The US Census Dept. just released the results of the 2011 American Community Survey, and the number of people reporting they biked to work in Madison dropped from 6% to 4.7%. Milwaukee continued its trend of small steady increases in the number of people who bike to work. Since the 2000 Census, Milwaukee has seen a 227% increase. Over that same period, Madison has seen a 147% increase, even though the number of people riding to work actually decreased from 2010 to 2011.
The image to the right shows the actual question on the American Community Survey, which only asks about one week, not people’s general preferred way to get to work. You can see by the way the question is asked in the survey that the weather could play a dramatic role in shifting the results. Years in which LAST WEEK was cold and wet the numbers would be way down, and years in which the weather was pleasant LAST WEEK would higher numbers of people checking the box for Bicycle. The chart below shows the data for Milwaukee and Madison since the 2000 Census.
I attribute Milwaukee’s big increases in 2007 and 2008 to the 30 miles of new bike lanes they added those years. In 2007 Milwaukee added 30 miles and repainted them in the Spring of 2008. Going from 15 miles to 45 miles of bike lanes was really noticeable and combined with good weather, could have caused the big jump. Those bike lanes did fade quite a bit after that because they were not maintained. In recent years Milwaukee purchased an new long line paint truck, and they have done a better job of maintaining bike lanes. They have also continued to add them as part of regular road resurfacing projects.
I am not sure why Madison showed a big drop last year, but I included journey to work data for motorcycles as well because one could assume that would be similarly affected by bad weather. Note that the number of people who reported they used a motorcycle to get to work in that week in 2011 dropped even more than the bike commuting mode share. We don’t know exactly when people are surveyed, but based on the drop in motorcycle commuters, I suspect Madison had a bad weather week.
A much better way to look at trends in bicycle use is by doing electronic bicycle counts. Madison has counters installed in some of their bike paths and on the University Avenue contra-flow bike lane. Portland recently installed a fancy new counter with a visual display on the Hawthorne Bridge. It records more than 7,000 people riding bicycles across the bridge every day. Copenhagen is famous for their visual bike counters, which record more bikes than cars on the roads where they are installed.