San Francisco, Oakland Move up National List of Bicycle Commuting Cities

A cyclist on Market Street in San Francisco, now ranked 4th in the nation for bicycle commuting. Photo: Myleen Hollero/Orange Photography
A cyclist on Market Street in San Francisco, now ranked 4th in the nation for bicycle commuting. Photo: ##http://www.orangephotography.com/##Myleen Hollero/Orange Photography##.

Despite a four-year bicycle injunction starting in 2006, San Francisco’s share of bicycle commuting has risen, lifting the city to 4th on the League of American Bicyclists’ (LAB) list of 70 largest American cities, while Oakland rose two spaces to 5th. The list is compiled each year from data collected by the Census Bureau as part of its American Community Survey (ACS).

“I’m proud that San Francisco continues to be a leader in promoting bicycling as a healthy, sustainable transportation alternative,” said Mayor Gavin Newsom. “With the safer and more inviting bike network we’re creating throughout the City, more and more San Franciscans will start bicycling.”

San Francisco’s 10 percent increase and Oakland’s 18 percent increase in bicycle commuting in 2009 came during a year when the number one and number two bicycle-commuting cities in the country, Portland, Oregon, and Minneapolis, Minnesota, respectively, lost bicycle mode share relative to other forms of transportation. Despite these drops, Portland and Minneapolis are still far ahead of the Bay Area, with 5.81 percent of Portlanders bicycle commuting and 3.86 percent in the Twin Cities. Compare that to San Francisco’s 2.98 percent and Oakland’s 2.53 percent.

These numbers should seem low to those who ride regularly on Market Street in San Francisco during commute hours, where cyclists have been the majority of the street’s users the past several Bike to Work Days. Overall bicycle usage in cities is actually harder to measure than the very specific commuting percentages would suggest, because ACS data collection under-counts cyclists, according to LAB. From their website:

Workers were asked to list only the means of transportation they used on the largest number of days in that week. This means that if the respondent rode a bicycle to work two days but drove three, they would not be counted as a cyclist. Likewise, workers were asked only for the means of transportation used for the longest distance during the trips. If someone biked one mile to a bus stop and rode the bus for two miles they would not be recorded as a bicyclist.

Both the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition (SFBC) and the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), which is responsible for adding new bike lanes, echoed LAB’s sentiment and highlighted the large growth they expected now that the injunction has been lifted and bicycle infrastructure is being added at a relatively rapid clip.

“Bicycle commuting has increased in San Francisco 61 percent since 2006,” said Nathaniel P. Ford Sr., Executive Director/CEO of the SFMTA. “We are committed to doing the work needed to keep the number of bicyclists growing in the years ahead.”

The SFMTA suggested the year-on-year increase in cycling despite the lack of new infrastructure could be an indicator that the rate in bicycle commuting will surge with new lanes and more racks. Since November 2009, when Judge Peter J. Busch modified the 2006 injunction on the Bicycle Plan to allow a limited number of bike lane projects and other improvements, the SFMTA has added eleven new bike lanes, over 1,900 sharrows, 400 sidewalk bike racks, five on-street “bike corrals,” a green lane  on Fell Street and a fully separated green lane on portions of Market Street.

While the SFBC commended the recent surge in infrastructure, they called on the city to do more.

“We know that 7 in 10 San Franciscans rode a bike last year, from parents dropping their kids at daycare to workers heading downtown to families exploring the city,” said Renée Rivera, SFBC’s acting executive director. “We also heard Mayor Newsom say he wants San Francisco to be the number one U.S. city for bicycling, and we hope he keeps this promise by completing the Market Street bikeway and other improvements, which will help people feel confident, comfortable and safe when they bike.”

  • I was one such person that started commuting by bike. However, I only do it once/week (at most) because I don’t feel safe with the lack of bike lanes. Add more bike lines, and it’ll be more like 2-3 times/week.

  • angela

    this is great news for SF and OAK! but we also have a long way to go compared to other bike friendly cities.

    i would love to see some improvements in the outer mission/excelsior districts in SF.

  • Nate

    Awesome! Glad to hear the mayor’s enthusiasm–the more bike-friendly SF becomes, the more bikers it will attract, for a true “critical mass.”

  • smushmoth

    Even on “Bike to Work Day” the majority of the “street users” of Market Street are on Buses not Bikes. (this coming from a 5 day a weeker, in a company where a full 40% rides in on a daily basis)

  • While I’m glad more people are riding their bikes in San Francisco (and nationwide) all these numbers are still in the paltry single digits and so not quite anything to celebrate yet.

