Ithaca's hills and cold, rainy weather are the reason commonly invoked to explain why more people don't use bicycles for transportation. But if the weather isn't improving and the hills aren't going anywhere, why has Tompkins County seen the number of people riding bikes increase significantly in the last decade?
According to census numbers, people in Tompkins County commuting to work and school by bike has almost doubled from 0.9% or a little over 400 people to 1.6% or almost 800 people from 2000 to 2017. In the City of Ithaca, the numbers are higher with approximately 2.6% of the commuting trips being taken by bicycle. Furthermore, according to a recent Bike Walk Tompkins survey, at least one-half of all residents in Ithaca bike for recreational use. In a separate report by Bike Walk Tompkins, in 2018, the Lime bike sharing service logged over 75,000 trips in Tompkins County. Not too shabby for a county population just over 100,000. These trends can be seen nationally as well. According to the National Household Travel Survey, the number of trips made by bicycle in the US more than doubled between 2001 and 2009, from 1.7 billion to 4 billion.
There are a number of factors contributing to these trends. Three major local factors include enhanced infrastructure for bicycling, an increased awareness of the benefits of bicycling, and the building up of a bike culture in the local community.
Over the past decade, we’ve seen increases in bike infrastructure in Tompkins County: bike lanes, multi-use trails such as Black Diamond, the completion of the Waterfront Trail, and significant increases in bike racks, including the beautiful custom-made ones downtown. One of the most significant developments was the implementation of a network of bike boulevards in the flat areas of Ithaca.
According to Victoria Armstrong, director of cycling and walking advocacy group Bike Walk Tompkins, bike boulevards are “not bike lanes, but instead places where everyone on that road travels the speed of a cyclist, so they feel very safe.”
Vikki explained that bike boulevards were thought to be a manifestation of woonerf, a living street, in which the traffic is slowed through the addition of various devices, an idea that came out of the 1970s in the Netherlands.
“It’s a streetscape that feels like you want to go really slow,” Vikki said. “In its ideal form, even if there are cars, you can trust that everyone is moving at a slow speed, and you can trust that kids are safe on these roads.”
In Ithaca, the suggestion to implement bike boulevards was first made in 2011, and in 2014, the city started putting in elements of the bike boulevard, choosing signage and putting in speed bumps. By 2015, the bike boulevard network was launched.
“The Tioga street bike boulevard gets a lot of use and appreciation,” Hector Chang, Active Transportation Coordinator at Bike Walk Tompkins, said. “It’s parallel to Cayuga Street, which has a long bike lane, but it seems like people prefer bike boulevards.”
Cycling through biking benefits
Bike use has also increased due to the fact that people also recognize the many benefits of biking, including money savings and convenience.
“The trend of buying a car has decreased with this millennial generation,” Vikki said. ““It’s too expensive.”
Between fuel, insurance, and the cost of the car itself, the first year of owning a car, on average, adds up to $8,849 per year, according to AAA.
In Ithaca, buying a car might not make sense — you can go anywhere within two miles on a bike in the same time it would take to drive the same distance. Biking is often simpler, easier, and comes without the hassle of finding street parking.
“[It’s] a socially responsible and green choice,” explains Hector. “And it’s healthy, too.”
There is zero pollution associated with bike usage, where as a typical passenger vehicle emits about one pound of carbon dioxide per mile or about 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year.
The build up of biking culture
The building up of a local bike culture has also contributed to a rise in bike use.
Through events such as Streets Alive! and its corresponding film festival, organizations such as Bike Walk Tompkins are able to engage the general community with positive, fun activities that validate and encourage active transportation options like walking and biking.
Bike Walk Tompkins has been reaching diverse audiences through their innovative Bike Champions program, with peer educators who sponsor fun, educational events throughout the community, and has also been working with partners in local schools.
Recycle Ithaca’s Bicycles continues to offer free bike repair and repair education, while the Finger Lakes Cycling Club continues to sponsor rides for people with different skill and comfort levels. All of these activities and programs have gradually been increasing the visibility and legitimacy of using a bicycle in Ithaca and Tompkins County.
The expansion of bike use and allowing its benefits to be shared should be taken one step further by increasing access to bicycles. Hector explains that part of our goal should be to “make sure that it is an option for everybody, no matter what your income is or where you live.”
Bike Walk Tompkins has helped to make biking more accessible through the Lime Access program, which provides discounts on Lime Bike trips for people with limited income.
Vikki said it is important to take into consideration the diversity of people’s backgrounds when thinking about biking resources and infrastructure.
“We should be conscious of what are the different scenarios and contexts of people’s lives, and consider whether biking is an option that would work for different people,” she said. “For some people, they choose biking because it’s the only mode of transportation that people can afford. And we want people like that to have access to have good quality bikes and places to do their bikes and all of those things.”
While an [almost] doubling of people using their bikes for transportation in the last few years is a major accomplishment, this could just be the beginning. Burlington, VT, another cold, hilly city by a lake, now has over 5% of their commuters using bikes. If we continue to build better infrastructure, increase bike access, and strengthen the culture of cycling, we might be able to match Burlington, VT — or, at least, give them a chase.
Article by Communications Intern Sarah Huang