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Monday, June 18, 2007

U.S. Census: 10 best, worst cities for bike commuting

Image of bicyclist in Portland, OregonAs posted earlier, the U.S. Census Bureau released its American Community Survey last week. Among the shocking findings: Americans overwhelmingly continue to drive alone to work. "The survey, gathered over the course of (2005), found that driving to work was the favored means of commute of nearly nine out of 10 workers (87.7 percent), with most people (77 percent) driving alone."

The survey hailed Portland, Oregon as best for bicycling mode share among the 50 largest U.S. cities. Nationally, only 0.4 percent of commuters use a bicycle. The top ten U.S. cities for percentage of bicycling commuters:

City / Percentage
Portland / 3.5
Minneapolis / 2.4
Seattle / 2.3
Tucson / 2.2
San Francisco / 1.8
Sacramento / 1.8
Washington DC / 1.7
Oakland / 1.5
Honolulu / 1.4
Denver / 1.4
The bottom 10 U.S. cities for bike commuting:
City / Percentage
Dallas / 0.2
Nashville / 0.2
Oklahoma City / 0.2
Charlotte / 0.2
San Antonio / 0.1
Omaha / 0.1
Wichita / 0.1
Indianapolis / 0.1
Memphis / 0.1
Kansas City (MO) / 0.0
Bicycle advocates always look at census figures with some scepticism. The U.S. Census consistently undercounts bicyclists; for example counting multimodal (bike/transit) as one "journey to work" mode, typically the longer mode. The Census also ignores non-work trips, which are the majority of all trips. And it generally undercounts low-income and immigrant populations, who may have higher rates of bicycling for transportation. (See the Census tables.)

I've been puzzling over these figures, trying to understand what they suggest. That the coastal West is generally more hospitable to bicycle commuting than the South? That compact, dense cities are better for bike commuting than sprawling, sparsely inhabited cities? That cities with diverse multimodal options beyond driving make bicycling more appealing? What do you think these results say?

Image: Web capture
Visit: The Top 10 U.S. Cities for biking (Slideshow, Poll), Huffington Post
Visit: Paul Dorn's Bike Commuting Tips Site


Anonymous said...

I think it says not very much. DC is in the top ten list, except that DC isn't so much a "city" as "a bunch of connected suburbs". Unless you both live and work within the District itself, which is really expensive, you probably won't have a bikeable commute.

Then you get out into the suburbs, where I work, and the roads around it are so unfriendly to cyclists that even I, a two year veteran of commuting daily in Pittsburgh, just couldn't brave it every day.

DC is not great for cycling. Everything is too spread apart, and the suburbs are designed for Hummers and minivans.

Anonymous said...

I believe it says that heat and humidity are more of a deterrent to cycling than rain and cold. You can dress for rain and cold. You can only undress for heat and humidity. Of course it could just be all of that sweet tea.

phil varner said...

Hi Paul, I found your blog yesterday from Fritz's "while I'm away" post. I'm Phil in Portland.

West vs. South: Rex is right, although bike commute numbers drop off a lot once it starts raining here in the winter. The climate out here in Western Oregon is more moderate and a lot less humid than the South.

There's been a lot of conscious planning by the city to both create bicycle boulevards on higher traffic streets and provide maps for taking lower traffic streets.

Buses and MAX trains have racks and hooks for bikes, so multimodal is much easier. The public transit system is really good, and without it, I actually think our biking numbers would be higher.

Portland's population is also more self-selecting than somewhere like DC metro, since a high proportion of people move here for "quality of life" rather than for job reasons (which partially explains why our unemp rate is about double DC's).

Portland has an urban growth boundary, which has helped keep it relatively compact. It makes homes a bit more expensive since developers can't sprawl everywhichway into farmland and get a subsidy for the infrastructure required to do so. There's been a lot of public money put into building high-rise residential (expensive stuff) within the city, so that someone who previously would have lived outside the city and driven would now be walking or taking the streetcar.

It's actually only within the last 5 or so years that bike commuting has really taken off. It's been nearly doubling every year, so it's both a recent and rapid phenomenon.

Anonymous said...

I think it supports the 'Build it and they will come' theory of biking. Portland, Seattle, San Fran, and Tuscon have all made an effort to make themselves more bikeable cities. The cities in the bottom ten which are located in the plains states seem like they would be fine to bike in, at least during the warmer months, but have not made the effort that those in the top ten have.

Bob G said...

I am SO glad to have discovered your blog, Paul - great work you are doing.

