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New Study: What Can We Learn From D.C. Bicyclists?

Washington, D.C., is a Silver Bicycle Friendly Community, with great local advocacy groups (WABA, F.A.B.B.), several top notch bicycling-related blogs (Greater Greater Washington, WashCycle), some of the highest bike commuter rates on the East Coast, and a large fleet of red Capital Bikeshare bikes.

But what else can we learn about bicycling in our nation’s capital — and what makes people ride?

Protected bikes lanes on iconic Pennsylvania Avenue

That’s the question that Virginia Tech Assistant Professor Ralph Buehler and several of his students set out to answer with their recent study: “Trends and Determinants of Cycling in the Washington, DC Region.” (The first part of the study has been published in the journal World Transport Policy and Practice.)

“The Washington region is a bike-commuter region,” Buehler told me. As he wrote in his study: “In 2008, 41 percent of all weekday bike trips in the region were commute- or work-related, compared to only 17 percent in other urbanized areas in the U.S. The high share of utilitarian trip purposes in the region is comparable with bike-friendly cities in Europe, such as Berlin or Amsterdam.”

D.C. has a history of planning for bicycling and has made significant progress, but Buehler warned against complacency. “Having big plans now does not mean that it will be implemented in the future,” he said. “It was interesting to see the ambitious plans from the 1970s that only got partially implemented. This could be a little bit of a warning for cycling advocates.”

“The development of the regional trail network was crucial to provide connection between jurisdictions and from neighborhoods to employment centers,” Buehler continued. “The new trend towards bike lanes is encouraging because it will complement the regional network.”

Buehler and his co-authors identified significant “spatial variability” in bicycling rates – some parts of the regions saw higher rider ship than other parts. So, what role did self-selection or ‘demographic determination’ have in explaining this variability?

“There is definitely some self-selection,” Buehler told me. “But the jurisdictions also built great facilities in neighborhoods in which people want to cycle. Most studies show that even after controlling for self-selection, transport infrastructure and the built environment still influence travel choices. If you offer safe and attractive cycling conditions, people will cycle – even those who have not considered cycling a mode of transport.”

At the same time, self-selection cannot be easily disentangled from travel demand. People who want to bike may demand bicycle infrastructure. The city then builds more bike infrastructure and even more people ride. Some may even move to the neighborhood because they want to use their bicycles — it’s difficult to disentangle the two.

So, what lessons can D.C. learn from this study? “I think D.C. and the other jurisdictions have to integrate their own bicycle network and to connect them across jurisdictional boundaries,” Buehler said. “DC, Arlington, and Alexandria have made great progress, but there are still many gaps.” According to Buehler, we’ll see more cyclists in all regions when conditions improve. The study also identified the important role the building shower, lockers, and bike parking play in encouraging bicycling. Plentiful car parking, on the other hand, is negatively associated with bicycling, meaning that the more parking is available, the fewer cyclists you can expect.

For more from Professor Buehler and his colleague Professor John Pucher of Rutgers, see their “Cycling to Work in 90 Large Cities” report and their new book, City Cycling. The book can be pre-ordered at a discount on Amazon, and Barnes and Noble. Here’s a short brochure.


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