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Seattle’s bike-to-work rate faces challengers from big cities in all corners of the US

commutegraphThe 2014 Census data on work commute modes is out, and it shows that biking to work in Seattle remains somewhere between 3.1 and 4.3 percent. The survey (** see disclaimer about the survey below) has returned biking numbers within this margin of error since 2010. That’s about 14,200 Seattle residents biking to work all or most days.

Driving alone to work was, once again, below the the 50 percent mark, showing a continued trend in which more and more Seattle workers depend on a multimodal transportation system to get to their jobs. As we reported previously, 57.3 percent of Seattle workers drove alone to work in 2005. So driving alone is still the dominant mode for getting to work, but it’s losing its hold steadily.

Perhaps the biggest news is that transit had it’s strongest year yet, clocking in between 20 and 22.4 percent. If these trends continue, it may only be a couple years before half as many workers in Seattle take transit as drive alone.

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As of 2014, 34.7 percent of Seattle residents bike, walk or take transit to get to work, up from 26.2 percent in 2005. That’s compared to 49.5 percent who drive alone to work. If trends keep going as they are, biking, walking and transit combined could overtake driving alone in the next decade. When exactly will it happen? That depends on how boldly the city, region and state invest to support and grow multimodal transportation.

Passing Move Seattle, for example, is vital to achieving this goal. So is a strong Sound Transit 3 in 2016.

Screenshot from the Census American FactFinder website.
2014 data screenshot from the Census American FactFinder website.

New Orleans bike commutes clocked in at 3.4 percent, barely below Seattle in this year’s ACS. In 2013, they were higher than Seattle, which was probably the biggest surprise in the nation. But the strong 2014 data shows that the Big Easy is here to stay among the nation’s top biking large cities.

Seattle (3.7 percent) is now in a bike commute race against Minneapolis (4.6) in the Mid-West, DC (3.9) on the East Coast, New Orleans (3.4) in the South, San Francisco (4.4) and Oakland (3.7) on the West Coast, and Tucson (3.5) in the Southwest. How cool is that?

Portland, meanwhile, cracked the 7 percent ceiling that has been taunting them for years. Among big US cities, Portland remains in a league of their own.

Unfortunately, Seattle is falling back further and further in the pack. This isn’t because biking in Seattle is falling, but because biking in these other cities is growing like crazy.

And though Seattle has a lot of bold plans for protected bike lanes and neighborhood greenways (and 520 and the waterfront) in upcoming years, we won’t see the results of those efforts reflected in the Census data for a while. Maybe we’ll get a bump from the warm weather in 2015, but I don’t see Seattle making any major gains until major bike route changes help better connect homes to jobs.

If you have any ideas for how to encourage more bike commuting while the city works on the infrastructure, let’s hear ’em in the comments below.

** Take these numbers with a grain of salt. They are the result of surveys and have a fairly large margin of error. So it’s hard to draw many conclusions from year-to-year changes unless the jump is huge. Rather, the data is more useful if you zoom out a bit and look at it over many years, which is why I include the 2005 data in the graph above. 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.

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18 responses to “Seattle’s bike-to-work rate faces challengers from big cities in all corners of the US”

  1. Southeasterner

    Probably been beaten to death but I’ll comment based on my workplace experience.

    During Bike to Work Month we achieve around 25% bike commute rates. If I surveyed those same riders now I would say 40% are still biking and the rest are driving or taking transit.

    Here are the specific reasons that would be given:

    1) School started (primary reason) – they need a car to transport the kids to/from school or after school activities. Note that school related spring after-school activities (bike to work month) are apparently not as common/frequent as fall things.
    2) Bike was stolen – not kidding we have three people not riding today because their bikes were stolen over the summer and they aren’t interested in buying a new one.
    3) Injury or dangerous situation – experienced a dangerous near collision or an actual collision and lost interest in biking for safety reason.
    4) Too dark – No interest in biking at night even with lights.

    Reasons not given would include weather, hills, clothing/showers (we have facilities at the office).

    I really think getting kids/families to and from school and other activities by bike is critical along with dealing with what I would call a stolen bike epidemic currently plaguing Seattle.

    1. I don’t have hard evidence on this, but I suspect that the average home-to-school trip in urban areas is longer, less safe, and less convenient than ever. School consolidation and specialization and increasing school choice are trends driven by powerful forces. The legacy of half a century of pedestrian-hostile housing development, followed by new schools built in those environments and generally similar ways, makes for even greater access challenges at newer schools. Still, the ability to get around independently is just so important for children’s development. It’s a crime for kids to be robbed of that.

  2. Matt

    The way the census data is collected doesn’t even remotely tell the full story of bike commute rates for a peculiar city like Seattle (I would argue the same for Portland). I think what is more meaningful is understanding how many people bike to work at all, ever, in any month of the year. I have lived in a lot of cities in my life and Seattle might just be the most “multimodal.” We have an unreliable public transit system, car ownership rates are very high (the only reliable way to access the mountains) and at the same time we disincentive driving alone to work. This all means that we have a system where people take multiple modes of transit throughout the week and during each month of the year. Asking people in this city to pick their dominant mode of transportation is a lot less telling than in a place like DC where people generally only use one mode of transit for everything. So yes places like Minneapolis or DC might have more people whose dominant mode of transit is the bike but I have a tough time believing they actually have more people biking to work in total throughout the year.

  3. I assume this data is from that survey they pass around at work where you report your major commute mode the week before you complete the survey? I believe it is also tied to a county level tax incentive for the company?