    I also question the emphasis on commuters as if that’s the only bicycling that’s important. In fact, commuting in the Bay Area accounts for only 22% of all weekday trips. (6% on weekends.) I was glad Renee Rivera mentioned parents dropping their children off at daycare, but this still omits vast numbers of other types of bicycling opportunities. Taken all together, trips for shopping, social/recreation, and transport to school far overshadow commuting trips, perhaps not in miles but in sheer number of cars they put on the road. Any bicycle survey worth its salt would tabulate the percentage of all trips taken each week that were made by bike.

    Nationally, 25% of all trips are less than a mile and 40% are less than 2 miles. I bet those numbers are even higher for San Francisco. Rather than just focusing on the number of bicycle commuters, I would say that a city has a successful sustainable culture if 75% of these short trips are by bicycle, walking, or even transit rather than by car. (Such a culture would also be successful at reducing traffic congestion and health care costs.)

    Because all these little trips add up, what we need is a new mindset. Need a load of bread? Take your bicycle! Going out to dinner? Ride your bike! Choosing a school, a doctor, a hairdresser, a yoga class? Pick one within walking or biking distance from your house! Live up a hill? Get an electric bike! Frustrated that there are no bicycle lanes in your neighborhood or along the routes you take? Write your city supervisor weekly!

  • taomom, well put as always.

  • The SFMTA does measure overall bicycle mode share. In the most recent Bicycle Report (available from their web site as a PDF) it was 6%, which is pretty good for a large American city. The plan is to remeasure every couple of years, a very important policy as it provides real data to measure against goals.

  • Dbarchitect,

    An interesting statistic. Thanks for digging it out. After perusing the report, it looks like that 6% number is from a survey done in the spring of 2008. It appears no follow up survey ever happened. (Maybe the MTA has one up their sleeve?) The mode share number is for all trips with no data broken out by length of trip, so no way to determine mode share for trips under 2 miles.

    Though the 6% number is now two and a half years old, it’s certainly better than nothing. There’s also good info on that report on why people in SF don’t bike more. Would be interesting to see if any of those reasons have changed as well.

    http://www.sfmta.com/cms/rbikes/documents/2008SFStateofCyclingReport.pdf

  • cyclotronic

    I remember when Willie Brown got on TV to call open season for motorists on ALL cyclists because critical mass ignored his dictates. Irresponsible and unforgivable.

    Gavin rules.

  • Robin

    I have to chuckle when I hear people say they don’t bike because SF streets aren’t “safe”. I’m visiting Berlin now which is about as bike-friendly as you can get, yet still not %100 safe. No place is. I never hear people who say: ” I would drive a car but it’s not completely safe”. After all about 40,000 Americans die in car crashes every year. Come on folks. There’s always a risk no matter how you travel. Just get on your bike. You’ll be OK. San Francisco streets are as “safe” as it gets.

  • It’s true that driving in a car is the most dangerous activity most people do each day and that they largely underestimate this risk. It’s also true that no form of transportation, even walking, will ever be 100% safe. But the fact is that good bicycle infrastructure does make a difference in terms of safety and people’s willingness to bicycle. Consider a comparison to the Netherlands, home of the best bicycle infrastructure in the world, for example:

    Percent of trips made by bicycle:
    US – 1% (San Francisco 6%)
    Netherlands — 27% (Amsterdam 38%)
    Percent of bicycle trips made by women:
    US—24%
    Netherlands—55%
    Percent of children and teen trips made by bike:
    US—3.2%
    Netherlands—35%
    Percent of trips by people over 40 made by bike:
    US–.4%
    Netherlands—24%
    Fatal injury rate per 100 million km cycled
    USA—5.8
    Netherlands—1.1
    Nonfatal injury rate per 100 million km cycled
    USA—37.5
    Netherlands—1.4

    (Note: low injury rate is not due to personal safety gear. Percentage of adult bicyclists in the Netherlands that wear helmets: less than 1%. Percentage of child bicyclists in the Netherlands that wear helmets: 3–5%)

    I wish I knew the San Francisco fatality rate per 100 million km cycled. I know that there was one bicycle fatality in 2007. This year I believe there have so far been two. But how many kilometers have we all, together, put on our roads?

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