Opinion: Gas prices have skyrocketed again, and so can bicycling
Gas prices have topped $4 a gallon and I’ve started to wonder if the sticker shock at the pump will lead to less driving and more biking.
The last time gas prices skyrocketed in Portland, we saw a significant change in bicycle traffic volumes (see chart to the right). At the end of 2007-beginning of 2008, the price of gas was A big deal. Experts said this happened for a variety of reasons, including high demand coupled with a drop in production.
The result in Portland was a lot more cycling. It was even a cultural phenomenon. River City Bicycles owner Dave Guettler was so excited about the added cost of riding that he took out an ad in the local paper (below) publicizing a contest in which they would give away a free bike to the first person to guess the date when a gallon of gasoline would reach $4.00.
Two months after the River City contest, gas in the Portland area hit a record high that still stands: $4.28 a gallon.
As you can see in these photos, our streets became much healthier and more humane across the city as people jumped on bikes to save a few bucks.
Unfortunately for our city and our planet, high gas prices were very short-lived. A few months later, the gas was very cheap. On the bright side, we reported an optimistic view that many people would continue to ride.
Today, due to Russia’s war against Ukraine, we see another spike in gas prices. According to AAA, gas just broke the $4.00 per gallon mark in the Portland area. Coupled with the Covid-era bicycle boom, the burning climate crisis looming on us, and very uncertain global politics, one would expect another big increase in cycling.
But for all the factors that could encourage more people to cycle in 2022, there are just as many reasons why cycling rates will remain stable unless we change course. We can’t ignore how the underlying conditions that led to more cycling in Portland in 2008 simply don’t exist today.
Portland was a very different place in 2008, especially when it came to transportation.
According to US Census data compiled by the City of Portland (in the chart above), the overwhelming majority of new commuters added to our streets (the white line) between 2008 and 2018 jumped into a car (black line) while the number of cyclists (blue line) was relatively flat. During Portland’s cycling boom (roughly 2000 to 2014), cyclists were able to absorb an impressive number of new commuters overall. But in 2015, that black line (an appropriate color to represent driving if there ever was one) ticked.
The most popular narrative for why drivers and their cars have taken over Portland’s inner neighborhoods over the past seven years at the expense of other modes revolves around the cost of living. We’ve had a dramatic increase in housing prices that has driven a bike-friendly population away from their jobs and destinations, coupled with different behaviors from tens of thousands of new residents who have moved here from places where the bike was just an afterthought. In other words, the people most likely to cycle increasingly lived in places where it seemed most dangerous and inconvenient for them to do so.
So what about new residents who have moved to those nearby areas with the best cycling infrastructure? Places that had historically had strong double-digit cycling rates?
If you just look at the numbers, Portland has added an impressive amount of bike lane miles to the network since 2008. A PBOT tally that combines neighborhood green lane mileage, buffered/protected/painted lanes, and car-free lanes, says we’ve added well over 120 miles of new bike infrastructure into our system over the past 14 years (and we hadn’t even started building protected bike lanes in 2008). Portland’s cycling infrastructure has improved a lot since 2008.
But all the cycling infrastructure in the world is meaningless if the number of cars overwhelms it.
So he came back around. The funny thing is, when he was away, he put on his left turn signal like he was just going to head for Burnside. But then he saw me still there and stomped on the gas and tried the bully stunt and blew his right front tire! Bwah, ha, ha, ha! pic.twitter.com/UDbtkmOtg0
— Tony (@Tonyatwork) March 1, 2022
Portland’s famous cycling neighborhoods in the Northeast and Southeast have built their reputation on shared routes, what we once called “bike boulevards” that are now known as neighborhood greenways. Because we failed to inspire Portland’s new commuters to get on bikes and commute as our population and housing density skyrocketed, they filled these once “low-stress and suitable for families” with their cars. This led to a lot of through traffic and related issues (like the poor driver behavior in the Tweet above and congested streets with poor visibility at intersections) that discouraged cycling and initiated a negative feedback loop .
“The conditions for cycling on these inner streets are deteriorating and that is having a chilling effect.”
— Roger Geller, 2020 PBOT bike coordinator
At a Portland Bike Advisory Committee meeting in February 2020, longtime PBOT bike coordinator Roger Geller said, “My thoughts are and my experience is that the conditions for cycling in these interior streets are deteriorating and this has a deterrent effect.”
“Even though we complain about the congestion, it’s still very easy to drive a car in this city,” he continued.
Not only is it too easy to drive, Geller said, but cycling infrastructure that relies too heavily on lanes is also too easy to miss while driving a car.
“If there was a big green bike lane next to them as they were riding with a lot of people riding on it, they might say, ‘Oh, I can see the path for cycling. Instead of driving, I just get on my bike and cycle through these streets,” Geller said.
Geller understands Portland’s bike network better than any other human being on the planet. In his mind, our network was simply too shy. People who would like to meet him and start a longer-term relationship with him are never even introduced.
Here’s more from Geller:
“The district’s network of greenways is rather hidden, especially for newcomers. You have to know where this network is, you need a map to find it. If you live on Stark, you might not know that three blocks north is Ankeny Street and it’s a really nice neighborhood greenway. So I think we suffer a bit from the fact that the network is hidden.
Even beyond the “hidden network” problem identified by Geller, much of the cycling infrastructure we’ve built since 2008 isn’t good enough to entice a wide range of Portlanders to use it. And even where the design is good, the lack of maintenance and connectivity means far too much of our bike infrastructure is safe and useful for only a small slice of hardcore cyclists.
But there are reasons for hope. Soaring gas prices in 2022 is just one reason why I believe the political and social conditions are ripe to turn our cycling gloom into another cycling boom.
In 2013, just a year short of hitting 7.2% — which was the highest ever bicycle mode share for any of the top 25 U.S. cities — we looked at what led to the bicycle boom. bike in Portland and identified five factors that led to it.
We wrote that cycling has succeeded in Portland because of the presence of five things: our “fun bike” culture (think Pedalpalooza, etc.), excellent and inspired city staff, mature communication channels, activists engaged and a positive cycling feedback loop.
Do we still have these things? I think we get about 2.5 out of 5 on that scale, but I’ll save my rationale on that for another day.
What do you think? Will high gas prices lead to more cycling? Would a boom even look the same given the sharp drop in commuter numbers due to the increase in working from home? What will it take to get the bike back to Portland?