DC, New Orleans blow past Seattle in latest Census bike commute data

From the League of American Bicyclists (download full report here)

From the League of American Bicyclists (download full report here)

Cities from the East Coast, the West Coast, the Midwest and even the Deep South all passed Seattle in bike commuting in 2013, according to Census survey data just released. Seattle fell all the way from number three to number six on the list of large US cities.

It was pretty clear last year when 2012 American Communities Survey data was released that Washington DC was on a fast bike commute rise as the nation’s capitol built comfortable protected bike lanes all around the city. DC was essentially tied with Seattle at 4 percent, but they were rising fast compared to Seattle’s slow rise. Since Seattle was much more sluggish in building any ground-shaking bike improvements between 2012 and 2013 (developing the Bike Master Plan took center stage), it was pretty clear DC was going to pass us. And they sure did, rising all the way to the number two spot behind sluggish Portland.

San Francisco, Seattle and Minneapolis have pretty much always jockeyed for the spot under Portland in these bike commute numbers in recent years, and both cities edged out Seattle in 2013 data. But the real shocker is New Orleans, which rose all the way from 2 percent to 3.6 percent to overtake Seattle for the number five spot.

Now, before people read too much into these numbers, it’s important to realize that the survey has a pretty large margin of error. Seattle’s 3.5 percent bike commute rate might look like a big fall from 2012’s 4.1, but it is on the low edge of the 0.6 percent margin of error. It is also higher than 2011 and falls roughly in line with Seattle’s slow growth trend in the bike commute rate, which is up 85 percent since 2000.

It’s likely the New Orleans figure is a statistical blip as well, but it sure is remarkable to see a southern city pass Seattle like that. It’s clear biking in New Orleans is growing fast, even if the number corrects itself next year. Congratulations, NOLA!

It’s also important to note that the survey only measures commute trips, and people surveyed are only allowed to select the single mode they used for the most distance “last week.” So all those trips to the park or dinner or the grocery store do not count. Neither do trips made by children, people out of work or people who are retired. Perhaps most importantly for Seattle, people who combine biking and transit would likely be counted in the public transportation column, not the bike column. And if you only bike to work once or twice a week, you don’t count either.

But the survey is a valuable data source to see changes over time, and it’s clear that Seattle is not making changes to encourage bike commuting as boldly as so many other US cities in nearly every region of the country, which are rising more quickly. Where for decades the Pacific Northwest reigned supreme in bike commuting, even Portland’s spot in the lead might not be safe for many more years.

Transit use in Seattle, however, showed its strongest year in recent history. Nearly 21 percent of people got to work by public transit, a big jump up in the city’s steadily rising transit column and beyond the 1.1 percent margin of error. Can you believe we are going to cut Metro bus service? How insane is that?

Walking was down slightly to 9.07 percent, but not beyond the margin of error. Driving alone was up slightly (back above the 50 percent mark), but again not beyond the margin of error.

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32 Responses to DC, New Orleans blow past Seattle in latest Census bike commute data

  1. Gene Balk says:

    I was kind of bummed when I looked at this data, but like you say, it’s all within the margin of error. Our change from last year’s estimate is statistically insignificant. Still, would have been a lot nicer to see the number go up.

  2. Southeasterner says:

    Safety, safety, and safety! It’s been amazing to hear from friends back in DC who never dreamed of using a bike just 2-3 years ago and are now biking to/from work every day. I had always been a bit hesitant to give protected bike infrastructure too much credit for increasing bike rates, attributing it more to cultural shifts, but DC has definitely proven those investments have significant returns.

    I think Kubly is the right guy to recreate what they have in DC here in Seattle, but unfortunately he has a joke of a budget to work with…just like every single other WA agency.

    • jt says:

      Absolutely. It’s about separated facilities. In DC I biked to work year-round because the 15th St cycle track provided a separated route downtown. In Seattle my wife and I commute by bike as far as the U District on the BG Trail but we won’t even consider going downtown till they’ve built a safe route down there.

