Why is Bicycle Commuting Down? More theories from the comments

I got several excellent comments from various people to my post about why bicycle commuting has fallen since 2014.  Some comments disputed some of my thoughts while others provided interesting theories of their own.  I’ll summarize these responses.  Here is the graph again:

I indicated the source as “US Census Data,” but I should have been more specific as one comment suggested that since the “census” is only done every 10 years that these numbers are completely made up.  These numbers come from the American Community Survey and they are updated annually.

The Decrease Isn’t Really Real

A small number of responses were of this type.  They said that the ACS is a survey and there is insufficient data to reflect a real decline.  It’s theoretically possible that the numbers for the last 3 years are erroneous and that the number of bicycle commuters is actually growing, but I doubt it.  The ACS is commonly used by cycling advocacy groups to point to successes – see this report by the League of American Bicyclists (LAB) which comes from the ACS data.

In general I think the LAB’s approach is a good one – attempt to measure municipalities’ cycling friendliness score and then use the ACS data to report successes.  This can be a powerful argument for cycling advocacy – sprinkle some cycling infrastructure improvements and watch it grow.

Given the success in building cycling infrastructure in lots of areas in the US, are we bumping up against a theoretical ceiling for cycling?  I don’t think so but I admit these ACS numbers make me less sure.  One comment suggested that looking at bicycle sales numbers as evidence that the decline is an anomaly. A quick search for those numbers doesn’t look optimistic to me.

Commute Times are Increasing

A few comments suggested looking at workers’ commute times which are, in fact, increasing over time.  Interestingly I couldn’t find any data on commuting distances.  I would imagine that there should be data that analyses congestion over time by looking at commute times and commute distances over time.

By the numbers, all of the new workers over the last several years are choosing to commute by car.  They apparently aren’t bothered too much by the longer commutes/congestion or maybe they don’t feel like they have a choice.  As commutes get longer, at some point along that continuum the choice to bike to work is no longer a realistic option.

The Places Where Cycling Is Easy Are More Expensive

A few folks responded with this argument including economist Arnold Kling:

Perhaps rents went up in some locations, forcing some would-be bike commuters to move out of range

This is not something I thought of prior to writing the post, but this makes a lot of sense.  The areas where cycling infrastructure is excellent or improving are also affected by the housing crisis.  Could it be that local zoning laws are indirectly working against cycling?  Seems like a reasonable theory worth exploring.

The Connected Generation Can’t be Disconnected Long Enough to Ride a Bike

Also, it is much harder to text on your phone when cycling, versus Uber (or even sneaking in texts at stoplights). For the ‘connected generation’ on-road cycling may be an unacceptable interruption. If they want exercise they can use a stationary cycle.

Steve here

This seems logical to me although I have to way to verify it or gauge how important its effect is.  I’ve always thought of this as an advantage to riding a bike, not a downside.  I’m sure not everyone feels the same way.

Jonathan Haidt Responds on “Helicopter-ness”

I asked Jonathan Haidt (author of The Righteous Mind and Coddling of the American Mind) what he thought about the timing of the decline and the helicopter parent theory.  He responded:

lenore skenazy and i found some data on the sharp decline in biking to school for kids, i think it happened in the 1990s. 2015 would not be a special year, for adults; it was special on campus.  i would not interpret the 3 year decline for adults as anything yet, could be random fluctuation. unless you can get data broken down by age. if you find no change for those over age 30, but yes for under 25, then it is Gen Z. 

I looked for data on bicycle commuting and age via the ACS.  Oddly enough, you can get raw bicycle commuting numbers normally, but when you group by age they are lumped together in a single group with “Taxicab, motorcycle, bicycle, or other means.”  This category is increasing over the timeframe of the bicycle decline which as far as I can tell makes this impossible to isolate bicycle commutes unfortunately.  If anyone knows how to use the ACS to isolate bicycle commuters please let me know.

Here are a couple charts that show the difficulty.  Even though there is a drop in bicycle commuting, this larger group is increasing over time.  Bicycle commuters are only a small part of this group so it’s hard to tease out any effect here.

Randal O’Toole Seems to Doubt the Work from Home Theory

I knew Randal O’Toole was an avid cyclist, so I emailed him to see if he had any ideas.  Here’s how he responded:

Those are good ideas. Here’s an additional datapoint: people who work at home earn the most money. Drive alones are second, transit third, and “other” (which includes cycling) well below that. Walking is lowest.

