January 28, 2022
In 2019, just 0.5% of U.S. commuters rode a bike to work—the smallest share of any mode. But tiny shifts can make a big difference. Data-driven bike plans, safety improvements, and supportive political leadership have helped boost bike commute rates in several cities nationwide in recent years, according to a new report from the League of American Bicyclists, reports Bloomberg.
In Benchmarking Bike Networks, the country’s largest bicycling advocacy organization takes stock of the best infrastructure and policy practices for getting more people pedaling.
The report spotlights Boston; Chicago; Austin, Texas; Oakland, California; and Missoula, Montana—cities of diverse size and geography where bike commute shares are more than twice the national average and have increased over the last decade.
Ken McLeod, the league’s policy director, hopes they can serve as models for other communities. “Benchmarking shows what really good communities are doing and what others can do so that we’re all pushing towards the same goal of safe bike networks that are accessible to everyone,” he said.
Consistent across the five cities was how long local officials have been planning for better cycling facilities—updating their proposals regularly. In Oakland, a suite of improvements focused on a “ladder” of two parallel streets and seven connecting streets on either side of the MacArthur BART station—especially after a 2007 bike plan showed how many more residents lived a short bike ride away from the station versus a short walk.
With a targeted approach, the number of bike lanes and dedicated bike lanes has soared across Oakland, often replacing shared lane marking —also known as sharrows—following best safety practices for high-traffic streets, McLeod said.
The report also identifies street repavement cycles as an efficient way to stripe lanes and add protections. Austin’s faster-than-average repaving schedule, where streets are resurfaced every 10 years rather than the usual 20, has helped to build bike lanes at breakneck speed; the city recently passed the halfway point on building a planned 400+ mile cycling network, marking a 34% increase in miles since 2014.
Political support also played a powerful role in that rollout, with Austin voters approving bond measures in 2016 and 2019 that supplied dedicated funds for biking and walking improvements.
Along the same lines, culture change led by top decision-makers laid important groundwork in nearly every city. In 2015, Missoula’s city council adopted a 30-year growth plan that highlighted needed infrastructure improvements to support its sustainability, affordability and safety objectives. That process led to a citywide goal of tripling the share of commuters who bike, walk, and take transit by 2045, which then guided the creation of a more ambitious bike plan.
“Knowing that policy makers had wanted the mode share to look different in 30 years, it enabled the staff and advocates to push harder,” McLeod said.
Helpful as these examples may be as cities adapt to pandemic-era commuting, they come with a significant caveat: Because the U.S. Census Bureau didn’t release biking and walking commute data from its tumultuous 2020 survey, the report doesn’t capture COVID-19’s effects on cycling—which were complicated, given that overall commuting plummeted at the same time as interest in recreational cycling surged.
While analytics companies have tracked both trends, the lack of standardization from year to year prevents a fair comparison.
This ties into a broader problem that disadvantages the cycling community, McLeod said: The federal government doesn’t routinely collect data on bike facilities the way it does for highways and bridges—making a national assessment of cycling conditions all but impossible. That’s also true for pedestrian networks. McLeod pointed to how data collection and mapping of deteriorating bridges informed President Joe Biden’s recent announcement of a $27.5 billion investment in those spans over the next five years.
“The lack of biking and walking network data means we can’t use similar messaging or provide accurate estimates of needs for bicycle and pedestrian networks,” McLeod said. “I hope this report helps us move towards
Research contact: @Bloomberg