The Top 100 Neighborhoods for Bicycle Commuting Have a 21% Mode Share

More than half of people in Stanford University's central campus commute by bike. Photo: ##http://travelchew.blogspot.com/2013_12_01_archive.html##TravelChew##
More than half of people in Stanford University’s central campus commute by bike. Photo: TravelChew

City rankings of bike-friendliness — while fabulous click-bait for their purveyors — obscure dramatic differences among neighborhoods. Los Angeles doesn’t appear on any cycling top 10 lists, but the area to the north and west of the University of Southern California has a 20 percent bicycle mode share. The city of Miami Beach is no bike heavyweight, but around Flamingo Park, nearly one in every four trips to work is made on two wheels.

Robert Schneider, an urban planning professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, wanted to go beyond the city rankings. He and his assistant, Joe Stefanich, examined 60,090 census tracts to find the top 100 U.S. neighborhoods for bicycle commuting [PDF]. They presented the results at the Transportation Research Board Annual Meeting in January.

Taken together, those neighborhoods have a 21 percent bicycle mode share. Compare that to the U.S. as a whole, with its piddling 0.6 percent mode share.

Here’s what Schneider and Stefanich found:

  • Stanford University is a biking powerhouse. The central campus has a 52 percent mode share, the highest in the country. Five census tracts in and around the campus make it into the top 100. (Check out our coverage of Stanford’s transportation demand management program to find out more about how they did it.)
  • Stanford is not alone. College campuses in general support biking like nothing else. Of the top 100 census tracts for bike commuting, 68 are within two miles of a campus.
  • The polar vortex ate your bicycle. Seventy of the top 100 tracts have mild climates with fewer than 10 days a year with temperatures that don’t go above freezing.
  • The Amish will rival your beardiest hipsters for bike love (and beards for that matter). Only, many of them don’t exactly ride bikes but these hybrid bicycle scooters. Four tracts in rural areas of Ohio and Indiana with significant Amish populations have bike commuting rates between 15.7 and 18 percent.
It's not quite a bike, but it'll get you in the bicycle top 100. Photo: ##Inhabitat##http://inhabitat.com/amish-designers-hand-made-these-colorful-kick-scooters-on-a-farm-in-pennsylvania/##
It’s not quite a bike, but it’ll get you in the bicycle top 100. I’ve been waiting to feature one of these on Streetsblog since my last visit to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, a year and a half ago. Photo: Inhabitat

The common threads you’d expect to find running through these top bicycling neighborhoods are all there: good bike facilities, lots of car-free households, higher population density, fewer hills.

This list has the same weakness as every other study on bicycling: It’s based on the American Community Survey journey-to-work data, so it doesn’t look at transportation patterns for anything but commuting, which makes up less than 20 percent of all trips.

  • Jimbo

    Of corse biking is popular on college campuses. Most are young , in shape, no kids and no money for a car. Doesn’t apply to cities In general. Most are also in small towns where biking makes a lot more sense than large urban cities like SF

  • Steven

    That last requirement is actually pretty interesting: fewer hills. I’ve often wondered if the terrain matters to ridership or if there is some underlying factor going on. For example, maybe the terrain appears as a highly correlative variable not because people find it harder to ride up and down hills but because older neighborhoods/cities with grid streets tend to be built on flatter terrain near bodies of water. Newer neighborhoods with more arterial street patterns tend to be built further from the city center where the terrain is hillier. I’m kinda confusing myself but I guess I’m saying that I think it’s a design problem and not a terrain problem.

  • Also progressive, environmentally concerned, and educated. But no, by all means imply you cannot deal with “real life” (a.k.a., kids) without a car. The Dutch will continue to laugh from the comfort of their bakfiets.

  • CalRobert

    Makes sense. Back when people were walking to view prospective building sites they were probably more likely to note hills, and build accordingly. Now I doubt hilliness even comes to mind when people consider where to build houses, businesses, etc.

  • Joe R.

    Actually, hills would matter so long as any kind of animal power was used to get around. Horses pull a lot smaller load going up hills than on the flats, for example. Hills even mattered quite a bit when most long distance travel was by railroad. It’s only since self-powered rubber tired vehicles became common that hills weren’t seen a a detriment.

  • Joe R.