So if work-at-homes captured cyclists, it was the high-end cyclists. I’m not sure how many of those there were.

A more significant phenomenon: the census form asks people how they “usually” get to work. The National Household Travel Survey found that people who usually drive in fact drive 98 percent of the time but people who say they usually bicycle in fact only bicycle 70 percent of the time. Maybe some of those people who bicycled, say, 60 percent of the time in 2014 went to 40 percent in 2017.

Randal said a couple things that surprised me here.  One is that cyclists as a group earn less money than the average worker.  I tried to confirm this with the ACS survey and it’s true that the group that contains bicycle commuters earn less than average, but I suspect that, like age, this is similarly confounded by grouping “Taxicab, motorcycle, bicycle, or other means” together.  A quick search shows that in Australia cycling commuters are wealthier than average.  I also discovered from survey data from the NC DOT that cyclists that use greenways strongly skew rich and white relative to the local population.

Randal’s theory about percentage of time commuting seems to jive with the housing costs theory previously mentioned.

General Safety Concerns/Helicopter Generation

A large number of comments suggested that cycling is, in fact, getting more dangerous over time due to drivers texting, more cars, more cycling-intolerant drivers, etc.  I agree that it seems there is a general sense among cyclists that of course it’s getting worse on the roads.  This has always struck me as somewhat of a moral panic.  I’ve had my share of cars purposely buzzing me on my bike and yelling crazy things at me but I don’t get the sense from my own experience that these incidents are increasing over time.

Cycling advocates consistently talk about the large number of people who WOULD bike if they could be made to feel safer on a bicycle.  This approach seems to have been successful in getting municipalities to devote resources to large cycling infrastructure projects.  The current generation seems to be especially convinced by appeals to safety but there’s a bit of a paradox.  If people believe cycling is TOO dangerous they’re not going to do it no matter how good the infrastructure is.  (Safety first!)  But if people feel that cycling is safe then there isn’t much demand for new infrastructure to be built.

Are the roads getting more dangerous over time?  I decided to try to answer that question.  It doesn’t feel like it to me but let’s look at the data.  The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has kept statistics on crashes for a long time.  They produce an annual report that has all sorts of data on traffic deaths.

First off, I would have intuitively expected to see deaths from distracted drivers increasing over time (texting, obviously), but that doesn’t appear to be the case.  (Not sure why we see that sudden decrease from 2009 to 2010 – anyone know?)

OK, well how about deaths from drunk driving?  Are those increasing?  No – it turns out they’re way down.

What about motorists that exceed the speed limit and cause a crash that kills someone?  Getting worse over time?  No – those are down too.

Note that the charts above are pessimistic since I didn’t normalize on vehicle miles traveled which has been steadily increasing over time.  That is, if we accounted for miles traveled the charts above would look even better than they already do.  Here’s a chart of vehicle miles traveled by year.  (Note I adjusted the y-axis minimum for better readability.)

If we reflexively respond to safety concerns in a thoughtless way we sometimes end up with poor solutions that are sometimes worse than the problem.

Most Unique Response: Fade Out of the Lance Armstrong Effect

From my local cycling friend Brendan:

The post Lance Armstrong cycling era taking effect.

I think the high end cycling world has definitely taken a hit – at least anecdotally from my perspective in a cycling heavy area.  I’m reasonably confident (65%) USA Cycling could produce some reports based on road race participation over the last decade and it would show a steady decline.  Would this have an effect on bicycle commuting?  Probably but most likely the effect would be small.

Where is the Cycling Ceiling in the US?

It ultimately boils down to this for me as I alluded to earlier: how much room is there to grow cycling in the US?  Of course I don’t have the answer to this but these numbers make me think that perhaps we’re closer to the ceiling than I would have guessed.  And given the headwinds of safety consciousness, housing costs, the price of gas, and the rise of telecommuting, how big could gains from infrastructure improvements be?

I’m starting to think about a way to come up with an answer to this question on my own from some other data sources.  Look for a post soon.

Offer to Bet

If you believe the drop in bicycle commuting is temporary, I’m offering a bet at 1:1 odds that the bicycle commuting number won’t exceed the number from 2014 in years 2018, 2019, or 2020.  Any takers?  Send me a DM on Twitter: @davemabe.

