Think Out Loud

New Portland city data shows cycling up 5% from 2022

By Rolando Hernandez (OPB)
Feb. 21, 2024 5:30 p.m. Updated: Feb. 21, 2024 8:51 p.m.

Broadcast: Wednesday, Feb 21

Annie Rudwick bikes to work with her daughters.

File photo from June 2, 2020. New bike count numbers show that cycling increased by 5% from 2022 to 2023, but is still not near prepandemic numbers.

Cheyenne Thorpe / OPB


Cycling was up 5% last year compared to2022 numbers, according to the latest bike count from the Portland Bureau of Transportation. The 2022 report showed that from 2019 to 2022, ridership fell almost 35%. Jonathan Maus is the editor and publisher of Bike Portland. He joins us to share more on what these numbers say about the current bike trends in Portland.

Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. Bike ridership numbers in Portland ticked up in 2023 after years of declines. There were 5% more bicyclists on the road last year than the year before. But still, overall ridership is down about 40% from 2016. That’s all according to recent data put out by the Portland Bureau of Transportation. Jonathan Maus has been digging through this data. He is the editor and publisher of Bike Portland and he joins us to talk about what he found. Welcome back.

Jonathan Maus: Good to be here.

Miller: I actually want to start a little bit in the past, because the graphs that I’ve been looking at that you have on your site, that PBOT has put out from 2016, that now it seems like a golden age of bicycling in Portland. What was going on back then?

Maus: Well, it was a whole different movement, moment, cultural zeitgeist. Everything was just clicking on all cylinders for cycling in Portland back then. I do think it was sort of a golden era, although I’ve also trained myself to try to not refer to it like that because I think that sort of takes away from the moment that we’re in now. There are a lot of really great things happening now, and I think it’s important for people to not get too down on how cycling has changed in Portland over the years.

Miller: What were the various components that made it such a high percentage, certainly relative to the rest of the country, but relative to now as well, that made it so more people were likely to bike, to work, to bike for transportation?

Maus: There are a lot of different factors. I think probably some of the top line ones is that like a lot of things in our society, narratives really matter, how the general people just feel about something is really important. And the difference now versus then is things like the political winds have shifted where cycling is not something that was a top priority issue in the city hall of Portland. Among leaders in Portland, cycling isn’t something that they would lead with when it comes to setting priorities or thinking about what things they want to work on. And that’s a factor of a lot of different things. Partly because, in a lot of ways, there are just a lot of other crises that sort of notched cycling down several levels, of which I’m sure a lot of listeners can relate to and understand. There were just a lot of other things that Portland leadership was working on, I think.

That, in tandem with some bicycle related stuff being controversial politically back during the heyday.

When cycling was so big, it was almost like one of the downsides that I would see, is that you couldn’t do anything in this town around cycling without a lot of people wanting to weigh in, both advocates and any kind of sort of policymaker person. Cycling was such a big issue that it often found itself in the media, sometimes false controversies around it. And so the combination of politicians wanting, I think, to steer clear from that and also just having to put out a lot of other fires from policing issues to homelessness, to housing affordability, and all sorts of other things, cycling just wasn’t the first thing out of people’s minds. And I think that eroded the brand for cycling in Portland.

And I also think of course, in the meantime, we’ve had a huge shift demographically of who lives in Portland, especially who lives in those inner neighborhoods where folks are most likely to ride because the infrastructure is good.

Miller: Well, how much do we know? Is it even possible to know if the people who arrived in Portland 15 or 20 years ago were as interested or more interested than the people who arrived one to two to five years ago?

Maus: Well, I doubt there would be a way to study that and get any kind of hard data. But as somebody who has thought about these issues for almost 20 years now almost every day of my working life, I think it’s pretty safe to say that culturally, when you would move to Portland 10 or 15 years ago, it would be really hard for you to not want to take part in cycling, because it was just in the water, it was sort of woven through the fabric of the city in so many ways. It was hard to avoid from art, to business, to politics, to culture on the street that you couldn’t avoid just walking or driving or whatever, you’d see it. And that I don’t think was the case as much with more recent folks that have moved here.

A lot of that has to do with affordability. If you look at the cultural aspects of cycling and in terms of who tends to ride bikes a lot, it’s folks who, whether they have the time or live close to town or are younger, in general they’re more likely to bike. And what happened is as those folks got priced out of inner neighborhoods and weren’t able to be in places where cycling was as easy, they [started] biking less. And then the folks that replaced them, a lot of times were moving from parts of America and other cities where cycling wasn’t as strong culturally. And when they got to Portland, the big, another big aspect of this is that the infrastructure wasn’t as welcoming as it should have been. And so we didn’t convert some of those new people into our sort of “local way of life,” so to speak. And we just sort of lost a decade or so of people coming here and thinking that when they got to Portland, you were sort of expected to ride bikes.

Miller: So let’s turn to the question of infrastructure. What do you see as the connection between infrastructure and biking, and desire or interest in biking?

