Bike Commuting Growth Has Leveled Off – But Not Everywhere in the U.S.

Rush hour in Chicago.
Rush hour in Chicago.

The handful of cities that led the rebound of U.S. bike commuting a decade ago seem to have slowed down — but continuing growth elsewhere suggests that progress can still happen if cities want it to.

According to Census estimates released Thursday, the total number of U.S. bike commuters fell slightly in 2016 for the second year in a row, to 863,979. That’s far enough beyond the margins of error to all but guarantee that U.S. bike commuting has slipped since global gas prices plummeted in late 2014.

In 2016, the national average gas price was $2.25 a gallon, down 35 percent since 2014.

In New York City, 1.2 percent of commuters said they usually take a bike most of the way to work, extending a three-year plateau. In Chicago, the estimate was 1.7 percent, the same as in 2014. In Los Angeles: 1.1 percent, statistically flat but the lowest estimate since 2012. Philadelphia again posted 2.2 percent, a rate it first hit in 2009.

The estimates in Minneapolis, Portland, Seattle and San Francisco all ticked downward, though as in the larger cities, their longer-term trends also continue to suggest gradual growth.

Even Davis, California, one of the country’s longtime leaders in bicycle mode share, saw its third straight year of falling estimates in the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. The university town estimated 17 percent of trips by bike, down from 25 percent in 2013.

Here’s a full report on the latest one-year estimates for every place the Census attempts to track bike commuting.

Despite national headwind, some cities make gains

Penn Avenue, Pittsburgh.

A few cities seemed to buck the trend. Pittsburgh, Washington, Detroit, and Cleveland posted all-time highs.

“Since bike lanes have been installed in Pittsburgh, we’ve more than doubled that ACS number,” said Eric Boerer, advocacy director for BikePGH, in an interview. “You can see a pretty sharp rise after 2007.”

Pittsburgh was estimated at 0.4 percent bike commuting in 2000, 1.1 percent in 2007 and now — as of this morning — 2.6 percent.

“The city has been taking transportation much more seriously than ever,” Boerer said. “For every aspect, from design to building to even marketing, they’ve been doing a much better job.”

Just this week, Boerer said, a project on Negley Avenue will close a key gap in Pittsburgh’s biking network.

“A lot of the bike infrastructure on one side of the city doesn’t connect to the bike infrastructure on the other side of the city,” he said. “And Negley will connect. That’s going from a fast-moving four-lane street to two lanes with bike lanes.”

Top researcher: Biking still has lots of room to grow, if cities want it to

Tucson, Arizona.

Ralph Buehler, a professor of urban affairs at Virginia Tech and a leading scholar of bike transportation, noted that “one year alone is not a full trend,” due to normal survey error.

But he said a small retreat in biking rates seems plausible.

“It’s interesting that almost all large cities seem to be going down, which you wouldn’t expect from pure statistical variability,” he said. “It fits with other data: We have surpassed the pre-recession levels of VMT, so people are driving more. There’s some stories in the Census data that the suburbs are growing faster again than cities. So it fits into this overall picture that seems to be emerging.”

Buehler said the lower cost of driving, rising median incomes, and maybe even declining safety could be contributing to the ebb.

“If you think about a choice rider,” Buehler said, “they have to have a very positive and safe experience cycling. Otherwise they will choose the other mode.”

We asked Buehler if he thought the slowdown among leading cities suggests that bike commuting has reached a natural plateau in those places, with little room left to grow.

He doesn’t think so.

“I think there is a plateau somewhere for cycling, but just given all the data we have about distances and all these things, a lot more trips could be covered by bicycle,” he said. “But it may be harder to get at additional populations.”

“To reach the next share of the population — I don’t know how big that is — cycling may have to be more attractive, or feel safer or be safer,” Buehler said. “I think that cities have to do more of what they did: They have to create an attractive cycling experience that feels safe and is safe.”

Michael Andersen is staff writer for PlacesForBikes, a PeopleForBikes program to help U.S. communities build better biking, faster. Ken McLeod is policy director for the League of American Bicyclists, leading the movement to build a bicycle-friendly America for everyone.

16 thoughts on Bike Commuting Growth Has Leveled Off – But Not Everywhere in the U.S.

  1. I can’t speak for other cities, but there aren’t very many safe means for bicyclists to travel about in Los Angeles. I have seen more bicyclists in Northridge along Reseda Boulevard, where the bike lane is not only painted a bright green, but there are protective poles along the sides of the road to keep motorists from getting in, but overall, motorists tend to ignore bicyclists around here in the worst possible way in that they will always use the right turn lane as if there were no bicyclists on it even if there are. There’s also deliberate bullying of bicyclists by drivers, so much that there was a failed PSA campaign a couple of years ago advising motorists to keep at least three feet away from bicyclists (I would see drivers veer towards bicyclists to scare them). It’s at its worst in Beverly Hills, where not only are there no accommodations for bicyclists, but if there’s an accident involving a car and a bicycle, the local police will always side with the driver of the car. There is a sort of contempt and disgust at bicyclists in Beverly Hills I don’t see anywhere else.

    Then again, there are also a lot of bicyclists here who don’t follow any of the rules of the road. Downtown is where they’re most audacious, where I’ve seen a couple of cases where they’d ride meandering paths out into the middle of the street into open traffic.

  2. We tend to link bike use with gas prices and vehicle trips but I would argue there is a higher correlation between bike use and transit. Some of the growth areas like DC, Cleveland, and Detroit are the same areas where transit is failing and ridership is dropping due to vastly underfunded systems and increasingly common system delays and outages.

    In markets where there have been significant improvements in transit, specifically light rail (Portland, Seattle, Minneapolis) bike percentages are dropping.

