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In final Census survey of the before times, number of Seattle bike commuters hit an all-time high

Bike commute chart over the years.
Note: The Census survey only accepts a binary gender selection.

The number of people biking as their primary mode to work hit a new high water mark in 2019, crossing the 17,000 mark for the first time in the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. The survey results confirm that before the total shitshow that is 2020 hit, door-to-door bike commuting was still on the steady climb it had been on for well more than a decade.

We have no idea what these numbers are going to look like in 2020, 2021 or beyond, but we know they will be different. Bikes effectively sold out nationwide this year, and shops are still having a hard time stocking them. Interest in biking is up, but so many workplaces are closed or have gone virtual. Counting work commute trips has always been severely lacking as a measure of biking, and 2020 will make that especially true.

The main reason commute stats are cited so often is because this survey is among the only consistent datasets we have. But so many bike trips are not counted. People biking to run errands or see friends or just have fun are not counted. Neither are most people who bike to transit since the survey only counts the mode used for the most distance. (Exact wording via Bike Portland: “How did this person usually get to work LAST WEEK? Mark (X) ONE box for the method of transportation used for most of the distance.”)

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But overall, transportation trends in Seattle were headed in the right direction. Though the number of drive alone commuters reached 205,000, the mode share for driving alone remained near its all-time low at 44.5%. Meanwhile 25.1% took transit (the first time in recent history transit has reached the 25% mark), 10.7% walked, 7.9% worked at home, 6.8% carpooled and 3.7% biked. Because the total number of workers increased so much, the raw number of people driving and door-to-door biking both increased while their mode shares stayed about the same compared to 2018.

But what now and what next? Obviously working from home is going to be off the charts in the 2020 survey, and it is very likely that a lot of jobs (that still exist) will never come back from the home. But transit is also going to face a funding crisis and likely a ridership crisis, and without serious intervention service will be much less frequent than it was in 2019. A lot of people are buying bikes, but a lot of people are buying cars, too. Meanwhile the West Coast is burning and choking in smoke, and the urgency to reduce emissions from driving is extremely urgent. Our planet cannot bear us going back to driving.

The chart above comes to you from the before times. Essentially every foundation of society is shifting right now, and it’s never going back to the way it was before. I’ve been writing about these survey results every year for a decade, and this one feels like writing on the last page of a notebook. Time to put it on the shelf and grab a crisp new blank one.

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3 responses to “In final Census survey of the before times, number of Seattle bike commuters hit an all-time high”

  1. Andy Sapuntzakis

    I assume the red slope (approx +640 or 5% per yr) is total, not just men?
    Whereas the green one is just women?

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      Yeah, because it’s a stacked chart. I see how that is a little confusing. The red is the trend line for the whole stack, but the green is only for the women subset.

  2. Dave

    Remember when the 2017 count resulted in front page news about the decline of cycling?

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