OR: Earth Day: Can Portland recover its bike-and-transit prime?

April 23, 2024
The number of people who bike or use public transit in Portland has nose-dived over the last decade, but Portland still remains near the top nationally for transit and bike use.

Is Portland still a bike-and-transit pacesetter?

On Earth Day 2024, the answer is yes – but not like we used to be.

The number of people who bike or use public transit in Portland has nose-dived over the last decade, predating 2020 COVID-19 stay-at-home orders – and while it’s slowly building back up, it’s not anywhere near the city’s heyday.

But Portland still remains near the top nationally for transit and bike use. That’s because Portland isn’t alone in the overall downturn – many U.S. cities also logged declines in both categories.

In the Portland area, just like across the country, transportation accounts for the biggest slice of carbon pollution. Cars and trucks emitted 44% of Multnomah County’s carbon dioxide as of 2021, the latest year data is available from the county and city of Portland.

And while the region has made some progress in reducing emissions overall, transportation is the only sector in Portland that has seen an increase in emissions when compared to the 1990 baseline.

It’s discouraging, said Portland economist Joe Cortright, that reliance on public transit and cycling, as well as on electric cars or biofuel-powered buses, is still relatively small-scale and has yet to significantly offset the city’s greenhouse gas emissions. Cortright is co-founder of No More Freeways, a local environmental group that opposes freeway expansion and advocates for more funding for walkable and bikeable communities connected to public transit.

Cortright pointed to regional investments in highway expansion projects such as the Interstate 5 Rose Quarter freeway expansion, the Interstate Bridge Replacement project over the Columbia River and the expansion of Interstate 205 that could potentially augment the car pipeline – and lead to a further increase in emissions.

“I don’t think we’re being honest with ourselves about how little progress we’re making on greenhouse gasses and climate,” Cortright said. “And we’re not being nearly ambitious enough in thinking about how we can change how things work.”

And while Portland has been investing more money in biking and transit infrastructure in recent years – especially in previously neglected far-out neighborhoods and the suburbs – a spate of traffic deaths and attacks on buses and MAX trains have made ditching the car a little more difficult.

Jen Guzman, a mother of two teenagers who regularly bikes and takes public transit, said safety challenges have added to existing barriers such as bus and train delays, but using alternatives to driving is worth it for the planet and for personal well-being.

For Guzman, making biking her family’s most convenient transportation system was a game changer.

The family prioritized its garage for bikes and put them out front, on the ground, where they’re easy to grab. They made sure helmets and a bike pump were next to the bikes and added folding locks with combinations to every bike, to avoid situations with lost lock keys.

“Once we made those changes, there were just no excuses anymore, it became so easy to ride,” Guzman said.


Economists and researchers have blamed the decrease in public transit use and biking on a combination of factors, including a drop in gasoline prices, the rise of ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft and the rise in working from home.

For TriMet bus and MAX use, ridership peaked about a decade ago with total system ridership in 2012 at 103 million riders. Those large numbers held more or less steady for a few years, then ridership declined to 96 million in 2019.

During the pandemic, it plunged: only 40 million riders boarded buses and MAX trains in fiscal 2021, which also includes part of 2020.

The recovery has been slow. In fiscal 2023, the latest data available, only 58 million riders boarded buses and MAX trains – that’s about half the number of riders the system served in the 2010s.

Yet TriMet spokesperson Tia York said TriMet and the Portland region are the 10th-best in transit boardings per capita among the 60 largest population centers.

Biking also began to decline before the pandemic.

From 2016 to 2019, Portland saw an 11% decrease in biking citywide, according to annual one-day bicycle counts organized by the Portland Bureau of Transportation. The slide continued from 2019 to 2022 as bicycling dropped by 35%, reflecting the pandemic slump.

Unlike other major cities around the country, Portland didn’t translate the explosive growth in bike sales and cycling fever during the pandemic into more cycling activity. The city ranked next-to-last in the growth of bicycle trips when compared to other metro areas that more recently invested in bike-friendly infrastructure, according to transportation intelligence firm StreetLight Data which measures bike use.

The bad spell broke in 2023: The city’s annual count found that cycling went up by 5% over 2022. But it’s still far below the numbers from five years ago.

Yet Portland isn’t the only city where biking has decreased over the past decade – and “we’re still far and above most American cities when it comes to biking,” said Dylan Rivera, spokesperson for the Portland Bureau of Transportation.

Driving, meanwhile, continues apace – and with it, transportation emissions.

Over the past decade, they increased every year, except for a small dip during the pandemic, according to a report last year by the city’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability. Per capita carbon emissions from transportation in Portland also grew from 3.7 tons in 2012 to 4 tons in 2021. That’s the latest data available.

Population growth accounts for some of the increase: The city’s population grew steadily until five years ago and so did car ownership, said the bureau’s spokesperson Eli Bonilla. But the fact that emissions per person have increased also suggests that Portlanders are driving more, not less.


