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Are we really counting the number of bicycle trips?

Posted Jun 14 2010 3:49pm
When we hear talk in the U.S. of how many people ride bicycles, it is almost always based on how many people ride their bikes to work, or how many are "bike commuters." I've been thinking a lot lately about whether that actually captures how many people are riding bikes in Portland specifically, and elsewhere as well.

Here's what I'm thinking: I would venture to bet that for many people, the trip to work is one of the longest trips they make on a regular basis. This is the case for my wife and I, and I have a feeling it's the case for many people in Portland, and even in the suburbs, who are closer to grocery stores, restaurants, parks, theaters and such than they are to work. There are also people who don't go to a 9-5 day job, but ride their bikes for many or all of the trips they do take outside of their home.

This may mean that quite a few people who don't currently feel comfortable making the 5-or-more mile trip to work on a bike might regularly go the 1-2 miles to the grocery store, out to dinner, to a movie, etc. In these cases, it may be that many or even most of their trips are by bicycle, just not to work. For my wife and I in particular, we very rarely go more than 2 miles away from our house on any given day (apart from work), even on the weekends.

I think in saying that 6% of people in Portland ride their bikes to work, we might be vastly under-representing how many people ride bikes in Portland, and the number of trips made by bike. It wouldn't really surprise me if in some areas of Portland (parts of inner SE and NE particularly) the percentage of people who regularly use a bike to go somewhere was more like 25% - not that 25% of trips in these areas are by bike, but that 25% of people in these areas use a bike as a means of transportation on a regular basis.

This makes a big difference in planning and policy. If you have a perceived 6% of people who are using bicycles as transportation, it's pretty easy to say "eh, we'll throw them a bone here and there, they'll just have to deal with it." However, if you have a perceived 25% of people who are using bicycles to get around, it's a little harder to ignore. At the very least, it should make it obvious that people (and quite a few of them) are *choosing* this means of transportation, and that the number of people choosing to do so is continually rising.

I don't have much actual statistical evidence to back this post up, though I know there have been some surveys done that show, especially in NE and SE Portland, that much higher than 6% of people use a bicycle as at least a secondary means of transportation. Largely this is based on my own feeling of how many people are out and about on bicycles, that types of people I see on bicycles at different times of day (for instance, there's a very different group of people out around town at 7pm than there is at 5.30pm during commute rush-hour), etc.

What do you all think? Does this hold true in Portland, or in other cities where you are riding? Are we severely under-counting the number of people riding bicycles by largely focusing on "commuters"? What do you think?
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