      • Gary says:

        Going from the U bridge to downtown isn’t that bad if you think like a bike and not like a car. Ie don’t ride up/down Eastlake, instead cross the bridge and hook West immediately and weave the streets and alleys to the trail by Lake Union. (yes watch those stairs) Then come up 9th to Bell and then depending on where you are headed, 7th, or 5th, or 1st. Lots of options!

      • jt says:

        Thanks for the tip Gary. So, just like this?

        https://goo.gl/maps/fSN3A

        Looks possible, I will give it a shot. Still, from some street views here I think that it needs improvement — cycletracks –if Seattle wants to get people who don’t currently bike commute to start up. All down 9th Ave, with and without those current lanes, cyclists’ lives depend on the drivers alongside/behind them to notice the cyclist and avoid killing them. With a separated cycletrack, the only conflicts would be at cross-streets, which I grant are tricky to plan for a cycletrack.

  3. Cheif says:

    The big corps around here are hiring people who are coming here from car-centric regions and those people are bringing that mentality with them. Neither the city nor these employers are doing anything to teach these people how to integrate into their new surroundings so we have a lot more traffic, a lot more road rage, and even if we actually increase bike ridership we’re not increasing mode share because of the way the new transplants are geared. There need to be profound changes in the way people approach transportation in this city that match the profound changes to population we’re experiencing.

    • jt says:

      What car-centric regions do you mean, specifically? LA region? I thought SoCal has always been the biggest source of Seattle-bound migrants. This interactive suggests migration patterns haven’t changed much in the last 40 years. The only change I see is less Midwesterners moving to WA, but I consider most of the midwest to be pretty “car-centric”. http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/08/13/upshot/where-people-in-each-state-were-born.html?abt=0002&abg=1#Washington

      I think people tend to adopt the attitudes toward different transportation options that are implicit in the design of their region’s transportation system. In DC (at least the city proper) nobody I knew drove anywhere (certainly not to work!), except to leave town for a weekend maybe. Everyone took the metro or buses or bikes, BECAUSE these were usually faster and cheaper than driving (and parking was scarce/expensive). But here, transit takes 4 times as long as driving, parking is cheap/abundant, and the cycling routes are terrifying. Therefore, people adopt a car-centric culture.

      • Cheif says:

        People claiming that they drive because it’s too scary to ride a bike are part of the problem, as well as people who claim how much better it was where they came from.

      • jt says:

        I’m part of the problem for comparing Seattle unfavorably to DC? We’re commenting on a blog post that compares Seattle to DC. I was chipping in with my thoughts on what DC did well for cyclists, since I saw it firsthand. In another comment below I wrote in detail about it: DC connected its neighborhoods and business core with a separated cycle track, which I think is a great idea that Seattle can and should emulate as soon as possible (and is in the Bike Master Plan). For what it’s worth, I like Seattle better than DC, and since I plan to stay here, I want to advocate for it to improve.

        Looking at the migration charts, I see now that the share of CA-born residents of WA has indeed risen from 4% to 8% since 1970, so maybe that has played a role in the rise of car-centric culture, like you suggested.

  4. Matt says:

    As an east coast transplant via the midwest, I still find it hard to believe how “low” we are on all of these bike lists that have been coming out lately. In the 4 years I have lived here I have seen such a dramatic increase in the amount of people biking or at least it just seems that way. With all the supposed bike increases in places like NYC, Chicago, DC, my friends out there still think I’m completely out there for biking to work. It makes me wonder if being such a wealthy city and providing such a minimal amount of bike infrastructure in the southern part of the city, where many would really benefit financially from biking, is really bringing us down. I can’t imagine that the NOLA increase is related to a dramatic increase in bike infrastructure improvements and things like that but is more tied to the financial reality of a large share of that city’s residents.

    • Josh says:

      Worth remembering the many defects of the underlying survey — if you’re one of many Seattleites who takes transit seven miles and bikes six, you’re not a bike commuter at all by their count. Only the single mode that covers the longest distance counts at all. (Guess that shouldn’t be surprising considering how many generations the Census denied the existence of mixed-race Americans. They have their little boxes they want to stick you in, even if it requires slicing off large parts of who you are.)

