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Federal data says bike commuting is down – except where it isn’t, or in the long-term

New estimates about bike commuting from the Census Bureau show a continued decline nationwide, down 3 percent since last year. Large cities such as Portland, Washington, DC, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, and Honolulu all saw decreases in the percentage of people biking to work.

However, bike commuting continues to see an increase in many cities, such as San Francisco, Seattle, New Orleans, Denver, Boston, Chicago, and New York City. Denver joined the ranks of cities with more than 10,000 people who use a bike as their primary mode of transportation. That makes nine cities with such large populations of people who bike to work, up from 8 in 2017. In Platinum-level Bicycle Friendly Community Davis, Ca, an estimated 18.8 percent of workers commute by bike.

When we pull back a bit, we can appreciate that 77 percent of the large cities the League has tracked since 2005 show a long-term upward trend in bike commuting. While places like Portland and Washington, DC may have a lower estimate this year, they have strong upward trends over the long-term. Looking back to 1990, when the Census Bureau only provided once a decade glimpses of bike commuting, 40 percent of the large cities we track have had seen their rate of bike commuting more than double.

As with every time the Census Bureau releases 1-year estimates from the American Community Survey, this data comes with a big caveat. Bicycle commuters are only counted in the data if they use a bicycle as their primary mode of travel for their commute to work. The survey does not count bicyclists who use a bicycle for less than the majority of their trip (e.g. a short bike ride to a transit stop), bicyclists who use a bicycle for less than the majority of their work week, or bicyclists who do not use a bicycle to get to work but bike for other trips.

Based on the 2017 National Household Travel Survey, only about 20 percent of reported bicycle trips are trips to earn a living, which can include both biking to/from work and for work. This means the data estimates released today doesn’t account for 80 percent of bicycle travel nationwide and may miss a higher percentage based upon the prevalence of other types of biking in different cities.

As bicycle counting becomes easier, especially with technology like that provided by our partner Eco-Counter, hopefully we’ll start to see cities do a better job of putting the Census Bureau estimates into context. For instance, the Census Bureau estimates that about 16,000 people bike to work in DC, but for one count location DC data shows around 30,000 people biking by that one counter in February. Cars and trucks have access to vehicle miles traveled data—it’s been collected federally since the 1970s—and less reliance on Census estimates for understanding commute patterns and general use. Hopefully that will soon be the case for people biking and walking.