Is Bicycling Improving?


One of my many beefs with government planning advocates is that they tend to judge success by measuring inputs rather than outputs. A case in point is a group that calls itself People for Bikes that issued a report last week that claims that Bicycling Is Improving in Cities Across the U.S.

Does it measure that improvement by the number of people cycling in those cities? Or by a reduction in bicycle fatalities and injuries from traffic accidents? No, it instead measure the miles of bike lanes, the reallocations of street space to dedicated bicycle use, reductions in automobile speed limits, and changes to intersections favoring bicyclists. The fact that these “improvements” have been accompanied by increased bicycle fatalities and reductions in bicycle commuting aren’t considered.

People for Bikes ranked 2,300 U.S. cities by these measures and encourages cities to “improve their ranking” by doing more. But if doing these things doesn’t increase cycling or bicycle safety, there isn’t much point.

The Census Bureau says that 731,272 people commuted to work by bicycle in 2022, down from 785,665 in 2012. That’s not an improvement.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Fatality and Injury Reporting System says that 907 bicycle riders lost their lives in urban traffic accidents in 2022, up from 506 in 2012. That’s not an improvement either.

The scary thing is that some of the practices advocated by People for Bikes may be responsible for some of the increase in fatalities, which in turn may be responsible for some of the decline in bicycle riding. We don’t know because People for Bikes never bothers to ask whether the policies they support are making cycling safer or more dangerous.

I compared People for Bikes’ city rankings with recent American Community Survey data to see if there was any correlation between high-ranking cities and more cycling. The 2022 survey only has commuting data for 208 cities, so to increase the sample I used five-year data, meaning the sum of survey results for 2018 through 2022.

This produced results for close to 5,800 cities, but not all of them were in the People for Bikes rankings. I was able to match up commuting data with People for Bike rankings in 1,441 cities. I fully expected that there would be some correlation between the two because cities that have lots of cyclists — often college towns — are more likely to install bike lanes and so forth.

Instead, the correlation between rankings and the percentage of workers in each city who bicycle to work was a dismal -0.18 where 0 is no correlation while 1 is a perfect correlation. A coefficient of 0.18 shows there is a weak correlation but it is much smaller than I expected.

People for Bikes ranks Mackinac Island number 1, and nearly 50 percent of workers on the island cycle to work, so that looks pretty good. But Washburn, Wisconsin is ranked number 5 and it only has 2.0 percent of workers commuting by bicycle. At number 32, Minneapolis is the highest ranked major city, but cycle commuting there (2.6%) is lower than in Seattle (2.8%), which is ranked 56, and where cycle commuting is lower than in San Francisco (3.4%), which is ranked 62, and where cycle commuting is lower than in Portland (4.1%), which is ranked 97. No wonder the correlation between ranking and cycle commuting is so low.

Read the rest of this piece at The Antiplanner.

Randal O'Toole, the Antiplanner, is a policy analyst with nearly 50 years of experience reviewing transportation and land-use plans and the author of The Best-Laid Plans: How Government Planning Harms Your Quality of Life, Your Pocketbook, and Your Future.

Photo: courtesy The Antiplanner.

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A bicycle perspective from Minneapolis

Randall, great hearing from you and good work. As you know, the leaders of Minneapolis and the Met Council would love it if cars were gone and we all took the bus, train or biked to work. In St. Louis Park, where I live they will be reducing the main street through town to just two lanes so people can ride their bikes instead - on a street that can often get congested with multiple intersections along it. This madness is promoted by people who will believe what ever ill-logic is told to them, but more important, the traffic engineering firm who will earn millions in fees as a percentage of construction costs (the real reason for engineers to promote roundabouts and other costly and questionable solutions). Anyway back to the biking. I can tell you this year there is a significant increase in biking from last year, but I think this increase is from electric bikes. They are growing exponentially. Last year I was one of those biking to work - electronically assisted. This is a very easy city to bike, but no way was I going to use the bike lane along with distracted drivers and instead use walks far away from cars veering into lanes. I had a HonBike which was the highest rated by UK STUFF Magazine. An incredible design - beautiful. I had two concerns being a motorcycle rider. No suspension was one and hard rubber skinny tires another. I loved riding to work (5 miles) in good weather for about a month. One day (July 2023) at full speed (20 MPH) cutting through a parking lot going over a smallish speed bump those hard rubber skinny tires slipped on the pavement and I went flying hitting my head and breaking my right elbow (I'm right handed). Just the day before I started wearing a full helmet with stop light and turn signals built in instead of the insignificant foam typical bike helmet - it probably saved me. At 71 years old, a broken elbow with 7 screws in my arm was not just slow to heal, but reduced my work flow potentially costing me hundreds of thousands in income. At the hospital, my surgeon said electric bikes helps keep her very busy. Today I'm healed, but I'll never get on another bike again in exchange for the relative safety of my cars.

cycling commuters

One reason that fewer told the Census they cycled to work in 2022 vs. 2012 may be that increased prosperity made more people able to own and operate a motor vehicle, which they used instead. What does that count show?