    I’m not surprised that colder climates tend to drop ridership numbers but what about warmer climates? As far as I’m concerned, the southern half of the USA is too hot to ride regularly at least 6 months of the year. Even places like NYC are too hot for 3 months or so, at least during the day (NYC nights are sometimes tolerable, depending upon humidity).

  • Chris J.

    Why are you so against bicycling?

  • Bobberooni

    The journey-to-work survey is also COMPLETELY BLIND to people who bike to transit on the way to work.

  • CalRobert

    I was once young and a college student. I cycled everywhere. I am now old and not a student. I still cycle everywhere. Even in *gasp* SF, where I used to work, or now in San Diego, which is actually pretty crappy for cycling (and yet it still beats driving).

  • tach1

    In my small city, the oldest part of town was built along a river, but the city was built up a rather steep hillside. The terrain here definitely affects bike usage. Heck, most people don’t even want to walk up the hill. The terrain also curtails logical grids and secondary streets. While there are some flat streets, connecting them for bikes is the challenge. I have been wondering whether connecting them by way of rails to trails along some of the creeks (which already exist partly) could become a biking backbone rather than the up-and-down city streets. People would still need to climb out of the creek “valley” but it would be once rather than multiple times over the course of a trip.

  • Steven

    Yeah, I have no doubt that terrain plays a part in bike usage. Just look at The Wiggle in San Francisco. I guess I’m interested in seeing how ridership is affected by terrain once different elements of street design are controlled for. Maybe ridership would be higher if some cities and towns hadn’t allowed new development to be curtailed as much, for example.

  • N. Unya Bbwaqs

    I completely agree about the hotter parts of the US. I used to ride up to 300 miles a week, but even though I only lived 3 miles from work, I wouldn’t have ridden in during the hot parts of the year. Even a short ride like that would leave me extremely sweaty, even in the early morning when the temperatures were at thier lowest. There’s no way I would want to be hot, sticky, and smelly all day long.

  • Jake

    Actually, biking makes a lot more sense in “large urban cities” than in small towns. Cities are dense (at least they should be), which makes trips short and therefore ideal for biking. Small towns have fewer opportunities and are generally less dense than cities.

    The real reason why biking is popular on college campuses is because they are dense, and students usually live close by. College campuses are generally walkable and having limited parking.

  • Miles Bader

    You definitely do not need to be in good shape or young to bicycle… I see tons of very old people bicycling. Sure they’re a bit slow, but that’s fine, it’s still a lot faster than they can walk, and offers highly valuable exercise.

    Bicycles also work fine with kids. Until the kid(s) are old enough for their own bike, you put them on yours; there are many ways you can do this. After that, they can bike on their own, giving them far more freedom, mobility, and self-confidence than their car-shackled brethren.

  • WithheldName

    Hills can make a 3-mile commute feel like a 6-mile commute. It’s a factor. It’s rarely a “deal breaker” unto to itself, but it sure puts a damper on things for a lot of casual/older/out-of-shape riders.

  • WithheldName

    Even though the survey just has an “other” category for those who use multiple forms of transportation, the ratios are probably similar. For example, most bicycle commuters will probably occasionally drive a car or catch a ride in a car if they’re feeling slightly sick or the weather is terrible or some other special circumstance.

    The survey also doesn’t have options for “scooter”, “rollerblades”, “skateboard”, “bike-skateboard hybrid”, “scooter-skateboard hybrid”, “electric unicycle”, or other devices that are becoming increasingly popular. We can assume folks place those under “other”.

  • WithheldName

    That had me surprised as well. I think it’s actually harder to commute by bicycle on a Houston summer afternoon than a Minneapolis winter morning. Amsterdam and Copenhagen have proven that winter is no obstacle as long as snow is cleared from the bike lanes. People just wrap up warmly.

    But high heat and humidity like in the southeastern U.S. have no practical solution. The closest I’ve found is drenching your entire body in water at a public water fountain/faucet every mile or so. They sell misting fans for motorcycles which allegedly cool the rider down, but I’ve never heard of one on a bicycle. And I’ve head they sell misting vests for runners as well now. Some people are better adapted to heat and humidity than others, of course. And things like shade, breezes, and green space (as opposed to concrete streets and buildings which radiate heat) can make huge differences. But heat stroke/sickness is virtually guaranteed at some point if you consistently engage in prolonged outdoor exertion in high heat and humidity.

