Philly biking is on the decline

Bicycle commuters make their way north along the 13th Street bike lane at Pine.

YOU WILL FIND this hard to believe.

Despite the rhapsody of glowing media about bicycling, including reports of never-ending increases in the nation's most bike-happy city (that's us), bicycle commuting actually has declined.

I was shocked when I learned this, because I thought we were Amsterdam without canals.

Commuters biking to work was a puny 1.9 percent in 2015, the same as 2014, down from the high-water mark of 2.3 percent in 2013.

I remember in 2010, the city set a goal - maybe "made a wish" is more accurate - of 5 percent bike commuters by 2020. To be counted as a "bike commuter," it has to be your primary mode of transportation as few as three times a week.

To me, 5 percent is the city's wet dream. Even if it were to be reached, it's still a lousy 5 percent and not a good-enough reason to create bike lanes on narrow streets for bicyclists who are too afraid to ride in traffic.

I've been writing about bicycling in the city since 2009, when then-Councilman Jim Kenney wanted higher fines for infractions and his colleague Frank DiCicco proposed that bikes be registered, like cars. Both are classified as "vehicles" by the state.

The bicycle "community" went nuts. With them, it's all take, no give, and the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia is a world-class lobby.

The councilmen backed down and Kenney subsequently transitioned into a Stepford wife to the coalition.

It's not just the percentage of bike commuters that is down from 2014: The overall "bike count" dropped 3 percent in 2015.

The "bike count" is taken each fall, explains Coalition executive director Sarah Clark Stuart, by volunteers who count the number of bicycles crossing specific intersections during the morning (7:30 to 9 a.m.) and evening (4:30 to 6 p.m.) rushes.

The coalition uses the same methodology each year and has done it annually since 2005, says Stuart, who pooh-poohed the decline as minor and perhaps an anomaly.

"It's our view what's most important is the trend," Stuart says, and over the last three years the "number of bikes during those hours is increasing."

Stuart says the decline is "statistically insignificant" and might be due to "the weather during the months that we went out and counted, it could be that there was construction on some of the bridges, it could be any number of things."

It also could be that the novelty of biking has worn off. (Just kidding.)

In terms of numbers, the overall bike count declined from 165 per hour in 2014 to 160 in 2015. It is minor, but startling, because we are fed a constant diet of stories that bike ridership is heading for the stratosphere.

Compounding my amazement about the small decline were the strong numbers posted by Indego bike-share, which racked up 100,000 rides in the first two months after its launch in April 2015. Neither Indego nor the city could furnish total rentals in 2015 before my deadline.

You would think all those rides would dramatically increase the totals recorded by the coalition.

Stuart connects me with Susan Dannenberg, a policy fellow, who speculates that regular bike riders, such as commuters, "know where the quality infrastructure is," meaning bike lanes and such, and that's where the coalition does its counts. Indego riders, being less experienced, might not know about the "infrastructure."

With the numbers down, I (pointlessly) ask Stuart if it is possible that bicycling has topped out and that it's got all the riders it will get.

"No, I don't think it has at all," predictably answers Stuart. "There's a tremendous demand for bicycling for transportation and for fun."

She adds, predictably: "What is in high demand is high-quality bike infrastructure," in other words, more bike lanes, and "better" ones, with barriers between cars and bikes. Maybe Donald Trump can build a wall.

On the subject of infrastructure, the coalition estimates that painting "sharrows" - those chevron-like thingees - costs $10,000 a mile, and bike lanes four times as much.

Those estimates are wildly off-base, I am told by Deputy Commissioner for Transportation Michael Carroll.

The city figures costs by block, not by the mile. But roughly speaking, using city labor, each sharrow costs $260 and the city uses two per block.

Bike lanes would cost $10,000 a mile only in the densest parts of the city, Carroll says, but that cost "combines sharrows with crosswalks and other markings."

Bicycling is free, but the infrastructure isn't.

stubyko@phillynews.com

215-854-5977 @StuBykofsky

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