September is the time of the year when the US Census publishes data from the American Community Survey, one of the few large-scale data sources that can tell us something about long-term trends in biking in the US. How is Madison doing? We had a first look at the data.
So what are the numbers for bike commuting in Madison? They’re pretty much exactly the same as in the previous year. Whereas between 2013 and 2014 there was a minor increase in bike commuting from 4.8 to 5.3% (well within the margins of error of the data), in 2015 it is still 5.3% of people who report that biking was their main means of getting to work. So for the seventh year in a row bike commuting in Madison has stagnated.
In some ways this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Nationwide bike commuting has also stagnated for several years. So at a time when spending on road expansions continues while gas price hover barely above $2 per gallon, maybe we should be happy that commuting by bike hasn’t decreased. Some advocates in other cities have taken this position. For us at Madison Bikes that’s not an acceptable stance to take. The Bicycle Transportation Plan for the Madison metro area has an increase in the number of people cycling as one of its stated goal, and the city takes great pride in having received “Platinum” status as a bicycle-friendly community. Stagnating bike commuting rates for multiple years in a row therefore should be cause for alarm: What has been done and is being done to improve biking either isn’t working or isn’t enough.
Getting to a mode share of five percent is relatively easy, especially in a college town. Research originally done in Portland divides the population into four categories: “Strong and fearless” riders are those who will ride under almost any circumstances. This is a very small segment of the population. A slightly larger percentage can be characterized as “enthused and confident,” people who are willing to ride on unprotected on-street bike lanes, in mixed traffic on side streets with few cars, or Madison’s disjointed network of off-street bike paths. Taken together, these two groups make up about five to eight percent of the population. To get a bike mode share that goes beyond that, we need to tap in the group of “interested but concerned”–people who may ride a bike for recreation on a trail or during Ride the Drive, or someone who currently is not biking at all but is in principle interested.
To tap into this group real investments in infrastructure, along with incentives to active transportation and disincentives to driving need to happen. In Madison we do not see those major steps. Changes to biking infrastructure are incremental and piecemeal. Green paint on an intersection here, a widened but still unprotected bike lane there. But no protected bike lanes, no rebuild of horrible intersections such as the one at Machinery Row, and major street reconstruction projects, such as the one on Monroe Street, still prioritize on-street parking and car traffic throughput over safer and more convenient bike and pedestrian infrastructure. At the same time, driving and parking continue to be cheap and convenient. Let’s work together to make this change!
Stay tuned for a more in-depth look at the data. And please stop by our Kickoff Party this Monday and tell us what you think needs to happen to make cycling grow again in Madison.