The Bike Bowl: College Towns Surge Ahead in Bike Commuting

Tony Dutzik is senior policy analyst with the Frontier Group, a think tank working on issues of the environment and democracy.

It’s college football bowl time. That once meant the renewal of age-old rivalries, and nowhere more so than in the Rose Bowl, which traditionally pitted the winner of Midwest-based Big 10 conference with the winner of the Pacific 8 (or 10, or 12).

Iowa City has experienced a 64 percent jump in bicycle mode share, in part because of efforts by the University of Iowa to become more bike-friendly. Photo: ## of Iowa##

Over the last decade, however, the Big 10 and Pac 12 have been waging another kind of competition — for leadership in the integration of bicycling into campus life.

Back in November, the folks at the U.S. Department of Transportation who put out the useful Census Transportation Planning Products posted a list of the 30 counties and “places” that have experienced the greatest increases in commuting by bicycle, by foot, and by public transportation between the 2000 Census and the 2006-2010 American Community Survey.

College towns dominate the list of places with the greatest surge in bike commuting (see full list after the jump). Many college towns have long been bastions of bike travel, but the dramatic increase in bike commuting in many of those towns suggests that there is still room to grow, and that efforts to promote bicycling can make a difference. Many of the schools on the list of those with the greatest growth in bike commuting are also on the League of American Bicyclists’ list of “Bicycle Friendly Universities.”

Unfortunately, the Census Bureau only collects data on travel to work, which means that the figures below do not capture travel by students without jobs or those using bikes for recreational trips or errands. Still, the dramatic increase in bicycle travel in college towns is significant. It saves campuses the expense of building new roads and parking structures to accommodate vehicles for students and staff. It provides working students with a first taste of what bicycle commuting is like, creating the possibility that they will look for opportunities to continue to travel by bike post-graduation. And the presence of a bike-friendly campus in a city can create a foundation for making the entire community more accessible to bicycles.

As it turns out, the Big 10 and Pac 12 are co-winners of the Bike Bowl – each with five schools among the Top 30. But many other campuses, from the Ivy League to the SEC, are also represented. Take a look…

Number and Share of Total Commuters by Bike, 2006-2010, and Increase in Share since 2000 (Source: U.S. Department of Transportation)

Place Name


Bike Commuters

Percent Commuting by Bike, 2006-2010

Bike Share Change: 2000 to 2006-10

Santa Cruz city, California

U. California-Santa Cruz




Portland city, Oregon

Portland State U.




Davis city, California

U. California-Davis




Cambridge city, Massachusetts

Harvard, MIT, others




Boulder city, Colorado

U. Colorado-Boulder




Eugene city, Oregon

Univ. of Oregon




Corvallis city, Oregon

Oregon State Univ.




Fort Collins city, Colorado

Colorado State Univ.




Boise City city, Idaho

Boise State Univ.




Berkeley city, California

U. California-Berkeley




Brookline CDP, Massachusetts




Minneapolis city, Minnesota

Univ. of Minnesota




Somerville city, Massachusetts

Adjacent to Tufts Univ.




Iowa City city, Iowa

Univ. of Iowa




Bellingham city, Washington

Western Washington U.




Mountain View city, California




La Crosse city, Wisconsin

U. Wisconsin-La Crosse




Flagstaff city, Arizona

Northern Arizona U.




Madison city, Wisconsin

Univ. of Wisconsin




Ann Arbor city, Michigan

Univ. of Michigan




Palo Alto city, California

Adjacent to Stanford U.




New Haven city, Connecticut

Yale U.




Westminster city, California




Elkhart city, Indiana




Auburn city, Alabama

Auburn U.




Portland city, Maine

Univ. Southern Maine




Encinitas city, California




San Francisco city, California

USF, UCSF, SFSU, others




Evanston city, Illinois

Northwestern U.




Waltham city, Massachusetts






11 thoughts on The Bike Bowl: College Towns Surge Ahead in Bike Commuting

  1. Increasing cycling rates in college is necessary but not sufficient. We also need to get rid of the notion that cycling as a student is a “stage” that must be “outgrown”.

    @Rebecca_A:disqus : I think CDP means “census-designated place”.

  2. As pointed out in the article, we’ve got to stop hyper-focusing on percentage of commuters but rather percent of all trips taken. Commute trips are only 1/4th of all trips. The census bureau needs to start collecting better data.

    Many colleges now don’t allow freshman to bring cars to campus.  Many campuses now offer zip cars or other car sharing to provide students with cars the few times a month they might really need them. This needs to expand.

