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The Humphrey School of Public Affairs is the University of
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State and Local Policy Program

Basic Facts About Bicycling in Minnesota and the U.S.

Much of this information is taken from chapter 1 of Economic Benefits of Bicycling in Minnesota. It contains extra information about Minnesota and the Twin Cities because this is the context in which the research was done. To see a short discussion of the data sources, click here.

How often do people ride bikes?

Various answers have been given to this question; this is in part because there is a great deal of variation from one place to another, and in part because different surveys measure over different lengths of time. More people will ride a bike over the course of a week than will ride on any given day, for example. The table below shows averages and ranges for various time periods. We calculated the “% per day” and “% per week” numbers based on travel diary surveys; the others are taken from published reports.

The unit of measurement here is the percent of the adult population who reported riding a bike during the time period under consideration.

Measures of Adult Bicycling Frequencies

Source and Area

Measure

Average

Range

TBI, Twin Cities MSA

% per day

1.4%

-

NHTS , U.S. Total

0.9%

-

NHTS, US MSAs

-

0.2% - 2.4%

NHTS, US States

-

0.0% - 2.2%

NHTS , U.S. Total

% per week

6.7%

-

NHTS, US MSAs

-

4.5% - 12.7%

NHTS, US States

-

3.5% - 12.4%

Rodale

% per month

-

16.6% - 21.2%

BTS

% per summer

27%

Rodale

% per year

37% - 46%

NSGA

% 6 times per year

10.7%

-

Mn/DOT

% that ever ride

50%

-

 

In the TBI about half of the people who ride bikes in a given day are children (<18 years old). Children are 4 times as likely to ride in a given day than are adults (5.5% to 1.4%). Since they are about 20% of the total population, they generate about the same number of daily cyclists as the much larger adult population. Very similar percentages arise from the Minnesota sample in the NHTS, and nationally the numbers are about 5.0% of children and 0.9% of adults.

Bicycling Frequency by Age

Age

% who cycle (day) (TBI)

% who cycle (6x/year) (NSGA)

7-11

4.6

48.1

12-17

6.0

30.5

18-24

2.9

10.4

25-34

2.5

14.7

35-44

2.4

15.3

45-54

1.6

9.0

55-64

1.3

7.2

65+

0.3

4.7

 

Another way of asking the question is to think about the frequency with which particular people ride. That is, some people ride almost every day, while others may ride only once a year. The following table, derived from trial and error, gives a distribution of frequencies that is roughly consistent with the overall number of people who ride over the various time periods as shown in the table above.

Possible Population Distribution of Bicycling Frequencies

Frequency of cycling

% of adults

3 of every 4 days

0.1%

1 of every 2 days

0.2%

1 of every 4 days

0.5%

1 of every 10 days

1.2%

1 of every 20 days

3%

1 of every 50 days

10%

1 of every 100 days

15%

1 of every 200 days

20%

Never

50%

 

If everyone who ever rides is considered a “bicyclist,” then 2/3 of all bicyclists ride only about once every 100 days or less. Those who ride more than once every ten days are only about 4% of bicyclists, but account for nearly half of all the days of riding for the whole population. The cyclists at these two extremes likely have different preferences regarding the types of facilities that they prefer.

        How long and how far do people ride?     


There is a considerable range in the amount of time people spend riding bikes on the days when they ride. The TBI, looking at the Twin Cities, and the NHTS, looking at the U.S. as a whole, are roughly similar in the way in which the population breaks down into different daily bicycling durations. These ranges are self-reported times, summed up for all rides on the person’s survey day; they may include some amount of off-bike or stoppage time.

Distribution of Total Daily Bicycling Duration, Adults

Total Daily Duration

TBI count

TBI % of total

NHTS count

NHTS % of total

0 - 14 min.

31

17.9

75

18.9

15-29 min.

32

18.5

92

23.2

30-44 min.

35

20.2

76

19.2

45-59 min.

