Chart of the day, NYC biking edition

By Felix Salmon
December 10, 2011


This is a chart of the number of bike commuters in New York. It’s known as the NYC Commuter Cycling Indicator, and it comes from surveys taken ten times per year at predetermined points around the city. It doesn’t give a good count of the number of bike commuters in New York, but it gives an excellent idea of the trends: bike commuting has essentially quadrupled in the past decade, and has doubled over the past four years. Which just happen to be the four years during which Janette Sadik-Khan has run the Department of Transportation.

This is important because it shows just how effective strong leadership can be, when combined with a dedication to creating good infrastructure. And if you delve a bit into the numbers behind the indicator, this comes out even more clearly. For instance: in 2007, the Queensboro Bridge saw an average of 1,292 cyclists per day, about 80% of the 1,626 cyclists per day on the Brooklyn Bridge. By 2011, the Queensboro number had shot up to 2,904 bikers per day — 25% more than the 2,322 cyclists crossing the Brooklyn Bridge. That’s entirely a function of the fact that the Brooklyn Bridge is unpleasant for cyclists, despite the fact that by dint of its location it should be one of the busiest bike corridors in the city.

The lesson of this chart, then, is that if you build bike lanes, cyclists will appear to fill them. That’s fantastic news, since cities with lots of cyclists are always the most pleasant cities to live and work in — even for people who don’t bike themselves. New York City has a long way to go before it can be considered genuinely bike-friendly. But it’s moving in the right direction, and the bike-sharing scheme to be launched next year will provide a massive boost. Let’s hope that now Sadik-Khan has provided the necessary momentum, her successors embrace and extend what she has started.


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Sadik-Khan has advised the City of Sydney on building out its network of dedicated cycle paths… s/meet-the-woman-who-closed-down?page=5& commentId=1321712%3AComment%3A216990&x=1 #1321712Comment216990 sydney/parkingandtransport/cycling/Cycli ngMapsAndRoutes.asp

…to both howls of angst from the ‘Happy Motoring’ crowd, and a huge wave of increased usage by Sydneysiders who……

got on their bikes! Sydney

Posted by crocodilechuck | Report as abusive

2904 bike commuters daily out of roughly what, a million commuters to manhattan from queens? (queens population is roughly 2.4MM, and geographically i’d expect almost all bike commuters from queens to manhattan to take the queensboro bridge over.) that’s what, 0.1% of all commuter trips. it’s nice, i suppose, but largely insignificant.

Posted by q_is_too_short | Report as abusive

oops, i should have said 0.3% above – my math mistake

Posted by q_is_too_short | Report as abusive

2008 coincides with the Great Recession. Perhaps people are biking because they can’t afford to drive.

Posted by HughLoebner | Report as abusive

If you want a city with a control period, look to San Francisco. There was a court injunction that prevented new bike infrastructure from being built. I’m pretty sure cycling increased, but I don’t know how the rate compared to before or after the injunction.

I would expect cycling rates to be exponential at some rate, since seeing bikes on the street definitely encourages people to do it themselves. That might be part of the trend on the graph as well.

It’s also interesting to notice the political clout of cyclists grow at relatively small numbers. It turns out that people will care when government is deciding truly life/death decisions.

Posted by AngryInCali | Report as abusive

Do you think the spike in energy prices may have played a role there?

Bicycle ridership also went way up in places with no ‘leadership’ and very little new infrastructure.

Posted by RobertHurst | Report as abusive

Indeed, bike commuting is generally up everywhere in the past few years, for a variety of reasons. High energy prices, and increased spending on infrastructure, and also lower accident rates. Better infrastructure=safer rides. Not to diminish JSK’s role as an advocate, since making anything useful happen in New York can be a Herculean task. And, q, Other surveys put NYC’s bike commuter rate at about .6 percent. Which puts it about 40th in the US metro areas. The numbers Felix quotes above are about what we get on a good day here in Cambridge.

Posted by MacCruiskeen | Report as abusive

“The lesson of this chart, then, is that if you build bike lanes, cyclists will appear to fill them.”

Correction: if you build QUALITY bike lanes, that are and feel safe to riders, and are part of a complete network that gets people where they want to go…

Posted by aerligtalt3 | Report as abusive

I wonder if this is a reflection on state and cost of public transportation.

