Why Bicycling Has Flatlined

Protected bike lane in Arlington, Virginia / BikeArlington

About 830,000 Americans biked to work in 2017, down from a high of 904,000 in 2014. Given communities large and small have made major investments in bicycle infrastructure — and bike share now seems ubiquitous — why haven’t the numbers of bike commuters dramatically increased?

In some cities, a safe, connected, and protected system of bicycle infrastructure has made it easy to get to work on two wheels. These cities include Berkeley, California, with a population of 120,000 people, where 9 percent of commuters travel by bike, and Portland, Oregon, with a population of 640,000, where more than 7 percent do. In those communities, safe infrastructure has been vital to achieving high numbers of bike commuters.

But looking from another angle, those numbers have been stuck at less than 10 percent for a number of years. Why? According to a number of speakers at the League of American Bicyclists’ National Bike Summit, held in Crystal City, Virginia, it’s because the bicycling movement hasn’t been inclusive.

Numerous sessions at the conference delved into how to broaden the appeal of bicycling for people of different ages, income levels, and races.

Christian Dorsey, chair of the Arlington County Board, said his community in Northern Virginia is in the process of revising its bicycle infrastructure master plan. The county’s goal is to “double the mode share of bike commuters.” But to achieve this goal, “we can’t just promote the new bicycle infrastructure to the bicycle advocates — it has to be for everyone.”

Danielle Arigoni, director of livable communities at AARP, and an Arlington resident who bikes to work, said that just 6 percent of older adults regularly bike — and that number has “flatlined.”

Bicycling fatalities have increased over the past few years, with those 65 and older killed “over-represented.” She said if bicycle infrastructure isn’t designed to be safe for everyone — and therefore inclusive of everyone — then “it’s not safe for anyone.”

Dorsey said it is important that access to bicycle infrastructure and bike share systems is equitable. Bike share stations need to be set up in all neighborhoods, not just the wealthy downtowns.

Furthermore, an important but rarely-mentioned barrier is that most employers of low-income people don’t offer showers or bike lockers. If someone is biking to work, they have to do so in their work clothes. “There are often no facilities at the other end.”

In reality, it’s easier for an executive, with access to those facilities, to bike to work than it is for someone who works at a fast food restaurant. That is unfortunate — as those working for less money would benefit far more from the lower transportation costs offered by commuting by bicycle.

If the many safety and social benefits of inclusive infrastructure aren’t enough, there are also economic reasons.

Steve Hartell, director of U.S. public policy for Amazon, said that Amazon selected Crystal City as the location of one of its second headquarters because it’s walkable, bikeable, and next to two Metro stations. “Look at downtown Seattle where Amazon grew up. There, 50 percent of our employees bike, walk, or take mass transit to work.” Amazon was looking for places with the same kind of connected network offering lots of transportation options. And other companies are too.

In another session asking attendees to “think outside the bike,” representatives from a number of urban bicycle non-profits explained how they are diversifying the community of bikers:

Nicole Payne, a program manager at NACTO, noted that Oakland, California required 50 percent of bike share stations to be placed in under served areas. NACTO and the Better Bike Share Partnership have released a guide to engaging a broader community in biking.

At West Town Bikes, a youth development center, in Chicago, Danni Limonez works hard to teach both bicycling and basic work skills. Kids are taught how to maintain bikes used for tours, and some end up getting hired around city bike shops. West Town Bikes also organizes rides for families on the 606 Trail, a 2.7-mile-long elevated bike way created by landscape architects at Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA). And there are tours for “women, transgender, and non-binary riders.”

Chicago Tour de Fat / West Town Bikes, John Greenfield on Flickr

For Cindy Mense with Trailnet, a community will only have an inclusive, accessible bicycle infrastructure if everyone’s voice is heard. St. Louis, Missouri, was envious of Indianapolis’ cultural trail and decided to create their own extensive bike network to connect cultural centers. Ensuring that feedback was received from all communities — especially those north of the “Delmar divide,” the predominantly African American community — Trailnet financed community champions, who were each given $250 for targeted engagement. “They made all the difference, as they told us what music and neighborhood events to go to” to find people to fill out their surveys.

St. Louis connected bicycle network / Trailnet, HOK

And Waffiyyah Murray said her organization — the Better Bike Share Partnership — which is based in Philadelphia, is all about using bikes to build community. The organization provides low-cost tours throughout neighborhoods and to cultural centers like the Barnes Foundation; Internet, mobile phone, and bike safety education classes so people can better access Philly’s Indego bike share system; and free bike deliveries of food to the homeless. There are also programs using bikes to improve mental health and prevent suicides. “Biking can be a coping mechanism for anxiety and depression.”

Better Bike Share Partnership tour in Philadelphia / Better Bike Share Partnership

10 thoughts on “Why Bicycling Has Flatlined

  1. Tom McCarey 03/19/2019 / 2:01 pm

    There is no need to spend money on playground-safe lanes for bicycles. Bicycles are a vehicle, capable of co-existing safely with autos if riders take responsibility for their own safety and learn how to ride a bike properly.

    The cycling advocates are anti-driver/auto and want their new playground-riding areas paid for by the nasty, dirty, homicidal cars.

    A very very small minority of people want this: bike lanes now consume more road space than they free up, they add to pollution as well as reducing it, they hurt neighborhoods and business districts alike, and they have become a drain on the public purse.

  2. Donald Baty 03/20/2019 / 8:35 am

    I believe bike lanes, in many places, do not promote bicycle use. They obstruct auto thoroughfares in many cases while remaining unused. These are not a solution to promote bicycle commuting. They may be somewhat more suitable for recreational use.