19

11.0

47

11.9

60-89 min.

38

22.0

51

12.9

90 + min.

18

10.4

55

13.9

 

The NHTS also has self-reported distances; however, these seem extremely unreliable, as in very many cases they lead to non-credible average speeds. Perhaps a safer way to estimate distances is by assuming an average speed for people riding for different amounts of time; assuming that those riding for longer times are probably also going at higher speeds.

Speed and Distance by Total Daily Duration

Average Daily Duration

Percent of total bicyclists

Assumed average speed

Total daily mileage

5 min.

18

8

0.7

20 min.

18

10

3.3

35 min.

20

10

5.8

50 min.

11

12

10.0

70 min.

22

14

16.3

120 min.

10

14

28.0

 

An interesting point here is that the 10% who ride for more than 90 minutes in a day are riding nearly as many total miles as all the other bicyclists put together. Again, there may be a difficult discrepancy, for policy purposes, between the cycling preferences of the typical person and those of the people who are actually doing most of the riding.

Why do people ride?

The NBWS makes this point quite succinctly: “By and large, the data provide unambiguous evidence that bicycling is overwhelmingly considered a recreational pursuit” (5, p. 17). They cite seven different polls, in which recreation is the primary purpose of 55%-95% of bicyclists. Other “utilitarian” trip purposes, such as riding to work, school, or shopping, are in the range of 5%-20%. The Rodale poll, done in two different years (1992 and 1995) shows remarkable consistency in this area: in both years 82% of cyclists rode for recreation, 65% for fitness, about 16% for shopping, and about 8% to commute to work. (These are percentages derived from the roughly 28% who rode a bike in the last mild weather month.) Since respondents were obviously allowed to choose multiple trip purposes, these percentages can be taken as upper bounds on the number using bikes for various activities. Even some of the “utilitarian” trips might be motivated more by recreation or fitness considerations, given that many bike commuters are older and higher earning (as discussed later), and presumably do not need to ride to work to save money.

Commuting by bike

In the TBI about 1.1% of trips to work were made by bike. This is about the same number as report that bike is their “typical” mode to get to work. This is considerably higher than the 0.4% share from the 2000 census. Part of the answer is probably that the Twin Cities share is somewhat higher than the state average; it is especially high in the city of Minneapolis, about 2%. Similarly, in the NHTS the percent who commuted to work by bike on their survey day was about the same as the number who reported “usually” getting to work by bike (although it was not entirely the same people). In this national study the number was about 0.4%, which corresponds exactly with the national average from the census.

Although there is some belief that the census systematically underestimates the number of bicycle commuters because it asks only about the primary commute mode (which will miss those who might ride once a week), other evidence indicates that this is not a major source of bias. The evidence from the TBI and NHTS described above is fairly compelling. The Rodale survey indicates that of the 1.5% of the population that reported commuting by bike in a given month, that 30% of those commuted almost every day.

Frequent commuter cyclists sometimes use other modes; in the NHTS, about a third of those who reported bike as their “typical” mode to work did not ride a bike on their survey day. Infrequent riders add about enough trips to keep the overall average bike mode share, across all days, in the range of 0.4% nationwide. Certainly the number may be well above this on a particularly nice day, but over a long term average the census numbers are probably about right.

It is interesting to note that bicycle commuting may not remove that much traffic from the roads. In the NHTS, of those who reported bicycling as their typical commute mode, but who did not bike on their survey day, only about 40% drove cars instead. The others walked, rode transit, or rode in a car with someone else.

Gender of bicyclists

In the TBI about 61% of the bike riders are male, 39% female. This is true for both adults and children. This corresponds exactly with the BTS findings nationally, of people who rode at least once during the summer. In the NHTS, 67% of those who reported riding on their diary day were male, as were about 61% of those who reported riding in the last week. Again, this is consistent across both adults and children. The NSGA respondents who rode at least six times in the last year are 56% male. NBWS cites several other studies, almost all of which are somewhere in this range. For commuting the difference is even greater; in Minnesota men are three times as likely to commute by bike as women are.

