In 1990, Seattle topped Portland and nearly every other US city in bike commuting

From a presentation by John Pucher

From a presentation by John Pucher

Here’s a stat that should light a fire under the exhaustively-slow Seattle process that has delayed so many needed bicycle safety and access work: Seattle used to be at the very top of cycle commuting in the US and Canada.

Today, while the city still holds a high spot, it is drifting further into the pack as other cities grow their biking rates far faster than the Emerald City’s steady increase.

The percentage* of people cycling to work as their primary mode of transportation in Seattle has grown from 1.5 percent in 1990 to 3.7 percent today (data from Census surveys). That 1.5 percent, while small, put Seattle at the top of the list with only Minneapolis achieving similar levels. And, notably for those keeping score at home, it was higher than Portland’s 1.1 percent.

Today, Seattle’s 3.7 percent is a little more than half of Portland’s 6.8 percent. Meanwhile, cities around the world have grown their cycling numbers at a rate so fast that they make Portland look like Omaha (sorry for the burn Omaha fans). For example, Sevilla in Spain went from less than 1 percent bike mode share to 7 percent in just five years leading up to 2011. They achieved the same growth as Portland in less than a quarter of the time by building an ambitious network of protected bike lanes. Passing Seattle’s bike mode share felt like a small bump in the cycle path for Sevilla.

So what’s the lesson in all this? As John Pucher (Rutgers professor and co-author of City Cycling) wrote in a recent email to Seattle cycling leaders, this should serve as both a wake-up call to Seattle politicians and evidence that rapid increases are possible and maybe even assured so long as the city makes world-class changes to its streets:

That is a truly stunning reversal.  From the nation’s leader in cycling, Seattle has fallen behind many other cities in North America.  I certain hope that Seattle implements the right policies in the coming years to catch up.  Otherwise, Seattle will fall further and further behind its main competitors, not just in the world of cycling, but also in terms of its overall livability and regional economic competitiveness.

Thanks for anything and everything you can do to get the policies and programs implemented to turn around this tragic decline in cycling in Seattle relative to other cities in North America.  From the leader in North American cycling, Seattle is now in the unfortunately position of being left behind by the vastly superior cycling infrastructure and programs in Vancouver and Portland.

I hope this is a WAKE UP CALL to Seattle to actually gets this implemented on the ground and start moving forward on the right path, not in ten years but NOW.  Good luck.

Below is Pucher’s fact-packed presentation he used at the recent Bicycle Urbanism Symposium at the UW:

Pucher BikeUrbanism SeattleUW 18June

* Census Caveat: The Census’ American Communities Survey has several flaws in measuring biking rates. For one, people are asked via a phone survey to tell surveyors which mode they used most for commuting in the past week. If you combine biking and transit, but most of your trip’s distance was on transit, then you would not count as a bike commuter. If you only bike to work some days, you would also not count. And, of course, the data in no way considers all the other trips people make on bike (to the grocery store, the park, a friend’s house, out to eat, etc). So it is safe to assume that these numbers are a low-end estimate of cycling rates.

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25 Responses to In 1990, Seattle topped Portland and nearly every other US city in bike commuting

  1. Zach Shaner says:

    I’d also add that Seattle has far more long-distance commuters than Portland. Seattle’s 3.7% citywide cycling modeshare (3.3% downtown) includes tens of thousands of people who could not reasonably be expected to bike (from Auburn, Tacoma, Everett, etc). The stat that’s important to me is % of bike commuters who live within 10 miles of work. For Downtown Seattle commuters who live within the city limits, our bike modeshare is 6.5%. We’re behind, yes, and our process is indeed exhausting, but it’s not as dire as this makes out.

    We need better cycling facilities yesterday, but we also need to build lots more housing so that our commuters can live within a reasonable cycling distance, rather than the current mean commute distance in Seattle of just over 13 miles.

