How much do Americans really bike?

Last night in downtown Orlando (which is not in top 50 bike cities and not really a college area) I saw about a dozen bicyclists after the July 4th fireworks during my five block walk down a side street. But then anecdotes about how many cyclists one person observed on a particular day are statistically irrelevant.

Here are some actual statistics: Nationally 0.55% of adults bike to work (ACS 2009). That’s the primary information given to us by the U.S. Census American Community Survey. Of course it can be further broken down geographically and demographically. That’s a statistic but does it show the whole picture? It doesn’t count students (grade school or college), it doesn’t count non-work trips (85% of trips are non-work according to NHTS) and there are other grey areas like commuters who bike to work a few days a week or those who bike to or from a transit station. It also doesn’t take into account occasional users; for example, while only about 2% of adults walk to work (ACS), 41% took 4 or more walk trips in a survey week (NHTS 2009 Profile). There are even concerns that lower income citizens and apartment dwellers are systematically under-reported.

Nationally about 1% of all trips are made by bike (all trips, not just commute trips).  That compares to 1.9% of trips made by transit and about 10% by walking (NHTS 2009). Now that National Household Transportation Survey (NHTS) statistic has some problems of it’s own.  It still does not include trip chaining (riding a bike to or from transit), though that data is available elsewhere in the NHTS dataset.  It condenses “recreational” with “social” biking (this is partially addressed in the extended survey). There’s a substantive difference in riding down a recreational trail for exercise and going out to dinner, especially in the needs of those bicyclists, but it would seem that the NHTS conflates these two which is particularly problematic given these account for 60% of bicycle trips (and before you assume that all those trips are exercise rides, note that 25% of trips by car are dubbed “Social/Recreational”).

The next logical step would be to break out to break out urban/rural, central cities, regions, etc. In certain cities and neighborhoods the bicycle percentages are much higher and in other cities and many suburban/rural areas bicycles as transportation are virtually nonexistent. The good news is that bicycling is higher in center cities where space is at a premium. This is good because a parked or moving bicycle takes up less space than a car. It’s also challenging because the political competition for space in center cities is incredibly high.

To give a taste of what we might find if we went further into the statistics, Portland has the highest bicycle commute percentage in the U.S. with 5.8%; impressive by cycle commute standards but low enough to draw grimaces from skeptics.  If we assume that Portlanders bike share of non-work trips is similar to the national statistics, then we can reasonably expect that number to nearly double to an even more respectable sounding 10% or more.  Keep in mind that there are also people walking, biking and taking public transportation, so it’s not as if bikes are the only trade-off to driving. Frankly I don’t think getting people in Manhattan to switch from walking or taking transit to biking is necessarily a big win. In fact people who bike to work may walk to lunch; or people who drive to work may bike to lunch.  It’s important to look at both the percent of people who cycle and percent of trips by bike.  The percentage of people who bike for some trips shows a willingness, ability and interest in biking when the conditions are right. The percentage of trips actually taken by bike gives a fuller pictures of how people travel our streets on a daily basis.

As an added transport statistical tip, if anyone tries to compare bicycle or walk statistics with driving statistics on a per mile basis, tell them to go take a hike! The 10.4% share of trips which are taken on foot plunges to a 0.7% share when considered on a per mile basis. Why? Because no one takes a 10 mile walk trip to go out to dinner unless they’re incredibly athletic or desperate! Similarly, bikes go from 1.0% to 0.2% when considered in miles. It makes all the sense in the world that average walk or bike trip is shorter than the average car trip. Most people who have access to all three modes will choose the car for the longest trips.

There’s plenty more to be statistically analyzed, especially at the geographic level. Alas my time for delving into transportation statistics has expired for the day so I can’t get into specific numbers.  Hopefully I have at least instilled in you a healthy skepticism for bicycle and transportation statistics,  so that you can ask the right questions about the data presented to you.


Further Reading:


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