Biking in Seattle is not declining

A recent story in the PI shows that Seattle’s city-wide bike count showed a 15 percent decline in the number of people biking in 2010 compared to 2008, according to SDOT’s city-wide bike count data.

But, as Scott Gutierrez points out in the story, the numbers from that particular count tell a rather murky story. After all, counts from the same day show a 21 percent increase in the number of people biking compared to 2009 (there was no downtown bike count in 2008. Likewise, there was no city-wide bike count in 2009).

This increase rate is further supported by the US Census American Communities Survey, which found bicycle commuting rose 22 percent since 2009 (and slightly more than that since 2008). According to the survey, Seattle has the second highest rate of bicycle commuting among large American cities.

The bike count data is comparing raw numbers, not mode share percentages. Quite simply, fewer people likely had a reason to be out biking at 6:30 a.m., considering unemployment rose sharply between 2008 and 2010.

Another thing to remember is that the morning of the 2010 bike count was a little chilly and damp (trust me, I was there). Not the kind of weather to make you run for cover, but maybe enough that some people with longer commutes chose to take the bus or drive to work. The 2008 count day was not much warmer, but the morning had clear skies.

Since the downtown counts were still way up while neighborhood counts appear lower, maybe that’s a sign that people with shorter bike commutes will bike no matter what, but people with longer commutes are more likely to choose a different mode if the weather looks iffy.

Whatever the reason, there hardly seems to be enough data to conclude that bicycling is on the decline in Seattle. All other signs point to up and up.

Using single-day samples is always going to be problematic. Being able to compare the data to another source, such as the Census, probably helps paint a slightly clearer picture of biking trends in the city.

The good news is the city is changing its count methodology to one where quarterly counts are conducted in accordance with the National Bicycle and Pedestrian Documentation Project (yes, that exists) methodology. While they were going to continue relying on volunteers for the counts, the city ended up contracting with a company to use cameras.

Hopefully, the extra data will make it easier to track trends accurately in the future.

In the end, depending solely on bicycle commute counts to judge how many people are using bicycles is not the best way to make decisions. Commute counts will always be far lower than the actual number of people who use bicycles every day. What about people who bike to the grocery store or to see friends, yet bus or drive to work somewhere else in the region? What about people who are out of work, but depend on their bikes for their errands and job searching (but not between 6:30-9 am)? What about children and teenagers?

Its fun to be able to say that Seattle is the number two bike commuting large city in the country (number one among cities larger than 600,000!), but 4 percent is an extremely low number that under-represents the scores of people who use bicycles for non-commute purposes.

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16 Responses to Biking in Seattle is not declining

  1. Gary says:

    Likewise the Bike to Work Day counts in 2011 were in the 20,000’s but in 2010 the weather was terrible and the daily count was only in the 10,000’s. Single day ride counts are very weather dependent.

    A far better count is the Bike To Work Month participation rate and mileage that Group Health runs. The counts for that program are all trending up even with the Great Recession.

    • Gary says:

      I can also attest that where I work, the bike cages are overflowing in the summer on nice days and still full even now that the weather has turned, and we have more cage space/number of employees than we had in previous years. In fact they are planning on expanding the bike cages due to their popularity.

  2. pqbuffington says:

    While my observations are anecdotal as well, I do see an increase. I have been pedaling the same commute (Seattle-Bellevue-Seattle) for about six years. While I am frequently the sole rider in my building (14 floors!) I have been completely displaced many times this year at the bike rack, and not exclusively during Bike to Work Month.

    What the data really misses (frankly, so does BtWM effort) is the general increase in bicycling outside of work commuting (as mentioned by Tom and Gary). Here I see many more bicycle racks full, even the new street cages.

    And to compare 2008 to any subsequent years misses not only the impending impact of the Great Recession but the fuel price spike that occurred mid-summer 2008; a tough year to win the Commuter Challenge I might add.

    So, I concur…the trend appears to be an increase overall. But with the recent bicyclist fatalities and the sellers of “outrage” stoking the car-verses-bike debate (does calling something a “war” ever preclude violence?) it is a wonder the numbers have not plummeted.