My first impression is this - A city like Portland - Seattle to a lesser degree - makes a full commitment to develop transportation around alternatives to the car. Is it that simple? Maybe, maybe not. But Phil in Portland's comment -
"It's actually only within the last 5 or so years that bike commuting has really taken off. It's been nearly doubling every year, so it's both a recent and rapid phenomenon".
Tells us a lot about how quickly we can turn it around.

Jett said...

I'm in Atlanta and can say it is the dense areas that are best for cycling. It is where you have more pedestrians, cars travel slower, and there are more options for catching a bus or train.

The density also helps educate both cyclists and motorists about sharing the road.

phil varner said...

Two more comments based on the previous ones:

1) "Build it and they will come" might not necessarily be be true, but if you don't build it, they definitely won't come.

2) Once you actually have facilities that are easy for casual cyclists to use, you get more "regular" people cycling. More people cycling means that drivers get used to having cyclists on the road and know how to deal with them. It also means that more people get to know what it's like to be riding in traffic, so they are more careful towards cyclists because they know how scary it can be sometimes.

Anonymous said...

jett is right on. I commute 10 miles one way, and it is all urban street and trail from the 'burbs, but we've had a rash of bikers getting smacked by cars on the open roads beyond the city.

we have TONS of bike trails here, though. and a soon to be voted on extra tax to get more. nice. I can't believe the increase in bikes I see daily out there. it is awesome.

awesome pages and blog. commuters rule! velo happiness!

Anonymous said...

I used to commute by bike in Atlanta - which is a horrible city for bicycling! I was very pleased to see Portland (one of my favorite U.S. cities) at the top of the list.

I currently live in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, which is probably the best city in the world for bike commuting. The vast majority of the population here commutes by bicycle all year long, even during our long, cold, wet winters. Here are the factors that I think contribute to such a great bicycling atmosphere:

- the infratructure is there. There are just as many bike paths there are roads. They are clearly marked, well maintained, and in most cases, seperated from the car traffic. There are even seperate traffic lights for the bikes. Indeed, if you build it, they will come.

- it is a highly dense city with almost no suburbs at all. Because of this, the government has actively supported bicycling and public transport instead of cars.

- it's not too hot, and it's flat!

- It is very difficult to own a car here. They're expensive, taxes are extremely high, parking is practically non-existent, and the roads are always clogged with traffic. It is important to note that the government knows about these problems, and chooses to keep it that way!

- The culture supports bikes. EVERBODY bikes here, and they have for generations. Kids learn to bicycle almost as soon as they can walk. Bikes are affordable and simple - most are 1 gear with backpedal brakes, meaning that you don't have to be an cycling geek in order to be "accepted" as a bike commuter.

All these things, plus the obvious health and environmental benefits, make cycling the obvious answer. It is simply the better choice. Now why can't more U.S. cities learn from this?

Anonymous said...

I live in Arlington, Virginia, right outside of DC. I can bike on a paved bike trail 17.5 miles to work with 95%+ on a paved trail. I have to cross only a few heavy traffic roads. The trail is mostly level and very well maintained. If I go in the opposite direction, I can take the same trail to the Potomac and see the Lincoln Memorial along the way. That trail goes all the way down to where the Potomac runs into the Chesapeake Bay (past Mt Vernon I think).

If I don't want to bike the entire 17.5 mi, I can bike half the distance, jump on a Metro bus for a dollar each way. $2 to commute 35 miles in a pretty dense suburban environment? Not too bad I'd say.

The trails go far beyond what I described. I come to Reston, Va from the East. I've talked with other co-workers who have biked from various other parts, from the south, from the west. The bike trails run all over.

Jacob said...

Does the DC listing include Arlington? I have read that on a county by county analysis, Arlington County has one of the highest counties in the US for cycling rate. I live in Arlington and cycle to ork in Tysons Corner. My fiance cycles to work within Arlington. The trails and roads are quite full with cyclists

Anonymous said...

Im a few months late on my comment.

I live in San Antonio, and I can see why its in the bottom 10. SA is a huge city, unless you live and work downtown, which is rare, riding to work is not safe option.

Cycling enthusiasts get together and ride in large groups downtown to make up for the inability to commute.

We often talk about how great it would be if SA was like Portland, but its just not going to happen.

M said...

I would think by DC they do in fact mean DC itself, not the vast network of suburbs surrounding it.

The list is a ranking of cities, not suburbs, and if they did mean DC plus its suburbs, I would think they would have called it "Wash. DC metropolitan area," or something to that effect.

Also, while I agree that DC does not have bustling, big city like New York for example, it isn't what I'd call a bunch of suburbs strung together either--not in my opinion at least. Drop anyone in most parts of DC and I don't think they'd ID the area as feeling suburban.