  • WithheldName

    Age is definitely a factor. The older you get, the more slowly your body recovers from physical exertion. A college kid may start out as out-of-shape as anyone else, but his or her body will be able to get into shape so much more quickly. A young body also recovers from illness more quickly – and that’s a related factor in bicycle commuting as well. And a young body will recover from injury more quickly as well, which is often another related factor.

    Even in bicycling-crazy cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen, it’s young people that lead the charge. Older people can and do join in, but they’re always at a disadvantage. It’s the same reason that our ranks of professional athletes and professional soldiers always consist of mostly younger people. Younger bodies perform better. That’s an undeniable factor.

  • WithheldName

    I agree with everything you say but in cities like NY and DC, we unfortunately see low rates of bicycle commuting…yet high rates of commuting via public transportation and walking. I believe it’s because the streets are congested with cars, the sidewalks are congested with people, and bike lanes are a new phenomenon, more rare, and tend to be dangerous, unprotected by curbs, merely “lines painted on the street”. If big cities can build safe bicycle infrastructure, then bicycle commuting could really take off.

  • sensible internet commenter

    NYC and DC streets look like Amsterdam streets did in the 1960s-1970s, early in its renaissance as a bike-friendly city. Like Amsterdam did then, many American cities are now focusing on building safe bicycle infrastructure. Some of the biggest challenges are not physical but political and cultural. Cities in the US are slowly undergoing the political and cultural shifts necessary to allow streets to be reconfigured in a manner that is safe for all users.

  • WithheldName

    True. It wouldn’t be prohibitively expensive to reclaim a single lane of traffic from many major streets in these big cities, put a tall concrete curb to protect it from cars, and let the masses of people flood in with bikes, scooters, and other human-powered wheeled vehicles. But Amsterdam had deep roots as a bicycling culture, long before the 1960s, despite what some claim. Amsterdam found it easy to shake off their temporary fetish with the automobile. New York and DC have never had deep bicycle cultures. In America, it seems the only way to get people onto bikes is to ban cars.

  • Joe R.

    That’s exactly my point. Once the combination of temperature and humidity reaches certain levels, the body just can’t effectively get rid of excess heat. Any kind of physical activity eventually causes your core to overheat, posing a real danger. Maybe really short bike commutes of a mile or two might work in you’re going from one air-conditioned building to another, but given the sprawl in the South, chances are great most useful commutes would be a lot longer. That basically makes them impractical.

    I know there are some people who claim to love it but at some point too much heat is dangerous. It’s probably worse for someone who claims the the heat doesn’t bother them. They’ll feel fine until their core overheats. At that point without some sort of refuge they’re in real danger.

    On the other hand, cold weather is never an obstacle, at least the type of cold present in most inhabited places. Granted, bike commuting wouldn’t be practical during a Yakutsk winter, but few people worldwide live in extreme cold like that. Anything from about 0°F on up is tolerable to ride in if you dress for it.

  • ahwr

    ACS deals with multimodal commutes by asking for the mode used for the greatest distance. If you bike two miles to a train station, then ride the train for twenty miles, then walk half a mile to your office you are a transit commuter. Not “other”.

  • WithheldName

    Thanks.

    But if commute by car 3 days a week and by bike 2 days a week, you select “car”.

  • WithheldName

    Absolutely. Everything you said is true.

    And it’s amazing to me how many braggarts we hear on the web claiming that they commute 5 or 10 miles each way every day in Houston/Phoenix/Tampa/wherever. I don’t see many of them on the streets in real life. I occasionally see an unhappy-looking teenager muddling along on a bike in the summer afternoon heat in Houston. If you’re young or crazy, you can do a mile or maybe two. It helps if you’re used to it. But it’s not physically wise or sustainable. Folks in The South know better. Biking is for the cool half of the year.

  • ahwr

    Sort of, since it doesn’t ask about what you usually do. It only asks about the week prior to completing the survey. So if you drive every day but the week before you fill out the survey your car breaks down and you bike every day you’re a bike commuter. If you bike every day but the weather was terrible the week before you fill out the survey so you took the bus instead you’re a transit commuter. If you drive, bike, or take the train but the week before you fill out the survey you’re on vacation or sick leave and don’t go to work for even one hour you’re not counted as any kind of commuter. If during the ACS reference week you’re in a different city for a conference and you walk there from your hotel you get recorded as commuting from DC to Chicago on foot.

    More on ACS and LODES if interested.

    http://www2.census.gov/ces/wp/2014/CES-WP-14-38.pdf

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