Census data confirms steady climb in Seattle bike commuting, driving alone now below 50%

Seattle Bike Blog analysis of 2012 American Communities Survey data collected by the Census

Seattle Bike Blog analysis of 2012 American Communities Survey data collected by the Census

Bike commuting is at an all-time high in Seattle and continues to climb, according to Census survey data.

Perhaps a bigger symbolic moment has been reached, however: Driving alone to work is now below 50 percent in the city of Seattle, demonstrating a sea change in the way people in our city choose to get around.

Commuting to work by walking and biking has been climbing steadily with no signs of slowing down. In fact, if anything, commuting by a means other than driving is only growing faster as the job market in Seattle improves.

Though it may be tempting to say that bike commuting is up 19 percent over 2012, Census survey data has a large enough margin of error to make it a somewhat poor measure of year-to-year changes. For example, it showed a huge jump in bike commuting between 2009-2010, a small decline 2010-2011 and now a big jump 2011-2012. Likely this was actually a more gradual but steady climb.

Looking longer term, bike commuting in Seattle is up 78 percent since 2005, and walking to work is up 44 percent. Driving alone to work is down 14 percent in the same time frame.

The survey data is also flawed as a measure of general transportation mode habits in the city. It does not include any trips other than trips to and from work. All those bike rides to the grocery store or a friend’s home do not count. The survey also does not account for multi-modal journeys to work. In fact, most people who combine biking and busing to get around would not count as a bike commuter. Neither would people who bike to work some days, but used another mode more often in the week before they were called. Here’s how the question is worded:

How did this person usually get to work LAST WEEK?
If this person usually used more than one method of transportation during the trip, mark (X) the box of the one used for most of the distance.

So it is safe to assume that 4.1 percent is the lowest possible estimate for regular bicycle use in the city. It’s also probably more useful to use the survey to track changes over time, by which measure bike commuting is becoming more and more popular every year.

You can see a spreadsheet I put together showing annual data from the survey dating back to 2005. Or, if you are more ambitious, you can dig into the data yourself on the (often confusing) Census website.

UPDATE: Though Seattle’s growing bike commute rate is promising, it’s sluggish compared to some other large US cities (population 300,000+). In fact, Seattle has given up it’s place as the #2 biking big city in the nation. Minneapolis reclaimed their spot below Portland (6.1 percent), with 4.5 percent of their residents biking to work.

In fact, Seattle is now in a close race with Washington DC to stay on the podium (there is a bike commute podium, right?). Our nation’s capitol has tied Seattle for the #3 spot (unless there’s another city in play that I haven’t counted yet). And cities like San Francisco (3.8 percent), Denver (2.9 percent), Tucson (2.8 percent), and Sacramento (2.6 percent) are hot on our heels, as well.

So what has DC done to nearly double Seattle’s bike commute growth pace? Well, they installed an ambitious number of protected bike lanes through the city. They also launched a hugely successful bike share system.

Seattle has spent the past couple years making modest infrastructure improvements, but mostly the city has been retooling the way we think about city cycling. There is now huge momentum behind the idea of protected bike lanes and neighborhood greenways that more people will find inviting. But while we engaged in our time-consuming “Seattle process,” DC put some of these ideas into action and got results.

So it is clear: Seattle needs to make some serious investments in the ideals represented by the still-pending Bike Master Plan update and urged by a city-wide network of neighborhood greenways groups. We are beyond ready to put these ideas into action on our streets, and we know they will be effective. Seattle can be the top cycling city in the nation, but there are a growing number of cities in the US that want that title, too.

About Tom Fucoloro

Founder and Editor of Seattle Bike Blog.
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23 Responses to Census data confirms steady climb in Seattle bike commuting, driving alone now below 50%

  1. Perfers to be left alone.. says:

    Nor does it take into account those of us who refuse to answer stupid census phone calls.

    Why is it stupid to call people and ask how they got to work? Because this data is easily gotten from Metro/Sound Transit which thanks to their fare system tracks all of their riders using Orca, and $. And bicycle loop counters, people counters that happen 4 times year. It’s just plain lazy to call and ask. It’s also intrusive. And the counters on the 520 bridge know exactly whose car drove over that bridge and when….

  2. Bob Hall says:

    The census is talking about the ~366,000 commuters who live in the Seattle city limits. So this data has nothing to do with commuters driving into downtown Seattle from, say, Issaquah or Edmonds. The sentence “Driving alone to work is now below 50 percent in the city of Seattle” is not technically true. It should say “Fewer than 50 percent for commuters who reside in Seattle drive to work alone.”

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  6. John Bailo says:

    People alone in cars went down…but the total number using cars is 58% and if I subtract the changes in the other modes (+4%), total car use hasn’t really changed that much.

    In fact, back in 1993 when Metro proposed its light rail numbers it said that the most expensive plan, at $9 billion, would at best reduce traffic by 3%. After spending $20 billion, we go that…and a little more.

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