I don't think it's really fair to judge DC based on the bikability of its suburbs, when by their very nature, many suburbs are going to be sprawling and designed mainly for auto traffic, not bike or pedestrains.

Add the suburbs of any of the other cities, and their bikability would be affected as well in all likelihood.

Unknown said...

I am a bike commuter in Nashville. The reason that bike commuting is scarce in Nashville is that the greater population of this city is fat and lazy. I have never met more people who were overweight and with more excuses for being so. I have to contend with those same fatsos who honk and tell me to get off the road so that there is more room for their fat cars and inadequate driving skills.

Anonymous said...

I live (and commute to work) in the Kansas City suburbs. I think one of the biggest factors is how auto-friendly a city is. Here are some reasons KC is bike-hostile:
1) The city is a car paradise with a grid of major streets and many freeways. Smaller roads are a suburban tangle of dead ends and winding roads.

2) The SUV-happy car culture is hostile to bikes, or anything that slows them down.

3) The weather is unpredictable here. 40 degree temperature swings are not uncommon in a day. Neither are weeks below 10 degrees, weeks above 90 degrees, weeks when it never stops raining, and months above 80% humidity.

4) In the city, public transit is spotty. In the suburbs, it is non-existent, so we bikers can't combine our trips with a bus or rail option to extend our range.

Anonymous said...

live in dallas, & there is almost nowhere to ride a bike, not even in the burbs. So many people here are concerned about their hummers & duallies they never make a safe place for the people who want/have to walk or ride bikes to get around. I live a mile from my college (where there's not even a bike rack) & I have to drive my car to avoid getting run down by the gas guzzlers.

S said...

Long live $5 a gallon gas! More bikes is better for everyone!

I honestly think it is better for the overall good to have higher gas. It forces people to get out of their cars. It forces cities to get their acts together and build better cities. It forces people to eat more locally grown food. And, above all less cars, that is always a good thing for bikers.

Anonymous said...

indeed seth_b, we've been living a lie here in the US. i'd say go for $10 and really shake things up.

but increase the gas tax and designate it to subsidize public transit while we figure out alternative energy sources, etc. ... don't forget, many transit agencies are subsidized in different ways and high gas prices + high demand need to be worked out ... that $2 you pay doesn't cover much at all - in my town, Louisville, KY ... hot and humid ... the $1.25 covers about 14% of the cost of a ride, so with the current subsidy structure (% of occupational tax) more riders) + down economy + higher gas creates a tricky situation.

btw, I remember paying ~$5 per gallon in France back in 1997 (I think they're up to about ~$9 now)

bike commuting? well, we're working on it.

Anonymous said...

I am not surprised to see Omaha on the worst list. The city finally has a few bikes trails but they are for fun and lead nowhere. Busy streets with a lot of hills and very little respect for cyclists, this is Omaha.

Anonymous said...

Why isn't Houston TX on that list? It is by far the worst place to ride your bike, and I live in the suburbs. there is NO bike lane, let alone a swath of concrete on the side of the street. People honk like there is no tomorrow. I am a California boy who was bummed about the lack of biking ability here in TX, but I will STILL bike to work everyday (a good 20 mile round trip). Great exercise, and it is no wonder that Houstonians are among the most out of shape people out there.

Anonymous said...

An example of a city resisting bicyclists rather than being bicycle-friendly is Newport Beach in Southern California. California in 2007 enacted AB-1581 for traffic-activated signals to recognize bicycles. Instead of waiting for the pending outcome of the legislation, Newport Beach City Hall actually set back signals to not recognize bicycles before the California Governor signed the legislation. Newport Beach has a three mile road called Back Bay Drive through a nature preserve for water wildlife provided by the state government. The estuary includes a scenic roadway with a bike lane and only one-way for cars with a 15 mph speed limit. The left-turn signal to enter this scenic Back Bay Drive is probably used by a several hundred cyclists on summer weekends. California Law AB-1581 that mandates traffic-activated signals on first placement or replacement be installed and maintained for recognizing bicycles and motorcycles. In past years, the Back Bay Drive left-turn signal had recognized bicyclists. But Civil Engineer Tony Brine and Traffic Technician George Barnard set back the left-turn signal to not trigger for bicyclists. In turn, the motorcycle officers of Newport Beach Police Department (NBPD) have made the signal into a citation revenue-generating unit from bicycles. It is a sight on a quiet Sunday afternoon with no traffic to watch a police officer hiding in the adjacent condominium driveway suddenly crouch down low on his motorcycle to chase a bicycle entering the nature preserve. I made the left turn during Christmas weekend on a cold afternoon with no traffic and a green light for through-traffic. The officer, David Darling, did not even tell me what the violation was. Instead he reprimanded me for not carrying my driver’s license and interrogated me about why I could not remember my car license plate number. The implication was that bicycles are used to generate revenue for vehicle violations. And the violator is left to prove in municipal court that the incident was on a bicycle and not with a car. Public Relations Lt. Steve Shulman sent me a two-page letter describing the police department’s policy of regarding bicyclists as vehicles for citations, but as pedestrians for left-turn lanes. The letter advocated that bicyclists try to trigger the left-turn arrow, and if unsuccessful, dismount to use crosswalks. The letter is attempting to bypass implementation of California law AB-1581 for signals recognizing bicycles. The lieutenant also pointed out that citations are at the discretion of the officer. What bicyclist on a cold afternoon during Christmas has the discretion to test a left-turn arrow on a green light with no traffic in order to appease motorcycle officers trying to show productivity before catching a cup of hot coffee at headquarters just a half mile up the road? Newport Beach is an example of a city police department not just being bicycle-unfriendly, but resisting cyclists even if the state government has a law for traffic-activated signals to recognize bicycles. The police department collaborates with city hall and the municipal court to exploit bicyclists for traffic-signal citation revenue.