Maus: Well, the way we get around is a competition for cities, right? People make a decision about whether they’re going to bike or take the bus or drive mostly based on a competitive rubric of how much time will it take me, how good will I feel doing it, or not. And I think the one of the failures of Portland is that we just haven’t made cycling as competitive as driving. It’s way too easy to drive in Portland. So I think that’s one aspect of it, is that we need to make that calculation for people much easier to have in cycling’s favor.

And a big part of that is I think it comes down to like the lack of protection of bike lanes. The other thing that happens over time, even with people who are biking, is that your expectations of what you want to have in the type of bike infrastructure you use goes up, because you’re looking at other cities that have better bike infrastructure, and you’re, you’re used now to what used to be considered good infrastructure in Portland. All of a sudden, as time goes on, it’s not considered as good. And the city hasn’t really kept up with that scale up of what people expect. So now what people expect is to have physical separation between the biking lanes and the other lanes.

Miller: As opposed to a so-called sharrow, a painted arrow thing, you can expect bikes here along with the cars.

Maus: Yeah. And you’ll hear a lot from activists “paint is not protection.” That’s become a real mantra. And it’s true, there are a lot of miles of bike lanes, even in some of the inner places where a lot of people are biking and we have high bike rate historically, that the city of Portland simply hasn’t come back and installed concrete curbs or Jersey barriers or any kind of barrier at all. There’s been this idea that somehow bikers and drivers are going to just share the roads nicely. And while I wish that was the case, I wish we didn’t have to necessarily push for physical protection because it has its own drawbacks, we do. The way people are driving has gotten materially worse. And that also, by the way, plays into the narrative of people making that decision to bike or not, is this sense that there’s a growing recklessness and disregard for the law from drivers. And if you couple that with the fact that when people bike around, they don’t feel a physical barrier between them and those people they feel are increasingly reckless and distracted, well, you can see why we are where we are right now.

Miller: We’re turning here to safety and as we’ve talked about on this show a number of times in recent years, it’s not just a vibe, it’s not a feeling, roads have gotten less safe in general, record highs of traffic fatalities in recent years. Those followed though, they did not precede, the beginning of the drop in ridership back in 2016. What is the connection?


How clear is it to you between the sense of safety on roads, and people’s willingness, their desire to be on bikes?

Maus: Well I think there’s a clear connection just psychologically. There’s also research that’s been done multiple times around the concept of safety in numbers. That’s the idea where the more people you see biking, the more likely you are to bike, and the safer you will be as well. Statistically, there was just something that came out in the last few weeks, where they did a study of cities where there happens to be a lot of bicycling, finding that the traffic safety and fatality rates are much lower, and traffic safety is much better. So that connection is becoming clearer.

But when it comes to safety in numbers, I think that also tells something of the story of Portland. I think a lot of listeners can remember back before COVID when everybody was working at the office still and traveling down these popular corridors downtown or to other commercial centers, you would see big platoons of people on bikes, you would see dozens of people, maybe a dozen people next to you. When you’re driving, you’d see them right there at the stoplight with you.

Miller: I remember that very well.

Maus: And so that sense of community, that sense of safety and strength and numbers and expectations in terms of behavior, that was really strong. And we lost that in the last several years because now the commute doesn’t really exist like it used to in terms of those great amount of people using the same corridors. Now those biking trips are spread out much more through neighborhoods at different times, so we’re not all biking together like we used to. And I think that also has played a role in the decrease of cycling in Portland.

Miller: So let’s stick with this question of commutes. Am I right that this data that we’re talking about is based on volunteers who fanned out and literally just counted the number of bicyclists who went by them at various places, at classic work commute times. Is this a metric of biking to or from work?

Maus: Yeah, it’s a metric that has been tried and true for I think over two decades at least. The city of Portland probably has the strongest local bike counting methodology and practices of any American city that I’m aware of. They’ve been doing these manual counts for quite some time. It makes them inherently valuable just because of the consistency over the years. And they’re not just ticking down numbers. There’s an extrapolation that happens. During peak commute, they fan out to these over 150 or so locations. And then they have some kind of algorithm, which I guess I’ve never really looked into deeply, but there’s a way for them to then state that that’s a good average daily amount. They take that two hour amount and they extrapolate it to get to this average daily amount of riders.

It is considered in the industry, if you will, a good quality number. It’s definitely a better measure of cycling in Portland than the US census number, most cities can only rely on the US census number because their city doesn’t do such a good sort of their own count. So that census number has never been a good one. If you talk to people that really understand these kind of things, they will really just shy away from talking about it at all. It only asked about commute trips in the past, and it was just not considered a good measure of biking.

So we’re lucky to have these local numbers. And I think it’s really stood up. No one’s ever really been able to make any cracks in the armor of these local counts. And I know that folks might hear that they’re done by volunteers, but it’s a really great program, and they have complete trainings they go through, and there’s all sorts of other things around it that make it a good count.

