Is Chicago’s Bike Mode Share Really Stagnating?

Cyclists wait for a light in the Dearborn Street protected bike lane during the evening rush. Photo: John Greenfield
Cyclists wait for a light in the Dearborn Street protected bike lane during the evening rush. Photo: John Greenfield

As detailed in a recent Streetsblog USA article byThat’s far enough beyond the margins of error to all but guarantee that U.S. bike commuting has slipped since global gas prices plummeted in late 2014,” they wrote.

Previously rising bike mode share rates — the percent of commuters who ride a bike for most of their trip to work — have leveled off, or even fallen slightly, in major American cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia, according to the Census. Mode share even fell slightly in smaller cities with relatively high levels of biking, such as Minneapolis, Portland, Seattle, and San Francisco. Here’s a full report on the latest one-year Census estimates for bike mode share.

According to the Census, Chicago wasn’t immune to the national trend of bike use hitting a plateau. Our mode share for 2016 was 1.7 percent, the same as for 2014.

Maybe I’m in denial here, but anecdotally these underwhelming Census results don’t seem to match up with what I’m seeing on the streets of Chicago. The Lakefront Trail and Milwaukee Avenue — the city’s busiest biking street — seem more crowded than ever. By October 2015 the city reached its goal of installing 100 miles of buffered and protected bike lanes. The Divvy system, which launched in June 2013, recently expanded to more than 580 stations and 5,800 bikes, covering a huge swath of the city, and the system broke 10 million rides earlier this year.

It also seems to me that cycling has increased in parts of the city beyond the more affluent North and Northwest Side neighborhoods usually thought of as hotbeds for biking. The Divvy for Everyone program, which offers $5 memberships to lower-income Chicagoans and waives the usual credit card requirement, has enrolled more than 2,500 members since it launched in July 2015. And recently groups like Slow Roll Chicago have been promoting cycling on the South and West sides, drawing upwards of 100 participants on some rides.

So is it possible that the Census data that says our city’s bike mode share didn’t grow at all between 2014 and 2016 is wrong? Yes, according to Steven Vance, Streetsblog Chicago’s resident statistics expert. “These are one-year estimates and the margin of error is extremely high, which can hide any losses or gains,” he says. “Only about 3.5 million people are surveyed each year. Only about 94,000 people are surveyed in Illinois, and even fewer are surveyed in Chicago.”

Another thing to consider is that the way the Census counts bike mode share is likely to give the impression that the percentage of residents who bike for transportation in a city is lower than it actually is. For example, if you ride a Divvy to your local ‘L’ station, take the train most of the way to work, and then grab another Divvy to pedal the last mile or so to your workplace, the Census counts that as a transit trip, not a bike commute.

And work commutes are a particularly challenging type of urban bike trip, since many employees may worry they won’t look presentable if they show up to their job after riding a bike. It’s likely that a higher percentage of people are using bikes for trips to retail, entertainment, visiting friends and relatives, etc., in Chicago than for work commutes. Moreover, the Census asks respondents about work trips taken in April, which isn’t prime biking season in our city.

So while it’s possible that Chicago bike mode share really has leveled off due to lower gas prices or a stronger economy that’s allowing more people to buy cars, we shouldn’t necessarily accept the notion that cycling has plateaued here based on the new Census report. The number of people biking to work in Chicago increased by 150 percent during the first decade of this millennium, according to the Census. I could be wrong, but my gut feeling is that the amount of biking here is continuing to grow, not stagnate.

  • Tooscrapps

    I definitely see more people on my route on the Deaborn PBL and northbound bike lane. Today at 4:45, I waited for the light at Illinois with 7 other cyclists. I can’t recall that ever happening on that stretch. It’s not exactly for the faint-hearted once you get past Kinzie.

  • Carter O’Brien

    It seems implausible (if not impossible) given the fact that the areas we see more bike commuters are where Chicago’s growth has been. I have a feeling something is wrong with the methodology, as the sample size, on its face, seems more than adequate. It’s been a while since I took Stats classes, but I recall a sample size of 2,000 being the “magic number,” with diminishing returns quickly coming into effect.

