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December 16th, 2009 BETH SLOVIC | News Stories
 

Backpedaling

A new city report raises questions about “Bike City USA.”

     
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IMAGE: Jonathan Hill

The number of bike trips in Portland dropped for the first time in five years, according to a new, unreleased report from the Portland Bureau of Transportation.

That preliminary report, the 2009 “Portland Bicycle Counts,” shows the number of bicycle trips across Portland bridges (and at more than 100 other locations citywide) has fallen a combined average of 6 percent compared with the same time period in 2008.

Last year, Portlanders made 16,700 daily trips by bike over the Hawthorne, Burnside, Steel and Broadway bridges. This year? Almost 1,000 fewer, WW has learned.

The drop comes at an inopportune time for city officials, who are just now launching their most ambitious plan yet to upgrade the city’s bicycle infrastructure to meet what they say is strong demand.

That project, the Portland Bicycle Plan for 2030, aims to encourage Portlanders to make more than one-quarter of their daily trips by bike by 2030. Precise comparison points don’t exist for 2009. But bicyclists currently account for 6.4 percent to 8 percent of commuters.

Jim Sebastian, bicycle program coordinator for the district transportation department in Washington, D.C., says Portland is considered the “gold standard” in the United States for promoting biking as a viable alternative to driving. But the new numbers pose a challenge for Portland, which got a top “platinum” Bicycle Friendly Community rating from the League of American Bicyclists in 2008.

“I would be concerned,” says Sebastian, whose city increased its cycling numbers by 27 percent in 2009. “I would want to know more.”

For all its accolades, Portland remains home to plenty of skeptics who would prefer transportation funding be spent on filling potholes, fixing broken parking meters, cleaning up fallen leaves and plowing snow during storms.

The Transportation Bureau stopped reporting “unmet maintenance needs” on city streets in 2005 because of outdated software, the City Auditor’s Office reports. Meantime, less than one-quarter of the city’s 55,000 street lights are in “good” condition, the same report reveals.

The preliminary results of the new 2009 bicycle count come with several caveats. For one thing, other recent surveys appear to contradict the results. For example, the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, released in September, found the number of bike commuters in Portland had risen from 4 percent to 6.4 percent. However, the census results are based on 2008 data.

Kyle von Hoetzendorff, manager of 21st Avenue Bicycles, says he wouldn’t be surprised if Portland cyclists had hit a plateau. “Our sales weren’t as strong as the year before,” he says. “It could be getting to a point where it’s going to fluctuate.”

Also, the year-to-year dip is less significant when compared with the overall increase in biking in Portland since 2001—a 179 percent increase.

Yet there’s no avoiding the numbers’ negative implications. When the Census Bureau released its bike data just three months ago, Mayor Sam Adams jumped on them as proof that his efforts to create new buffered bike lanes and add bicycle parking were justified.

“Our small investment in bicycling infrastructure and education are paying off in a big way,” Adams is quoted as saying in a press release from September. “Once again the data backs up our belief that when Portlanders are given a safe, convenient alternative to driving they will get out of their car and onto a bike.”

The latest data come from a Transportation Bureau study that ran from June to September. Supervised by city workers, volunteers counted passing bicyclists at almost 150 locations at peak hours of 4 to 6 pm. The city also used pressure-sensitive hoses strewn across bike lanes to count passing bicyclists at other times.

In a Sept. 28, 2009, story, “Bike Commuters: Books aren’t cooked,” The Oregonian described Portland’s method of counting cyclists this way: “Far from making up numbers, Portland is nationally renowned as the gold standard of bike count methodology.”

So what explains the decrease?

Gas prices, of course, dropped significantly in Portland from about $4 a gallon in June 2008 to $2.60 a gallon in June 2009, according to the American Automobile Association. That could mean more people were driving again in 2009. But bicycling numbers increased in both D.C. and New York City this year despite a sharp decline in gas prices nationwide.

Unemployment in the Portland metro area also rose significantly in the past year, from 6.3 percent to 10.7 percent in October 2009, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That, too, could account for fewer trips by bike.

But consider this: TriMet’s ridership numbers for 2009 so far compared with 2008 show only a 2.9 percent decrease.

The mayor’s office referred questions about the report to the Transportation Bureau. A spokesman for the Transportation Bureau confirmed the numbers are down but wouldn’t say by how much, adding that the bureau was still crunching them.


FACT: Bicycle-helmet use also declined, according to the unreleased city report.
 
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