Commuting by Bicycle is – down?

Imagine the year is 2014.  We’re in the midst of an era when lots of cities across the US are working hard to promote cycling.  By many counts it’s never been easier to ride a bike.  Our family was already three years into getting by with just one car – this would not have been possible without the ease of cycling in my hometown of Carrboro, NC. During and since that time many major cities have implemented lots of cycling initiatives to build new bike lanes, make more areas accessible by bike, and created bike shares to make it as easy as possible to bike. So what would have been your prediction in 2014 about what US bicycle commuting numbers would look like over the next three years? I think it’s safe to say we’d be haggling over how much of an increase in bicycle commuting there would be in 2014-2017.

This makes it even more striking that the number of people commuting by bike in the US has steadily decreased since 2014.  This is over a time period where the total US workforce has steadily increased, so in percentage terms the cycling numbers are even worse than the chart above appears (down from a peak in 2014 of 0.62% to 0.55% in 2017).

So why has this drop in bicycle commuting occurred?  I can’t say for sure, but here are some theories about what might be playing a role.

Americans Really Like Travelling by Car

The percent of US workers commuting by car (alone or carpool) has remained remarkably consistent – it’s currently 85.3% of the workforce. Commuting by public transit is down in percentage terms from it’s peak in 2015 – 5.232% then and 4.998% now.

As much as people complain about traffic congestion, it’s apparently not enough to change people’s behavior too much.

Gas Prices are Down

US gas prices are close to their lowest in a decade, making driving relatively more attractive at the margins.

Popularity of Electric Vehicles

Electric vehicles continue to become more widespread in the US.  When you think about the target market for these vehicles, a significant portion of this group might also consider biking to work.  It’s becoming easier to signal environmental consciousness AND drive a stylish car.  I suspect this is crowding out some would-be bicycle commuters.
(Hat tip to my wife Joan for this one)

Working from Home is Exploding

If the percent of the workforce that is commuting by car is basically unchanged and the percent of transit use is down, what’s left?

It turns out working from home has been quietly exploding.  After a four year run of basically no change from 2008 through 2011, there have been solid increases and now it’s up over a third from 2011.  In fact 2017 was the first year where more people work from home than commute by public transit.  This occurred during a period of lower gas prices – seems reasonable to assume that these numbers are positively correlated.  That is, if the price of gas were higher over the last 3 years or in the future, these work from home numbers likely would be higher still.

Kids of Helicopter Parents Enter the Workforce

Another theory that seems like it might be true is that kids of so-called helicopter parents are coming of age and entering the workforce.  I expect there’s not great data to look at for the “helicopter-ness” of the last couple decades, but it certainly seems to be true that safety (over) conscious parenting has increased dramatically.  (Here’s a daycare that’s suggesting kids wear helmets for recess, for example.)  It’s hard to deny that this has been the case and in fact we’re starting to see responses to this problem.

The time period for the decline in bicycle commuting also might roughly coincide with a generation of safety conscious kids entering the workforce.  Will kids of this generation be more of less likely to commute by bike to work?  The answer seems obvious.

Any other theories?

Predictions on Bicycle Commuting in Next 4 Years?

Anyone willing to offer a bet on what future numbers of bicycle commuters will be in the census data?  If so, contact me.

The Golden Modes Award

I happened to notice that our local public transportation organization is giving awards for smart commuting that they call the Golden Modes. Here’s how they describe the awards:

The Golden Modes Awards recognize companies, organizations and people who best use their resources to influence Triangle employees and university students to pursue smart commuting options. Ultimately, they reduce the number of people who drive alone, reducing traffic congestion, alleviating air pollution and improving our quality of life.

My work situation is tailor made for this award!  I went back and looked at previous award winners – taking public transportation from Raleigh to Chapel Hill, commuting by bike to work, commuting by bus to Durham, etc.  How can I not nominate myself for this award given how much better my commute is?  I just self-nominated just ahead of the deadline which is today.  Here’s what I submitted:

Having worked from home for 17 years now, I believe I exemplify the smartest of smart commuting – no commute at all. My carbon footprint is minuscule compared to previous years’ award winners. Working from home has huge benefits – I figure I save 2.5 hours per day for almost 2 decades. This allows a completely different lifestyle than I otherwise would have. I am able to run and cycle with friends, spend more time with family, and get more work done – all without contributing to congestion or requiring a subsidy. Raining? Snowed in? It doesn’t matter to me – my commute is a breeze.

