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Will Congress Stop the Census Bureau from Counting Bike Commuters?

UPDATE: If you haven’t yet sent a letter to your Senators asking for their support to preserve the American Community Survey, you can do so through the American Planning Association.

One of the most common laments of the bicycling policy community is the lack of consistent, reliable data on bicycle travel. As of last week, when the House voted to eliminate the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS), the only comprehensive, national survey that captures bike commuting data at the local level is in danger of being cut.

ACS data in action

It’s not just bike commuting data that would be lost if Congress eliminates the ACS. It’s a whole range of economic, household, and community information. ACS data are used by all sorts of decision-makers. Federal, state, and local governments make critical decisions about how to distribute resources based on ACS data. Academics and researchers at think tanks use ACS data to track trends.

Private businesses, large and small, use the ACS to assess population profiles and spending power of neighborhoods, influencing investment decisions. Target, for example, decides what size packages to carry in their stores based on population density statistics from the ACS: the denser the neighborhood, the smaller the containers for smaller apartments and folks carting their purchases on transit. It is for its economic importance that organizations like the Chamber of Commerce, which often oppose government spending, strongly support preserving the ACS and have come out against the House vote.

Here’s the Census Bureau Director on the necessity of the ACS:


Of course, the ACS is a critical source of transportation data. ACS commuting data are used by planners and engineers to mitigate traffic congestion by gauging peak travel demand. The ACS allows public and private investors to measure the success (or failure) of their transportation infrastructure investments. Transit planners use it to determine unmet transportation needs. And – most important of all! – the ACS tracks bicycle commuters (among the other modes).

We’ve talked before about the limitations of the survey question, but the ACS is undeniably one of the most important national data sources for bicycling. (The intermittent National Household Travel Survey, NHTS, is another important one.) The ACS is annual, giving us the ability to track change over time. The ACS is the source of our commuter statistics and a cornerstone of the Alliance for Biking & Walking’s biennial Benchmarking Report.

Without the ACS, it would become harder to show the results of your community’s bicycling investments, especially in comparison to other cities, since the standardized methodology makes comparisons more reliable. And we wouldn’t be able to tell you that bicycle commuting increased 40 percent nationally since 2000 and 77 percent in Bicycle Friendly Communities.

Now that the House has voted to 1) make the survey optional, and 2) to do away with it all together, it is up to the Senate to block both measures. The National Low Income Housing Coalition is hosting a sign-on letter to tell the Senate the importance of the ACS. If you’re part of an organization that would like to sign the letter, email your organization’s name, along with the city and state in parentheses (city, state abbreviation) to Brendan Nichols [email protected] at The Census Project. The letter is available here.


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