    I believe the main reason people do not commute to work on a bike is because of the areas where the average person lives and how far that is from where one works.

    Bicycle commuting requires living close to work, places where there are not often the best family environment conditions.

    There are many more factors that do not promote bicycle commuting, which should take a book to explain.

  3. Sophia R. 03/20/2019 / 12:18 pm

    As a cyclist (no car) for several years in central Los Angeles, my explanation for the flat-lining is a little different. It is not a matter of outreach, diversity, underservice to marginalized groups. I see plenty of bicycles locked behind restaurants and stores–used by the busboys and other workers. The showering issue is obviously not relevant.

    I hear from people who are interested in riding but don’t because they do not have adequate confidence in their skill to be a vehicular rider. They do not feel safe on the road. Only protected bike lanes (and an adequate number of cyclists to make it an ordinary behavior that drivers respect) would get them on the road, i.e., a Netherlands situation. The cyclists I see on the roads here are are either people who don’t have other transportation, or people who are comfortable vehicular cycling. And some young people–teenagers and 20s–who think they are on an extreme sports course.

    It’s a chicken-egg problem. Until the protected bike lanes are built, numbers won’t go up much. But if they’re built, they have to be a big network. Intermittent bike lanes (which is most of the bike lanes in LA) are helpful for the committed, but don’t do anything to get the fearful on their bikes.

    I think bike education in high school would be really useful to give skills and get young people comfortable with riding regularly, and riding safely.

    • Kathryn Forester 06/06/2019 / 10:24 am

      As a fellow cyclist, I agree with this comment. I commute to work by bicycle, but I have to be so careful. I am nearly hit by a motorist not paying attention every week. I have an infant and young child. I love my family, my work, and my life. I bicycle to be sustainable, but I don’t think we will recruit a lot more cyclists until we can really make it safe for all.

  4. Joe 03/23/2019 / 2:18 pm

    Bicycling in cities largely sucks. Mixing tiny unprotected flimsy bicycles with large boxy multi-ton cars and trucks protected with air bags, seat belts, etc. driven by aggressive and distracted drivers is ludicrous, and playing Russian Roulette. Motorcycles are also declining, for similar reasons.

    Bicycling on multi-use trails isn’t much better. Cyclists must yield to pedestrians, the latter take up the entire trail, wander all over the trail, have dog leashes stretching across both sides of the trail, etc. And then pedestrians act surprised and annoyed when cyclists ring their bell. Sometimes there are bicycle only trails, which can be nicer, but pedestrians sometimes wander on those too.

    Bicycling in the mountains is so much more enjoyable and safer, well away from cars.

  5. Andrea G 03/25/2019 / 8:24 pm

    Countries such as the Netherlands that have successfully promoted bicycling as a way of primary transportation have made it a planning priority. Separate safe bicycle facilities, not just bicycle lanes. It involved a grassroots movement for safe streets and transportation due to automobile deaths in the 1960s and 70s and the government responded. Now they have a phenomenal system that is safe and a pleasure to use and cycling is a part of their culture.

  6. R. Gus Drum 04/05/2019 / 5:25 pm

    Part of the problem of bicycle ridership may be the expansion of so many light rail and other public transportation systems in the US that provide safe, convenient, and relatively inexpensive transportation throughout urban areas and in many areas that are servicing suburbs. Hard to pedal 25 miles into work when it’s 15 degrees and snowing.

  7. Tom McCarey 06/06/2019 / 1:35 pm

    Non-Arterial Bikeways: The Better Option.

    CYCLISTS DESERVE safer routes
    Perhaps the biggest crock about these “Living Streets” projects is the push for bike lanes on busy boulevards. Instead of putting such bikeways on lower volume streets, where cyclists of all abilities can more safely and more comfortably ride, cities are creating hazardous conditions that set back the effort to make cycling more accessible.

    So why the push to put bike lanes where car traffic is heaviest? Because bike lanes make a good smoke screen for the real agenda: Money. Adding arterial bike lanes lets cities qualify for federal money for their street projects plus it enables them to increase their tax base by turning small business districts over to high-density developers.

    But really, do you know any cyclist who enjoys sucking tailpipe exhaust or dodging turning vehicles? Is it smart to put inexperienced cyclists — especially children — alongside heavy traffic? And does it make sense to route bikes through hectic business districts, where cars constantly pulling in and out of parking lots significantly raise the risk of bike/car collisions?

    Most cities have plenty of low-volume streets running parallel and adjacent to arterials, where bikes can be more safely and comfortably ridden. Instead of taking away lanes on already overburdened streets and chasing the “all-commuters-should-bike” pipe dream, cities should shift their efforts to local trips, using funds to create grids of non-arterial bikeways based on the local destinations people visit most, and interconnected to enable longer distance rides for those who are able to do so.

    Trips to school, the grocery store, social events… Those short-distance trips account for a huge percentage of traffic and pollution. Yet, unlike many commutes, they involve distances many people can manage. Instead of fostering animosity between cyclists and motorists — which is what the arterial road diet approach does — we’d like to see cities create those safer bikeways and incentivize local riding (e.g., offer vouchers and discounts for local businesses to cyclists; host school-wide contests to promote riding, etc.).

    Get people out on their bikes for short trips, and perhaps they will try longer and more frequent rides. And — bonus points — when they are driving, they’re likely to be more courteous to and aware of cyclists.
    Tom McCarey Member, National Motorists Association

    • Chris Morphis 06/17/2019 / 8:41 am

      Great idea, Tom McCarey!

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