Why Bicycling Has Flatlined

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...
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
Source: dirt.asla.org