I’m pretty sure there’s no way I can lose this one.

My Cheap, Delicious, Homemade Energy Drink

Keith Sockman and I ride bikes together and the subject of energy drinks came up. I told him my philosophy of energy drinks at the time: “Never ride far enough to require any refreshment besides water.” I’m too cheap!

(Quick aside about the energy drink market – it’s big business! On any serious cycling ride you’ll find all sorts of colors and textures of liquids being consumed from water bottles. They’re expensive. In fact, in true cycling over-the-top fashion you can order custom energy drinks specific to your body – that can’t be cheap!)

Keith told me that he makes his own energy drink and has perfected the recipe over the years. Most of the benefit for a fraction of the price – this immediately piqued my interest!

I’ve tried this recipe 3 times now (each batch makes ~48 bottles) and I’ve been very pleased. I’ve also sent this to our Cross Country team and many of them have tried it with positive results. It’s important to emphasize especially to young runners that although water is great, in the summer it’s oftentimes not enough. (Interesting side note – when I first sent this out to the team, I’m pretty sure we singlehandedly affected the local lime market temporarily.  We’ve got a large team!)

Here’s the recipe (with Keith’s permission):

  • 2 cups honey
  • Juice from 12 limes – I also include a lot of the pulp
  • 1/3 cup salt

Combine the ingredients in a used mayonnaise or peanut butter jar, top it off with a little water, and put in the freezer. After a while it gains a slushy like texture, less so if you add less (or no) water.

When you’re ready to make a bottle, put 3 tablespoons of the mixture in the bottom of the bottle and fill the rest up with water. It might taste a little salty at first but I quickly got accustomed to it.

One tip – I reused the same old peanut butter jar and I used a sharpie to mark the 2 cup line so I can easily fill the honey to the line without wasting a lot of it by having to use a separate measuring cup.

  

Have you tried this or something similar?  Do you have any suggestions for the recipe?  I’d love to hear them.

 

Supposed Economic Benefits of Greenways

(I support greenways where they make sense.  In fact, I’m on the Greenways Commission for the Town of Carrboro.)

You don’t have to look hard to find outlandish claims made in support of various causes these days.  For example, see Trump’s “Trade wars are good and easy to win” claim.  Occasionally though I come across something so egregious that I just can’t let it pass without commenting.

The NC DOT funded a three year study to quantify the economic benefits of shared use paths (SUPs a.k.a. greenways).  Their conclusion?  For every $1 spent in trail construction (once), $1.72 is generated ANNUALLY.  That’s a pretty amazing statistic.  Let that sink in for a minute.  Is that really possible?  If someone claims they can easily make a 72% return on your money every single year, do you respond with healthy skepticism?  You should!  This is being reported as a return on investment.

Which SUPs Should We Look At?

Let’s take a look at the study and see how they arrive at these numbers.  Of course you can’t do a detailed study of every SUP in North Carolina, so you have to choose a sample that’s representative of all SUPs in NC.  So how did they decide which SUPs to study?

The shared use paths studied were selected
because they:
• Have a state or regional significance.
• Have good opportunities to capture
economic revenue.
• Were not impacted by construction,
significant maintenance, or detouring
during the project period.
• Are relatively ‘established’ (i.e. at least
5 years old with minimal adjacent
land use changes anticipated).
• Have the ability to demonstrate a
transportation function.
• Are geographically dispersed across
North Carolina.
• Are a good mix between urban and
rural areas.

In other words, they picked ones that they could use to show maximum impact.  You literally could not pick 4 SUPs that would show a better economic result.  Not a choice I would have made but I get it.  Just one page into the study and you can see where this is heading.

Gathering Data

They got several people together and went to each SUP and set up a survey station.  This required 187 people across 3 years.  They visited some SUPs just once and others every year.  So it’s easy to imagine the situation – you’re running or biking along the SUP and you come across some friendly people asking you if you want to fill out a survey.  Of course you can’t force people to take a survey so some choose to do it, some do not.  Having spent a lot of time exercising on paths and greenways, I can imagine the type of person that on average would take a survey and, on average, would choose not to take a survey.  The people that choose not to take the survey are on average more likely to be working out and not willing to stop.  Of course these trips don’t generate any income at all.  Excluding these SUP users are good for the final numbers!  Pretty convenient!

