Richard Florida
by Richard Florida
Mon Jun 27th 2011 at 4:03pm UTC

Bicycling and the Wealth and Happiness of Cities

Riding a bike through a city, David Byrne wrote in his book Bicycle Diaries, “is like navigating the collective neural pathways of some vast global mind.” Biking, he adds, “facilitates a state of mind that allows some but not too much of the unconscious to bubble up. As someone who believes that much of the source of his work and creativity is to be gleaned from those bubbles, it’s a reliable place to find that connection.”

Cycling is one of my own great passions.  I like nothing more than to get on my road bike and just go. My bike is not just a great way to get around, it’s a great way to get to know cities.

It’s also a good way to stay in shape, as witnessed by this post at the Living Streets Alliance blog, which noted the uncanny overlap between the places listed in my post on America’s Fittest Cities and the cities where the greatest percentages of people who bike to work live. That got me wondering what other characteristics of metropolitan areas might be associated with higher levels of cycling.  With the help of my colleague Charlotta Mellander, I took a quick look at the numbers. We used data from the American Community Survey (ACS) on the share of people by metro area who commute to work by bike.

Nationally, less than one (0.6) percent of Americans ride their bikes to work.  But the share of bike commuters varies quite a bit across metros.

The table below lists ACS figures for the top 25 metros with the largest shares of bike commuters.  (These data cover entire metros; data for core or center cities may be higher). At the top of the list are Eugene, Oregon and Fort Collins, Colorado, where more than five percent of commuters bike to work. College towns dominate the list—Boulder, Colorado, Madison, Wisconsin, Santa Cruz, California, Iowa City, Iowa, Gainesville, Florida, State College, Pennsylvania, and Lincoln, Nebraska among others. But bigger metros like Portland, Oregon, Honolulu, Sacramento, San Francisco, and San Jose (Silicon Valley) also rank highly.

Top 25 Metros for Bike Commuters

RankMetroShare of Commuters who Bike to Work

1Eugene-Springfield, OR5.64%
2Fort Collins-Loveland, CO5.20%
3Missoula, MT4.80%
4Boulder, CO4.77%
5Santa Barbara-Santa Maria-Goleta, CA3.74%
6Gainesville, FL3.23%
7Logan, UT-ID3.17%
8Chico, CA2.79%
9Bellingham, WA2.75%
10Santa Cruz-Watsonville, CA2.70%
11State College, PA2.65%
12Madison, WI2.58%
13Flagstaff, AZ2.36%
14Champaign-Urbana, IL2.34%
15Iowa City, IA2.22%
16Portland-Vancouver-Beaverton, OR-WA2.13%
17Boise City-Nampa, ID1.76%
18Grand Junction, CO1.66%
19Sacramento–Arden-Arcade–Roseville, CA1.62%
20San Luis Obispo-Paso Robles, CA1.54%
21San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont, CA1.54%
22Honolulu, HI1.51%
23San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA1.43%
24Santa Rosa-Petaluma, CA1.42%
25Lincoln, NE1.37%

Source: American Community Survey, Share of Commuters Who Bike to Work.

All of this begs the question: What is it about these metros and others where cycling to work is more prevalent? So Mellander and I compared these figures on bike commuting to key social and economic characteristics of metros. Though all we are looking at are associations—our analysis does not infer causality and other factors may come into play—some of the findings are rather intriguing.

First off, metros where more people cycle to work are more affluent. Metros with a greater share of bike commuters have higher average wages (with a correlation of .5).

They have higher levels of education or human capital (a correlation of .5) and more knowledge-based economies as well. Cycling to work is positively associated with the share of creative class jobs (.3) and negatively associated with working class jobs (-.4).

They’re more diverse. The share of commuters who cycle to work to work is positively associated with higher levels of immigrants (.3) and even more so with higher concentrations of gays and lesbians (.4).

Cycling to work also goes together with happiness. The percentage of cycling commuters is positively associated with levels of happiness and well-being, which we measure via Gallup surveys (with correlation of .5).

