FIRST THE GOOD NEWS: Portland is kicking every other American city's ass at bike commuting.
US Census Bureau data released last week shows that Portlanders bike to work much more frequently than any other major city in the country and are less likely to drive alone than in the last decade. But despite being the first major city to be ranked platinum by the League of American Bicyclists, Portland has spent relatively little on bike infrastructure in recent years.
The census data shows that 6.4 percent of Portlanders say biking is their primary mode of transportation to work, up from just 2.1 percent 10 years ago. Of the 30 largest cities in the country, Minneapolis trailed in second place with 4.5 percent and Seattle ranked fourth with 3 percent regular bike commuters. At the same time, over the past decade, the number of Portlanders driving alone to work has dropped 4 percent and public transit ridership is up slightly.
The city has invested only 1 percent of its entire transportation budget, about $2.7 million total, toward building bikeways over the last seven years. Additionally, the number of bike lanes built in the city has almost flat-lined during that period. From 1995 to 2000, the city launched into bike improvements with gusto, doubling the number of Portland bikeway miles from 114 miles to 222 miles. But from 2001 to 2008, the city has added only 38 miles while the biking population has more than doubled.
Meanwhile, Seattle is catching up. In 2009, our big sister city only had 130 miles of bikeways—however, David Hiller of Seattle bike advocacy group Cascade Bicycle Club explains that since the city passed a street levy in 2006, the transportation department has poured between $6-9 million a year (that's 3-4 percent of its budget) into bikes.
"Our small investment in bicycling infrastructure and education are paying off in a big way," Mayor Sam Adams wrote in his press release applauding the census numbers. But in actuality, it seems more accurate to say that the small infrastructure investments of city officials 10 years ago are starting to pay off today.
According to Northwest environmental group Sightline Institute, half of recreational bikers nationwide say they would bike to work if better lanes existed. Portland's bike-to-work numbers would likely be far higher if the city had continued its decade-old bike-lane building boom at the same rate.
"Should we be spending more on bikes? The answer is yes," says Adams' transportation director Catherine Ciarlo, adding that Adams has done good work on bike funding. This year Adams created the city's first bikes-only transportation fund, which will direct $500,000 into bike projects annually. While the number of new bike lanes has lagged, Adams was right on in mentioning education. Since 2005, the City of Portland has introduced Safer Routes to School, a biking class now taught to almost every Portland elementary school, and SmartTrips, which delivers bike and pedestrian maps to Portlanders' doorsteps.
Recent advocacy is paying off, too. The Bicycle Transportation Alliance's 14th annual Bike Commute Challenge boasted 10,553 active members this past month.