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PDX vs. PVD: No Contest.

Portland, Oregon is well-known in the U.S. for cycling leadership, though its cycling rates are much lower than those in many European cities. But what many fail to understand is that it is Providence, not Portland, that has many of the key land-use features that signal an ability to lead in cycling.

While Portland Oregon has a density under 5,000 per square mile, Providence's density is almost 10,000 per square mile.

More importantly, Providence's total land area (25 square miles) is much smaller than Portland's: PDX proper is more than five times larger by area (133 square miles) than Providence city-proper. 

To test the idea of land use, I cobbled together figures for surrounding communities near Providence, assuming that commute statistics in the Capital City would have to rely partly on the city's relationship to its suburbs and satellite cities. If Central Falls, Pawtucket, Cranston, East Providence, and Providence formed a giant metro blob of potential commuting habits, that blob would still be less than 60% of the land area size of Portland, Oregon proper. The East Cranstofallucketence mass would also be denser than Portland proper--above 5,000 per square mile, while Portland falls a bit under 5,000 per square mile.

Density matters to biking, though not in the ways one might expect. Transit density is nodal, looking like a string of beads. The ideal density for transit is right around stops, with as little settlement as possible in between. A bus line or train line could operate with ideal ridership conditions even (perhaps, especially) if that string of beads were relatively long, so long as riders and the places they wanted to go were near stops.

Bike densities rely on less stringent demands. Because cyclists don't coordinate themselves as a group as riders of a bus do, a general blob of dense development can work. The overall length of many journeys through the blob may matter more than the specific density of development around nodes (although nodal development certainly is a plus, regardless). A village with three residents as well as a thriving metropolis of millions could equally support biking, so long as the distances of travel were reasonably short--density is a second-hand proxy of this, for the purposes of biking.

The Plum Pudding Model of atomic theory turned out to be wrong, but gives an idea of what this means. At the turn of the 20th Century, English scientist J. J. Thompson proposed a mish-mash of protons, electrons, and neutrons without any kind of nucleus as how atoms might be formed. Such a model would work horrible for getting good commutes going by bus--buses work need nuclei--but bikers would find this very acceptable.

The City of Groningen, in the Netherlands, holds the world record for journeys by bike. While that city is larger and less dense than Providence, the overall length of most possible trips is fairly short. Alongside policies of filtered permeability and separated bike infrastructure, it's estimated that over 50% of trips are made in that city by bike*, with appreciable trips also going into modes like transit.

As Portland reclaims its top-dog position for U.S. cities from challenger Minneapolis--a city larger and less dense than Providence, which spends five months of the year under blizzards, and the other months in hot, tornado-prone summers--the question that should be on everyone's minds is why Providence has yet to even step into the radar of people paying attention to this race.


*English-born Dutch biking blogger David Hembrow, who writes the blog The View from the Cyclepath, takes issue with the 50-60% statistic, saying that it's about self-promotion rather than reality. One breakdown he gives on why he disagrees with the statistic points out that many walking trips are undercounted--and perhaps make up half of trips, before biking, transit, and driving are considered--and to my mind this only reinforces that Groningen has things together, rather than detracting from its success.


  1. A few differences:

    Much of downtown Portland is laid out like a grid because the land is flat as a pancake. Waterman Street is steep enough for the downhill events of the X games. The good ways up College Hill are few.

    Your picture above shows how snowy Providence can get. For cyclists, ice ruts are tough to navigate in January.

    Did Portland, Oregon's long-sitting mayor go to jail for 64 months? Did previous Portland mayors leave the city almost bankrupt?

    --Paul Klinkman

  2. The hills and the ice are a factor. I haven't been to Portland, but I know some of the neighborhoods are quite hilly. Streetfilms has a video of a ski-lift type of thing the Portlanders have to take people to a hospital (or maybe a college campus?). The hill truly is huge and steep, beyond even College Hill standards. People in Portland apparently bike and take transit in large numbers to that location and the. take the gondola.

    Now, I'm not suggesting a gondola system...

    But one thing is that people tend to take me to think that every single trip for every single person should be by bike, bus or train. I think in reality that's not true. I think we need to radically alter our habits, and I think an apprciable plurality of city-dwellers should drop their cars entirely, but I also know that we can get there with some people owning cars, or at least using car-share sometimes. For us to get to a respectable bike/transit share (let's say 50% combined) that could involve a whole bell curve of behaviors. Some people could almost never drive--and indeed, it's around 20-25% of PVD households that are already car-free--while some might drive all the time, and some might drive sometimes but not other times. But the idea is to radically shift the equilibrium point for the average. So, Providence has a lot of school kids (like, elementary, middle, high school): what are we doing to get 90% of their trips car-free? We've got a huge college presence (25%, I think): what are we doing to assure thay almost all of those trips are car-free? If we could get people from 40 and up to do 25% of their trips by foot, bike or bus, that could round it out. Maybe many people over a certain age simply can't climb College Hill--but we can fix that by running buses more frequently. We could also empower peope to use the P-Wiggle: going around the hill by going to Wickenden and up Brook--by making that route bike-focused (it's certainly not now).

    The same for weather: so, personally, I bike almost all of the year. What stops me with snow is not the snow itself but the poor plowing of paths, the overplowing/salting of streets (which I think encourages speeding), the bad implementstion of sidewalk and bus shelter care, etc. But if you dealt with that, an appreciable number of people would bike, and others who ditch the bus would keep on the bus. Even if you saw a drop in those months due to other people not wanting to deal with winter, you could make up for it in the ebb and flow with higher usage of bikes/transit at other times (I mean, let's get serious--I believe that people don't like the cold, but I'll believe it better when we have a 70% city bike modeshare in May). It's all about averages. The same could probably be said for any topic of environmental import: we use very little energy in our house by not drying our clothes in a dryer, but if it rains for five days and I have too little room to put up the indoor rack, I will occasionally acquiesce and use it. The big problem isn't conscious people slipping sometimes, but the fact that you even have to be conscious and vigilant in the first place. In the Netherlands, they get snow, rain, wind, etc. but they keep 80% of their bike ridership in that weather, and make up for the loss by biking even more when it's nice. But that's because it's a no-brainer to bike or take transit there.

    In Trondheim, Sweden, the biking rate drops from 10% or so to 4% in the winter, according to something I read by Hembrow (Trondheim, unlike the Netherlands, is also hilly). So that shows that cold and hills are an effect (they don't have Dutch modeshares, and they have a seasonal ebb). But 4% in winter is 4x our year-round modeshare, averaged out through the good weather. How can we make excuses for ourselves until we're at least at that point?

  3. Re Portland's "ice" being a reason for Portland's low modal share: People say this often, but it's another misconception. Please remember that Portland's winters are less severe than those of Groningen, let alone Trondheim, which has properly cold winters where the ice doesn't melt away. Overall, I was impressed by Trondheim. The city already has a full grid (though too much is compromised by being shared with pedestrians) and that puts it somewhat ahead of many places (including Portland). They're now growing modal share by outspending everyone else on the planet and building pretty decent infrastructure