    • Gary says:

      My other anecdotal observation is that I see regular women commuters. 10 years ago I saw almost none, now their are at least “some”.

      pqbuffington: What time to you ride? I’m on that same commute daily. I hit the East Channel bridge about 7:20 to 7:40am every day.

      • pqbuffington says:

        I am usually on the I-90 trail at 9:00 am (east) and 6:00-7:00 pm (west). I have pretty flexible work hours and I prefer these hours as the roads seem a bit calmer. Plus, in the fall/winter, I only have one direction in the dark.

      • Gary says:

        Then you probably see me going home on those occasions we time up. As that’s about the same time I’m on the road headed West.

        You can tell it’s me because a) I have the brightest tail lights on the bridge (two Dinotte 400R) and a construction worker hwy vest, lime yellow with orange stripes, and a bike with red & white reflective tape on the fenders.

        See ya out there! (but not tonight, I’m riding late tonight.)

  3. William Thompson says:

    To many times I have come across bikers who disregard traffic rules just to better position themselves with light or signage. Understandable seeing they are the weaker of the two, but also are the more likely to die from doing so. Obey the rules of the road, just like you expect drivers of automobiles to do and we both will live to see our friends and family come night fall. Enforce road usage laws for the ones who wish to see us alive and well.

    • Gary says:

      Actually we do it to avoid being hit. Nothing like being in the middle of the pack taking off for the next light. You’ll get plowed over from behind because we can’t accelerate to car speed by the time we are through the intersection. Better to move to the right and the head of the line and let left & right hand turners block the traffic from behind.

  4. JS says:

    Actually, Tuesday during my morning commute I was stacked up at the light where the BGT crosses Stone Way and there were NINE WOMEN ON BIKES there, and the only two male commuters were on the opposite corner. I’d seen ahead or passed some of these women on my way there, so it wasn’t a group ride or anything. I called out “and who says women don’t bike commute!” and we all laughed. It was an impressive variety of bike-types too.

    • Pedals Don't Peddle says:

      I see a lot of women biking on BGT and some of the better-equipped for biking streets (or streets that seem better equipped anyway, like Dexter). I also do see quite a few women biking around UW campus and neighborhood streets. A noticeably smaller percentage take less bike-oriented routes even if it’s side streets and the majority of time I’m the only female hauling my bike across 520. I know for a fact that my mom is terrified of riding in the streets unless it’s along with my dad on their tandem, but she’s very willing to ride on dedicated bike trails on her own. It seems to me that by and large women are more cautious and aware of the very real danger out there since someone has to think of the consequences of risk :) I generally don’t shy away from streets but I do approach my route selection from a “safest reasonable path” point of view rather than “shortest distance between A and B”.

      By comparison, far fewer people–male and female–ride through the lands of cars and cul-de-sacs like Bellevue and Kirkland, even on decently paved and okay-ish streets. So, Seattle is doing pretty well! Keep pedaling.

      • JS says:

        Thanks for your reply! I live in Ballard and definitely notice that my “greenway” route down the side-streets in East Ballard seems to be treked by mostly female cyclists, and a fair amount of family cyclists going to the nearby schools. Riding down the nearby arterial bike lanes there are still more men riding. When I first started riding, I sought out those side streets because I was slow and doubted my skills. Now I just tend to take them because it’s more fun.

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  6. No Crap says:

    You tout the numbers you like and ignore the ones you don’t like. That’s what every shill does.

    • Greg says:

      I feel for you right-wing trolls. Must be a bummer constantly dealing with a reality has such a liberal bias ;-)

  7. Gary says:

    Looking at the raw numbers for the downtown, it looks like the majority of the increase is riders from the Ferry. The rise in fees for cars might be a factor.

    The second question I had was whether the start date for UW classes had changed much between 2008 and 2010, and it had Sept 24, 2008 vs Sept 29th 2010.
    But if both counts were done on a wednesday 09/17/2008, vs 09/15/2010, it means there was an extra week longer before classes started. I think this means we can discount the UW student factors.

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