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Is Bicycle Commuting Really Catching On? And if So, Where?

Is Bicycle Commuting Really Catching On? And if So, Where?
Flickr user: DaveFayram, Creative Commons

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story cited a number of incorrect percentages due to a math error. Our  apologies for any confusion.

 

Converting to bicycle commuting is all the rage in U.S. cities, if the proliferation of blogs devoted to the topic is any indication. But we wanted to know: Just how big have increases in the percentage of bike commuters been in specific cities? Are there regional differences? Cities where bike commuting isn't catching on at all? We surveyed 55 major U.S. cities to see if we could find the answer.  While there are stark differences across individual cities, taken as a group these metros saw an average increase in their percentage of regular bicycle commuters of 70 percent between 2000 and 2009. 

Grouped into five regions (Northeast, Southeast, Midwest, Northwest, Southwest), clear differences emerge. The Northwest had the highest average percent of commuters who bike and the third largest increase in ridership (83 percent), while the Northeast saw the highest increase (127 percent) in that commuting demographic over the course of the decade. The Midwest also performed very well, with a 106 percent increase. The Southwest and Southeast had the lowest overall increase, and include eight of the nine cities that saw a decrease since 2000.

NORTHWEST

 

CITY % IN 2000 % IN 2009 % INCREASE
Portland 1.8 5.8 222
Seattle 1.9 3 58
Anchorage 0.5 0.7 40
San Francisco 2 3 50
Oakland 1.2 2.5 108
Sacramento 1.4 2.1 50
San Jose 0.6 0.9 50

 

As of 2000, cities in the Northwest had the highest percentage of residents who regularly commute to work by bike and maintained that statistic by the end of the decade. Growth in that mode of transportation continued with Anchorage having the lowest percentage increase in the region, at 40 percent. At the turn of the century, Portland was only a tenth of a percent behind Seattle, but thanks to a 222 percent increase in ridership, has pulled away as the undisputed number one city not only in the Northwest, but in the entire nation for commuting to work by bike, with Seattle and Minneapolis tied for second with a distant 3 percent.

 

NORTHEAST

 

CITY % IN 2000 % IN 2009 % INCREASE
Pittsburgh 0.4 1.4 250
Cincinnati 0.2 0.6 200
Columbus 0.3 0.7 133
Philadelphia 0.9 2.2 144
Buffalo 0.4 1.1 175
Boston 1 2.1 110
Baltimore 0.3 1 233
Cleveland 0.2 0.4 100
Newark 0.2 0.1 -50
New York 0.5 0.6 20
Washington 1.2 2.2 83

 

As a region, the Northeast saw the most substantial growth in bike usage among commuters, with an average of 127 percent more cyclists since 2000. Baltimore, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh all saw increases of 200 percent or higher. Boston, Buffalo and Cleveland saw substantial increases as well (over 100 percent each), all older cities with historically higher density levels.

 

MIDWEST

 

CITY % IN 2000 % IN 2009 % INCREASE
Minneapolis 1.9 3.0 58
Tulsa 0.2 0.6 200
Detroit 0.2 0.5 150
Indianapolis 0.2 0.5 150
St. Louis 0.4 0.7 75
Chicago 0.5 1.1 120
Oklahoma City 0.1 0.1 0
Denver 1 1.8 80
Kansas City 0.1 0.3 200
Milwaukee 0.3 0.6 100
Omaha 0.1 0.2 100
Wichita 0.2 0.3 50

 

The Midwest saw a slightly higher percentage increase in bike ridership than the Northwest, with Minneapolis outperforming the rest of the region substantially with a full 3 percent of its population now getting to work on two wheels, while only Chicago and Denver had more than 1 percent of their residents get to work the same way. Regionally, ridership increased since 2000, but most of those cities started from a particularly small starting point, in many cases as low as 0.1 percent.

SOUTHWEST

 

CITY % IN 2000 % IN 2009 % INCREASE
Honolulu 1.2 2.3 92
Phoenix 0.9 0.9 0
San Diego 0.7 0.8 14
Austin 0.9 1 11
El Paso 0.1 0.2 100
Los Angeles 0.6 1 67
San Antonio 0.2 0.1 -50
Fresno 0.8 0.7 -13
Albuquerque 1.1 1.4 27
Tucson 2.2 1.9 -14
Las Vegas 0.4 0.3 -25

 

Cities in the Southwest saw modest gains in comparison to the previously mentioned regions and in fact, hosted just as many cities that actually saw a decrease (four of the nine surveyed) as the Southeast. Like the Northeast and Midwest, overall ridership levels in 2000 were fairly low, leading to decent increases while still having particularly low overall totals. 

SOUTHEAST

 

CITY % IN 2000 % IN 2009 % INCREASE
Nashville 0.1 0.1 0
Houston 0.5 0.4 -20
Charlotte 0.2 0.2 0
Atlanta 0.3 1.1 266
Miami 0.6 0.4 -46
Jacksonville 0.4 0.4 0
Raleigh 0.3 0.7 133
Tampa 0.9 0.8 -11
Louisville 0.4 0.4 0
New Orleans 1.2 2.5 108
Memphis 0.1 0 -100
Dallas 0.1 0.1 0
Ft. Worth 0.1 0.1 0
Lexington 0.6 0.8 33

 

The Southeast region performed poorly as well, with six cities that saw no change and four cities that actually saw a significant reduction in bike usage. Despite that, cities like Atlanta, New Orleans, and Raleigh saw significant increases with Atlanta seeing the highest increase (266 percent) and New Orleans having the forth highest overall percentage (2.5 percent) in the nation of commuters who ride to work. 

The overall percent of urban dwellers who commute by bicycle is still very low. Portland, which has the highest overall percentage, see only 5.8 percent of its residents commute this way. Thirty-three cities listed could not crack the one percent mark (down from 42 in 2000).

Although still far from substantial in comparison to car and public transit users, the nationwide increase in bike ridership since the new millennium is undeniable.

Notes on sources: All data come from 2000 U.S. Census figures and estimates from the 2005-2009 American Community Survey.

Mark Byrnes is an associate editor at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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