Bicycle commuting is on the rise, albeit from a low base, according to data from the American Community Survey. In Washington, DC, commuting by bicycle has more than doubled over the past decade from 1.2 percent of commuters to 3.1 percent. Portland, OR, claims the largest share of bicycle commuters in the country—a share that has grown rapidly from 1.8 percent in 2000 to 6.0 percent in 2010.
Among Bicycle Friendly Communities, as defined by the League of American Bicyclists, commuting by bike is more common. The League awards the “Bicycle Friendly” designation to cities that encourage bicycling and provide “safe accommodation for cycling,” in part through public policies. Portland received a platinum award in 2011, while DC earned silver.
So, bike-friendly policies may encourage more cyclists or it may be that cities with lots of cyclists are more likely to enact bike-friendly policies. Either way, the policies that cities enact can facilitate the trend. DC has added bike lanes to many streets. National Capital Bike Share makes bicycles available at strategic points around the city, giving residents easy access to bikes for short trips around town or for commuting to and from work. Similar programs have sprung up in many cities across the country (including Portland) and the world (for example, in Paris, France). And for good reason: bicycle commuting can lead to reduced pollution, less traffic congestion, and improved fitness. It can also be faster than other ways of commuting. The National Bike Summit was held in DC, March 20-23, to bring attention to ways that national policy can support bike-friendly communities.
Over time, traffic in DC may resemble more bike-friendly cities abroad. I remember watching rush hour from my hotel window in Bamako, Mali, some 25 years ago. Streams of bicycles mixed with a smattering of mopeds, a few real motorcycles, and an occasional car or truck—all crossing the river into the capital city as the sun came up. Pedestrians walked along the sides of the bridge. Last year, I saw rush hour in Hanoi, Vietnam. The components were the same but the mix was different. Motorcycles dominated, cars and mopeds came next in about equal numbers, and a few brave bicyclists joined in. This morning’s rush hour in Washington, DC, was composed almost completely of cars, with very few motorized bikes of any sort. But I have been struck by the gradual increase in bicycles over the past couple of years. DC has nowhere near as many bicyclists as Hanoi does, but they are no longer the novelty they were when I moved here in 1981. Rush hour is evolving, if slowly, and that will be good for urban health.