A nationwide analysis shows that towns where people bike to work are richer, fitter, and more successful in many other ways


Riding a bike through a city, David Byrne wrote in his book Bicycle Diaries, "is like navigating the collective neural pathways of some vast global mind." Biking, he adds, "facilitates a state of mind that allows some but not too much of the unconscious to bubble up. As someone who believes that much of the source of his work and creativity is to be gleaned from those bubbles, it's a reliable place to find that connection."

Cycling is one of my own great passions. I like nothing more than to get on my road bike and just go. My bike is not just a great way to get around, it's a great way to get to know cities.

It's also a good way to stay in shape, as witnessed by this post at the Living Streets Alliance blog, which noted the uncanny overlap between the places listed in my post on America's Fittest Cities and the cities where the greatest percentages of people who bike to work live. That got me wondering what other characteristics of metropolitan areas might be associated with higher levels of cycling. With the help of my colleague Charlotta Mellander, I took a quick look at the numbers. We used data from the American Community Survey (ACS) on the share of people by metro area who commute to work by bike.

Nationally, less than one (0.6) percent of Americans ride their bikes to work. But the share of bike commuters varies quite a bit across metros. The gallery below lists ACS figures for the top 15 metros with the largest shares of bike commuters. (These data cover entire metros; data for core or center cities may be higher.) At the top of the list are Eugene, Oregon, and Fort Collins, Colorado, where more than 5 percent of commuters bike to work. College towns dominate the list—Boulder, Colorado, Madison, Wisconsin, Santa Cruz, California, Iowa City, Iowa, Gainesville, Florida, and State College, Pennsylvania, among others. But bigger metros like Portland, Oregon, Honolulu, Sacramento, San Francisco, and San Jose (Silicon Valley) also rank highly. 

Source: American Community Survey, Share of Commuters Who Bike to Work.

All of this raises the question: What is it about these metros and others where cycling to work is more prevalent? So Mellander and I compared these figures on bike commuting to key social and economic characteristics of metros. Though all we are looking at are associations—our analysis does not infer causality and other factors may come into play—some of the findings are rather intriguing.

First off, metros where more people cycle to work are more affluent. Metros with a greater share of bike commuters have higher average wages (with a correlation of .5).


They have higher levels of education or human capital (a correlation of .5) and more knowledge-based economies as well. Cycling to work is positively associated with the share of creative class jobs (.3) and negatively associated with working class jobs (-.4).  

They're more diverse. The share of commuters who cycle to work to work is positively associated with higher levels of immigrants (.3) and even more so with higher concentrations of gays and lesbians (.4).


Cycling to work also goes together with happiness. The percentage of cycling commuters is positively associated with levels of happiness and well-being, which we measure via Gallup surveys (with correlation of .5).

As for fitness, the hunch by the folks at the Living Streets Alliance was right. Metros with a higher percentage of cycling commuters boast higher rates of fitness on the American College of Sports Medicine's American Fitness Index™  (with a  correlation between the two of .5).

Biking metros are richer, better-educated, and more fit than non-biking places. They're happier, and, as exemplified by Mr. Byrne, more creative too.

Image: Tim Wimborne/Reuters

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