Does Building Bike Lanes Cause an Increase in Cycling?

Today’s column takes a look the “If you build it, they will come,” phenomenon popularized by the 1989 baseball drama Field of Dreams.  An interesting graphic was circulating on Twitter last week showing the dramatic increase in cycling in New York City, and a simultaneous increase in bike lanes.

The implication in the subsequent discussion was that the increase in cycling was related to the increase in bike lanes. There have been similar discussions about increases in cycling in other cities, such as Seattle and London, and the increase in bike lanes in those cities.

Vancouver, of course, has been putting in separated bike lanes since 2009. Travis Lupick from the Georgia Straight picked up the tweet and wondered if Vancouver would have similar statistics. The mayor’s office responded, pointing out a city staff report that indicates a 40% increase in cycling between 2008 and 2011.

The City of Vancouver monitors the bike traffic on the separated lanes, and makes this data available on its website. I’ve taken that data for each of the separated routes and put in into charts, shown below.

Burrard Bridge Monthly Bicycle Volume

Dunsmuir Street Monthly Bicycle Volume

Dunsmuir Viaduct Monthly Bicycle Volume

Hornby Street Monthly Bicycle Volume

Although the data is incomplete in the years when the counts started, and data has been published only up to July 2013, based on patterns from the other years estimates can be made. You can see the year-to-year trends for each of the separated lanes below.

Vancouver Separated Bike Lane Yearly Bicycle Trips

So after crunching all this data, you can see that over the past few years at least, cycling traffic in the separated lanes has been… well, pretty flat. Note that the Burrard Bridge separated lane was completed in July 2009 and the Dunsmuir and Hornby lanes were completed at the end of 2010. The charts don’t show much, if any, data before the lanes went in. Additionally, not all bicycle traffic uses the separated lanes so the charts don’t tell the whole story for Vancouver. Furthermore, the important safety aspect of separated lanes isn’t addressed at all in the cyclist volume numbers: the number of bicycle injuries along each of the routes isn’t captured.

And yet, the charts don’t look anything like the chart from NYC. There’s no drastic uptick in bike lane use over the past few years, although it does seem like there has been an increase in the past month or two. It’ll be interesting to see if that’s just a result of the rain-free month of July that we had in 2013, or if it continues into the less-dry August and not-really-that-damp September.

The million-dollar question is, then: why are other cities seeing a huge increase in cycling, attributed to increases in bike lanes, when Vancouver isn’t? Is Vancouver moving too slowly in putting in bike lanes (it certainly is falling behind most other high-profile cities)? Have we yet to reach critical mass? Or is there some other reason?

4 Responses to “Does Building Bike Lanes Cause an Increase in Cycling?”

  1. Kyle Z. says:

    Agree that Vancouver’s bike lanes’ haven’t exactly been the most successful compared to other cities such as New York. A few reasons for this. New York has a much higher population, and percentage wise, is much lower than Vancouver. New York is dense all around, so commutes are naturally short with destinations in all directions. Driving in Vancouver is easy, and convenient. Our transit network is much better than New York’s. Plus, we have a dreaded helmet law. Manhattan, where the most significant incresase has taken place, is similar to Vancouver’s downtown where there are no side streets. There is significantly more office and ground level retail space in many portions of Manhattan, promoting street life.

    Look at it this way: Vancouver was always ahead the curve in urban development and sustainable transport. Because cities are catching up, it seems like they are making huge leaps forward when in fact Vancouver is still far superior to them. As an analogy, consider New York like China, which started out below 1st world standards but is quickly catching up. Yes, Vancouver’s loosing steam, but cycling is still going up.

    Also, the graph wouldn’t be as “flat” if all the volumes from the three bike lanes were added up.

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  3. Steve says:

    As a New Yorker, the build up in bike lanes coincided with a significant PR push from the Mayor’s office, which undoubtedly got a lot of awareness and generated interest in cycling. This was combined with a major traffic initiative that significantly impacted drivers’ ability to get through the city, including a total re-route through Times Square, and entire traffic lanes disappearing for use as bike and pedestrian ares. The result: New York was very dramatically converted into a not-so-bike-friendly city (at least in Manhattan) into a very pro-bike city very quickly. Finally, the backlash has likely helped build pro-cycling momentum. The transformation has resulted in many, many complaints surrounding all the “evil cyclists” prowling the streets. Now, with the massive success of the Citibike program, things should continue to escalate as people realize that it’s easier to hop on a bike to ride 40 blocks (2 miles) in 15 minutes than it is to deal with cabs or the subway. I can’t speak to Vancouver’s increased bike lanes, but if cycling already had a decent foothold there, any increase would be less dramatic than in New York where cycling has gone from a fringe activity to mainstream.

  4. rob macdonald says:

    The biggest promoter of biking in North America was from the massive interest that Lance Armstrong created in cycling with his seven tour de France wins coupled with the publics interest in leading healthier lifestyles. The addition of bike lanes has been a very helpful but small part of the increase in cycling