Posted by Sechel | Report as abusive

q, I doubt one million people commute from Queens to Manhattan every day. The Queens population is 2.23 million according to the census. Nearly half of them are too young to work or retired (although admittedly a some students and retirees might study in Manhattan or visit Manhattan for other reasons). Then you have a significant number of “housewives/househusbands” or unemployed people who don’t need to go to Manhattan every day. Then you have all the people who work for the government in Queens, such as police, firefighters, teachers, etc. Then you have all the small businesses, or even chain businesses such as grocery stores, restaurants, etc. Then you have the people who work at the airports, at companies based in Queens, etc. Then you have the Queens residents who work in some borough other than Manhattan, or even outside the city. Do you think that still leaves you with one million who commute to Manhattan? I would be surprised, but I’m open to looking at more detailed statistics. But my guess would be half a million at most. Does that still make the fraction of cyclist commuters to Manhattan very small? Yes, but it’s growing, and can keep growing for a while. I don’t expect it will ever get close to 100%.

(Some people crossing the Queensboro Bridge might come from beyond Queens. They live farther and are thus even less likely to commute by bicycle…)

Posted by qrt145 | Report as abusive

I’m going to have to cry foul here–I support JSK, but Felix can’t seriously think that the data backs up his claims.

For example, Felix claims that the Brooklyn Bridge should be among the busiest bike corridors in the city–maybe this would be true if it wasn’t old, narrow, and filled with tourists. Instead, there is a much better biking bridge immediately next to it, the Manhattan Bridge, that has had the most traffic growth of any of the New York bridges. The reason the Brooklyn Bridge hasn’t kept pace with the Queensboro is because commuters are taking the bridge right next to it.

JSK is an inspiring bike commissioner, but the highest YoY increase began several months after she took office. I’m skeptical that the increase in bike usage can be entirely ascribed to her actions (in the same way that Guiliani wasn’t wholly responsible for NYC’s drop in crime). Bicycling seems to be becoming more popular around the country. And the main alternative to biking in New York is the very effective public transit system, so bicycling isn’t a huge cost saver–it’s just a way to get some exercise on the way to work in the morning.

Posted by MKCurious | Report as abusive

I would’ve liked to see you overlay the price of oil/gasoline on that chart (and maybe add a line for the price of a subway ride). I’d be it looks awfully similar! While bike lanes certainly help the cause, the proximate cause of the increase in bike commutes, and the proliferation of bike lanes is IMO the spike in the cost of transportation.

Posted by offpeak34 | Report as abusive

While Janette certainly helped contribute to it..I think your chart shows a false correlation. The arrow could also point to September 12, 2006 when then-Commission Iris Weinshall announced the plan to build the 200 miles of bike lanes, a commitment Janette inherited when she was appointed commissioner: f/pr06_50.pdf

Posted by quinctilius | Report as abusive

Giving Weinshall too much credit for anything bike related is bad form. While working for NYC’s biggest bike lobby during both her tenure and the start of the JSK tenure, I can say the turnaround was night and day. We literally had to fight Iris tooth and nail for any improvements. When JSK came in, she hired half the advocacy community to be deputy commissioners and top advisors. We used to joke that JSK was either seriously committed to a new vision for New York, or it was a sinister plot to defang the advocacy community by getting them to work for the man!

Caution on using San Francisco as a control group: while it’s true lifting the injunction created a very clear moment of change and the city has begun a sharrows and striping binge, the parallels should stop with the paint. SF’s new lanes are substandard and not safe (here the SFMTA will crow about its lane widths, but as a regular rider, they suck), except for a marginal stretch of Market Street, where they’ve made some innovations. Valencia, the most popular corridor, still leaves one fending with doors opening into the bike lane, creating a none-too-comfortable feeling and leaving cyclists vulnerable. Until SF embraces separated lanes, it will continue to shun the most critical new and old cyclists, the 8-80 bunch.

Posted by MatthewAlmon | Report as abusive

MatthewAimon – I certainly understand the stark difference between the two, I’d wager better than you. My point was not to give Iris credit for the transformation, simply to point out that the arrival of Janette and the improvements for cycling are not necessarily causal. Iris despised and despises cycling. But Dan Doctoroff, former Deputy Mayor, didn’t. And the commitment to the so often lauded 200-miles came before Janette arrived.

The quality of the bicycle infrastructure is an entirely different matter and something for which Janette’s drive deserves enormous credit.

Posted by quinctilius | Report as abusive

I certainly remember the hundreds of New Yorkers leaving NYC on foot 9/11/01 after the two planes crashed into the World Trade Center towers. Those New Yorkers could have escaped the dust and smoke faster on bicycles and negotiated traffic jams by bike better than by car.

Posted by mariaconzemius | Report as abusive