Why bicycle transportation will save Portland’s economy

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Portland is undergoing a process to create something called the Portland Plan, a guiding document aimed towards achieving an ambitious list of environmental, educational, and economic goals by 2035.

I wrote the letter below the jump as testimony to the importance of bicycle transportation in achieving the plan’s economic goals. It’s not exactly smooth reading — it’s long, and responds to a list of questions that don’t really lend themselves to a narrative arc. But hopefully it will help some of you who are also in a position of making the economic case for bicycling. I’m putting this in the public domain — please feel free to modify, improve, and use any parts of this post for promoting bicycling in whatever way you need to, no attribution necessary. This is how the world wins!

Dear Planning & Sustainability Commission members,

Please consider this email to be written testimony about the key role of bicycle transportation in the economic prosperity/affordability strategy in the Portland Plan. Prioritizing the smooth flow of bicycle traffic throughout the region will continue to provide exponential returns in all elements of this strategy, as I will describe below.

I live in Southeast Portland, where I am a writer and co-own a small business, PDX by Bike, that helps visitors to Portland discover our city by bicycle and enables them to support bike-friendly local businesses. In the last year I wrote a ten-part series of columns about bicycling and the economy, which can be read here. In researching these columns, I was stunned by the growing economic importance of bicycling nationwide not just for people who ride bicycles but for community-wide prosperity. Transportation affects every aspect of our economy, on a household level and societally.

Below is a summary of how bicycle transportation fits in to the Portland Plan’s 2035 objectives for prosperity and affordability. I have provided citations to studies, often shortening the links. I am happy to provide any further citations, information, and commentary that the committee would find useful.

1. Export growth: In a down economy, Portland’s bike export industry is booming. Thanks to our reputation for bike friendliness and the availability of talented workers who understand all aspects of the bicycling industry, companies including Chris King, Rapha, PDW, Nutcase, Ellsworth/Zen, and many others have moved to Portland in the last decade, hired, and grown here. They all provide family wage jobs while producing bikes, apparel, gear, and components that are in increasing demand worldwide.

2. Urban innovation: See above. Moreover, Portland is a hub for the custom craft bicycle framebuilding industry, which is growing as fast as the demand for bicycling nationwide (which is to say very fast!). Entrepreneurs in fashion, writing, coffee, technology and even freight delivery have found success in starting new businesses — or branching out in existing endeavors — to tap into local and international demand for all things Portland and bike. The bicycle braintrust here in Portland is not available anywhere else in the world, and this continues to attract media attention and professional in-migration. These folks are chomping at the bit to provide jobs, and every bit of support they can get, from economic boosts to further improvements in the bikeway network, helps them grow their businesses and give back more to the community.

3. Freight mobility: Bicycle transportation and freight are natural allies. Though we use entirely different roadway systems most of the time, both interests are served by reducing the traffic congestion, road wear, and crash hazards posed by single-occupancy automobiles being the region’s primary mode of transportation. All of these barriers to freight mobility are mitigated by increased bicycle transportation. Moreover, within the city, cargo bicycles can be cheaper and more efficient to operate than trucks; UPS operates a cargo bicycle fleet during the holidays, and the City of Portland has found it economical to have its office supplies delivered by B-Line, a local bicycle freight company. I predict that, with encouragement, we’ll see growth in bicycle freight embraced more widely, including by trucking companies, creating jobs as well as improving bottom lines and community prosperity, safety, and health.

4. Growing employment districts: In 2008, Portland-based firm Alta Planning + Design found that the bicycle industry alone contributed $90 million annually to the local economy, providing as many as 1,150 jobs. Portland’s bike industry has grown substantially since then, despite the economic downturn. Since the Alta study in 2008, at least 100 directly bicycle-oriented businesses have opened in or moved to Portland. Despite lagging job growth overall, businesses tied to the bicycle economy have been growing and adding employees. It is worth noting that these figures do not include businesses that operate by bicycle or that profit from catering to customers, clients, and employees that bike.

5. Neighborhood business vitality: When people ride a bicycle rather than drive a car for most of their trips, they tend to shop and work within biking or walking distance of home. Recent studies have shown that people who shop in neighborhood retail clusters by bicycle spend more money each week than people who arrive by car. Other research has shown that building bicycle infrastructure creates nearly twice as many jobs per dollar spent as building car infrastructure. Bicycle parking in particular has a direct economic impact on local retail businesses. A forthcoming study from PSU, to be released at the end of 2012, is looking at the broader scope of the economic benefits of bicycle infrastructure to Portland’s local businesses. Finally, when employees are able to bicycle to work, economic benefits include often substantial employer savings on parking costs as well as a measurable reduction in sick days and improvements in mental health.

