Monday, March 28, 2011

Surprising Statistics

I just came across this article: a list of the 15 most bike-friendly cities on the planet. Prepare to be surprised (at least, I was):

According to the article, Ottawa claims the highest percentage of bike commuters in North America, beating out Portland, Boulder and San Francisco. (Come to think of it, why are most of the USA's accepted 'cycling Meccas' in mountainous regions? I know that hills are fun - for the athlete-cyclist - but they're a serious deterrent for some friends of mine trying to take up cycling for fitness. In those initial months when you're not yet in shape to tackle them, hills can really discourage a person from sticking with cycling. At least here in Ottawa, so much of the city is pancake flat that you don't actually have to expend any extra energy to keep rolling, just touch the pedals a bit to keep the momentum going.) 

While the article doesn't give numbers for Ottawa, it does claim that Portland's bike-commuters make up 10% of the population, which is the highest proportion in the USA - so that would mean that Ottawa boasts more than 10%. This in the national capital with the highest temperature extremes in the world.

Seriously? So I decided to do some intensive research on the subject. (That is, I Googled "Ottawa Cycling Statistics.") The page I found on the City of Ottawa's website claims much different numbers. They admit we have more bike commuters than any other Canadian city, but report that only 2% of the population bike to work. On closer examination, though, I found that these numbers came from the 2001 Census. . . 10 years ago. Is it possible that in 10 years, bike commuting has jumped by 8% or more?

So, more poking around the City website ensued. This is the City of Ottawa's Cycling Plan, published in 2008. By then, apparently, Ottawa was already considered to lead the country in cycling, and to have the highest bike share of travel on the continent. In 2004 an article in the Citizen (quoted in the Plan) put the percentage at nearly 3% - 900,000 people. Then I ran into the difficulties of statistics. In the 2008 Cycling Plan, the "modal share during afternoon peak period" for cycling is reported at 1.7%, with a stated goal of getting it to 3% by 2021. "Modal share" is defined as "percentage of person-trips," so I gather than the peak period modal share is different from the percentage of people actually commuting by bike. (Hm, I think to myself: so cyclists are more likely to commute at off-peak hours? Is it that it's often quicker to travel by bike than by bus at odd hours when fewer buses are running?)

Still not more than 10% though. And the survey that the Cycling Plan cites for its statistics dates from 2003. It also has a few fascinating tidbits: 73% of Ottawa households have at least one bicycle; of the 'utilitarian' cyclists, far more use their bike for errands, visiting, and shopping than to go to work (I assume because of the notion that you can't ride in work clothing.) The City's 2010 Cycling Accomplishments Document claims that between 2000 and 2009 160 kilometres were added to the cycling network, and that in 2010 alone, another 115 kilometres were added, including the bike lanes on the Pretoria Bridge and a number of multi-use paths. Which is a pretty impressive leap for one year.

But still, I don't see the number of cyclists quintupling over the last two years. . . over the last eight years, though? I can't find current statistics; the most recent numbers I found were from 2003. Is it possible? I wouldn't think so, but... you never know.


  1. This is good detective work - and far more than any journalist in this city would do with repect to cycling.

    10 percent is too high but then again - the source is suspect and you proved that the stats are out of date.

    With gas at 1.23 a litre maybe this will be a breaking point for a couple of dozen people... Getting people out of their SUV's is very difficult.

    Ofcourse I'm sure that 1.3 million we will be borrowing to build the segragted lanes on Laurier will be a real catalyst to increasing ridership...

  2. The way in which the question is asked in a survey will determine the result.
    - Do you commute primarily by bicycle? (maybe 1%)
    - Do you commute by bicycle? (maybe 3%)
    - Have you commuted by bicycle this year? (maybe 5%?
    - Have you ever commuted by bicycle? (maybe 10%)

  3. Survey question:

    On the nicest day of June when the wind is at your back both ways and it's 20 C and the world is wonderful and the Green party has just formed the official opposition and hummingbirds are fluttering through the air - would you possibly maybe, if someone gave you a feather light dutch bike, and you had a shower at the office and free towels and you were in wonderful shape and young and had just had the most refreshing sleep of your life... would you maybe ride a bike to work?

    90 percent would still vote to take their car to work...