This Friday is Bike to Work Day—a chance for people to hang up their car keys, get off the bus, and give cycling a try. To kick off our Bike Week line-up here at CityLab, I thought it might be fun and useful to take a more objective look at the state of biking in our cities and urban areas.
(Disclosure: I’m an avid cyclist who owns both serious road bikes and Dutch-style urban commuter bikes, including a refurbished Raleigh Tourist DL-1.)
Bicycles in cities are one of the very hottest of hot-button urban issues—right up there with gentrification itself, which isn’t unrelated, as we’ll see. On the one side are the urban biking optimists, who extol the benefits of bikes in cities and argue that two-wheeled transport is the source of many good things, from less pollution and energy use to more walkable neighborhoods and happier, healthier people. On the other are the urban biking pessimists who see bikes, bike lanes and bike share systems as symbols and promulgators of gentrification, housing unaffordability, and deepening urban divides.
For all the talk about how bikes are taking over cities and even getting the upper hand in the fabled War on Cars, the reality is that bikes are far and away the least common way people get to work. We seem to be arguing about bikes a lot more than we ride them. (Detailed data on more general bike use is skimpy, so we used commuting data compiled by the Census through their American Community Survey from 2011 to 2015 is the best we have—though the League of American Bicyclists has some data for city cycling from 2014).
Here’s a reality check: Even as the number of regular bike commuters has skyrocketed by more than 60 percent from 2000 to 2013, nationally, less than one percent of commuters (0.6 percent) bike to work at least once a week.
By comparison, 86 percent of commuters drive to work. Think of it this way: There are roughly 800,000 people pedaling to work across the United States, lined up against some 120 million Americans behind the wheel. The War on Cars, if it exists, is very asymmetric.
“Other means” of travel beat bicycles in the nationwide commuting contest of 2008 to 2012. (American Community Survey report)
While workers in cities are more likely to cycle to work than those elsewhere, the reality is that just one percent of Americans who live in one of the 50 largest cities in the U.S. cycle to work. Young people cycle more than older ones. But still, just one percent of Americans between the ages of 16 and 24 ride their bikes to work. U.S. cycling also has a stubbornly persistent gender divide—with men more likely to ride their bikes to work than women (0.8 percent of men vs. 0.3 percent of women).
Of course, the number and share of people who cycle to work varies widely by city or metro area.