    • Andrew Squirrel says:

      Zach, Interesting point!
      As a cyclist who has a 22 commute I definitely agree. Another interesting observation I’ve seen is that quite a few young tech professionals who want to use bikes for transportation yet also enjoy the inner city life have an extremely hard time finding jobs within the city limit. They are stuck with the “reverse commute”. I’ve heard it over and over. People with jobs on the eastside, up north or down south (like me) but still desire nightlife, nearby grocery stores and want to avoid the suburban lifestyle at all cost are having a really difficult time in Seattle.

  2. X says:

    Seattle was #2 behind Minneapolis in 1990 and has plunged precipitously to #2 behind Portland in 2011. At this rate, by 2032, we’ll be all the way down to #2 behind New York.

    • Tom Fucoloro says:

      Haha! That’s a rosy way of looking at it :-)

      But in 1990, Seattle and Minneapolis were pretty clearly on top. Now, PDX has far more than surpassed us, and both cities are falling into a pack with a whole bunch of other US cities, like DC, SF, Denver, Montreal, Vancouver, Toronto, etc. The point is, we squandered our head start and now have to play catchup to stay relevant in the national conversation about cycling (which I do think is valuable for the city, as petty as it may seem).

  3. Charles B says:

    I never really understood why the city focuses so much on North-South routes for bicycles when what little construction it does for bicyclists goes forward. We have a lot of North-South routes (incomplete as they are) and very, very few East-West routes.

    Given all of the money we are spending on a N-S rail spine with a train system that is OK with you bringing bicycles on board, we should be making East-West bicycle routes to hook up with these rails to extend the range bicyclists can move when going to work.

    It would also cover the some of the holes left by our bus system, which is also very horrible for going East-West through the city.

  4. Biliruben says:

    The manority of the City Council feels that, due to hills and weather, we have no hope of significantly improving mode share. Therefore they pay lip-service but do little tangible to improve infrastructure, but throw the millions at “serious” transport like the millionaire’s waterfront tunnel.

    It’s up to us to prove them wrong, but its the ol’ chicken or the egg deal. Without safe routes, it will be awe illy hard to get that vast group of willing but wary to bike on these woeful streets.

  5. Joseph says:

    Looking at the numbers Seattle bike share nearly quadrupled in since 1990. In that respect Seattle is like Montreal and Washington. That seems like a pretty good statistic to me. I wonder in what other ways Seattle is like Montreal and Washington and unlike, say, Portland. Perhaps measuring bike rates is more similar in those cities, and different in Portland? (See the Census Caveat in the post).

    I think looking at this in terms of rank – who’s first and who’s second – is plain silly. This is not a race. Sure, there is room for improvement, and comparisons can be useful, if they are , but there will come a time in every city where increase in biking rates will simply start slowing down due to factors like geography, demographics, distribution of jobs, etc. Seattle quadrupled its biking rates in 20 years, which seems to be what most cities that size have done, and I say that’s a good thing and that we’re moving in the right direction.

    So I’m truly annoyed at John Pucher’s assessment of Seattle’s current rank as “a stunning reversal.”

    • Eli says:

      Might you possibly be confusing the Washington (DC) numbers for Seattle?

      “Nearly quintupled” would be going from 1.5% to 5.5% or so, not to 3.7%. ;-)

    • Tom Fucoloro says:

      I would also say “it’s not a race” if there were some advantage to growing cycling numbers and safe streets slowly. But there isn’t. We need to be at 6 or 10 percent yesterday. We need safe streets yesterday. Complete street projects should be completed the day before someone would otherwise have been killed. Instead, we wait until after a tragedy to implement safety improvements we already knew we needed.

      The way I see it, every city in America should be sprinting as fast as they can to get that top spot. Plus, there’s a lot of notoriety and attractiveness that comes with being a safe place for walking and biking. This has very real implications on jobs, the city economy, etc.

      Seattle is an exceptional city in a position to invest boldly in low-stress cycling infrastructure. The transpo department is ready. The mayor is totally on board. The city council at least says they are totally on board. Neighborhood groups all over the city have sprouted up and organized to lobby for safe streets at city hall and in their own community centers and hubs. Some of our biggest employers are also some of the biggest cycling boosters. We can grow cycling like Seville. We have a plan (mostly) that shows how to do it. Let’s just freaking do it already. What are we waiting for? Another recession?