Miller: I do not mean to impugn the work of these volunteers. But I do wonder, post-pandemic, [there’s] such a massive shift in the way so many people are no longer going to work at regular times, or going to work regularly, that many people are now working from home at least part of the time. I just wonder if this is as full a picture as you want of bicycling habits? Does it take into account people biking to the grocery store instead of driving? Does it take into account picking kids up from school instead of driving? What do you think might be missing from this in terms of biking activity?

Maus: I certainly think there is reason to be concerned that even the city’s count that we’re talking about is not the best picture or a fully accurate picture. I think even the city would admit to that. But obviously, they’re limited by how much money and resources they can put into doing this. And because we live in such a car-centric society, even the transportation engineering field and all that doesn’t really have great tools for counting bikes yet. I think there’s some Bluetooth things, there’s some technology out there, but it’s not widely used in the same way that we can count driving trips accurately. There’s a whole technological infrastructure set up for counting cars because that’s what we value. So that’s where we’ve put our time historically. So car trip generation counts have an advantage in that regard.

But yeah, I think these could be more complete. I’ve talked to some advocates that are looking at this and don’t actually agree with the city’s numbers at all, and think that sort of because of what you referred to in terms of the locations that they’re using, especially now, having so much to do with the numbers that they get. I do think it will take them a little bit to transition toward this new reality where we have more neighborhood-based trips, more people going to school, and they’re not on the same corridors. The city, each year they’re shifting the locations a little bit, and adding new locations. So I think in a few years, maybe they’ll get more caught up with the new reality.

But I definitely talked to smart advocates in town who just don’t think that the decline was even as much as the city ever said it was. And they’ve been looking for ways to come at these numbers differently and really get an accurate count. But it’s just inherently difficult. You’re going to have to have some kind of tool that can just sense when there’s a bicycle rider coming by to really count them.

I’ve also talked to people that say we shouldn’t get so caught up in how many people are riding bikes, that that’s sort of a false metric, and all we’re doing is trying to copy the whole idea of trips being the most important metric because that’s always what we’ve done for driving cars, and we should look at different metrics like community health and livability and that sort of thing. So it’s an interesting conversation.

Miller: But sticking with the numbers for a second, how do you explain the modest 5% increase that the city found in bicycle trips between 2022 and 2023? What do you think happened?

Maus: Good question. I think it might be, like in a lot of parts of our society and our daily lives, we’re sort of recovering back to norms. Before COVID, I think the shock of the way [people’s] lifestyle changed, that included a lot of them just not biking because for so many Portlanders, getting on the bike to go to work was really how they experienced cycling most of the time. And so that got removed from their life, they started working from home. And I think it’s just maybe taken some time for them to reintegrate cycling back into their lifestyle, because they’ve realized that they’ve missed it, or they’re coming back to it after maybe not doing it as much for a while and starting to see some of those health benefits decline over the years. So they’re saying “I got to get back out there and start riding again.”

But other than that, I think it’s a story of you can’t keep a good thing down. Cycling, given somewhat normal factors in society, will always go up in my opinion, because it’s just such an inherently great way to get around. Word of mouth marketing, you don’t really need to do much for it because it sells itself once people hop on a bike, it’s just so fun and such a great way to get around, especially in a place like Portland which compared to other American cities is a really, really great place to ride. So I think it’s a natural correction. And I do plan to see future count reports only have higher numbers. I don’t ever see us dipping back down again.

Miller: What else stood out to you in this survey, about gender, say, or about e-bikes, or about anything else?

Maus: Well, the e-bike count was really interesting. It was the first time the city ever counted e-bikes as they were out there. They also counted some of those things that folks might have seen, like the one-wheels, the electric skateboards, those are growing as well. They counted scooters this time. So there was a focus on what they call micromobility devices, officially they can include e-bikes into that. So they found that 17% of all the Portlanders counted were riding e-bikes. A third of which were women and two-thirds were men. So that was interesting just because there’s so much attention on electric bikes right now in terms of trying to understand what this revolution really will do to cycling. It’s interesting to have those numbers.

We lost a little bit of our gender split that I think Portlanders were really proud of. We had a pretty good split of male and female presenting riders. The amount of women-presenting riders was down just a little bit this time, and I heard some consternation about that in a recent bicycle advisory committee meeting from someone. I’m not sure quite what’s there. But the e-bikes and taking a look at that gender split, and then of course, the little tick up was really great to see.

Miller: Jonathan, thanks very much.

Maus: You’re welcome. Thank you, Dave.

Miller: Jonathan Maus is the editor and publisher of Bike Portland.

Contact “Think Out Loud®”

If you’d like to comment on any of the topics in this show or suggest a topic of your own, please get in touch with us on Facebook, send an email to, or you can leave a voicemail for us at 503-293-1983. The call-in phone number during the noon hour is 888-665-5865.