Just how many people bike to work? It's tough to tell.
Before rain began soaking the Washington metropolitan area more than 15,000 people were expected to participate in local Bike to Work Day festivities, after last year’s record-setting 14,000 cyclists.
Even though just a fraction of D.C. commuters get to work by bike on a daily basis, the number has swelled over the past decade. The U.S. Census says 3.1 percent of commuters in the District bicycle to work, up from 1.2 percent in 2000. Those figures tell only part of the biking success story, though.
But in a city where bicycling infrastructure continues to expand — where growing numbers of new residents live car-free or car-light — advocates contend that bicyclists are under counted, leading to a disproportionately low investment in protected cycle tracks and other initiatives.
Data is missing
The District Department of Transportation has an idea of how many people bike not only to work but for all trips, however imprecise. In addition to Census data, DDOT manually counts cyclists at 30 locations across the city and plans to install automated bike counters at three locations by the end of the year.
The current counting forms a mosaic through which planners target parts of the District for improvements. For instance, DDOT knows more than 300 cyclists per hour use the 15th Street NW protected bike lane, also called a cycle track. It recently was repaved and painted after years of deterioration. But advocates argue non-work trips largely are ignored in the process, depriving regional planners of a clear picture of bicycling demand.
“There are a lot of people getting around on bikes for things other than work, going to the restaurant, going to the movies, trips that are important for economic generation and good for the city. But they are not getting counted,” said Shane Farthing, who runs the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, in an interview along 15th St. bike lane.
“If we actually got that full accounting we would start to have our elected officials look at this and say, why are we spending two, three percent of our transportation budget on bikes when we have this enormous number of people want to be biking? It would help overcome that presumption that most people are getting around by car,” he added.
Precise counting difficult
Bicyclists are like any commuters; they respond to incentives: build bike lanes and people will use them because the demand exists. Although DDOT contends many city streets already are bike-friendly, the agency has recorded huge jumps in bicycling where it has installed protected (from vehicular traffic) cycle tracks.
“We’ve seen increases of 200 percent, 300 percent. We always get a little boost with a regular bike lane but a protected cycle track really draws people in,” said Jim Sebastian, a District bike planner, referring to specific streets.
District-wide bicycling has increased 10 to 20 percent per year since DDOT began manual counts in 2004, Sebastian said.
“We’ve also done some specific counts and surveys in certain neighborhoods with the Council of Governments. One neighborhood, Logan Circle, has about 12 percent of people biking to work.”
While cyclists are undercounted, arriving at a total figure is almost impossible, he said.
“We have a lot of different ways to find out what is going on. There are phone surveys, we have automated counters that we will be putting in, we have the manual counts,” Sebastian said.
“The automated counters will help, but that won’t tell you what everyone is doing everyday on a bike.”
WABA’s Shane Farthing said a comprehensive, region-wide study is necessary.
"Once we can actually get a sense of the number of trips being taken, and the value of those trips, we can start to actually get a proper level of investment in bike infrastructure.”
Work trips – car, transit, bike, or walk – are about 25 percent of all the trips an individual makes on a daily basis.
“One trip is as good as another.”