    One way to fix this is to give better incentives for cycling to workplaces. I am lucky that I have showers and lockers but our bike parking is insecure and poorly placed. I bring my bike in to the office to avoid that disregarding the policy that forbids it.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      No, the American Communities Survey is a an annual US Census Bureau survey of households across the nation. It fills in data between censuses and adds some flavor.

      Unfortunately, the only question they ask about transportation is about work commutes, so that’s the only data we have. I wish it were a survey of all trips, regardless to where or why you’re going.

    2. Molly

      I agree that secure, well placed bike parking makes a big difference. I never use the showers or lockers but I would definitely have to reconsider my every day biking without a secure place to put my bike.

      And to increase riders broadly there is a need for secure, well placed bike parking broadly. I biked by Town Hall when the NYC transpo person was talking and every object for 3 blocks around had bikes attached. If we are serious about having people bike to more than work, we need places for them to secure the bikes. (or alternatively everyone else get a brompton and take it inside so I can park my bullitt at the one sign post on the block)

      1. Molly

        perhaps I should clarify that I don’t use the showers at work…

  4. Josh

    I actually got the ACS survey last year.

    I biked to work 50 weeks of the year, 20 miles a day. I’d bike commuted 100 miles in the week before the survey.

    That doesn’t qualify as a bike commuter.

    ACS says I’m a transit commuter because the train ride in the middle of my commute covers more miles than the two bike rides at either end. Yet the train is the more fungible of the two modes — I have a choice of train or two different express bus routes, but no one-bus route gets me within five miles of my office.

    If I didn’t bike, I’d drive; transit wouldn’t be an option. But I’m not a bike commuter according to ACS.

  5. I got the ACS survey for 2015. I submitted early and often. That’s how it works, right?

  6. Allan

    Thanks for this great article. I am now biking 150 miles a week but I don’t count either since I don’t go to work and part of my miles are on the trainer in front of a large computer screen playing movies or tv shows. The actual road miles vary depending on the time of year. I don’t really love to get wet so probably 40% at a guess are road miles. I would probably bike more city road miles if I lived in Portland. I feel much better about city riding there and I would use a road bike more than in Seattle where I use a modified form of 29’r a lot, mostly riding on 42C tires. (due to potholes and very dirty roads) I guess that explains their higher commute rate, it is just more comfortable and safe to ride in Portland. It is also flatter. I don’t know that Seattle could ever catch up with Portland, but it would be nice if they would try.

    1. Law Abider

      Portland is flatter, has better infrastructure (this gap is closing very fast), but most importantly, public transit there sucks, majorly (unless you live near a MAX line).

      Compare a neighborhood like Woodstock to Ballard, which are similarly detached from their respective downtowns by a linear body of water and not so direct roads. Ballard has express buses that match or beat SOV times during commutes. Woodstock has only local buses that spiral around like a lost Sunday driver before eventually making it to downtown, with times that are more than double SOV times. And during peak hours, the Woodstock Tri-Met buses have 15 minute headways (I think one of the routes throws in one random bus to break up the 15 minute headways in the morning peak), so if you miss it, you’re toast.

      Or you can bike. Know exactly when you’re going to depart and arrive, plus it’s quicker than busing, which contrasts to Seattle. Obviously there are other reasons the bike commute rate is higher in Portland, but terrible transit plays a large part.

      1. Tom Fucoloro

        Agreed. Portland’s drive-to-work rate is much higher than Seattle’s for the same reason: 58% drive alone compared to Seattle’s 49%. If you add in carpooling, Portland’s car commute rate is even higher: 67% to Seattle’s 56%.

        Leave it to Portland to also be better at carpooling.

  7. […] New Census data out this week shows that the bike commute rate in Portland, is higher than ever, exceeding the 7 percent threshold for the first time. Meanwhile, in the tier below Portland, about half a dozen large and mid-sized cities are neck and neck, Tom Fucoloro at Seattle Bike Blog reports: […]

  8. Ballard Resident

    The bus is more convienent for my 6.4 mile one way commute. The bus pass is provided for free by my employer.

    I did bike to work in May which was ok but decided the bus was easier for getting to work. I didn’t enjoy riding downtown especially in the dark.

    I do enjoy cycling on one wheel after work for exercise and fun. Really wish there was no missing link on the BGT.

    Recently took a trip to Copenhagen and was very impressed with their infrastructure. Amazingly most local cyclist there follow traffic laws when riding.

  9. TB

    Ultimately the best thing we can do to reduce car trips and improve safety is build grade separated rail. Biking to work is simply infeasible for an overwhelming majority of commuters. And while rates of ‘who commutes how’ are relevant, more important are the actual numbers. Our population is growing so fast that the volume of cars on the streets continues to go up, regardless of the decline in the rate of commutes by car. We need a game changer and rail is the only thing that will make a difference for a majority of commuters.

    1. Matt

      I do not disagree with you at all about grade separated rail and it being a game changer. I do believe with the continued relocation of businesses downtown from the Suburbs (Expedia, Weyerhauser, etc) and the growth of jobs in SLU, there is a tremendous opportunity to grow the number of bike commuters. Even if only 10% of the population gets to work by bike, that’s over 20,000 people off the road and waiting in line for buses/light rail. It certainly would help.

  10. Gary

    What I find more interesting is the actual count from fixed counters like the Freemont bridge. We could have more people riding year over year but a lower percentage if the population grew, which it did, but of those commuting, they choose the bus for all of the reasons listed by all the other posters.

  11. […] lives as close to work as Kyle does, less than half of workers now commute alone in their cars. A 2014 survey revealed that 21.2% take public transit, 3.7% bike, and 9.8% walk. This is the first city I’ve […]

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