Want to Measure Bike Ridership? Count People, Not Miles of Bike Lanes

Bicycling on the Dearborn Street bike lane
A bicyclist braves Dearborn Street, past where the protected bike lane ends.

National Bike Month in May results in an inevitable flurry of national press articles trumpeting bike commuting. The headlines can get pretty repetitive: “Top 10 Cities for Bicycling,” “Bike To Work Rate Grows,” “City Adds 10 More Miles of Bike Lanes.”

Yet even though these articles might seem promising, there’s precious little understanding about what really makes a place “bike friendly.” Easy measures, like how many miles of bike lanes have been painted, obscure the fact that we usually have no idea how many more people are bicycling. Having miles of bike lanes matters little if those bikes lanes don’t serve anyone. After all, if a bike lane gets striped in a forest and no one is around to use it, does it make that forest bike friendly?

What matters more is how many more people are bicycling, whether on those bike lanes or otherwise. Bicyclists will vote with their feet for quality bike lanes: ones that have clear markings, connect to each other to create a network, provide legible space at conflict-prone intersections, and exist along streets that are comfortable and direct.

Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin touched on these points in his recent critique of Chicago’s cycle facilities. In one of the Tribune’s few worthwhile recent articles about bicycling, Kamin interviewed an executive at an organization that tries to make it politically palatable to build unconventional bike lanes:

“Chicago has made incredible progress over the last few years,” said Martha Roskowski, vice president at People for Bikes, a Boulder, Colo.-based advocacy group. But, she added, “Chicago also has a ways to go.”

“A ways to go” is being charitable.

Addressing the gaps in the city’s network of protected bike routes, Roskowski said: “People evaluate a potential bike ride on the basis of the weakest link, the scariest part of the trip, which might be a really busy road you have to ride along or across. People have tolerance for a little bit of that. But if it’s sustained or if it feels dangerous, they just won’t do it.”

Those many Close Calls, bike lanes that deteriorate soon after installation or forego maintenance, cross bumpy pavement, and dodge numerous obstacles — scare many Chicagoans away from bicycling, and result in the city’s low proportion of bicycle commuters.

Since Emanuel took office in 2011, Chicago has installed 52 miles of protected bike lanes [it’s installed 16 miles of protected bike lanes], which use a variety of means — plastic pylons, striped pavement markings and non-curbside parking spaces — to separate bikes from vehicles. That brings the city’s total bicycle lanes to 207 miles.

207 miles is a pretty cool number. How many miles of streets without bike lanes do we have? That’s just over 4,000 miles, minus those 207. Only one out of every 20 miles of Chicago roads has a bike lane.

Why doesn’t Mayor Rahm Emanuel talk about how many people have taken up bicycling since he took office, or how many more fun and healthful bicycle trips Chicagoans have taken in those 52 miles of new protected (or, more likely, simply buffered) bike lanes? He can’t, because nobody knows. The Chicago Department of Transportation has a bike counting program — but a study released today by Portland State University researchers highlights its unreliability. The study [PDF] incorporated the city’s own counts, conducted monthly on Milwaukee Avenue at Elston Avenue and at multiple locations along Dearborn Street’s two-way, protected bike lane. The change in ridership from before to after construction was considered, but only for four hours, one day each month. That simply isn’t large enough of a sample to truly understand the bike lanes’ impact.

The changes on these two streets were then compared to a “citywide increase,” based on the Census Department’s American Community Survey. The Census covers a different period of time, counts only a small sample of those who commute to jobs, and only counts those who bike for most of their trip. Under this flawed method, it looks like a major bike lane redesign on Milwaukee increased peak-hour bike trips by only 4 percent from 2012-2013. Compared to a citywide increase of 21 percent from 2010 to 2012, it might appear that the bike lane had no effect on increasing ridership there. Better numbers, for example of non-commute trips, would probably show a different pattern.

The researchers’ video counts might cover more time, but show similar flaws. Their counts along Dearborn showed a 538 percent increase in bicycling, but does not account for how the Dearborn lane represented a huge change in the Loop’s street network. Of course many more bicyclists rode southbound on Dearborn, for instance, since doing so was illegal before. Many cyclists also probably switched to Dearborn from other, parallel streets once the bike lane opened.

On the other hand, we can track Divvy bike-share use down to the minute. Divvy’s operator announced that Saturday, May 24, was Divvy’s highest ridership day ever. This was then eclipsed by nearly 4,000 more trips the very next day, probably helped in no small part by the Bike The Drive event. The amazing level of detail that bike share data make available gives us a strong basis to make informed decisions about bicycling routes – but only for Divvy users, who are only a fraction of bicyclists citywide.

Without good information on how many people are riding bikes, and who they are, there’s no way for the city to measure its progress against its own Bike 2015 Plan, which set out as its goal that “five percent of all trips less than five miles are by bicycle.” (This measure was a big change from prior plans, which never included similar performance measures.) And without a way to measure progress, it’s impossible to hold the city accountable for the steps that it takes along the way.

