17 January 2015

Where The Bicycle Commuters Are

You don't ride in this weather, do you?

I can't begin to count how many times I've heard that question, or some version of it, between Thanksgiving and Easter.  

Granted, I don't ride as much during the months of short days and long cold spells as I do when flowers bloom and leaves begin to fall.  But I still ride to work most days during the winter.  I don't mind cold: I don't mind wet, but a combination of the two might drive me to the N train.  In fact, so far this year, I've used the MTA only once, when wind drove snow and sleet during the time I would have been riding to work.

I'll also grant you that I don't do as many rides of 20km or more as I do in, say, June.  But I think that has more to do with the number of daylight hours than with the temperature. I don't avoid riding in the dark altogether, but I prefer to follow dawn and lead dusk.  Also, I feel more motivated to take a ride after work when there's still some daylight left.

I mention my riding habits because of something I came across that seemed, at first, counter-intuitive (at least to most non-cyclists): The US state in which the highest percentage of the population walks or cycles to work is Alaska, which has the nation's coldest weather.

In fact, America's Land of the Midnight Sun is one of five states in which more than five percent of the population commutes by bike or on foot.  If you guessed that California is one of them, you'd be wrong.  Move one state up the coast: Oregon.  That's not surprising when one considers Portland's reputation as one of the world's most bike-friendly cities.  The City of Roses is the only major area in any of the five states in question that has what most people would describe as a mild winter.

As for the other three states, only one probably wouldn't surprise you:  New York.  The Empire State's high percentage of people who get to work on two wheels or two feet is concentrated in my hometown, the Big Apple.  Even so, upstate cities such as Syracuse, Rochester and Albany have surprisingly high numbers of people who use their own power to get to the office or wherever they work.  That, even though upstate New York winters aren't the sort many people would call "mild". 

OK: Alaska, Oregon and New York.  So which are the other two?, you ask.  No, not Arizona or New Mexico.  Texas?  Actually, the Lone Star State has one of the lowest rates of cycling and walking to work.  Florida does a bit better, but not much.


The other two states in which more than five percent of the population cycles or walks to work are---wait---Vermont and Montana.  

I've never been to Montana, but I have an e-mail pal (What's a better term for the modern version of the pen-pal?) who has told me about waking up to -15C weather before Columbus Day.  Having ridden in the Green Mountain state in all parts of the year, I can tell you that there's a good reason why old-time  Vermonters joke that their state has two seasons:  winter and the season between Fourth of July and Labor Day.  

But, having spent a fair amount of time riding in Vermont, I'm not surprised to find it on the list:  Wherever I rode, I encountered other cyclists.  It's one of those rare places that both breeds and attracts independent spirits.  

More to the point, Vermonters' habits, and those of the cylo-commuters in New York, Oregon, Montana and Alaska underscore a point I've made in other posts, and which others with greater expertise than mine have confirmed:  How much--or, for that matter, whether--people pedal has very little to do with the weather or climate.

Just look at Europe:  the cities and countries with the most bike commuters are in the north:  think Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Malmo. That all but mirrors the pattern in the US.

Why is such the case?  Well, I think--as I have said in earlier posts--cycling thrives in areas where there's an infrastructure, if you will, of cycling.  I'm not talking about bike paths:  Rather, I think advocacy organizations for cyclists (as well as pedestrians and mass transportation) and other formal and informal networks do more to encourage people to get out of their cars.  

Even more important, I believe, is a consciousness of, and respect for, cyclists among those who are behind the while rather than on two.  That is what I found in France, Switzerland, Belgium and other parts of Europe in which I've ridden:  The drivers always seem to understand how much space you need, how quickly you can stop and start on a bike and carious other intricacies of cycling.  One reason is, I believe, that a driver is more likely to have a "double life", if you will, as a cyclist than someone who's plying American roads in an SUV.

I know, from experience, that to the extent that such consciousness can be found in the US, it present in New York and Vermont.  From what I've read and heard, it also exists in Oregon, Alaska and Montana.  And it's nowhere near as prevalent in other parts of the US in which I've ridden.


  1. I think you will find a strong correlation with AC and with small towns. AC came along after the car was ubiquitous and subsequent growth reflects that. Places like MT and WY and VT just never grew too much since horses and wagons went away. DFW is half the area of the Netherlands.

  2. The map you posted doesn't mention a source, but at first glance I suspected that it overstates the number of cycling commuters. However, a recent report by the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that about 1 percent of Montanans commute by bike, and 4 percent walk. Here's a link to the info:
    The same report mentions some pretty impressive cycle commuting numbers in Missoula and Bozeman, the state's two main college towns.