As for fitness, the hunch by the folks at the Living Streets Alliance was right.  Metros with a higher percentage of cycling commuters boast higher rates of fitness on the American College of Sports Medicine’s American Fitness Index™ (with a  correlation between the two of .5).

Biking metros are richer, better-educated, and more fit than non-biking places. They’re happier, and, as exemplified by Mr. Byrne, more creative too.

5 Responses to “Bicycling and the Wealth and Happiness of Cities”

  1. David J. Miller Says:

    Great piece guys. Thanks for sharing. As you point out, size and economic base (creative work/lifestyle) seem to matter — hence many college towns. Would love to see this with just large metros and whether it works or does not.

    Noticed your piece on DC’s love of bike sharing. Did you know a GMU SPP grad has been instrumental in bike sharing across US. Paul DeMaio, founder of MetroBike LLC —

    Thanks again.

  2. Dave Steele Says:

    “What is it about these metros and others where cycling to work is more prevalent?”

    Looking through this list of cities, the first thing I notice is the prevalence of college towns. Eugene, Boulder, Missoula, Madison, Iowa City, etc, etc.

    It should come as no surprise that university towns are better educated, more affluent and healthier than most places.

    And it should come as no surprise that places with a large student population would have more bike commuters. College students are younger, healthier, and much more in line with the demographic likely to ride.

    This makes me place serious doubt on any causality of bikes to affluence, health or general happiness. If anything, the causality is the other way. The prevalence of demographic groups that are more affluent and healthier leads to more bike commuting.

    So then for me the question becomes: how to expand cycling beyond this demographic sweet spot? How to make bike commuting more prevalent in places like Pittsburgh, Omaha or Houston, not places like Boulder or Madison?

  3. Deep Says:

    Biking is not only for the affluent. In Philadelphia, which has the most bike commuters among the 10 largest cities, it is not only yuppies that are using bicycles to get from point A to point B. One of the biggest issues confronting bike advocates in the city is how to place more bike lanes in working class and immigrant neighborhoods. Bicycle use is very high among the Cambodian and Vietnamese neighborhoods of South Philadelphia, as well as Latino immigrants. For many this is a cheap alternative to having cars. Many of these immigrants work the graveyard shift, a time when public transit doesn’t run as often. And/or they live in far flung neighborhoods where SEPTA(Philly’s transit system) is not as extensive.

  4. Andrew Says:

    I am skeptical that bicycling will ever be a significant method of transportation in most cities. Here in Toronto, attempts to promote it have been pretty unsuccessful, and we are beginning to see a backlash particularly in the suburbs where biking is less popular. There are simply too many inherent problems with bicycling that make it dangerous and utterly impractical for most people:

    - Most bicycle lanes on main roads are just painted white lines which are dangerous because cars are moving at high speed inches away from bicyclists.
    - Separated bike lanes aren’t any better (even if they are perceived as such). Car drivers can’t easily see moving bicycles in the separated bike lane when turning at intersections and the result is that they risk getting into an accident.
    - There are too many badly designed bicycle lanes. For instance, some bike lanes in Toronto are right beside parking lanes, and if a parked car opens their car door into a bike lane, this is extremely dangerous for bicyclists.
    - Bicycling only works for trips of a few km at most (unless you are extremely fit, which most people are not).
    - Bicycling up hills is difficult.
    - Bike theft is rampant.
    - You can’t carry very much on a bike.
    - Roads are poorly maintained, potholes are dangerous for cyclists.
    - Cars and trucks park in bike lanes.
    - Bicyclists tend to be the worst drivers on the road. They often go through stop signs, through red lights, the wrong way on one way streets, bike on the sidewalk and fail to yield to pedestrians. Unlike cars they are too quiet for pedestrians to hear.

    I think it is much better to promote WALKING instead of biking because it is much safer than biking and much more practical. Far more people walk in downtown Toronto than bike. Also cars aren’t going away, even if we improve transit.

  5. paris bicycle touring Says:

    In paris bicycle have changed the way of life in the city. I think the lanes are not the solution, only the car driver’s education can change the deal !