Questions on the Survey

The survey actually looks pretty good.  They ask some good questions and it’s pretty thorough.  Race, gender, salary, how many people in the group for this trip, how long is your trip, transportation type – all reasonable questions.  They also ask how much money they’re going to be spending on this trip and how many trips they typically take.  They use this to produce tables like this one – which breaks down expenditures by type and transportation method:

This seems fine, but as I look closely at I notice that runners sure are buying a lot of groceries!  11% of the 663 users that were running are spending $41 per trip on groceries.  18% are running to and from a restaurant to eat.  4% are on their way to buy some consumer products at $97 per trip at retail.  All in all, 35% of all SUP users who are running are doing so to go spend some money.  That seems extraordinarily high!

A Useful Result: SUP Users are Rich and White

I did learn one interesting thing from the survey results.  SUP users skew overwhelmingly rich and white.  The second largest income bracket for users is >$200K.  About 75% of SUP users earn above the US median household income of $59K.  This is not something I’d thought much about before but it makes sense.  I would have like to have seen an income/race breakdown by transportation type.

Users are overwhelmingly white at 83%.  This number might not sound too skewed until you consider the fact that this SUP is in Durham where 37% of the population are people of color.  I never realized that SUPs were this much of an amenity for the rich.  But, hey, this is also convenient for the purposes of the desired outcome of the study!

Other Economic Impact Results Touted

The infographic at the top of the post touts not only the amazing “spend $1 now and get $1.72 annually forever” statistic.  There are other stats that are asserted.

“A one time $26.7M capital investment in the four greenways” – ok first of all this number has to be way lower than the actual cost of the greenways.  I expect the land alone probably costs that much.  There’s obviously something I’m not understanding about that number.  The implication is that $26.7M is the total cost of the SUPs and I just can’t believe it’s that low given how many bridges are on the ATT and how expensive bridges typically are.  For example, in Carrboro they spent $1.3M on a quarter mile of greenway with a bridge in it.

“$48.7M in estimated business revenue from greenway construction” – a one time $26.7M investment produces $48.7M in business revenue from greenway construction?  Does that make any sense?

“790 jobs are supported annually through greenway construction” – this is truly an amazing statistic that seems so absurd that it doesn’t deserve a response.

If These Stats Are Correct, What Does that Mean?

If you really can spend $1 and get a $1.72 annually, then it would make perfect sense to cancel all of North Carolina’s public projects and simply build SUPs everywhere.  Sure there would be decreasing returns the more we built but there’s a tremendous amount of room to play with.  Even a 4% annual return would be excellent!

The fallacy of the study is that it implies that the greenway creates the economic activity.  It does no such thing. One category of SUP users made trips to restaurants.  If the SUP didn’t exist, would those people starve?  Would the $1.72 instantly evaporate if the SUP went away?  No – people would quickly find alternatives.

A good question you should always ask yourself is “compared to what?”  Imagine we used this same methodology to evaluate the economic benefits of a road through a similar study.  We survey people that drive on the road.  Where are they going?  How often do they use it?  There are a lot more road users per square inch of road than a SUP – it’s pretty easy to see that the $1.72 number would be DWARFED by the same number for a road.  A lot of people use the road to drive to work.  Do we say that the road created that job?

No that would be absurd.

I wonder how much we paid for this study – it makes us all look silly and probably ultimately shows more evidence against a greenway than for it.

Biking in Carrboro wearing a Hoodie is Apparently Very Suspicious

Does this picture make me look like I’m up to no good?  Imagine me riding a bike (without a helmet) through Carrboro.  It was enough for someone last Wednesday, October 25 to call the police and kick off a minor manhunt.  The picture is from a couple hours after the incident and here’s what happened…

I had just ridden my bike back from eating lunch with my friend at Rise (where the Saucy Wisconsin is still noticeably absent from the menu).  I realized I forgot to give my friend something, so I got it and put it in my hoodie pocket and jumped back on my bike and rode over to his place on Morningside Drive.  I dropped it off and then continued my trek right on N. Greensboro then left on Hillsborough all the way to Town Hall to early vote in the upcoming local election.

I quickly voted and then hopped back on my bike and rode home.  I settled in at my desk to continue my work day (after taking my hoodie off) when I noticed a couple Carrboro police cars a little beyond the edge of my driveway.  Wow I wonder what’s going on?  My window was open and I heard “… blue sweatshirt – he went around the back of the house…” and I realized that they were after me!  My curiosity turned to mild panic.