Anonymous said...

I live in Omaha NE. totally sucks for cycle commuting. I should know I cycle commuted for ten+ years out of high school. I can't count the number of times I was screamed at by motorized fatheads.Ive had beer cans and other items thrown at me by motorized cowards who wouldn't dare do anything in a face to face confrontation. the cycling terrain is as unfriendly as the people can be. Omaha is roller coaster hills crummy weather and the hayfever capitol of the world. So do yourself a favor enjoy life and go live and ride somewhere else.

Anonymous said...

Well, I think everybody will be surprised to learn that Holland, Michigan has incredibly extensive bike paths that go for miles upon miles and they are expanding it every year. This is the Dutch way, ride a bike and save money!

David (cycling with renewed vigor) said...

Albuquerque, New Mexico has quite a civil infrastructure that adapts quite well to bike lanes, paths, and trails. Our rain run-off ditches from the Sandia Mountains allows for paved bike trails to be added along side, completely free of other vehicles. We also have many designated bike lanes along main thoroughfares. They are clearly marked as bike lanes, but are not always respected by motorized vehicle traffic. Many more plans in the works, thought I'd throw this info in, as I did not see anything about ABQ.

Anonymous said...

I can attest to San Antonio being one of the worst Cities for bike commuting. It's not even the weather, but rather the absolute lack of cycling friendly infrastructure. Bike lanes? Practically non-existant. Bike trails? The main (possibly only?) one caters to the tourist crowd around the missions. I would love to commute to work by bike, I have the gear and the motivation to do it, but it would literally be putting my life on the line every day given the agressive and inattentive drivers and lack of cycling facilities. I used to live in Eugene, OR and was amazed how many people would be out riding their bikes even in the rain. Here, you have to get out of the city to even consider riding on the roads. Hopefully, one of these days I'll manage to get back to the Pacific NW where people are more enlightened on the virtues of cycling.

Catherine said...

Actually, the close-in DC suburbs (the ones on the Virginia side anyway, I'm not sure about the Maryland side) are actually really great for cycling. Arlington is actually rated higher than DC by the League of American Bicyclists (silver, to DC's bronze). The farther out suburbs (Fairfax Co and beyond) are probably awful, but most suburbs are. They were designed post-automobile, whereas the closer in suburbs weren't. Also, the cities on the "worst" list are really just the post-automobile "suburban" cities. They count as cities by population, not population density.

All that being said, I'm sure the survey only counted DC proper, not any of the suburbs. For the record, I live in Old Town Alexandria, and work in DC (Capitol Hill) and almost never drive. It's bike paradise to me.

Unknown said...

I'm a biker who's lived in the SF Bay Area and in Seattle and they may have good year-round weather for biking, but the topography is another matter. Unless you're an olympic athlete, watch our for the hills. Did I say hills?? More like small mountains...

Anonymous said...

I think whatever measurements are being used here are inadequate. I live in Arlington and bike into Washington DC to work. I would say this area is a terrible place to bike. There are a few long bike trails but they are mixed-use. Some streets have bike lanes but they are on-street and they start/end unpredictably. Streets are poorly maintained and sidewalks are narrow. There is a lot of car traffic and many drivers, bikers, and pedestrians are aggressive and rude. Last but not least, urban sprawl results in distances that make bike commuting impracticable for most. Clearly bikes are a total afterthought here; putting the DC area on a top 10 list for biking is a joke.

M A T T U R L A U B said...