      • Joseph says:

        Tom, I totally agree. We should focus on what we need now, but I just think that using a metric that involves comparing us to other cities not to be terribly useful, unless we normalize for the myriad other variables in which cities differ.

        Eli – oops! I misread the 1.5 as 1.0! (and I said quadrupled, not quintupled) Ha!

  6. Todd says:

    Am I the only one that doesn’t want Amsterdam or Copenhagen? Everyone complains about the 2nd Ave bike lane, but why would you even use it? 2nd Ave is downhill most of the way and taking the lane makes more sense in that situation. The last thing I want is for my commute to drop down to 10 mph because I am stuck in some cycletrack with a bunch of dutch bikes.

    • john doe says:

      David Hiller? How have you been doing? Haven’t seen you since you left Cascade!

    • Tom Fucoloro says:

      Todd, you aren’t the only one, but you’re almost the only one.

      Taking the lane on a street like 2nd is never going to appeal to 95 percent of Seattle residents. And of the 5 percent who will take the lane, a solid majority will wish they had a better option. Even if it means touching your brakes every once in a while and adding 30 seconds or a minute to your downtown trip.

      • Eli says:

        As John Pucher pointed out at the conference:

        It’s not a zero sum game. Nobody in livable streets advocacy is trying to force vehicular cyclists out of the arterial streets – keep riding there to your heart’s content as fast as you want.

        We just want a viable option for the majority of us who aren’t comfortable with that style of riding.

        That doesn’t preclude your riding on arterial streets, any more than gay marriage precludes straight people from enjoying their marriages (#insert set of similar cliches).

    • ODB says:

      It seems to me that–apart from being unafraid to ride with cars–one of the defining characteristics of a vehicular cyclist is the desire and ability to go fast.

      I was thinking about this on the commute this morning when I passed a guy on an electric bike going probably close to 20 mph on the flat, and he looked like he was barely pedaling. We reached the end of the Myrtle Edwards path and while I stopped for a traffic light, he passed me on the sidewalk/multi-use path on the east side of Alaskan Way, which is a dangerous place to go fast.

      This incident caused me to wonder about the impact of electric bikes on bicycle infrastructure going forward. If these bikes become popular, will they democratize “vehicular” cycling? Or will people without very well developed skills end up going too fast on bicycle infrastructure that wasn’t built for speed? Should planning for bicycle infrastructure try to anticipate the greater speeds that an average person can achieve on an electric bike? Or will electric bikes never catch on, so that it becomes a non-issue? (Given this city’s hills and lack of Amsterdam-like density, I think electric bikes would be a good way to make longer, hillier bicycle commutes realistic for a larger segment of the population.)

      Are there any electric bike riders out there? I’m curious if anyone can comment on switching from a “normal” to an electric bike and how it did or didn’t change your riding style or bike infrastructure preferences.

      • Mel says:

        I have an electric bike, but it’s a cargo bike, so even with the 350 watt motor, I can’t get going very fast. In my experience, there are two types of “electric bicyclists”: (1) people who aren’t really interested in bicycling and want an inexpensive car replacement that doesn’t require a driver’s license; and (2) cyclists who just want a little speed “boost” so they can incorporate more biking into their daily routine. I’m in the second class–I use my bike to up my average speed from 8 mph to 12 mph to bike commute to extra days a week. If I don’t have the kids with me and need to get somewhere fast, I’ll get up to maybe 15 mph. I still obey all of the bike rules, I would never use the motor on a “recreational trail” but might on a cycle track. If I’m behind someone, I’ll generally just cruise without the motor until they turn off or there is a good opportunity to pass. Since I’m not going fast, I have no interest in “vehicular cycling” on my bike, though it is very nice to have the option to quickly accelerate out of the way of cars at intersections.

  7. Brad Hawkins says:

    Three things. Helmets, Infrastructure, Sally Clarke.

