do it.

    And as an economist, aren’t you more interested in actual counts rather than self-reporting? And actual counts on bridges and elsewhere are skyrocketing.

    And John, yes, but remember that MOST trips are under 3 miles, and bikes can be even faster than driving (since parking and traffic congestion slow up cars) for those distances.

  • Jim Labbe

    “bicycles wouldn’t do much to relieve congestion”

    This here bicyclist, driver, pedestrian, and transit user doesn’t think much is going to “relieve congestion.” There is no going back to the relatively low levels of automobile traffic in the 1970s. I have been driving in Portland for 20 years and bicycling for at least 25. Every year it is more hectic to drive and a lot easier and -statistics suggest- safer to bicycle or walk. I think this trend is going to continue.

    While some drivers may convert to bicycling, the big contribution of bicycling- and other non-automobile choices like walking and transit- will be in capturing a greater share of future trips. Jared is right, the significant number to watch is the exponential growth bicycling.

    Having lots of transportation choices- whether its walking, biking, transit, or driving- ensures that we are meeting transportation demand with a broader array of options… and not putting all our eggs in the same basket as we did in the 1950s and 1960s. Improved air and water quality and less land consumed by roads and parking lots are just some of the ancillary benefits.

    Driving is a nice option to have, but more and more I prefer to bike and I welcome the fact that more and more people are choosing to do the same.

    Jim Labbe

  • Lee

    I was one that participated in the survey. Almost every one of my bike trips were for recreational purposes, plus I am definitely a fair weather biker. But in filling out the survey for September I gave answers that could be construed by the survey that my trips were commuter trips. I believe that many of the trips, like over the Hawthorne are not close to being commuter trips, but percentage wise recreational for many bikers, especially in September. So, for trying to get exercise, fresh air, a mental break, I find my trip counts as decreasing congestion as Sam Adams contends is misleading, especially since most of my bike trips are on bike trails, and only a small portion are on streets.

    Plus, I have seen as well as participated in hitting trip counters ( as there was placed on the SpringWater bike trail on the SE by McCoy Door this summer)/\. Growing up, whenever we say trip counters we would always make 50 or more trips over a cord with our bikes, foot, and if need be, with our cars. Then there is my experience of working for the Eugene Planning Bureau in the late 60’s. We counted cars at different intersections around town and many times we would be distracted, interrupted, go for a break, lunch, and just fill in trip numbers with numbers that reflected what the bureau wanted to achieve, or our own personal viewpoint concerning the study. We sometimes quickly asked drivers as they stopped for lights where they came from and going on a purely hit and miss basis, and the study was based on this very unscientific method.

    There is also the aspect that most survey participants when asked “how many times have you….” overstate the real numbers when the questions would make them look better with a higher number. I always tell my doctor that I exercise more than a actual do.

    If Sam is so sure about the census bureau numbers that was not taken as a yearly count, acknowledging that biking in Oregon varies to a large degree, then why doesn’t he advocate for a December count to compare to September?

  • jim karlock

    Then there is the “2006 Downtown Business Census & Survey” which shows a bike to work number of 5% for downtown jobs. Most jobs are not downtown anymore, so you can probably cut that number by a factor of 3 or 4 or 5 for the whole city.


  • Michelle

    Hi Randal, I like that you’re using the Bike Commute Challenge data! We’re hoping to collect even better data next year with an improved website.

    You might be using the 2006 Challenge results to compare to the 2005 census data, but just FYI the 2007 results are:

    888 workplaces
    9,746 riders
    101,269 trips by bike

  • Crawdude

    I drive defensively in my vehicles and about 99% of the bikers I pass do the same. Unfortunately you find the few on both sides that do not.

    I think we can all remember the biker beating on the side of a 5 ton bus………..he should have been heavily fined . The people caught breaking the laws driving in bikes lanes , cutting off bikers should also. If the few from each side were aggressively prosecuted our roads would be much safer for all of us.

    Too many people dying needlessly because a few are thoughtless or feel entitled.

  • Ted Kennedy’s Liver

    I keep asking myself…

    If so many people are cylcing to work, why don’t I see them?

    If 7000 people are cylcling to work in PDX every month, where are they? As I commute I am constantly on the lookout for cyclists, not because I care how many people cycle to work, but because they are a road hazard. I never see more than one or two during any commute.

    The previous poster who suggested doing actual head counts at locations like the Hawthorne bridge made a good point, as did the poster who brought up the likely difference between summer and winter counts.

    My suspicion is that some data may be falsified – either by cyclists egaggerating to impress peers and/or the opposite sex at work, or by companies looking to improve the perception of their “voluntary” cooperation with Metro’s transit goals.

  • Neal

    The bulk of bike to works trips are short inner city trips which have zero effect on congestion or pollution or livability. They are simply a relative few people riding their bikes to work.

    Unfortuantely people like Sam Adams thinks this is big news, reduces congestion and is a real big benefit to the city. It aint.
    He’s nuts. He probably knows he’e full of crap but he’s also dishonest.


    I do have to agree on the trips, it does seem to me most are from their downtown condo or apartment. Seems most don’t want to admit it though.

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