The Rise of Bicycling in Smaller and Midsize U.S. Cities

In part, it's because the roads are less stressful for riders. 

Image
Flickr user naotoj

Many major U.S. cities have experienced large increases in cycling over the past two decades. From 1990 to 2012, the share of commuters cycling to work more than tripled in New York, Chicago, Washington, San Francisco, Portland, Denver, and Minneapolis, and more than doubled in many more cities. Throughout the country, cities have invested in the expansion and improvement of their bike networks. They've built bike paths and traditional on-street bike lanes, created innovative "cycle tracks" that protect riders from car traffic, installed bike racks on buses and parking at rail stations to facilitate bike-transit integration, launched pro-bike programs such as Ciclovías (open street events) or bike-to-work and school days, and launched bike-sharing systems to make short-term usage convenient and affordable throughout the city.

Although large cities have led the way with bike infrastructure innovations and grabbed the national headlines, bicycling is also on the rise in many small and midsized cities. With a bike share of commuters at 6 percent in 2012, Portland led all large American cities, but lagged behind smaller cities such as Davis, California (19 percent), Boulder, Colorado (12 percent), Corvallis, Oregon (11 percent), and Santa Cruz, California (9 percent). Smaller cities may offer some advantages for cycling because their shorter trip distances are more easily covered by bike, and because lower volumes of motor vehicle traffic make cycling less stressful.

None of the ten U.S. cities with the highest share of bike commuters has a population over 250,000. (League of American Bicyclists)

Another source of data confirms the strong growth of cycling in midsized cities. The two latest national household travel surveys (2001 and 2009 NHTS) report that bike trips for all purposes grew by 64 percent in metro areas with populations between 500,000 and 1 million inhabitants, and by 42 percent in metro areas between 250,000 and 500,000 inhabitants. Plus the available statistics for metro areas understate the growth in bicycling in cities themselves: they include vast suburban areas where cycling is rare due to lower densities, longer trip distances, and a lack of cycling infrastructure.

The increase in bicycling so far has been mainly among men between the ages of 20 and 64, while rates of cycling by women and seniors lag far behind (cycling by children has actually declined, due to parental fears of traffic danger and stranger danger). More could be done to increase cycling among these underrepresented groups. One key measure is the installation of traffic-protected cycle tracks, which have been shown to increase cycling especially among children, seniors, and women. Cycle tracks offer direct, on-street routes while protecting cyclists from being hit by cars. 

To promote cycling among children, more should be done to meet their special needs, in particular reducing their risk of injury on local roads. In this respect, American cities fall far behind European cities. Most German, Danish, and Dutch cities have traffic-calmed their residential neighborhoods by diverting through-traffic and limiting motor vehicle speeds to 19 miles per hour. Since children usually cycle in their own neighborhoods, traffic-calmed residential streets would greatly increase the safety and comfort of cycling for American children, helping launch them to a lifetime of cycling. Expanding Safe Routes to School programs, as well as offering cycling training  for all school children, would also help kids on their way to a lifetime of safe, confident cycling.

Current and planned investments in bicycling infrastructure and programs are virtually certain to generate continued growth in cycling in future years. Moreover, demographic shifts (more single households and more couples without children) and the revitalization of central cities suggest both an increasing number of potential cyclists and an increasing number of trips short enough to be made by bike.

Except in a few cities like Portland, Davis, and Boulder, it is unlikely that cycling will become as important in the United States as in countries like the Netherlands, Denmark, and Germany. But bicycling is increasingly taking its rightful place among the mix of travel modes in American cities. The experience of the past two decades shows that significant growth in cycling is possible in even the most challenging of environments. Who would have predicted in 1990 that cycle commuting rates would triple in New York or quintuple in Chicago? With the expansion of bicycling infrastructure spreading throughout the country — both within and between cities — it seems inevitable that cycling will continue to grow. Making cycling safe and convenient provides everyone with a richer choice of travel options, and helps improve the overall sustainability of America's transportation system.

Top: Jefferson Square in Davis, California, via Flickr user naotoj.

This article is part of 'The Future of Transportation,' a CityLab series made possible with support from The Rockefeller Foundation.

About the Authors

  • Ralph Buehler is associate professor in urban affairs and planning and a faculty fellow with the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech’s Alexandria Center. He's co-editor with John Pucher of City Cycling (MIT Press, 2012) and based in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia.
  • John Pucher is professor of urban planning and public policy at Rutgers University. He is co-editor with Ralph Buehler of City Cycling (MIT Press, 2012).