Bicycling In Large North American Cities

What is it that prompts people to ride bikes more in some cities, while in others, biking lags noticeably behind? Two academics did a report on the topic for the U.S. Dept. of Transportation, and it comes up with an answer that we’ve heard before.

By the way, the report is fully two years old, so I’m not trying to call your attention to new findings. But it’s likely most Bike Noob readers haven’t heard of or seen the report, so its results could be of interest.

The two researchers, John Pucher of Rutgers University and Ralph Buehler of Virginia Tech, aggregated cycling data from nine major North American cities over two decades, roughly 1990-2010. The cities in their study were Chicago, New York, Minneapolis, Montreal, Portland, San Francisco, Toronto, Vancouver, and Washington. Those were picked because they already had a strong biking culture. Other major cities such as Dallas, Houston, Kansas City, Detroit and Memphis were deliberately left out, because of their low rates of bicycle commuting and cycling facilities.

The rate of cycling was higher in these cities than in the rest of the U.S. or Canada, at least doubling over the two decades of the study. But the percentage of female riders was down, falling from 32 to 23 percent in the years between 2001-2009. The age group that showed the largest increase in the rate of cycling was the 40-64 year olds.

Bike commuting was up in those cities, by 64 percent in the U.S. The percentage of commuters who use bikes rose from 0.4 percent to 0.6 percent — a less impressive number.

Bike fatalities dropped in both the U.S. and Canada — by 66 percent up North, and 21 percent in the States. In fact, the researchers found the fatality rate in Canada to be a third of that in the U.S. Serious injuries also fell. Canada was down 40 percent, the U.S. 31 percent.

Perhaps the main finding of the study was that levels of bicycling positively correlate to the availability of bike lanes and/or bike paths. When cities have those amenities, cycling is three to four times higher than cities that do not. In surveys, cyclists indicated that they prefer segregated bike paths to bike lanes. Most cities have built both, and combining the two gives cyclists more flexibility in planning their trips. But cyclists were split on whether they prefer bike lanes or paths.

All nine cities in the study have been adding to their networks of bike lanes and bike paths. The study notes that bike lanes are growing at a faster rate than paths, by as much as ten times more in Chicago and New York, but even three times as fast in Washington and Minneapolis. “The increased focus on bike lanes,” write the authors, “might also reflect a shift toward promoting daily, utilitarian cycling, and away from the previous emphasis on recreational cycling.”

Cycle tracks, which are popular in Europe, are just starting to be built in North America. Cycle tracks are on-street bike paths separated from motor vehicle traffic by barriers. They’ve been built along some streets in New York, partly as a response to motorists who block bike lanes.

However, it’s the off-street bike paths that get the most use. Most of these are multi-use paths, and are mainly used for recreational cycling. Other bike amenities noted in the study are residential streets with traffic calming features (street narrowing, chicanes, speed humps) and bike boulevards, which give priority to bikes over cars.

The study is subtitled, “Lessons for New York,” and concludes that although New York has built the most bikeways in recent years, it has failed at integrating bicycling with public transit and bike parking.

The report concludes that while biking is enjoying growth, its growth is limited to the few dozen cities that have policies to promote cycling. In the U.S. South, from Texas to North Carolina, cycling rates are still extremely low. The cities that are undergoing a biking Renaissance offer great examples for other cities to follow.




A city bike plan

Cycling in Austin from Citizens for Transportation Choice website.
Cycling in Austin from Citizens for Transportation Choice website.

With the growing number of cyclists, cities will have to adapt to increased strain on their infrastructures as bikes and motor vehicles compete for space. In Austin, the city is considering a new bike plan. It calls for some interesting additions — most of which make perfect sense.

  • A north-south and east-west dedicated bike “boulevard.” This would probably be a bike lane added to existing major thorofares, but the hope is that more people will choose to cycle if bike lanes are available on busy streets.
  • Prohibiting parking in bike lanes, and making them tow-away zones.
  • Requiring bike lanes on all new roads, and adding them to existing roads.
  • Full time funding for the city Bicycle Coordinator (this has been an easy target for budget cuts in the past).
  • A permanent Bicycle and Pedestrian Commission to make sure the city keeps meeting the needs of cyclists.
  • A timetable to make sure these things get done in a timely manner.

Heck, these kinds of improvements could probably be made in cities all across the country. Austin grew rapidly during the 1990s, and that growth catered more to cars than to alternative or mass transportation. We have some catching up to do.

Today, I signed a petition encouraging the City Council to adopt such a Bike Plan. I’m looking forward to riding in a more bike-friendly city.

Safer cycling

I’ve mentioned before that I work at a university.  One of the things I’ve noticed as I hit town during my daily commute is an increasing number of cyclists on the road, biking to and from campus.  I think we’re all noticing more cyclists lately, because of high gas prices, but the ones I’ve been seeing are worth a comment.

More and more cyclists seem to be practicing what is called “vehicular cycling,” where bikes take their place among other traffic on the road, and cyclists follow the same rules cars must follow.  This morning, one fellow waited in a left turn lane about four cars back from the stoplight.  When the light changed, he pedaled hard to stay with the flow of cars around the corner, then reached the bike lane on the road he was turning on to, and settled in.  The cars behind him were not delayed by following a bike.

A four-lane road leads from the interstate highway toward campus.  This morning, a cyclist rode “as far to the right as practicable” and moved at a pretty good clip.  Cars passed him closely, because there’s no room for a bike lane on this road, but there is enough room for two cars and a bike — if everybody pays attention.

I’m also seeing more riders stop at stop signs and signal their turns.

Of course, there are always some jerks, but that’s not what this post is about.

As a larger number of cyclists ride according to the rules of the road, that boosts the chances that motorists will be more likely to accept their presence, and perhaps ease the antagonism between cyclists and drivers.

And before you ask — no, I’m not one of the bike commuters.  Unfortunately, I live 30 miles from work, and riding there is not a realistic choice — for me.