New data and competing narratives: A look at Census and Streetlight data

A recent article by Outside magazine highlighted the different data and competing narratives in recent coverage about how much biking is happening. Data from the Census Bureau was typically covered negatively, whether it was Bloomberg lamenting that “Biking to Work Isn’t Gaining Any Ground in the US” or Jalopnik writing “Turns Out A Lot Of People Don’t Want To Bike To Work.” At the same time, data from the company StreetLight was mostly covered positively, as in Axios’ “America’s bicycling hot spots, mapped.”

What’s really going on? The short answer is that, mostly, we don’t know because our data on biking is limited. Unlike monitoring of vehicular traffic, monitoring of bicycle traffic is relatively new and lacks the infrastructure of counting devices, modeling, and the authority of established practices. But we’ve created a few additional maps and tables that might be useful based on Census data.

Since the American Community Survey (ACS) began its annual releases in 2005, it has served as the only nationally available annual estimate of how much biking is happening in the United States. But it has always had significant drawbacks due to it only providing information on one trip type - the journey to work, often the longest daily trip and therefore one of the more difficult to do by biking.

Private data providers like StreetLight data are even newer than the ACS and have recently been validated by research. By using phone tracking, StreetLight data can count all trip types which is a significant advantage. As a private data provider, StreetLight data is not nationally available annually free of charge in the way that Census data is, which is a significant disadvantage.

The differences in these data have been cast into some relief by the Covid-19 pandemic. While pandemic-related reductions in work trips showed biking to work decreasing dramatically in 2020 and 2021 ACS data, the pandemic-related “bike boom” showed up in StreetLight data. In 2022, this divergence was somewhat opposite, with ACS data showing a modest recovery that still did not reach pre-pandemic levels of biking to work and StreetLight Data showing a waning “bike boom” that nevertheless showed levels of biking higher than pre-pandemic. will continue to use ACS data as its primary form of reporting on how much biking, walking, and transit is happening in the United States, and who is doing it. We sincerely hope to one day have more complete data, whether that is from government agencies or private providers. The following demographic figures showing women biking and walking commuters are now updated.

One last bonus map: The 248 Census Designated Places in the 2022 1-year estimate represent about 75% of all estimated bike commuters in the 2022 1-year national estimate.