I thought back about what I had just done – had I run a stop sign on my bike?  I don’t think so.  Had I “recklessly” ventured outside the bike lane?  Doubtful and not against the law anyway.  Had I voted for the wrong person at Town Hall moments earlier?  (OK, I really didn’t think that.)  I couldn’t think of anything obvious that I did wrong.

At this point the police were urgently walking around my house and before long knocking VERY, VERY LOUDLY on my back door.  I answered the back door and there were two officers, one on the back stoop that had done the knocking and another suspiciously peering into the window to my garage looking as if he thought it might be a meth lab or some kind of dungeon.

The officer then informed me that someone had just reported a suspicious person riding a bike with a blue shirt and a beard near Robert Hunt Drive (I had ridden right by but not on Robert Hunt moments earlier).  Since that call they saw me cross Greensboro St coming home and I matched the description so they went into hot pursuit mode.  I don’t open my garage door but I always ride just out of sight and go in the side garage door and put my bike away.  They had gone around the back of the house to make sure I wasn’t breaking in.

I told them where I had just ridden and even though I hadn’t gone ON Robert Hunt Drive we suspected that it had to have been me that the caller was referring to when they called 911.  They apparently believed me even though I had just been riding a bike with a hoodie and a beard.  By this time a third police car had pulled up.

They quickly realized that this was a mistake and sort of apologized and explained that this kind of thing happens with some regularity.  They would call the person back and explain.  Then they left.

I got to thinking though.  What about me appeared suspicious enough to call 911?  It had to have been some combination of the hoodie, the bike, the sunglasses, beard, and maybe not wearing a helmet.  Would I have looked as suspicious if I was just on foot?  What about everything the same minus the hoodie?  Or minus the sunglasses?  The beard?  What if I had been wearing a helmet – perhaps I would have looked slightly more responsible? Any one of these changes might have lowered the suspicion factor.  I was riding kind of fast I guess – maybe I looked like I was running from the law?  Not sure.

The incident was slightly jarring but an interesting thought experiment for me and certainly a fun story to tell in the future.  I’m curious now how often the Carrboro police get calls like this and if the frequency and type differ from other areas.

Follow Up on “Do We Overvalue Bike Lanes?” Post

Much to my surprise, my article Do We Overvalue Bike Lanes? got quite a bit of traffic in the few days since I posted it. As best as I can tell the article was picked up on Tyler Cowen’s excellent Marginal Revolution blog, Robin Hanson tweeted it, Arnold Kling blogged about it, got re-tweeted a bunch of times, shared on Facebook a lot, and posted to Reddit here in the bicycling subreddit and here in the cyclingculture subreddit.

Being a contrarian opinion, I thought the article would be somewhat controversial but the overwhelming response was very, very positive. The vast majority of responses were very supportive and agreed with pretty much the entire premise. There were even plenty of cycling advocacy groups, who I thought would find something to object to, were pretty much in total agreement.

However, there were several responses that were negative. These responses generally fell into the following categories:

  1. “But I ride my bike to work on a road with a bike lane and I love it!”
  2. “You obviously haven’t seen study X that shows that bike lanes reduce accidents by 90%!”
  3. “You used such a poor example of a bike lane that it’s hard to take your argument seriously.”
  4. “You are obviously one of the ‘fearless’ cyclists and are therefore out of touch with the 8 and 80 year old bikers. Leave your opinion out of this and defer to the real experts.”

I’ll address these objections one by one.

1. But I love my bike lane!

Of course my argument wasn’t that all bike lanes are bad or that your favorite one is bad. My argument was that we end up with too many bike lanes for the reasons I outlined. I suspect that the bike lane that you have in your mind as you read the article is further to the right on the continuum in the graphic I posted. In that case, you most likely agree with my premise! It also might be that there are few if any of the particularly poor bike lanes in your area. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

2. Studies show that bike lanes reduce accidents by 90%, therefore a bike lane can’t be bad!

This could also be referred to as the “You just haven’t read the study I have – the important one that settles it for good” objection. When someone refers to a study that shows overwhelming evidence that bike lanes reduce accidents it shows me that you haven’t thought about the issue deeply enough and you are, in fact, supporting my premise by pointing out a major reason why we end up with too many bike lanes. I believe that many of the studies you reference (like this one) do prove something – they gathered data that they didn’t come up with out of thin air. My objection is not to these studies in and of themselves – my objection is to how they are referenced and cited as if they are quantifiable proof that we should use bike lanes in all circumstances. This is the confirmation bias and social desirability bias on full display.

