Census Report Shows Major Gains for Bike Commuting

By Charles Pekow

Infrastructure additions and cultural shifts seem to be helping to some degree in getting people to bike to work. “The rapid increase in the num­ber of bicycle sharing programs and the implementation of other bicycle-related facilities, along with the proliferation of local events such as “bike to work day,” reflect local-level interest in incorporating bicycle travel into the overall trans­portation mix across communities.”

So reads Modes Less Traveled – Bicycling & Walking to Work in the United States: 2008-2012, a new report from the U.S. Census Bureau. The report tries to paint a picture of the number of people who regularly bike to work. The bureau based the report mainly on data from its annual American Community Surveys (ACS) taken over five years.

Some cities in the Mountain West are doing relatively well.

Boulder, CO comes in first in the nation among medium-sized towns (populations between 100,000 and 200,000) when it comes to the percentage of people biking to the office, factory or other place of employment, as 10.5 percent of Boulder commuters reported using bicycles as their primary way to get to work, in the ACS surveys. College towns tend to ride to the top of the list, noted study author Brian McKenzie. The figure places Boulder, home of a University of Colorado campus, way out in front of even the 2nd place Eugene, OR at 8.7 percent. In Eugene, you’ll find the University of Oregon, which has been named a silver level bicycle friendly university by the League of American Bicyclists (LAB). And while it is a long way down, the top 15 cities in this category also includes 9th place Provo, UT at 3.7 percent and 11th place Salt Lake City, home of the silver level University of Utah, at 2.5 percent.

Among larger cities, where people likely live farther from work, 3.7 percent of Boise, ID workers pedaled to their jobs, putting it in 4th place in the class nationwide. (Boise State University has earned a silver level award too.)

Amongst small cities, a few Montana towns stood out for bike commuting rates. Among small cities (those with populations of at least 20,000 but fewer than 100,000), Missoula enjoyed the 11th highest bike-to-work rate in the nation: 6.2 percent. The gold level University of Montana there enjoys the distinction of being one of the seven most bicycle friendly institutes of higher education in the country. Bozeman came in 14th place at 5.8 percent.

But all the efforts to encourage riding to work haven’t done much if you look at it one way. Still less than one percent of commuters regularly biked to work nationally in the five-year period between 2008 and 2012, according to data from the survey. If the figures can be believed, the .6 percent bike-to-work rate hardly budged from previous Census figures of .5 percent in 1980 and .4 percent in 1990 and 2000.

But if you look at it another way, the figures show major gains. The report states that “(b)etween 2000 and 2008–2012, the number of work­ers who traveled to work by bicycle increased by 60.8 percent, from about 488,000 in 2000 to about 786,000. This increase in the num­ber of bicycle commuters exceeded the percentage increase of all other travel modes during that period “

The recent figures were based on sampling, not long form Census data from the earlier ones. And all the studies took place during recession years, so fewer people were working than normally. The bureau says the margin of error is about 1 percent in most cases but it acknowledges margins of error can be high and that in towns of 20,000, samples include so few people that they don’t mean anything. So the survey ranks no small towns. ACS surveyed about 3.5 million households a year, whereas the Census tries to reach everybody, though not everybody gets the long form. The report uses information from five years to reduce inaccuracies, McKenzie said at a Google hangout sponsored by LAB.

And as survey takers usually don’t remind you, people just answer the forms any way they want, even if their answers aren’t true. Also, comparing any two surveys requires some skepticism. Census figures are collected in April while ACS surveys take place any time. The report asks how the respondent “primarily got to work” in the last week. And that includes people contacted in all seasons and weather conditions. So a good number of people answered the form in winter, when they probably didn’t cycle to work in the last week.

McKenzie also acknowledged that the numbers don’t provide a great deal of data on travel time or demographics of riders, such as age, race and gender.

“The estimates are not perfect but we use them fearlessly because they are the only estimates we have,” LAB Policy Director Darren Flusche said. At the hangout, he pointed out that the figures underestimate bicycle commuting by asking about the “primary” means. “If you don’t bike every day or ride to the train, you don’t get counted so we”re underrepresented.”

But based on the figures available, nationally, the younger your age, the stronger your commitment to riding. While 1 percent of those aged 16-24 rode to work, the percentage steadily went down with age, with only .3 percent of those 55 and older hopping on the bike seat. Not only may age-related physical conditions lead to lower commuting rates, but living farther from work, and earning a higher income also evidently contribute.

It may seem strange, but the most highly educated and the most uneducated cycled to work more than those in between. Among those with a graduate or professional degree, .9 percent did, as did .7 percent of those lacking a high school diploma. “It can be a very low status transportation option or a high status recreational activity. We’ve had both perspectives for decades,” observed LAB Equity Initiative Manager Adonia Lugo.

And parental responsibilities apparently get in the way of riding. While .7 percent of those with no children at home rode, only .4- or .5 percent of those with kids in the house did.

Average bicycle commute time: 19.3 minutes. But the figure is rather misleading in that most bike commutes lasted between 10 and 14 minutes and a handful of longer ones skewed the average. The survey did not ask about how far people commuted. The share of bike commuters “is much higher if you live and work in the same community but that is only a rough measure of distance. A lot more people cross state and county boundaries by other forms of transit,” McKenzie says.

And bicycle commuters tended not to be the early risers or those who were prone to fight rush hour traffic. While 1.1 percent of those who left home between 9 am and noon did so on a bicycle, fewer workers did if they took off between 8 am and 9 am and even fewer felt like cycling earlier in the morning.

In addition to the presence of a university, infrastructure improvements and additions increased the level of bike communing, as one would expect. “When cities put in bikeshare, we tend to see a correlation in growth in bicycling. Correlation is not causation but it makes it easier because it is a constant advertisement for bicycling,” McKenzie noted. “We’ll see an increase in bike commuting as cities install and expand bikeshare programs.”

You can view the report at http://www.census.gov/prod/2014pubs/acs-25.pdf.


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