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Introduction to DIY bike ridership research

A lot of people ask me how many people are out there bicycling.

“Not a lot”, I tell them.

And I explain why: the primary source of data is the American Community Survey, which is a questionnaire that asks people questions about how they got to work in a specific week. (More details on how it does this below.) We don’t have data, except in rare “Household Travel Surveys”, about trips by bike to school, shopping, and social activities.

It’s comparable across the country – you can get this data for any city.

Here’s how:

  1. Visit the “legacy” American FactFinder and select American Community Survey, operated by the United States Census Bureau.
  2. Select 2005-2009 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates (or the latest 5-year estimate). This is the most accurate data.
  3. In the right-side menu that appears, click on “Enter a table number”.
  4. In the new window, input the table number ” S0801″ (“Commuting Characteristics by Sex”) and submit the form. The new window will close and the other window will go to that table.
  5. Now it’s time to select your geography. In the left-side menu, under “Change…” click on “geography (state, county, place…)”
  6. In the window to change your geography, select “Place” as your “Geographic Type”.
  7. Then select the state.
  8. Then select your city and click “Show Result”.
Notes:
  • This data shows all modes people take to work, who live in that city. It’s highly probable that people are leaving the city to their jobs on these modes. For example, someone who lives in Rogers Park may ride their bike to work in Evanston.
  • The URL is a permanent link to this dataset. Each city has a unique URL. You should save these as bookmarks so you can easily reference the data later.
  • The question on the survey doesn’t allow multiple choices: “People who used more than one means of transportation to get to work each day were asked to report the one used for the longest distance during the work trip”.

Some disjointed thoughts about bike commuting rates and how we get them

  1. In November 2010, I wrote that Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, have a higher percentage of workers (16 and older) commuting to work by bicycle.
  2. Yesterday, I updated an article about how the frequency of women in Chicago bicycling to work is decreasing.
  3. Today, I started updating the November Minnesota article to include the 2007-2009 3-year estimates from the American Community Survey (which shows that bicycling to work is growing faster in Minneapolis than Chicago). View the rudimentary spreadsheet. Bottom line: MPLS jumped from 3.55% bike mode share to 4.14% and Chicago only went from 1.04% to 1.13% (but again, only counting employed people!). Can we get some recession job statistics?
  4. Unemployment rate in Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, MN-WI MSA is 6.5%; Chicago-Joliet-Naperville, IL-IN-WI MSA is 9.0%. See the table on Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But now I must pause and look at what I’m analyzing.

Someone pointed out in the comments on Chicago bicycling (and working) women that the sample size is low and the margin of error high meaning it’s hard to make accurate interpretations of the change in ridership from year to year. He suggested increasing the sample size.

Add this to the fact that the Census Bureau only collects data on trips to WORK and not everywhere else that people go daily. In this recession, fewer people are working. In fact, perhaps women lost their jobs more frequently than men. That could perhaps explain the drop in women bicycling to work. To increase the number of women bicycling to work, perhaps we just need to find more jobs for women. See points 3 and 4 above for evidence on the number of people who bicycle for transportation that we’re not counting.

After thinking these things over, my point is that gauging a city’s ridership based on Census Bureau home to work data is insufficient.

If these Phoenix bike riders aren’t going to work, they aren’t being counted.

To move from a bicycle subculture to a bicycle culture, we’ll need to know when we get there. We need a better picture on who is riding and for what purpose. CMAP rarely performs their household transportation survey (which gathers data on all trips on all modes and in many counties) and when they do, they don’t single out cities. In essence, Chicago doesn’t know where or why people are riding their bicycles (except for the limited and noisy information the Census or American Community Survey provides) – we have no good data!

Both New York City, New York, and Portland, Oregon, methodically perform bicycle counts annually. Both cities also count ridership on their bridges: Portland has at least 5 to count, NYC has over 10 (also called a screenline count). They can report how many people are riding bikes on the street, blind to their trip purpose and destination. It’s easy to note changes in ridership when you count all trips over work trips.

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