Recent Bike Activity

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Bike Commuting, Portland vs. My City

As posted two weeks ago, I was in Portland on university business.  While there, I dabbled in research towards my hobby of bicycle-commuting advocacy by taking a few pictures and observations, and by using a bike to commute to a couple of destinations (as described in that last blog posting).

My experience was consistent with Portland's reputation...Portland is clearly succeeding in getting people out of cars and onto bikes.  Biking to work is clearly part of the transportation fabric of the city.

I contrast that to my on-going experience in my hometown of Thousand Oaks, CA, where during my bike commute I will typically see maybe four or five bike commuters on my five mile commute.  Moreover, of that handful, I'd split them into two categories:
  1. The service worker -- Latino male, lunch in a plastic grocery bag dangling from handlebars, tires probably poorly inflated, riding a cheap mountain bike.
  2. The BIKER! commuter -- White male, spandex clad, riding a bike made for commuting.
I rarely see a sort of casual biker biking to work.

A few pictures from my Portland trip:


More Downtown

Constant Traffic on Hawthorne Bridge

Women are a Common Sight
 I compare this with some (bad) shots from my own commute:

Picture Perfect Day for Riding Home from Work on  a Bike
Beautiful Day, Shady Bike Path

But Where are the Bikers

OK, There's One
The Rare Female
 As evidenced by the pictures, there's good (but not great) biking infrastructure, there's great weather, the traffic is not intimidating, yet it's a biking ghost town.

(As a side note, on the day I was taking the Thousand Oaks pictures I was riding from my place of work to my daughter's high school for college night.  The high school was a mess of parking, with cars overflowing the HS lot into the surrounding other words, it was a perfect day to bike to the high school, avoid the congestion, and bike past all the drivers that were hiking from their distant parking spaces.  However, as far as I could see, I was the sole biker.)

So...what's the deal?

To answer that question, I turn to every lazy blogger's aid Wikipedia, and also download Thousand Oaks' and Portland's Biking Master Plan documents.  From those sources, I put together the following table:

Thousand Oaks
Area (Sq M)
Density (Pop./Sq M)
Median Income
% with 4 yr Degree
Miles of Bikeways
Miles Bikeways/Sq. Mile
% of Commuting by Bike
% of School Trips by Bike

Precipitation Days
Snow Days
Sunshine Hours
Portland Advantages
Bike Infrastructure
Thousand Oaks Advantages
Higher Education*

*I considered higher education an advantage because of the preponderance of biotech workers in Thousand Oaks, and my knowledge that those employers have very bike-friendly stances towards commuting.

Looking at the table, it seems to me that with roughly one-half of the density, one-quarter of the bike trails per sq. mile, Thousand Oaks' weather, workplace, and income advantages should easily result in at least those proportions as applied to Portland's bike commuting percentage.  However, my anecdotal observations (made over 11 years) and the actual statistics are that Thousand Oaks' has just one-eighth the percentage of bike commuters that Portland has.  Quite simply, in my home town of great weather and high incomes, even though a fair amount of bike infrastructure has been installed, bike commuting is pretty insignificant.

When I went to Portland, I went with the assumption that the answer was going to be about the infrastructure.  Green bike identification areas (one of which I photographed) are common.  I also went through a couple of intersections that had stop light configurations designed specifically for the biker, one of which (if I recall correctly) stopped traffic in both directions for the bikers merging from a bike trail onto the streets.

However, I also observed many bikers biking in areas where there were no bike lanes, and certainly no fancy signals.  At those locations, I came to the conclusion that Portlanders were biking because they've achieved a kind of critical mass in biking so that biking is an accepted part of transportation.

Meanwhile back here in Thousand Oaks, I recall all the conversations with individuals that I know that I happen to encounter either at work or at a nearby Trader Joe's that I quite often frequent on the way home from work.  In those conversations, I hear genuine concern for my safety, with nearly every conversation concluding with, "be careful".  It seems that my well-meaning coworkers and friends are genuinely concerned with the inherent safety of biking, which, to me, explains why few people are biking.

So, where to go from here?  I think we do need more bike lanes and some fancy bike traffic signals in Thousand Oaks, and I think that biking planning cannot be an afterthought in transportation planning.  However, I think (as kind of a cop out) that there are no easy answers, and that I just need to keep riding and speaking up when I can.


  1. Making cycling easier for people is definitely the way to go, I think. Sometimes that means infrastructure, sometimes it means something else - for me, it was getting the right bicycle. I got myself a folding bike because I'd be able to take it in my car. I have a long commute, and this allows me to at least ride for some of it. So I'm not totally car free, but it's a start.

  2. Hi Chris,

    Thanks for the comment. I'd be very interested to know in what city you are commuting, and what your motivation was to start bike commuting.