Sustainable Business Oregon: Bike research in Portland arms transportation planners with real data
Author: Christina Williams, Sustainable Business Oregon
Posted: October 25, 2012

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The Portland area's ongoing efforts to pry more commuters out of their cars got a boost from new data from the Oregon Transportation Research and Education Consortium at Portland State University that shows what it takes to more efficiently get bicyclists from A to B.

Metro, greater Portland's regional government, released this week a survey showing that despite efforts to improve biking infrastructure, area residents still largely prefer to use their car to get around.

Metro's 2011 Travel Action Survey found that 83.7 percent of the time someone in the region went somewhere, they took their car, down from 87.3 percent in 1994. The percentage of people driving to work dropped from 90 percent in 1994 to 81 percent in 2011.

But while the majority of trips are still made by car, bike research is arming the transportation planners at Metro — and in other cities — with more realistic data about how bicyclists behave on the road, what incentives prompt them to leave the car behind and how to better tailor city roads to encourage cycling.

Portland State researchers working with OTREC, affixed GPS devices to 164 bicyclists in Portland to determine what routes they prefer and why.

The results of the study were published this week the scientific journal Transportation Research Part A and have been incorporated into transportation planning models at Metro. TriMet has used the results to inform its Map Trip Planner software and planning officials from Denver, Seattle, San Diego and Eugene have come calling for the data to use in their own efforts.

Jennifer Dill, director of OTREC, said the data would help Metro do even better in encouraging bicycle use in the future.

"(It) will allow Metro to do a better job — likely better than any other region in the U.S. — at predicting how certain investments or other changes to the environment would affect people's decisions of whether and where to bicycle," Dill said in an email.

The OTREC research was supported by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Metro.

Some of the results of the study included:

  • Some 72 percent of cyclists will detour from their trip to avoid an uphill slope.
  • About 26 percent will detour to use an off-street bicycle path.
  • A full 10 percent will change course to avoid crossing a busy road without a signal.

The results of the study indicate that just building bike lanes is not enough.

"Even confident cyclists prefer routes that reduce their exposure to motor vehicles," the researchers concluded. "Separated paths and bike boulevards were most attractive, but striped bike lanes were only preferred when low-traffic neighborhood streets were not an option."

OTREC is a federally funded transportation research center housed at PSU and working in partnership with University of Oregon and Oregon Institute of Technology. The center in January received a $3.5 million grantfrom the U.S. Department of Transportation to study sustainable research options.