Sarah Goodyear is a Brooklyn-based contributing writer to CityLab. She's written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog.
Advocates say the latest numbers are encouraging, but the city could still be doing more.
The newest commuter cycling numbers are out for New York City, and they’re bigger than ever. The latest count available from the city’s transportation department shows a 4 percent increase over the previous year, as measured during 2014’s peak cycling season at key points in New York's bike network [PDF]. The 12-hour weekday count at seven data-collection points was up to 21,112—compared to an anemic 5,631 in 2002.
That news won’t likely come as a surprise to many New Yorkers, who now routinely see bikes outnumbering cars on some streets during rush hour. A generation ago, a person on a bike was almost by definition an outlier who defied the norm (and maybe common sense, given the city’s chaotic traffic culture). Today, it’s not unusual to see parents calmly riding their kids to school before they head off to work themselves on two wheels.
But while the colorful chart released by the DOT shows ridership is still going up, reaffirming New York’s place as one of the nation’s top cities for people who ride bikes, advocates note that progress has actually slowed over the last few years. They point to a need for expanded high-quality bike infrastructure if the city has any chance of meeting Mayor Bill de Blasio’s stated goal of increasing bike trips to 6 percent of total trips in the city by 2020.
“It’s not as hot as it could be if the city were building out the bike network with high-quality bike lanes,” says Paul Steely White, executive director of the advocacy group Transportation Alternatives. “This year, the city built five miles of protected lanes—that’s on par with Minneapolis. There need to be 30 to 40 miles per year.”
From 2006-2010, during the Bloomberg administration, the city was adding bike lanes—including protected lanes—at a rapid clip. New York now has 420 miles of bike lanes, up from 220 in 2006. And the bike-count numbers showed that residents responded to the improvements, with year-over-year increases ranging from 13 to 32 percent during that 2006-2010 period. (There are several caveats on the data, but the numbers are the best the city has for comparison purposes because they have been gathered in many of the same spots since 1980.) Then, starting in 2011, growth in the yearly commuter-cycling count started to slow.
Josh Benson, the DOT’s assistant commissioner for street improvement projects,* says that the latest numbers, which focus on the East River Bridge crossings and Hudson River Greenway, are just one element of the overall data picture when it comes to biking in the nation’s biggest city.
“We’ve been really happy to see the continued growth in cycling,” says Benson. “Cycling is continuing to grow faster than other modes of transportation.” He cited robust bike-share ridership as well as a health department survey that found over half a million New York residents ride a bike at least several times a month.
Benson says the city’s commitment to increasing the number of people on bikes remains strong, and he cites improvements to the Queensboro Bridge crossing as well as a planned protected bike route on Queens Boulevard, long known as the Boulevard of Death because of the high number of traffic fatalities (including many pedestrians) that have occurred there. He also says that the bike-counting process was automated for the first time in 2014, making for more accurate and accessible data.
Transportation Alternatives’ White says the city could be doing even better by recommitting to building more bike lanes that provide a safe environment for riders. He also says officials could improve their understanding of how many people are using bikes to get around every day—particularly in the outer boroughs, where lots of people are riding even in the absence of decent bike lanes.
“They say, ‘If you build it, they will come,’” says White. “What we’re seeing in the boroughs is that they’re coming anyway. And we need to protect them.”
*CORRECTION: This post has been updated to clarify that Josh Benson is the NYC DOT's assistant commissioner for street improvement projects, not acting commissioner.