    Maybe a better question is how many trips are people biking to a transit station and taking bus/rail to work in some of those markets vs. full O-D bike trips prior to transit improvements?

    Going forward should the focus be on shorter suburban infrastructure to support bike park and ride facilities, similar to what we have for vehicles, or should it be on supporting longer networks for 5+ mile commutes from the burbs to the city? With limited financial resources I’m tempted to say the former will provide a bigger bang for the buck in terms of bike use, but not be a great result for mode share…

  3. “There is a sort of contempt and disgust at bicyclists in Beverly Hills I don’t see anywhere else.”

    It’s exactly the same in NYC, with the NYPD habitually blaming cyclists (and pedestrians) for any crashes while exonerating drivers.

  4. Protected Bike Lanes ( PBLs ) are the only way to increase ridership beyond the ‘strong and fearless’

    For example in lower manhattan which has a decent network of PBLs; cyclists are between 10-30% of roadway traffic.

    In upper manhattan which has only painted lanes; cyclists are less than 5% of roadway traffic.


  5. Exactly, but those PBLs really need to have some curb. Compare NYC and Amsterdam. the latter has parents riding with their young kids, or those kids riding on their own. We have to reach the point where many kids ride their bicycle safely to middle school.

  6. middle school ?

    the rule in my SoCal burb was you couldn’t cycle to school until you were in 2nd grade. This was in 1965.

    second grade

  7. I expect the Census survey is not including much of the casual bikeshare riders, esp in places like DC where a significant portion of bikeshare users are tourists.

    I live in the DC area and have seen biking increase a lot over the years here to the point where the multi use trails are becoming congested. Everyone I talk to who doesn’t presently bike (but wants to) cites safety concerns.

    If cities (or more accurately, the voters) really wanted people to bike, we could make it happen.

  8. The ACS doesn’t capture much at all. It is not very accurate and typically undercounts bike mode share. It also asks only about the primary commute mode, so if someone uses Metro and then hops on a CaBi for the last leg, the ACS doesn’t even count the bike in that since the person would likely list transit as their primary mode. It also doesn’t capture anything related to other trips; only commuting.

  9. Holland is way more than simply a separated lane and that is what advocates constantly fail to recognize. Every intersection in NYC, even with a PBL has way more exposure, and drivers that don’t respect bicyclist safety. Holland limits traffic in city centers, has stricter driving laws, more rigorous licensing standards, education for ALL (including kids on bikes), and makes driving very expensive through car and gas taxes.

    Much of Holland has zero separation for bicyclists, but advocates always point to PBLs. And by the way, “protected” is a stupid term, because at every intersection, the location for the vast majority of crashes, there is no protection.

  10. Bingo. Not all PBLs are created alike. We need protected intersections, and, even more urgently, a reduction in traffic volumes. Continuous bike routes without motor through-traffic can be even better than PBLs but require a bolder vision.

  11. I would imagine that like most things, there’s a complex mix of factors. But one part that is almost certainly overlooked is that even as communities are making investments into biking, they’re also spending orders of magnitude more money on making driving easier and in most cases, they’re succeeding. (There are also transit improvements, but I doubt that’s anywhere near as big a factor in almost all communities.) Then, there’s the whole issue of housing affordability that is pushing people out farther and farther from their workplace, making it much less feasible to bike. Finally, the commute is really a horrible target for biking for many people, partly due to the previous issue. But many people who may not be able to bike to work can still bike to other destinations and if they are able to allow their kids to bike themselves to their school and appointments, that provides a massive reduction in driving even if the parents are still driving to work. In reality, it’s probably far better to just focus on improving the ability to bike local trips than it is to try to lure people to bike to work.

  12. I think the only way we will get much higher levels of city bike commute rates goes beyond just safety. Safety is key, but so too are costs of parking and time spent in congestion. I drove to an auto repair place today in the congested part of San Francisco. Jeez, I could not wait to use the underground portion of our transit, and then get home to my electric bicycle. How people put up with driving if they could bike is beyond me. Maybe we have to make the first few rides easier to try.

  13. From my perspective in SF, the morning bike commute in SOMA has plateaued since about 2015, holding at roughly the same level in each comparative season (e.g. comparing summer to summer across different years, etc.).

    The most significant changes to the bicycling experience over the past 10 years have been:
    1. The addition of good bike lanes
    2. The cluttering of those bike lanes with Uber/Lyft cars breaking the law.
    3. The 2012-initiated traffic chaos from massive concurrent construction projects in this data collection area.
    4. The persistent bad driving behavior that has not recovered from completed construction projects. It is normative for every lane to become a turning lane as needed, without signaling, with frequent lane and crosswalk intrusions.
    5. The overall volume of automobiles in the same traffic lanes has increased, at all hours, between 2007 and 2017.
    6. The introduction of e-bikes, e-scooters, and e-boards that now commonly join the bike lane, and change the acceleration dynamics of the overall peleton at light changes.

    Data Note: this chart is the seasonal average of averaged months from daily commuting samples taken at red lights between 2nd Street and 11th Street on Harrison and Howard. This is not granulated enough for specific intersections, and may not be representative for Market Street or SOMA overall. These data are biased towards sunnier drier days than wet ones. Also, some months have weeks of thrown-out data due to Oracle, America’s Cup, Superbowl and other serious traffic disruptions.

    Reading note: When Jun-August Summer 2017 reads “11.25” that should be understood that on average, I counted 11.25 bike riders per day across the stops I counted riders during the morning commute in SOMA for those months, averaged into a season.

  14. Variances year over year often are not statistically significant. Harsh winters, overly hot summers, etc., are enough to skew general trends.
    It’s also true that uber and lyft are decidedly not lovely innovations for the environmental commute.

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