  • hopeyglass

    Just remember, being around a bunch of transpo advocates, wonks and readers is gonna be a little echo chambery. There are plenty of reasons things can stagnate and looking at popular trails isn’t going to be super effective when comparing to data. Maybe it isn’t true, but I also doubt there have been massive gains. There are still many, many, many people (older, less abled, economically disadvantaged, people living in awful infra conditions) who would never think about biking to work. Also ride share exists, and god knows if I’ve anecdotally seen anything massively increase, it is annoying people taking ubers under all kinds of conditions where in the past taxis made it cost-prohibitive.

  • BlueFairlane

    Be careful with an argument like this. Your last paragraph illustrates the problem. If census data is an unreliable gauge for the reasons you cite, then how do you know the number of people biking to work increased by 150 percent during the millennium’s first decade? Why do you trust census data to give you a result you like but discredit it when it gives you a result you don’t?

    If we are to take your theory that census data is not to be trusted at face value, then the best you’ll ever be able to say is that though you might feel something to be true, there is no method to quantify it, and no way to ever know for sure. You’ll be stuck with “well, it feels like this” arguments to back up your assertions, and that won’t fly with the bean counters who fund transportation initiatives or the taxpayers who vote for them.

    Yes, the census data is imperfect for the reasons you cite, but if you’re using the same imperfect data from year to year, you’re still getting a sense of the direction of movement, if not the accurate, quantifiable amount. You’re still comparing apples to apples, and you still at least have something other than a hunch to support your argument once the numbers go your way, as they did during the last decade. A better approach would be to say, “Okay, what we did was working, but we can see from this plateau that now is not the time for complacency. We need to work harder and be more innovative to push even farther in the direction we want.” The data here is not your enemy. It’s best to acknowledge it and take it as a cue that there’s more to be done.

  • I think looking at the quarterly bike counts done by the city could be helpful as another set of data. They are specifically for Chicago, done in all four seasons, and count all bicyclists regardless of purpose of the trip. I haven’t seen them published for a long time, though.

  • ardecila

    Because FULL censuses of everybody were conducted in 2000 and 2010, we can make more reliable judgments based on those data. The data for 2016 is based on the American Community Survey, which only surveys a tiny fraction of the populace.

    It is apples to oranges to compare decennial Census data to ACS.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Fair game. It’s also worth noting that Active Trans conducted a study in 2014 to try to gauge how many non-work bike trips are being taken in the area, to provide a more accurate sense of the total bike mode share: https://www.activetrans.org/sites/files/Active_Trans_Chicago_Bike_Monitoring_Report_2014.pdf

  • BlueFairlane

    Under that theory, then, we know absolutely nothing until 2020.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Ride-share definitely seems to be reducing transit ridership, especially bus use, but that’s a good question — what effect is it having on biking? One possibility is that it might be having a positive effect by making it easier than ever to live in the city without owning a car, which might encourage more people to bike for some of their non-ride-share trips.

  • ardecila

    I mean, sort of. The ACS is great for broad-scale trends, like measuring the growth of a boomtown or looking at the change of income when a company town’s jobs get outsourced. If Chicago’s bike mode share is only at a paltry 1.7%, then any changes will be similarly small and not well-captured by ACS.

    The bigger problem is that most cyclists in Chicago are seasonal ones. Many of my friends bike to work in warmer months, and the number of these has surely increased with the city’s renewed focus on promoting cycling. But ACS (and Census) only looks at a person’s PRIMARY mode of commute, and seasonal cyclists are unlikely to claim their bike over public transit.

  • Tooscrapps

    Taxi rides have were down 41% in the first half of 2017 vs first half of 2016 (a time when ride-share was already mainstream). So much of that bump in ride-share you see could be coming at the expense of taxis.

    Let’s hope some of that 41% decrease is going to Divvy.

  • hopeyglass

    I suppose its stuff like this that sort of illustrates the point that coming up with ancedata to “hope” say, but what about this? isn’t really very compelling as a thesis. Maybe it goes to Divvy, maybe people just get tired of biking to work, maybe people move, there are literally a million explanations we can come up with but… so what?

  • Anne A

    I’m seeing a steady increase in Beverly, which is a refreshing change. I think the influx of younger families from denser neighborhoods is boosting the numbers somewhat.