6. Access to housing/cost of living: City-wide access to safe, convenient bicycle transportation is key to driving down the often ignored “transportation cost” of housing. In Portland, bicycle infrastructure has been built according to a “low hanging fruit” philosophy. This means that improvements aimed at improving the safety and comfort of bicycle transportation have been made incrementally, and those increments have corresponded with the commute needs of Portlanders who are relatively well-off and politically engaged. This strategy has been effective in creating a world class bicycle network in parts of the city; unfortunately it has also contributed to the association of bicycling as an elite amenity. Meanwhile, bicycling remains an essential transportation utility that is still used and needed across all sectors of society, but which has been provided for with less attention to equity than is needed. One way to create more equitable economic opportunities is to prioritize active transportation facilities by type of street rather than by specific neighborhood or corridor. Also, bicycle-transit connectivity (including investments in the transit system) must continue to be improved citywide.

7. Access to housing/cost burden: Affordable housing, to be truly affordable, needs to come with secure, indoor bicycle parking facilities as well as on-street short-term bicycle parking and access to bike-friendly routes that lead to neighborhood business districts, parks, and schools.

8. Education and job training. Access to education, job training, and jobs is contingent on reliable, affordable transportation. Cars break down, requiring expensive repairs. Portland’s transit service is being reduced while the price to the user is going up. Bicycling is often the most reliable, cheapest, means to travel, so long as no major infrastructure barriers are imposed, such as impassable freeways, major roads without bike facilities, lack of bike parking at the destination, or instructors or employers who are hostile to bicycling. Portland’s Community Cycling Center’s “Create a Commuter” program is an excellent example of one way to provide affordable mobility to those who most need it. Access to the growing bicycle jobs sector is important as well. Portland is already home to a new campus of Ashland-based United Bicycle Institute. Improving access to opportunities to learn bicycle maintenance and manufacturing skills — for instance at community colleges and in high schools — will act as an equitable multiplier for the growing bicycle economy.

9. Household economic security. The direct cost of owning and driving a car is, on average, over $8,000 per year. The poorest fifth of U.S. families spend twice the average, amounting to 40% of their take-home pay. These costs often are directly in conflict with other expenses such as food, housing, and medication. Meanwhile, the cost of bicycling remains extremely low or free. A reasonable commuting bicycle, a lock, lights, and a helmet can be purchased for a one time investment of under $500; maintenance costs need not exceed $150 per year. Community bike projects like the Bike Farm and the Community Cycling Center offer opportunities to receive free bikes and maintenance, and repairs can be done cheaply by owners. Bicycling for transportation further contributes to household economic security by significantly reducing the risk of common, and economically devastating, diseases, including cancer, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and mental illness. Car crashes are great creators of poverty; and as a major cause of disability, loss of income, and inability to care for others, they disproportionately affect the poor. Likewise, lung and heart diseases that result from over exposure to auto fumes, for instance from growing up next to a freeway, are a public health issue that produces and reinforces economic inequalities.

There is a gender equity issue here too. Women are responsible for the majority of household trips each day, including 77% of passenger-carrying trips. When children can ride independently to school and elders can get around without a car, caretakers (who are statistically twice as likely to be women) are freed up to participate in income earning work. For true household economic security, grocery stores, schools, and workplaces must be clustered in neighborhoods and must be safely and comfortably accessible by bicycle and on foot by someone who is carrying a child and/or heavy groceries. This affects every aspect of the Portland Plan. I would particularly like to draw the commission’s attention to school placement as a vital issue in transportation equity.

Finally, the health benefits of riding a bicycle far outweigh the health risks. And as more people ride bicycles in a given area, traffic safety improves for everyone, no matter what mode they are using. Yet the poorest Portlanders often have the least access to safe, convenient bicycle routes and bicycle advocacy, services, and education.


One question that isn’t covered on this list is the public costs of our transportation system. Portland’s entire bicycle network up until 2008, when it was generally recognized as the best in the nation and among the best in the world, incurred the same public cost as a single mile of urban freeway. Automobility drains money from the local economy as well as public coffers, and our freeways produce massive external costs and are often a barrier to active transportation. The devastating financial results of continuing to invest in road systems for single occupant automobiles is well-described here. Bicycling, on the other hand, both saves and makes money — for local businesses, for the city, and for individual households. The only challenge is to make it available to everyone.

In summary, bicycling is already vital to Portland’s current economy and will even more so to our future prosperity and resilience. If we are to have a viable, equitable, well-maintained transportation system in 2035, it is essential to pursue an overall strategy that encourages bicycling at every level — from street markings to zoning to parking policies to school placement to business tax structures and more.

Thank you for reading this. I look forward to the results of all your efforts.
Elly Blue