If you’ve formed a confident opinion based on a study or two and haven’t looked at counter arguments then I think you’re very likely going to have a flawed viewpoint on this complex topic.

3. You used a poor example of a bad bike lane therefore it’s hard to take your argument seriously

The general idea of this response was “Of course that’s an example of a horrible bike lane, but these aren’t the kind of bike lanes that are used now – we’ve learned and do it better now.”  To some extent I think this is true.  In our town if a similar road is built I don’t think this type of design would be chosen.  However, there are many miles of similar bike lanes all over town, some of which were built fairly recently.  The common thinking is that these bike lanes aren’t hurting anybody – people feel safe.  I feel that there is, in fact, more danger by having the lanes there and our continued tacit endorsement of them sends a bad message to the community.

4. You’re a “fearless” cyclist so your opinion actually doesn’t matter

This is probably the most commonly used tactic and one of the main reasons we end up with more bike lanes than is optimal. One group was apparently so threatened by even the suggestion that not every bike lane is good for cycling that they circled the wagons on Twitter. They quickly try to categorize me as one of the “strong and fearless” cyclists on this continuum:

Labeling someone as “strong and fearless” is often used within the cycling community as a subtle ad hominem way of ignoring an inconvenient perspective.  My article was quite tame and I thought very reasonable given the fact that I wasn’t born “fearless” – a very short time ago I was very new to bicycling having it basically forced upon me via a running injury.  I find it strange that in the cycling advocacy community the more experience a cyclist gets, the more others within the community feel they have license to stereotype that person and safely ignore what they have to say precisely because they have more experience.  I’ve seen this on multiple occasions on a local and national level.

It seems to me that there’s some sort of inherent insecurity in some parts of the cycling advocacy community that the overall community of cyclists is more diverse than their united front implies.

Other Minor Points

One comment suggested I use the term “crash” instead of “accident”.  There’s some people in the cycling community that strongly push for this and it’s easy to understand why.  The term accident implies that “well, golly, there’s not much we can do to prevent this – these things just happen!”  This group insists on the term crash since in a lot of cases there is fault and something could have been done to prevent it.  I totally understand this point but I’ve never been convinced that this semantic argument matters as much as the proponents think it does.  Maybe a commenter can convince me that it’s worth it!

This person suggested that my continuum was possibly the “worst infographic ever”.  I guess that’s possible but I thought it was pretty good – in fact, one planner asked if he could use it for social media/presentation purposes.

Any comments?  Leave them below.

Do We Overvalue Bike Lanes?

I’ve been a cyclist for several years now.  Although my wife has a car, my primary mode of transportation is a bike for most trips.  I accidentally came into cycling in my thirties when a knee injury as a runner forced me to look for an alternate mode of exercise.  I very reluctantly started cycling.  I hated it!  Riding a bike on the road with cars?  That’s too dangerous!  As a new cyclist, my natural instinct was to push for more segregation from cars through bike lanes.

Over time and riding experience I’ve become convinced that a lot of well-intentioned bike lanes create MORE danger for cyclists and in the long run are detrimental to cycling.

First let me say that I believe there are roads where a segregated bike lane is the best solution.  On the spectrum of types of roads, the more a road looks like a highway the more likely it is that a segregation (bike lane) will be a good solution.

However, what we typically end up with is excessive implementation of bike lanes on roads that look more like quiet neighborhood streets.  These are at best totally unnecessary and at worst create dangerous situations where none existed before.  Here’s a graphical representation:

OK, I see it’s unnecessary but it can’t be worse!

It actually is worse to put bike lanes on streets with low car volume and/or low speeds.