    Also, some longtime residents who hadn’t ridden regularly in a while are now riding again. As they see more people riding, they want to get back in the action. One of them is a retired neighbor who sees me ride past her house often. We had a conversation a while back about how her old bike didn’t really meet her needs after she suffered a back injury. We talked about how her needs had changed, and I mentioned a bike model available at our neighborhood bike shop that might suit her better. She went there and bought one, and now I see her riding regularly. She’s thrilled.

    Another place I see change is the neighborhood farmers market. When I first started riding my bike there several years ago, I rarely saw anyone going there by bike. I ride there pretty much every week. Now I see a steady increase in the number of people of all ages riding there – my retired neighbor, people with little kids, etc. I haven’t seen quite the same level of increase at my neighborhood grocery store, but numbers are growing there too.

  • Tooscrapps

    I think there are failures on all levels to gather this type of data.

    – The Census surveys have a potentially small sample size and large margin of error and only survey about commuting habits. Not a great way to capture how many people bike for other things that don’t involve going to and from work.
    – The City, in my opinion, doesn’t do enough on-the-street cyclist counts on popular routes. What percentage of those are Divvy users? The pessimist in me thinks they partially don’t do these counts because they fear anti-cyclists and pro-cyclist folks would use those numbers against them to demand the removal of a bike lane or for bike upgrades the City might not have money for.
    – Divvy does do a survey that asks the types of modes that are replaced by their service, but here I am googling it and can’t find the results.
    – Uber/Lyft aren’t terribly open about their data (usage rates, ride patterns, etc.), so it’s hard to say what their role is.

    Furthermore, none of this data actually tells what the city *could* be for cyclists if we had more robust infrastructure and better traffic enforcement.

  • Carter O’Brien

    I love that story about your retiree neighbor! I wonder how many people are in a similar place, and don’t know how how many model/style options there are nowadays. I went from a standard mountain bike to a hybrid commuter model maybe 5 years ago, and beyond feeling like I can see traffic better (and v.v.) in that more upright position, my neck feels better. I wish I had figured out 20 years ago that a mountain bike isn’t really designed for flat terrain riding where you need crane your neck left and right almost constantly. Live and learn – eventually!

  • Carter O’Brien

    I agree, but it’s a more than fair point to call out how Divvy may not be getting captured here. It has certainly changed my commuting behavior (I often do a hybrid public transit-Divvy commute), so with millions of trips logged system-wide, that’s potentially a huge blind spot.

  • planetshwoop

    Curious to see if electric bike prices come down if it drives a trend too. It’s supposedly 1 in 4 bikes being sold in Europe, which is incredible.

  • Carter O’Brien

    I could definitely see e-bikes taking off and making a big difference in hillier locales. I think it may be a tougher sell in Chicago, where traffic danger and road conditions are in my anecdotal experience the biggest barriers.

  • planetshwoop

    There’s definitely a valid point here. Having a bike counter on a few big routes (LFP, Milwaukee, Wells, Dearborn, etc.) would probably go a long way towards improving the reliable counts.

  • undercover epicurean

    Completely anecdotal but I used to bike daily until one too many close calls with motorists made me swear off of it. I won’t be getting back on a bike to get to work until there’s a fully protected route from Logan Square to downtown (in other words, I am not holding my breath). I know a couple others with similar experiences.

  • ChicagoCyclist

    5-Year ACS estimates are more reliable than 1-year. However, the total numbers are as Steven V./John G. small with high margin of errors. On the national scale, they are better — the smaller the geographic scale, the less trustworthy. Overall, the article’s critique of the Census data and its — and many commenters’ — qualitative/anecdotal observations may very well be right. And remember: commute trips are estimated generally to be a maximum of 20% of the trips people make.

  • Anne A

    I wouldn’t be surprised if there are lots of other people in the same boat.

    About your mountain bike issue – it’s also possible to modify what you have by changing stem, handlebars, etc. I’ve had to do that due to a couple of injuries that messed up my neck. I had 2 bikes modified for a somewhat more upright riding position, which has made a big difference.

  • Carter O’Brien

    It may also be worth noting that for better and for worse (mostly the latter), climate change/chaos is starting to manifest itself in the Midwest. So we are likely to see increasing temperatures/less brutal winters over coming decades, which may remove an obstacle to bike commuting. Admittedly, a very minor silver lining in the big picture.

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