Income and education of bicyclists

About 10% of households that don’t own a motorized vehicle make bike trips in a given day, compared to 4% of vehicle-owning households. However, non-car owning households are often older people, who are generally much less likely to bike. Among households with at least one person under 45 years of age, 22% of non-car owners made bike trips. While such households are only a little over 1% of the total, these benefits of basic mobility can be of considerable significance to them.

Otherwise, the likelihood of making bike trips is only slightly correlated with income, it is slightly higher for low-income households, but not dramatically so. In both NHTS and NSGA, the rate of biking actually gets higher as income rises. In NSGA it is a steady rise, while in NHTS it is very high at the lowest income level, then drops and holds steady though much of the range, then rises significantly at the highest income levels. NBWS reports on a study of bike commuting in which the highest rates occurred at the lowest incomes, then the rate steadily declined until spiking up again at the highest income category.

Among adults, college-educated people are about twice as likely to ride a bike on a given day as those with high-school educations, according to the TBI. This is consistent with findings of the Mn/DOT omnibus survey, which found that higher income, degreed individuals were more likely to bike for health purposes. In the NHTS the difference is slightly less significant but still large; about 9% of college-educated adults in the U.S. ride in a week compared to about 5.5% with high school or less. This factor may explain much of the spike in riding at the higher income levels described in the previous paragraph.

Land use and bicycling

More significantly, in the NHTS, the fraction of adults who bike in a given week is 7.6% in the state’s small metro areas, 7.1% in the Twin Cites metro, and 7.6% for those who do not live in a metropolitan area. While the precise numbers need to be taken with caution because the sample is so small, the general point that there is no urban bias seems clear enough. The higher rate of bike commuting in the Twin Cities does not carry over into a higher rate of riding in general because commuting is such a small share of the total. And it could be that the types of conditions that make bike commuting attractive do not have the same impact on recreational riding.

In the U.S. as a whole there is also no relationship between the degree of urbanization and the probability of riding a bike. In non-metro areas the rate is 5.5%, and in the five sizes of metro, the rate ranges from 6.5% to 7.5%, with no correlation between the rate of riding and the size of the city.

Facility use and preferences

According to the BTS, about 60% of adult riding is on paved roads, 13% on sidewalks, 5% bike lanes, 13% trails, and 7% unpaved/other. This reflects the relative availability of the various options.

The more experienced cyclists in the Moritz survey show generally similar patterns. Minor streets with no facilities are used 45% of the time (compared to 44% and 58% in two other studies that he references), major streets with no facilities are 32% (26% and 35% in the other studies). Signed bike routes, on-street lanes, and off-road paved trails are 6-7% each; off road unpaved trails are 4% and sidewalks 0.5%. Multiuse trails are used for 17% of total riding in a study from Washington state that he cites. The much lower use of sidewalks by experienced cyclists is a point of interest here.

Davis does counts broken down by both facility type and degree of urbanization. This makes it possible to get at both the total amount by facility type, and the intensity of use by facility type, as well as the impact of urbanization. In this study the total use by type is 25% off road path, 4% on road lane, 37% minor street (<5000 ADT), 34% major street. The counts in the latter two categories include people riding on adjacent sidewalks. These numbers are broadly consistent with the two studies cited above, except for the very high usage of off-road paths, probably due to the very high density of such facilities in the Twin Cities area.

Average daily counts by facility type and location type give an idea of the intensity of use. Because of the small sample in each cell, the specific numbers should be taken with caution; still, interesting patterns can be observed.

Bicycle Counts by Facility Type, Urbanization (from Davis)

Off-road

On-road

Low traffic

High traffic

University

410

570

153

362

Other Urban

334

130

31

178

Suburban

58

16

14

23

Exurban/Rural

137

8

3

15

Total

187

94

38

78