The biggest barrier to people who own cars relying more on transit and biking is convenience.

Advocates say biking and taking public transit are a lot more viable in the city’s close-in neighborhoods, where bike paths, bus stops, sidewalks and MAX stations are interconnected, close to local shops and restaurants and a quick trip from downtown.

In recent years, rising rents and housing prices have pushed more Portlanders to live in the suburbs, meaning fewer people have access to dense city living. Fewer people also cycle outside close-in neighborhoods, making it more dangerous, said Cortright, the economist who also is an avid bike rider.

“When you go to suburban locations, where destinations are farther apart and you have much more automobile oriented, high-speed streets, that’s the real challenge,” he said.

The frequency and reliability of Portland’s transit system also play a part. Buses and trains run every 15-30 minutes and riders complain they’re often late. Compare that to every few minutes in many European cities or even in New York City.

Another big issue Portlanders cite as a deterrent to bike and transit ridership is safety. In the 2022 Portland Insights Survey, a collaboration between the City Budget Office and Portland State University, most respondents said they would take public transit and bike more often if it was affordable and safe to do so.

In 2023, Portland’s traffic death toll hit a record high, with 69 people killed – surpassing a three-decade high of 64 killed just two years earlier, according to the Portland Bureau of Transportation.

Two people died bicycling last year, reflecting the average number of bicyclists killed annually in recent years.

“For me right now and for most families, the biggest challenge to biking is, can we get from point A to point B safely?” said Guzman, the regular bike commuter. “It makes me think twice about getting on my bike these days.”

A spate of terrifying attacks on buses and MAX trains over the past few years also has left some riders fearful to board TriMet. Those included a man accused of fatally stabbing a fellow passenger on MAX train in March after hearing voices, a bus passenger who allegedly punched, spat on and directed a homophobic slur at another rider in February and a man who was sentenced for stabbing two Black Portland teens on a MAX train last September.


Despite the inconveniences and safety issues, Portland remains adamant about rebuilding its bike and transit use – and is making investments into both systems.

The city recently opened a new bicycle and pedestrian bridge near Lloyd Center. It added neighborhood greenways and protected bike lanes in outer east Portland and on Capitol Highway.

It completely transformed a five-mile corridor on outer Southeast Division Street, adding new protected bike lanes and intersection, lighting and other safety improvements.

And this year, it’s planning to add more greenways and another 16 miles of protected bike lanes across the city, said Rivera with the Portland Bureau of Transportation. Last year, Portland ranked as the fifth best big city for cycling in America, according to a ranking by leading bicycle advocacy group PeopleForBikes.

“Our bike infrastructure has continued to improve. There are miles and miles of bike lanes that are safer and more protected … they are vastly better than compared to a few years ago,” Rivera said. “There’s a lot of reasons why biking should be rebounding.”

The current count: 140 miles of bike lanes across Portland, 31 miles of protected bike lanes and 115 miles of low-traffic and low-speed streets called neighborhood greenways.

TriMet, too, has made new investments. In 2022, it rolled out the FX2 rapid bus line on Southeast Division Street, reducing travel time between Gresham and downtown Portland and increasing the amount of seats available to passengers.

In March, it opened the Gateway North MAX station, its first new station in nine years - the station and track improvements will make MAX service more reliable and efficient across the entire system, transit officials said.

Trimet also is working to extend the Red Line by adding 10 more stations into Beaverton and Hillsboro, cutting commuting times through the Tualatin Valley.

Now it remains for Portlanders to take advantage of the investments and give biking and transit a chance.

Guzman and Sam Balto, a Portland physical education teacher who started a bike bus in Northeast Portland last Earth Day, offer a series of safety and other tips to commute without cars.

Guzman and her family tend to avoid rush hour traffic and navigate the city by using the lower-speed greenways and streets with protected bike lanes. Guzman also relies more on her e-bike when commuting to work because “I can use the throttle to dodge cars much easier than on my acoustic [traditional] bike.”

When it comes to public transit, the family of two working adults has only one car. Guzman taught her kids early on to ride the bus and MAX – one of her boys began to ride independently in 6th grade – and also taught them how to use the TriMet app for easy ride scheduling.

Balto said people should ride together whenever possible. His bike bus – when students ride to school with adult volunteers – encourages students and families to leave the car at home.

Another suggestion, he said, is to incorporate biking into everyday life – riding the bike on short trips to the gym or the grocery store instead of driving.

“Be ok with being uncomfortable – I mean sweaty, having to exert yourself, not knowing which routes to take – because it’s only temporary,” Balto said. “Like any skill, the more you ride, the more confident you’ll become.”

— Gosia Wozniacka covers environmental justice, climate change, the clean energy transition and other environmental issues. Reach her at [email protected] or 971-421-3154.

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