      • Matt says:

        Good point. I was thinking about how many people I know here that bike to work on occasion but not enough to select it as their main mode of transport to work. I feel like a lot more people here take various modes of transit than in places like NYC, DC and Chicago where it’s a lot more impractical and expensive to own a car. I feel like Seattle and Portland would blow those cities out of the water if they were able to measure how many people commute by bike at least once a week. Biking is so much more a part of the culture here and so much more accepted in our city than anywhere else I’ve lived (pretend you don’t read the seattle times comment section) that I have a tough time believing cycling is really that much more popular in other regions.

  5. Jon Korneliussen says:

    I was in New Orleans this last week and can confirm there are bikes everywhere. There’s not much infrastructure, but it is warm and flat there, and both traffic and transit are slow. The city is compact enough that you can get across town just as fast on a bike as in a car, and much faster than transit. Lastly, you have a culture that never bought into the auto domination (for historic economic and social reasons), and the result is streets like Magazine St. are superhighways during rush hour.

  6. Troy says:

    I spent a month in New Orleans with a bike and still find this hard to believe. Of a dozen cities I’ve spent time in, drivers were the least bicycle-aware (and simply attentive). To Jon’s point, Magazine St is one of the busier streets for bikes and it’s still idle compared to even less-popular Seattle routes (think 6th NW, not even 8th). I rode most of Magazine every single day and even adjusting for population, biking wasn’t that popular (at least in the Garden District, Audubon Park, and Uptown).

  7. jt says:

    It doesn’t surprise me to see DC surpass Seattle. Having moved here a little over a year ago from DC, I’ve been impressed by the grade-separated trails like the Burke Gilman but otherwise disgusted by (the lack of) bike infrastructure here. In DC the bike lane network capitalizes on their natural advantages of a robust street grid (having successfully blocked I-95 from bisecting the city like I-5 tragically did to Seattle), and relatively flatter streets, but they were also stalled out at slow cycling growth like Seattle, because of NO ROUTE DOWNTOWN.

    For many years DC had a network of OK bike lanes (in the door zone but on quiet calm streets) crisscrossing the residential neighborhoods in NW and in Capitol Hill, but, like with the BG Trail, there was no good connection to the jobs downtown. The closest thing, the 14th St bike lanes, in the door zone on a busy arterial, felt akin to Dexter or even Aurora. The crucial leap forward, in 2010, was to run a protected cycletrack down 15th St NW, from a number of dense neighborhoods (U Street, Columbia Heights, Logan Circle, and Mount Pleasant are in spitting distance) straight to the job centers on K Street and around the White House. They followed up with some protected cycletracks on L St NW and Pennsylvania Ave, running east/west through the length of the CBD, which I think were the final puzzle pieces for their awesome growth. Yes, Capital Bikeshare helped too (and we’ve even got our own bikeshare coming soon to Seattle) but people wouldn’t have ridden them nearly as much without the key link of 15th Street’s cycletrack.

    Seattle is agonizingly close — tons of riders on excellent separated trails (BG in NE/N/NW, Elliott Bay in NW/SW, I-90 path in S/SE) and now a decent backbone on 2nd Ave for moving around within the CBD, but we’re still failing to connect all those excellent neighborhood routes to the biggest cluster of jobs: downtown. The number one thing to do to boost commuting rates would be to connect these neighborhoods to the jobs with separated cycletracks. It’s all in the Bike Master Plan too: cycletracks down 9th Ave and Eastlake from Lake Union, Alaskan Way from the Elliott Bay Trail, Rainier Ave and Dearborn to 4th Ave from the I-90 trail. These cycle tracks probably only amount to 10 or 15 miles collectively, but I think they would double the commuter share of cycling within a few years. It happened in DC, it can happen here.

    • sdv says:

      Do people really think the BG is a good bike facility?

    • jeik says:

      Yes, Seattle has always struggled with the connections. It doesn’t matter if you have miles and miles of great infrastructure if you have awkward, scary intersections and even just a few blocks of missing or poor infrastructure in between.

