During recent years — and before the coronavirus pandemic sent most people sheltering in place — bike commuting rose significantly in cities across the country, but especially in cities with bicycle-sharing programs, according to new research.
The study estimates that during the past decade, bike-sharing programs increased the average bike-commuting rate in urban communities by about 20 percent.
That finding surprised the study’s author, Dafeng Xu, an assistant professor at the University of Washington’s Evans School of Public Policy and Governance in Seattle.
“Historically, the U.S. is not a ‘bicycle country’ compared to European or Asian countries, but even in the U.S., it seems that bicycle commuting has great potential,” he wrote in an e-mail exchange with MinnPost. Xu is a former postdoctoral researcher at the University of Minnesota’s Minnesota Population Center, where his work on the current study began.
Although around for decades in Europe, bike-sharing programs — ones that allow the public to rent a bike on a short-term basis for a small fee — took off in the United States in 2010, when five cities launched their programs with a total of 2,000 bikes. Just six years later, those numbers had exploded, with 56 cities offering more than 40,000 bikes.
Several cities in Minnesota have bike-sharing programs, including Minneapolis and St. Paul. Last year, Twin Citians logged about 350,000 trips between April and November through Nice Ride Minnesota, a nonprofit bike-sharing program.
Bicycling — whether on a public or private bike — offers commuters mental as well as physical health benefits. A 2018 study found, for example, that people who use a bicycle for transport not only perceive their general health as being better, they also have lower stress levels, better mental health, greater vitality and fewer feelings of loneliness than those using other forms of transportation.
Xu wanted to see what effect city bike-sharing programs might be having on commuting rates across the country.
For the study, Xu combed through data, including commuting statistics, collected by the Census Bureau from 193 cities for the years 2008-2016, a period that included two years before the launch of bike sharing in the U.S. He then looked at bike-sharing data (compiled by the National Association of City Transportation Officials) from 38 U.S. cities (including the Twin Cities) with such programs. He focused on trips logged during the morning and evening rush hours. By comparing the two sets of data, Xu was able to estimate how much the bike-sharing programs were being used by people to commute to and from work.
Bike commuting increased and car commuting decreased in bike-sharing and non-bike-sharing cities alike during the nine years of the study, but those trends were stronger in cities with the programs.
In 2008, in the 38 cities that would soon launch bike-sharing programs, 66 percent of commuters drove to work, about 1 percent biked and 22 percent took mass transit. In other cities, 88 percent of commuters drove, less than 1 percent biked and 4 percent took mass transit.
By 2016 — after bike-sharing programs had been launched — 59 percent of commuters in the cities with the programs drove to work, 1.7 percent biked and 26 percent took mass transit. In the cities without those programs, 83 percent drove, about 1 percent biked and 6 percent took mass transit.
Generally, the larger the bike-sharing program, the bigger the increase in bike commuting. Also, the programs appear to have the greatest effect on commuters who live in central areas of cities and who have a relatively short commute.
Of course, many factors — including the creation of better bike lanes — have played a role in encouraging more people to commute by bike. Xu estimates, however, that bike sharing contributes about 20 percent of the increase seen in bike-sharing cities.
Limitations and implications
The study comes with caveats. It covered a relatively short period of time. Different trends might be observed over a longer time frame. In addition, the study looked only at biking for commuting, not for other purposes, although Xu says in the paper that he suspects the results would be similar.
Still, the findings are interesting. Other research has shown that commuting is the most common reason people use bike-sharing programs. Many of those individuals previously drove to work, studies have also found.
“Bicycle commuting might sound less popular in a car-centric country like the U.S., but it actually has a similar potential like other countries, and bikeshare appears to be a wonderful way to promote it,” said Xu.
“It works well mainly in cities with denser networks of bikeshare stations (not necessarily big cities) and with specific bike lanes, so for transportation planners and officials, introducing bikeshare is only the first step,” he added. “But it really helps that public policies could make bikeshare and bicycle commuting easily accessible, convenient, and safe through infrastructure construction like the establishment of bike lanes.”
It’s unclear how the coronavirus pandemic will affect bicycle commuting, although there are signs that bicycling in general has jumped in popularity in recent weeks, perhaps due to people’s anxiety about using public transportation. As the New York Times reported on Monday, U.S. sales of bicycles and related equipment doubled in March from the same time last year, and by the end of April, many bicycle stores and distributors across the country reported that they had sold out of low-end consumer bikes.
Xu believes that trend will continue. “Bicycle commuting is a better ‘social-distancing’ tool compared to bus and light rail,” he said, “so besides the shift from auto to bike (which has been observed), there might be more people converting from public transportation to bicycle commuting as well.”
“This increases the ‘pool’ of bikeshare users in the long run,” he added.