    Many parents will provide their college-age student with a car that costs thousands of dollars per year to operate and then raid their retirement account or take on debt to pay for their child’s tuition or have their child taken on debt to pay for college. This is incredibly stupid. Better for your kid to bike, walk and take transit than for parents and/or kids to have a millstone of debt around their neck. (Cost of car ownership and operation:  $10,000 a year.  Four years x $10,000=$40,000 less debt or more money for retirement. Cost to operate even a free car: $5000/year.)  Note: many insurance plans will let you deeply discount insurance rates for your college kid as long as 1) college kid doesn’t possess a car, and 2) college kid lives far enough away (more than 50 or 100 miles, depending on company) that they’ll only drive your car on vacations.

    My son recently graduated from college and my daughter just started.  Neither have cars; in fact, both do not have driver’s licenses yet. The savings have gone straight into their college educations and they will graduate without debt.

  3. In light of all the recent articles ragging on Google on their “horrible location” of their “awful office park” and that they should be in San Francisco…

    Note that on this list – and 2nd to the top for non college towns – is Mountain View California, coming in at 3.4%

    Their office is located at the end of two excellent off road bike paths going along a creek, connected to Caltrain, and zipping through residential areas. 3.4% is a pretty big relative bike mode. And the big increase is coincident with Google’s growth.

    They, along with Facebook, have repurposed an existing office park and have invested a lot of money in non single occupancy vehicle access.

  4. Increases are great, but what’s most noticeable about this list is how crazily low the absolute numbers are, even in the first-placed cities… only Davis has anywhere near a reasonable bike mode share, and even it—long lauded as America’s biking capital—has barely enough to be listed amongst other world biking cities.

    … and this is for college/university towns, which generally seem to be a better fit for bicycling than average.

    I find this list more depressing than anything else… TT

    [I agree with @qrt145:disqus that the focus should be on all travel, not just commuting (although commuting is an important sub-category); it would be nice to see numbers for both commuting and all-trips.]

  5. BTW, probably many of the same environments that encourage cycling also encourage walking, so it would be interesting to see mode shares for walking, driving, and other methods in these same locations.

    After all, what’s important is not cycling per se, what’s important is to reduce use of automobiles.

  6. On the national map linked above, how does North Dakota (no bike friendliness at all) rank higher than Arkansas (3 bike friendly businesses and 4 communities)?

  7. huh – just adding up the communities listed immediately adjacent to Boston and already it’s more than Minneapolis.  Add in the actual city of Boston (somewhere around 7,000+) and it’s above San Fran, and approaching Portland, OR numbers (which, interestingly, encompasses roughly twice as much land area as brookline, somerville, cambridge, and Boston combined).

  8. @1f1722fc1cce5675582acae814e519e4:disqus The interesting number is really the mode-share value, not the number of commuters, and mode-share values don’t sum like that… :]

  9. @google-9ed3368a6439fa92efd353af4436290d:disqus Even if other cities included their metro area (even a “bike mecca” like Portland), they wouldn’t have a similar jump in real numbers of bike commuters – which I thought was more interesting than % mode share.  Those of us who live in Boston know that the “city” really isn’t just Boston proper, btw – the denser core urban area includes at least a half dozen different municipalities with people moving between them constantly – and if you’re including these areas in these statistically based “bike rankings” that get thrown around a lot, suddenly “Boston” has a population similar to San Francisco and has a bike mode share % closer to Minneapolis with real numbers that would put “Boston” more like number 4 in terms of total bike commuters (behind NYC, and within striking distance of both LA and Portland). 

    oh wait – I think you’re being facetious (btw – sorry for derailing the comments on a post about college town mode share)

    btw – I know the statistical metro area numbers are a bit different
    and even more interesting – in terms of total numbers, LA is #1 with
    about 50k cyclists, Boston, NYC, and San Fran all come in around the
    same with somewhere between 30-35k:  Portland OR metro area is actually only something like 22k –
    which is similar to Philly (3x as big) and slightly behind
    Chicago (4x as big).  Boston has the highest jump between the city proper and surrounding communities (by a factor of almost 5) – LA and San Fran it’s something like 3…  all of the other metro areas the number of bike commuters drops off once you leave the city.

    anyway – % mode share sounds impressive, but not as impressive when you start comparing it against other factors.  if I were someone about to open a bike shop – I’d do it in of those first 4 cities…  I don’t even think LA is on people’s radar…

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