    Seattle will also be the first place where bike share doesn’t take off. Why? Helmets, Hills, and helmets.

    It hasn’t helped that McGinn has let himself be the punching bag of the Seattle Times and the City Council. It’s been a tough 4 years.

    • A says:

      Hills are as bad an excuse as the weather. I’m in the bottom half with regards to fitness of people on bikes I see and there aren’t many hills I can’t ride up, or a route that can’t avoid the steepest streets, anywhere in the area. True, people who go from their desk at work to their car seat to their couch at home might have difficulty riding, for the first two weeks, but that’s not a reason. It’s an excuse.

      • Tom Fucoloro says:

        Some hills can’t be helped. But for many routes, the flattest or most gradual climbs (due to regrading) are on the most car-dominated streets. We can solve that problem. Rainier Ave, 24th Ave E, NE 65th, S Jackson St, Pike St, MLK, (and, in a dream world, the I-5 Ship Canal Bridge) and on and on… These streets need safe bike facilities.

    • Nick says:

      I’m with you on the helmet issue. I can’t believe they think a helmet vending machine will make the system viable. If the law isn’t fixed, the effort will fail, and it will make everyone look bad.

      • Gary says:

        If they don’t fix the roads to be rideable, it will fail. In fact just the fact that Westlake, the easiest, flatest road from downtown to South Lake Union has those tire grabbing tracks on it may make it fail. Nothing like having a few folks crash and burn trying to visit the Burke, or the Wooden boat center.

        Nevermind downtown on 2nd and 4th… I could never recommend riding downtown to a non city commuting cyclist visiting who wanted to rent a bicycle.

  8. Matt says:

    We need to remain positive. I have lived all over the US and it’s my firm belief that Seattle and Portland have a significant advantage over the rest of the country–our people.

    You can build as many bike lanes as you want in Chicago and New York–that does not change the ultra aggressive, type A personalities that live in those cities that are always in a rush to get everywhere. I have yet to see a Seattle driver even go over the speed limit on I5. Despite the Seattle Times and the 10 republicans in King County that are rampant on the comment sections (they are probably unemployed), we live in the most liberal part of the country that embraces bike lanes and all things green. We need to continue to push for the Bike Master Plan and do whatever it takes to get it done. Educated, liberal people from the midwest and northeast are moving here everyday for a more relaxed, “european” lifestyle. We have the people and the potential–we just need to continue to fight for a safe, connected network of buffered/separated bike lanes!

    • Tom Fucoloro says:

      I agree that we have huge head starts on most of the country. That’s why it is so frustrating to see that progress squandered by slow action. Building safe bike lanes and safe streets is the Seattle consensus. It’s settled. Only a small number of residents disagree with those goals, and no city elected official would say otherwise.

      Adonia Lugo wrote a smart post about this last night: http://www.urbanadonia.com/2013/06/does-culture-matter-in-urban-design.html

      I would argue that Seattle has decades of cultural change head start on many other US cities. Like this data shows, Seattle has been cycling in RELATIVELY high numbers for much longer than most US places. But our culture of cycling and safer streets has not translated into significant budgets to build a connected safe bike network. Other cities are trying to pave over an unfriendly road culture with infrastructure, while Seattle forces a friendlier road culture to get around on unfriendly roads. That’s backwards.

  9. Adam says:

    Why is Seattle’s bicycle accessibility constantly compared to European cities like Amsterdam and Seville, Spain? First of all those cities are very very flat. Second of all they are very dense because they were developed prior to the automobile. Apples and oranges, folks. I invite anyone to check out Google Earth to see for yourself. As an in-shape mid-20’s Seattle-ite with some biking experience in Seattle I just think it’s a pipe dream and is unrealistic to create a Seattle that is bikeable for people of all ages and ability levels. To me it’s more of a warm and fuzzy political pitch. The lack of density. The hills. The weather…..

  10. Pingback: Pucher: Seattle should work to regain prominence as a cycling-friendly city | Seattle Bike Blog

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