Paul Andrews

Is Seattle Catching Portland as America’s “City to Bike”?

In Bicycle advocacy, Bicycle Commuting on December 20, 2009 at 4:13 am

Bike commuting is up in Seattle but curiously down in Portland. A September count showed a 15 percent increase in downtown Seattle bike traffic in 2009 compared with 2007. An unofficial report in Portland showed a decline of 6 percent in 2009 versus 2008.

But there’s more. Helmet use was up in Seattle, down in Portland. Women cyclists increased in Seattle and declined in Portland.

So what’s going on in America’s Bicycle City? Has Portland peaked or is there some flaw in the statistical counting or interpretation process?

First, the Portland numbers come from a report that was prematurely leaked and will not be formally issued till January. Presumably the final report will include explanations for the drops. A post on BikePortland.org indicates, however, that one issue may be a saturated infrastructure in the City of Roses. Until upgrades are made to reach “world-class design standards,” Portland’s bike count may have topped out.

(This sounds a bit like political opportunism, which we’re all for. Bike infrastructure does need to be expanded. But our suspicion is that other factors may have not only contributed but in fact may override the infrastructure argument. They are, simply, economic pressures. Fewer jobs mean fewer commuters. Less commerce means less traffic of all kinds. A slowdown in business means a drop down in headcounts.)

Still, none of our economic factors explains how Seattle managed to spike. We sincerely doubt riders abandoned Portland for the Emerald City, so that one’s out. And Seattle’s economy can’t be that much different from Portland’s.

And in fact Seattle’s numbers could mirror Portland’s. BikePortland notes that if 2008 is omitted, 2009 counts actually trend positive (like Seattle’s) from 2007. Seattle’s report did not include 2008 numbers. (We’re trying to find out if, like Portland, Seattle’s ’09 counts are actually down from ’08.)

Whatever the reason, with a new bike-commuting mayor and bike-friendly city and county leadership, Seattle presumably has only upside, at least for the time being.

And we’re sure Portland will bounce back.

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  1. Interesting.

    The annual three day count methodology always seems to me like it is highly susceptible to external factors like weather, road repairs on high traffic routes, etc.

  2. Yeah, I think there are probably a lot of factors going on there, and I have a feeling that simply a lot less people going to work period made a big difference. Haven’t heard yet if anyone has found out if overall trips have declined in Portland, or just bike trips. Also, I don’t think higher percentage of riders wearing helmets means a city is more bike-friendly – quite the opposite in fact. If people feel safe, they will feel less need to wear helmets (look at the Netherlands).

    That said, I hope Seattle gives it their best go, and Portland as well.

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