February 4th, 2010 5:33 pm | by BETH SLOVIC News | Posted In: CLEAN UP, City Hall

The Story Behind Bike Count 2009: Portland Bureaucrats' Mad Search For Context


As City Council this afternoon considers the Bicycle Plan for 2030, it will grapple with how to fund the ambitious program.

Weeks ago, Portland Bureau of Transportation officials grappled with a different equation: How to explain Portland's first dip in bicycle ridership since 1995.

WW created that problem. Back in December, WW published findings from an initial report that transportation officials didn't want to acknowledge. It showed the number of bike trips in Portland had fallen 5 percent to 6 percent in 2009 compared with 2008, the first such dip since 1995.

The Dec. 16 story carried a huge caveat: "the year-to-year dip is less significant when compared with the overall increase in biking in Portland since 2001—a 179 percent increase." But the story also sought to answer why the numbers had gone down. The story looked at gas prices (which dropped over the same time period) and bus ridership (which also fell during that time span).

One number the initial story didn't consider was trips by car. The reason? PBOT, as the bureau itself later acknowledged, doesn't measure automobile traffic annually. In fact, the transportation bureau measured car travel in two consecutive years at only two locations across the entire city in 2008 and 2009. By comparison, officials had 121 locations at which to compare bike numbers.

The publication of WW's story clearly caught the Portland Bureau of Transportation off guard. And according to email records obtained through a public records request, the story sparked a search for context that would support the Bicycle Plan for 2030 and minimize questions about the decline in bike ridership. Here are the emails:

Preliminary Bike Count?

In response to the story, PBOT spokesman Dan Anderson sent out a mass email.

Ready for publication?

Roger Geller, the city's top bicycle coordinator, responded to Anderson's email by saying he didn't yet know what to make of the decline.

But rather than ask why the numbers had fallen, he wanted to know from others in his department "how do we present it." For years, PBOT had said small investments in bike infrastructure paid off. Now PBOT would have to tell the opposite story -- that bike infrastructure needed a big investment. "Without facilities and a network that reflect international best practices in design we're going to reach a point where bicycle use stops growing," Geller wrote in his email. "Before advancing that notion I wanted to converse with others and make sure that's the story we want to tell."

Roger Geller asks, Is this the story we want to tell?

There was one problem. Portland Bureau of Transportation does not measure auto traffic to the extent it measures bike traffic. To tell its story, it had to go looking for numbers elsewhere.

In January, PBOT turned to transportation partners at Portland State University for more context. And in an email to PSU, Geller told the university engineer exactly what he was looking for.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, PBOT got exactly the answer it wanted. An engineer with PSU responded, "without the time to do an extensive scrub, I took a ad-hoc approach. I highlighted in red the weeks something was clearly amiss, either in 2008 or 2009. I excluded these weeks, summed the "reasonable" volumes then calculated a percent change from 2008 to 2009. Our data suggests a 5% (I-5NB) and 8% (I-5SB) decline from 2008 to 2009. We didn't check other freeways but the story is likely similar. While I am sure a more though [sic] analysis including data quality would yield slightly different numbers, its [sic] clear that vehicle travel on the freeway was down. I hope this helps."


Two minutes later on Jan. 7, Geller commits to including the data in the report without scrutinizing the numbers.
Roger Geller. "I haven't looked at it yet"

PBOT released the bike count report the following day. In a press release on Jan. 8, Anderson wrote "the Portland Bureau of Transportation's annual Portland Bicycle Count Report showed that the number of bicycle trips counted in 2009 decreased at similar rates to that of transit and automobiles."

PBOT officials were happy with the results.

Looks great

And they were successful in that at least one Portland reporter bought the context without question.

Sarah Mirk
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