Commuting by Bicycle is – down?

By Dave Mabe

Imagine the year is 2014.  We’re in the midst of an era when lots of cities across the US are working hard to promote cycling.  By many counts it’s never been easier to ride a bike.  Our family was already three years into getting by with just one car – this would not have been possible without the ease of cycling in my hometown of Carrboro, NC. During and since that time many major cities have implemented lots of cycling initiatives to build new bike lanes, make more areas accessible by bike, and created bike shares to make it as easy as possible to bike. So what would have been your prediction in 2014 about what US bicycle commuting numbers would look like over the next three years? I think it’s safe to say we’d be haggling over how much of an increase in bicycle commuting there would be in 2014-2017.

This makes it even more striking that the number of people commuting by bike in the US has steadily decreased since 2014.  This is over a time period where the total US workforce has steadily increased, so in percentage terms the cycling numbers are even worse than the chart above appears (down from a peak in 2014 of 0.62% to 0.55% in 2017).

So why has this drop in bicycle commuting occurred?  I can’t say for sure, but here are some theories about what might be playing a role.

Americans Really Like Travelling by Car

The percent of US workers commuting by car (alone or carpool) has remained remarkably consistent – it’s currently 85.3% of the workforce. Commuting by public transit is down in percentage terms from it’s peak in 2015 – 5.232% then and 4.998% now.

As much as people complain about traffic congestion, it’s apparently not enough to change people’s behavior too much.

Gas Prices are Down

US gas prices are close to their lowest in a decade, making driving relatively more attractive at the margins.

Popularity of Electric Vehicles

Electric vehicles continue to become more widespread in the US.  When you think about the target market for these vehicles, a significant portion of this group might also consider biking to work.  It’s becoming easier to signal environmental consciousness AND drive a stylish car.  I suspect this is crowding out some would-be bicycle commuters.
(Hat tip to my wife Joan for this one)

Working from Home is Exploding

If the percent of the workforce that is commuting by car is basically unchanged and the percent of transit use is down, what’s left?

It turns out working from home has been quietly exploding.  After a four year run of basically no change from 2008 through 2011, there have been solid increases and now it’s up over a third from 2011.  In fact 2017 was the first year where more people work from home than commute by public transit.  This occurred during a period of lower gas prices – seems reasonable to assume that these numbers are positively correlated.  That is, if the price of gas were higher over the last 3 years or in the future, these work from home numbers likely would be higher still.

Kids of Helicopter Parents Enter the Workforce

Another theory that seems like it might be true is that kids of so-called helicopter parents are coming of age and entering the workforce.  I expect there’s not great data to look at for the “helicopter-ness” of the last couple decades, but it certainly seems to be true that safety (over) conscious parenting has increased dramatically.  (Here’s a daycare that’s suggesting kids wear helmets for recess, for example.)  It’s hard to deny that this has been the case and in fact we’re starting to see responses to this problem.

The time period for the decline in bicycle commuting also might roughly coincide with a generation of safety conscious kids entering the workforce.  Will kids of this generation be more of less likely to commute by bike to work?  The answer seems obvious.

Any other theories?

Predictions on Bicycle Commuting in Next 4 Years?

Anyone willing to offer a bet on what future numbers of bicycle commuters will be in the census data?  If so, contact me.