  • They segregate cyclists lowering their status and making them “second class” citizens on the road
  • Ensure that cyclists ride in the least visible and most dangerous part of the road – often quite literally “in the shadows”
  • A line on the edge of the road makes motorists feel more comfortable and end up causing increased vehicle speeds than they otherwise would
  • A bike lane on neighborhood streets with driveways and intersections introduces more conflict points (as cars back out of driveways they tend to look in the middle of the road where cars would be – a bike lane purposefully takes bikes out of that high visibility area!)
  • Bike lanes are routinely dotted with obstacles (3 times a week where I live): trash day, recycling day, and yard waste day
  • The existence of a bike lane causes buildup of road debris that would otherwise be naturally pushed to the side of the road by car traffic – you end up with a worse riding surface for bikes

Here’s a particularly poor situation that is not uncommon.  The bike lanes are almost completely in the shadows and a yard waste bin in the bike lane.  This is a very quiet neighborhood street that motorists can’t use as a cut through.  The number of vehicles per day on this street is tiny yet even on this road we have a bike lane.

Why do we end up with more bike lanes?  Inherent biases and Incentives

There are reasons we end up with too many bike lanes.  Across the board there are incentives and biases that cause us to prefer more bike lanes even when it ends up being worse for cyclists.

  • Beginning cyclists (I was one not long ago!) naively push for a bike lane because they are scared of being hit by a car from the rear.  Although this is a natural fear, this type of accident is by far the rarest type.  Bike lanes INCREASE the chance of the most common types of accidents involving bikes: the left cross and right cross (a car travelling the opposite direction turning left and car travelling same direction turning right)
  • Town officials want to signal progressiveness by putting in bike lanes (imagine an alderman saying “I’m pro-bicycling which is why I’m not putting a bike lane on your street.”  Often that’s a correct argument but it’s hard to make.  Much easier to just paint a line on the road and signal “I care about bike safety”.
  • Cycling advocates push for more cycling infrastructure and are susceptible to the social desirability bias: “Just think about all the kids who will bike to school!”
  • As a cyclist I routinely encounter anti-cycling motorists who yell things like “Roads are for cars!” and “See that sign – it says Share the Road so move over!”  These anti-cyclists are ironically mostly FOR more cycling infrastructure which allows them to signal “bike safety” when their real motivation is motorist convenience.

What about study X or Y – it shows that bike lanes are safer!

I have looked at a lot of these studies and they are notoriously flawed for one reason or another.  Bike safety is a difficult thing to measure in part because accidents are so rare.  Most studies will study roads that are more towards the right side of the continuum in the image above where you would expect bike lanes to be safer.  A lot of the danger from bike lanes won’t appear on crash statistics.

Here is one study that DID look at speed limits of the roads.  This is from Belgium and the numbers represent accident risk (higher = more risk).

This shows that in general the more similar a road is to a highway the more safety benefit you get from separation.  It confirms, though, what I’ve learned from experience – bike lanes on roads with low speed limits are in general way worse than no infrastructure at all.

What cycling advocates tend to end up with is the “safety in numbers” argument which says: “OK, these bike lanes might not be needed for advanced cyclists, but that’s not who they’re for. We’re trying to get the 8 year old and 80 year old cyclists out there and we know that they need more infrastructure before they’ll FEEL safe. Once we get more out there they’ll be more numbers and motorists will see more and more cyclists and be aware of them.  See – everybody wins.”  The problem with this line of thinking is that we’re going out of our way to lure the most vulnerable new riders by creating a bike lane that although feels safe, in actuality is MORE dangerous.  That is not an argument that I’m comfortable making!

Long term effects of bike lane-itis

I think the excess bike lanes are bad in the short term due to the immediate danger but the long term effects are not good either.  When we paint bike lanes on quiet neighborhood streets what does it say to the community?  It says that the town has looked at this quiet street with hardly any traffic and 20mph speed limits and concluded that it is SO dangerous that we need bike infrastructure on it.  Beware!  And when you see other streets without bike lanes the message is: you shouldn’t even ride on them at all!

Of course a large number of streets in towns all across the country are reasonably safe with no bike lanes or facilities at all.

As more bike lanes go into place I think hostility towards cyclists has and will continue to increase.  Many motorists and even cyclists mistakenly assume that if there is a bike lane that cyclist must ride in it by law.  If a cyclist doesn’t ride in the bike lane (for as simple a reason as making a left turn!) a lot of drivers view this as law breaking or just arrogance.

Imagine anti-cycling motorists (trust me – as a lot of cyclists know first hand – they are out there!) coming upon cyclists on roads without bike lanes.  What will go through his mind?  “Why did we put in all those bike lanes on roads throughout town – these jerk cyclists aren’t even using them!”