It’s time to think less about commuting and more about making all those other common everyday trips safer.
In most cities across the United States, today is Bike To Work Day—where bike advocacy organizations hold ride meetups, hand out swag, and generally elevate the gaunt and sweaty profile of the humble bike commuter. These characters have been proliferating in U.S. workplaces recently: Since 2000, the number of Americans who pedal to their jobs has grown 51 percent across the country. The trend is even more pronounced in the nation’s 70 largest cities, where their two-wheeled ranks have swelled 82 percent.
But there’s a hidden peril in Bike To Work Day. Now that the bike has come into its own as a useful player in urban transportation, city planners would do well to remember the other reasons that normal people bike: It’s fun, and a convenient way to get to places other than your job.
“Bike To Work Day makes many trips other than bike commuting visible,” says Ken McLeod, policy director at the League of American Bicyclists, which started the holiday in 1956 (in tandem with Bike Month and Bike Safety Week campaigns) just as the post-war auto boom was making roads more dangerous for cyclists. “It’s a great way for cities to point to the other people who normally make more casual trips. It raises awareness, even if maybe not everyone is going to become a full-fledged bike commuter.”
Over the past few years, the League of American Bicyclists has leaned on bike commute numbers gathered by the American Community Survey as a way to rank cities based on who bikes to work (the Census Bureau’s Journey to Work measure reaches as far back as the 1960s in some iteration or another.) The League also ranks bicycle facilities and amenities to award bicycle-friendly status to cities and businesses. Here’s what their current top ten looks like.
“The American Community Survey’s bike commuting data is the only data we have at the national level to compare biking’s prevalence across cities,” says McLeod, who compiles the annual census data. “It’d be really difficult to talk about biking in America if we didn't have it. But at the end of the day, it’s also super limited. It’s only about the journey to work, and it doesn’t capture multi-modal trips that are bike-to-transit trips. It doesn’t capture the full story.”
Now another metric of urban biking has emerged, one that does try to capture that larger narrative by factoring in the casual trips that could only really be inferred from ACS bike commuting numbers. The bike advocacy organization PeopleForBikes released a new city ranking system called PlacesForBikes, which combines a measurement of casual trips with some adjustments for city size and modal options to get a better sense of how prevalent biking is in any given city. While the PlacesForBikes study does consider events like Bike To Work Day as a key measure of outreach for its rankings, it doesn’t emphasize commuting in general.
“What we know is that transportation riding is a pretty small part of the bicycling that goes on in the U.S.,” says Jennifer Boldry, director of research at PeopleForBikes. “And of the transportation riding, biking to work is a small part of that. For our analysis, we exclude those who walk, use public transit, and those who work from home so that we’re not penalizing cities with high levels of alternative transportation.”
It also resets the idea that bike commuting numbers alone are an accurate measure of biking’s benefit in a city. “The bike-to-work trip is one that is fraught with barriers,” Boldry says. “The gateways to biking may really be about getting people to bike to the movies, to meet friends. To go places where they don't necessarily have to be at a certain time and place, like a work meeting where you have to look presentable.”
Here’s what PeopleForBikes’ top cities look like.
The report is based on what the organization calls bicycle network analysis (or BNA), which scores a city’s bike infrastructure using factors like speed limits, intersection connections, and proximity to key destinations such as parks, schools, shopping, and doctors’ offices, rather than just tracking how many miles of bike lanes get put down on the street. “Our BNA score measures how easy it is for people to get where they want to go on a complete, comfortable, and connected network. So when you go to the grocery store, you never wonder whether you can get there,” Boldry says. Building on a formula by transportation scholar Peter Furth, the tool can estimate the stress level for cyclists negotiating city streets; low-stress routes appear in blue, while more harrowing thoroughfares are shaded in red.
Here’s what the placid blue streets of high-rated Boulder, Colorado, which boasts a BNA score of 66, look like.
And here’s Buffalo, New York, with its basement-scraping BNA of 8. It’s among the very lowest-rated American cities.
The thinking behind the PlacesForBikes study dovetails with a growing consensus in bicycling advocacy—one which now looks at biking not simply as a transportation mode, but as a tool for addressing broader issues of accessibility, equity, and safety. Now that many U.S. cities have assembled at least a modest foundation of biking infrastructure, the next step is expanding the notion of where biking is possible through connected networks, street calming, and emphasizing Vision Zero safety goals as a key metric of success.
This more holistic approach, rather than focusing on how many miles of lanes have been striped, has become prominent in recent bicycle urbanism literature. The goal goes beyond the “if you build it, they will come” ethos that often drives bike infrastructure projects.
In his new book Copenhagenize, urban designer Mikael Colville-Andersen argues that the humble bicycle doesn’t require cities to undertake dramatic physical changes—they just need to reclaim how streets used to work before they were completely colonized by the “invasive species” of motor vehicles. He compares Copenhagen’s streets to an “urban firepit”—a cozy gathering place for people of all ages to meet and share stories. Urban anthropologist Adonia Lugo’s forthcoming book, Bicycle/Race, also looks skeptically at bike infrastructure projects that emphasize development—arguing it takes “human infrastructure” to build a street culture that overcomes the historic barriers embedded in race and mobility.
Both books argue for a cultural shift that has to accompany people, rather than vehicles, to bring cities around to the idea that there are better ways to get around town. Which brings us back to Bike To Work Day, and all it represents.
“Our society is really focused on commuting to work,” says Bill Schultheiss, a sustainable transportation engineer at Toole Design Group in Silver Spring, Maryland. “That’s where transportation departments spend all their energy, money, and time, because it's when the peak load is on the [road] system and then that’s where all the data is being collected. I think it’s unfortunate when it comes to biking, since biking to work is only two trips a day. There’s a lot of other trips that happen, and we can get distracted by that.”
From a design standpoint, bike planning is playing catch-up after car-focused traffic engineering has dominated for so many decades. “When you go to any project, the question is always: Who’s going to use it, and where and how is it going to affect capacity on the road during rush hour?” says Schultheiss. “That can be a distraction. I think people’s safety should matter, and it doesn’t matter when they’re there and why. It doesn’t matter that they’re trying to get to work or go to a friend’s house. If you came into a community and said, ‘Let's talk about creating safe streets where you can bike to your neighbor's house, or to the store,’ I think it would resonate a lot more.”
Bike To Work Day may be an impressive display of numbers. For one day, at least, it gives American urbanites a vague glimpse of what life would be like in some Copenhagenized metro, where cyclists flood the streets each morning and riding around the city is perceived as a vaguely normal thing to do. But that shouldn’t obscure the fact that people bike at all hours of the day, for all sorts of reasons.
“It helps tell the bigger story,” says Schultheiss. “These are just fellow citizens that want to get around safely, and here’s where they are. They don’t all travel at rush hour and you may not always see them, but we need to start helping to make the streets safer for them.”