  • Dennis_Hindman

    Realistically, bike lanes would probably only be installed on the 1,000 miles of arterial/collector streets in Chicago. A fifth of the miles of these types of streets now have bike lanes.

    According to the city of Long Beach, California, bicycle counts for bike lanes level off three years after installation. If that holds true for Chicago, then the first bike lanes installed under Mayor Rahm Emmanuel are just now leveling off in the number of bicycle riders.

    American Community Survey results are not a overall count of bicycle use, but in the case of Portland, Oregon, it parallels fairly accurately the changes in the percent of people bicycling on a daily basis.

    New York City installed 181 miles of bike lanes and paths from mid 2006 until mid 2010. There wasn’t an increase in ACS bicycle commuting mode share until the 2010 results. That’s four years after the city aggressively started putting in more bike lanes.

    Los Angeles is another example. In 2009, LA had 147 miles of bike lanes. There are now 364 miles of bike lanes–most of the increase was installed starting in 2011. The ACS bicycle commuting mode share for 2011 and 2012 are the same as in 2009.

  • what_eva

    Was going to say the same thing. Most of those 4000 miles of city streets are residential side streets.

  • madopal

    Here is the only problem I see with counting riders: increasing lanes.

    If you’ve got inhospitable sections, the premise is that riders won’t ride there. That lack of ridership is then used as an excuse to not put bike lanes on those roads because no one rides there.

    Circular logic.

    Anyway, it seems like the priorities have changed since the early 2000s. Then, the city seemed to be all for putting bike infrastructure everywhere, and after that, they seemed to only adopt where people used it. But all bike infrastructure isn’t equal. Everyone west of the Kennedy has to pretty much stay west of the Kennedy, because riding most of the viaducts is damn close to suicidal. East of the Kennedy, there are easier ways to get to the lakefront & the populated N/S axis of the city.

    Milwaukee seems to be the only except to this, and people ride in spite of dooring danger for some reason (hi, Wicker Park). But other W parts of the city aren’t being ridden as much, and that’s leading to circular logic like above. I’ve been trying to ride the 2.5 miles from my place to work, and it’s been some of the most stressful miles I’ve ridden, to the point that I don’t want to ride it. If I, as an experienced rider, am reconsidering my riding for safety reasons, how is anyone else expected to ride? And if these issues aren’t addressed in places where people don’t ride much, how will it ever change?

    Wouldn’t the more bang-for-our-buck strategy be to analyze streets, find likely routes, add infrastructure to those, and then watch ridership increase (if increasing riders is what we’re trying to do, that is)?

  • Getting under the Kennedy in anything other than a car is a major issue, strongly agreed. It dices up neighborhoods and separates otherwise quite-walkable routes.

  • David Altenburg

    FWIW, most of the conflicts I’ve had with angry drivers who think riding out of the door zone is “riding in the middle of the road” have been on residential side roads. If our residential streets were properly designed as such, I don’t think bike lanes on them would be necessary or desired, but as long as drivers expect to drive 35mph without interruption down them, I think bike lanes on those roads have a place.

  • what_eva

    Speeding on side streets is definitely a problem.

    The average residential side street is one-way, parking on both sides, and if a car double-parks, there is barely enough room for another car to squeeze by. There are cases where it makes sense to stripe bike lanes on such streets, like to provide a safe alternative to a nearby street that has heavy car traffic (eg Kenmore/Winthrop through Edgewater as an alternative to Sheridan) or as a greenway like Berteau.

    The average side street has little traffic, so there is no need for a bike lane and it would be cost prohibitive to even consider it. My point was that it’s not valid to say “Only one out of every 20 miles of Chicago roads has a bike lane” when only 5 out of those 20 miles would ever be considered or need a bike lane. (I’m using Dennis’ figure of 1000 miles of arterial/collectors out of 4000 miles total, I did not fact check that).

  • Kevin M

    I think the hang-up that CDOT has had with implementing bike infrastructure through the Kennedy viaducts has been IDOT’s iron-clad hold on those territories and their resistance towards bike infrastructure. It is extremely aggravating to feel that IDOT/Springfield doesn’t care about the safety of Chicago’s cyclists.

  • JacobEPeters

    agreed, encourage cycling on side streets that are already safe through reducing detours and confusion at places where those safe streets don’t directly connect to another safe street in the same direction. It fits with Steven’s overall point, which is that counting infrastructure isn’t as useful as better counting usage across the city.

  • Or walkers. Some of those sidewalks are tiny (even leaving aside the drifts of mud and pigeon leavings), as well as being dark, loud, and claustrophobically dangerous-feeling.

  • Thanks for this post, Steven. The points are well taken.

    You might be interested in this post about the things I saw in the study that hopefully provide a corrective to the rosiest possible interpretations:


    Chicago played a large role in all three points here.


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