      I would so rather see small missing links fixed than lots of miles of facilities. Even if they are expensive or politically difficult, they are worth it.

  8. Allan says:

    New Orleans has a much nicer climate and terrain(flatter) for riding a bike. If they can also come up with less terrifying bike routes they will leave us in the dust forever. I would also imagine they are not pleased with the oil companies messing up the Gulf. Whatever we do in Seattle, it just never seems to feel any safer. It just gets more and more congested and the drivers get angrier.

    • jt says:

      I’d argue the climate in Seattle is better, but certainly the terrain here is a big challenge. Flat is clearly best for biking, and Seattle is almost as hilly as San Fran. But after a year commuting by bike in Seattle (after 3 years in DC, which is more similar to NOLA), I’ll take the climate here for biking, hands down. No swampy sweaty humid summer heat, no intense thunderstorms and rainstorms, no frigid winters (OK, they don’t have those in New Orleans either). In Seattle you can get around sweat free all year, and in winter you just need to toss a rain jacket, rain pants and gloves over your regular work clothes, maybe a sweater and face mask during a rare cold snap.

      • Matt says:

        I second that about the climate. I’m not sure why people think our climate is not accommodating for biking but a colder, darker, snowier climate in Amsterdam and Copenhagen does work? This is the only place I’ve ever lived where you can go outside and bike year round. NOLA’s climate is downright awful for biking. Not enough west coasters realize what humidity feels like…

      • Allan says:

        I lived in South Africa on the Indian Ocean. For me, Seattle is cold.

      • Matt says:

        Go live in Chicago for a winter and then come back to Seattle. You’ll feel like you’re back on the Indian Ocean.

      • Jon Korneliussen says:

        Eh. The weather down South sucks, but I can’t change it, so I learned to deal with it. Riding is faster than walking (so less time out in the heat), and the breeze from riding keeps you relatively cool. Once you get used to it, it’s not so bad…kind of like riding in rain for nine months out of the year.

      • jt says:

        Allan — Fair enough, to each his own when it comes to preferences! I think the more constructive way I should have phrased this was: while SDOT can’t control the weather or the hills, it can improve the biking facilities on roads, which will help boost bike commuting no matter what. If Minneapolis can be high on the charts in spite of its weather, we sure can too.

        Jon — Quite true, for any type of weather it’s just a matter of adapting. Like I heard once, there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing choices (though that starts to get stretched with true extremes…). As the data show, people find a way to commute by bike in all kinds of climates, and none of these cities’ climates have changed appreciably in the last few years, so if they’ve changed their commute share drastically, something else must have changed. It seems like a good exercise to ask what that was in hopes we can replicate it here.

      • Allan says:

        I guess to each his own for climate. I will ride all day when it is eighty degrees, I just love it. I love hot sunshine on my skin, burning my tan darker and darker until I look like an East Indian. Maybe that has little to do with how much other people bike. I’m just sayin that maybe Seattle is also freezing for a Louisiana native. They could pass us up with the right infrastructure.

  9. Josh says:

    Expect the “war on cars” rhetoric to heat up again when the blovosphere hears that SOV commuters are back over 50%.

  10. Neel says:

    These are calculated as a percentage of the population – meaning large increases in raw numbers of cyclists in Seattle will not move the dial as fast as they would in smaller cities. Also, Seattle is growing faster than any of these other cities, and it takes a while for people to establish patterns of movement in cities they are new to. I lived in Chicago for 7 years, now live in Seattle, and it took me over 2 years to acquaint myself with Chicago enough to use my bike regularly.

    All the proposed major routes (Westlake protected lanes, Greenways expansions, etc.) on the books are coming to pass, as are ever more road diets which make cycling feel safer. This feels like partially like a bad comparison measure for us to to get too fired up about (we’re bigger and growing faster than most or all of the cities on the list), and a bit of an anomalous year – since significant infrastructure was either JUST added (Broadway, 2nd), or is still in planning (but now has a more direct route to implementation).

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