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Portland Sees Cycling Sink in 2009

Published January 13, 2010

PORTLAND, OR (BRAIN)—This Pacific Northwest city has been a national leader in getting more people on bikes more often, but a recent study concludes that some cyclists parked their bikes in 2009.

Overall, cyclists made 5 percent fewer trips last year in Portland than in 2008—the first dip in ridership since record keeping began in 1995.

The 29-page report released last month cited the ongoing recession and Portland’s high unemployment rate (11.6 percent), as well as a steep drop in gasoline prices as key reasons for the decline.

Jay Graves, president of The Bike Gallery and long active in Portland’s efforts to build and increase bicycle riding, agreed that lower fuel costs and record unemployment were generally to blame.

“Gasoline prices dropped significantly (last year) and that made it easier for some to fall back into old patterns and old habits,” he said. But the unemployment rate also kept more people at home instead of commuting to work, Graves added.

Auto traffic in the Portland area also fell 7 percent last year compared to previous years, the report noted, and the state’s Department of Transportation found a 5 percent decline in traffic on Interstate 5, a major north-south freeway that runs through the city.

But Graves pointed to another more subtle issue faced by Portland and other cities—the current level of bicycle infrastructure may be “maxed out.” If bicycle ridership is to grow, then the city needs to increase spending on bike lanes and bike paths, he said.

Graves’ view was supported by the report. “Another factor contributing to this year’s decrease in ridership is that the pool of people willing to use a bicycle for transportation is almost exhausted, given the appeal of the city’s current bicycle transportation infrastructure.”

Other findings in the report found that fewer cyclists were wearing helmets—down 4 percent for women from 86 percent, and 3 percent for men, down from 77 percent.

Again, that’s the first drop since a 1992 study of helmet use. In 2008, approximately 80 percent of all Portland cyclists wore helmets. The report offered no explanation for why, but Graves speculated it could reflect the growing single-speed and fixie culture where some riders tend to avoid helmets.

Overall, though, Portland continues to be a hotbed of cycling culture with more than 50 stores scattered throughout the greater Portland area. Graves, who has six stores, said it remains relatively easy to open a shop compared to other ventures, and the weak economy may make bicycle retailing an attractive option for some.

—Marc Sani

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