Last year, just 2.8 percent of workers who live in Seattle biked to work as a primary mode of transportation. The raw number of bike commuters is down, too.
This is a column that, frankly, I’d rather not write.
Full disclosure: I bike in Seattle, and I think it’s a great way to get around the city without adding to air pollution and traffic congestion. So I wish I could report that bicycle commuting is trending upward here.
But it’s not. In fact, census data released this month show that in 2017, bike commuting in Seattle fell to its lowest level in a decade.
Last year, just 2.8 percent of workers who reside in the city of Seattle commuted to work by bicycle as their primary mode of transportation most days. That’s down from 3.5 percent in 2016, and 4 percent the year before, a statistically significant decline. And remarkably, you have to go all the back to 2007 to find a lower number — it was 2.3 percent that year.
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The new figures come as a surprise. Since 2010, the numbers had been pretty consistent from year to year, always falling within a range from 3.5 to 4.1 percent.
And it’s not just the percentage that’s dropped. The raw number has gone down, too. In 2015, we hit a record high with an estimated 16,000 bike commuters who live in Seattle. Last year, it fell below 12,000 — a 26 percent decline in just two years.
To be certain, a single year does not make a trend. The low number for 2017 could turn out to be a fluke. Perhaps the weather was a factor — we had the wettest start to a year on record in 2017, and that surely depressed the bike-commuting numbers to some degree, at least through April.
Even so, looking over the annual data since 2010, this much seems indisputable: Bike commuting in Seattle has not been increasing. At best, the numbers are flat.
And that’s disappointing, considering the improvements the city has made to its bike network. For example, the Westlake protected bike lane, which links North Seattle with downtown, opened at the end of 2016. Any impact it had on the number of bike commuters would have been reflected in the 2017 data.
That said, while there have been improvements, Seattle’s network of bike lanes remains incomplete and disjointed. Progress has been frustratingly slow, and some projects — including the Fourth Avenue bike lane — have been put on hold.
Earlier this year, PeopleForBikes, a national cycling-advocacy group, published a ranking of U.S. cities on a variety of factors to determine which are the best of biking. When it comes to the pace at which we’re improving bike infrastructure and getting people riding, Seattle scored a dismal 0.7 out of 5, based on field research and local surveys. That result dragged down our overall score, putting us on par with Topeka, Kansas, for bike friendliness.
With increased traffic congestion and construction projects everywhere, riding a bike through downtown streets has only gotten more challenging. That may help explain why last year’s bike commuting numbers fell. Most people aren’t going to ride a bike when they feel it’s unsafe. Without a comprehensive network of protected bike lanes, many cyclists use city sidewalks instead — hardly an ideal situation. (Seattle’s downtown is one of very few, among large U.S. cities, where it’s legal to ride a bicycle on the sidewalk).
When Seattle does build bike infrastructure, people use it.
Dongho Chang, the Seattle Department of Transportation’s (SDOT) chief traffic engineer, points to the Second Avenue protected bike lane as an example. The lane was extended through Belltown to Denny Way in February.
“(It) saw a 31-percent increase in ridership compared to last year, and is expected to draw more riders with the new extension to Denny and the impending connections to Pike and Pine,” he said in an email.
Despite the dip in last year’s numbers, Seattle still ranks fifth for bike commuting among the 50 most populous U.S. cities, unchanged from 2016. Portland, where 6.3 percent of workers ride bikes, remains the No. 1 city, as it has every year this decade. The Rose City had nearly 23,000 bike commuters in 2017.
In some cities outside the U.S., the numbers are much higher. Nearby, in Vancouver, B.C., more than 10 percent of all commutes are made on bicycle — and that number’s up 60 percent since 2013, according to city data. In Copenhagen, a city with more bicycles than people, half of all workers commute by bike.
Something to keep in mind about the census data is that it only pertains to commuting. It doesn’t capture those people who bike to school, to run errands or to meet up with friends. It doesn’t capture people who bike for recreation. So we can’t say that cycling is down overall in Seattle just based on the census.
And when you take into account all those noncommuter trips, Chang believes that cycling is on the rise.
“In general, I believe more people have gravitated to cycling as a standard travel mode and or option,” he said. “This is why SDOT remains committed to building out the city’s bike infrastructure to provide safe connections for cyclists, but also encourage more commuter and leisure ridership.”
He adds that commutes have become more multimodal, with many people switching between modes on any given day depending on which make the most sense. The city wants people to have this flexibility in their transportation choices.
Earlier this year, LimeBike, the dockless bike-share company, launched its fleets of rentable electric bikes, making it much easier to get around hilly Seattle on bicycle. That could turn out to be a game changer in terms of ridership.
Will it cause bike-commuting numbers to rebound? We’ll have to wait until next year’s census data to find out.
Also in the new census data: 78 percent of Seattle bike commuters are male.
Men make up the majority of cyclists in every major city, but Seattle has the most lopsided gender balance among the top 10 cities. The one coming closest to gender parity, with women making up nearly 40 percent of its bike commuters, is Minneapolis.
While bike commuting declined here last year, that doesn’t mean Seattleites are getting back in their cars. Transit use continued its steady climb in 2017, while drive-alone commuters made up just 47 percent of workers — that’s the lowest it’s been in decades.
Correction: An earlier version of this column misstated that the decline in the percentage of bike commuters from 2016 was statistically significant. The decline from 2015 was statistically significant.