I live in KCMO and biking does suck here. I haven't had a car in over four years and ride my fixed gear where ever I go. To me changing KC's bike scene from worst to first is something I plan on doing for me senior thesis project. There are big plans with the development of transportation but its also educating the public of how to drive with bikers and how to ride with drivers. Be on the look out for some CHANGE!

Anonymous said...

I realize I'm incredibly late to this conversation, but I wanted to throw in my two cents.

As an progressive and an artist, but somebody who hasn't ridden a bicycle since childhood, these top 10 cities are generally places that I'd really like to live, and the bottom 10 are generally places that I'd never want to live. I think there's definitely a correlation between progressive cultures and biking, though that's certainly an over-generalization from these statistics.

Anonymous said...

I live in Honolulu and yes there are a lot of people who bike, but it is not because this is a bike friendly place. It's just an expensive one, so cars, multiple rooms, stoves, and retirement become luxuries. The weather is mostly great, but this state is not designed for bikers at all. I have lived here and on Maui and I never felt safe biking anywhere. This is especially disappointing since Maui is become so developed and they're making the same stupid mistakes they already made in Honolulu. This was a huge disappointment to me. I used to commute to work every possible day I could when I lived in the bike friendly town of South Lake Tahoe. I loved it and I naively assumed that I'd have 365 days of riding available to me if I moved to Hawaii...wrong! This is a dangerous state for walkers and bikers. People just aren't aware. I've nearly gotten hit by a car too many times to count, just walking and I always follow all the safety rules.

Bob Murdoch said...

I realize this a an old blog, but I wish to comment on bicycle commuting in Dallas. I have been bike commuting in Dallas for 7 yrs now. I am not a superman, I am now in my mid 50's, still overweight, and have bike 20 to 28 miles around trip to work as a professional. Dallas is a very bike-able city. It not flat but the hills are not bad and has quite a few minor roads that cross large sections of the city. The biggest problem is crossing freeways because few of the aforementioned minor roads cross the freeways,but there are some. There is a nascent trail system along White Rock Creek and an rails-to-trails route called The Katy Trail (not to be confused with the grander Katy Trail in MO). There is an old on-street bike route laid out by the City of Dallas which isn't bad, but does need more publicity and more signs. A big fear here for office worker types the dreaded "SWEAT", which you will have here most of the year if you bike to work. Fear not, a few places do have showers or a gym near by but, most businesses do not. I have showered at home before ride and used store bought wet wipes to freshen up once at work. It works quite well. There is also a large underclass of bike commuters too, the invisible, the day laborers, restaurant workers, etc. They are there just open your eyes.

Anonymous said...

I am a transplant from Michigan living in Gainesville, Florida, which is a wonderful town (pop: 150k) with very mild weather (except for the hot and wet summers), has a nice bus system with bike racks on the front, and has a pretty generous set of bike routes on the major roads. However...

What I notice about biking, walking and transit in the south in general, is that the middle and upper class don't do it.

Walking, biking and mass transit (as commuting options, anyway) are generally considered to be the province of the poor here. It's a sort of cultural stigma. Before and after work, folks will walk or bike all over the place, but they won't bike or walk to work. Since the Funky folks are all on the road or the bus, many middle-and upper class folks don't use these options for reasons of "safety", which generally means "fear", and is another way of guaranteeing one doesn't associate outside their social class.

As a guy, I have the luxury of saying all this, I suppose. I know my wife (born and bred in the south) wouldn't ride the bus here. What a shame, because it seems a self-fulfilling trend. We treat mass transit like a social program instead of a transportation program, and it becomes associated with welfare, poverty and crime. And guess which programs get cut in hard times?

Step Counter said...

This is the Dutch way, ride a bike and save money!

David Hembrow said...

Interesting that you comment about the census missing out the cycling component of multi-modal commutes.

The US is not alone in this. The same happens in the Netherlands. 40% of railway passengers arrive at the railway station by bicycle, and there are quite phenomenal numbers of bikes at every railway station. However, all these people are counted only as train passengers.

Anonymous said...

I am in Stevens Point, Wisocnsin and while the city really isn't set up for bicycle commuting (the roads are run down on the edges and filled with potholes, and people don't know how to drive with bicycles). I have found that as long as I wear bright colors, use a bright flashing 1000 lumen light on my commute, and am willing to use the sidewalk on the really narrow roads, commuting isn't too bad. The city is gradually adding bike lanes and removing multiple traffic lanes, but more has to be done to fix existing tarmac to improve safety and prevent bicyclists from losing teeth as they rattle along the sides of the roads. If there was a life here outside of raising a family I would stay. However, unless you are married with children, or a barfly, this place doesn't offer much of a life.