[Cary Choate]

In January 2009, The City of Austin released the Austin 2009 Master Bicycle Plan Update (the Plan) to provide a holistic and practical approach to improving the environment of cycling in Austin in order to “transform Austin into a world-class bicycling city.” At the time of the Plan’s release, cycling as a transportation mode for journey-to-work trips (JTW) was a paltry 0.96 percent. The Plan’s main objectives were to get more people cycling and to make them safe while they cycle. Additionally, one specific objective of the Plan is to increase cycling’s modal share of JTW trips from one percent to two percent by the year 2015.

The 2011 American Community Survey (ACS), an ongoing survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, was recently released and estimated that cycling in Austin as a modal share for JTW trips has reached two percent, three years ahead of the City’s schedule.

This is obviously great news, showing that the City’s objectives laid out in the Plan are having quantifiable results with more people utilizing the enhanced connectivity the increasing mileage of and improvement to bike lanes are providing. What should be noted is that these figures only show the number of trips taken by bicycle as the trip pertains to traveling to and from work. Without getting into the more complex discussion of multi-destination trip chains, such as home – school escort trip – work – gym – shopping – school return escort trip – home, I feel the discussion should be focused more on total travel behavior, rather than just JTW.

The National Household Travel Survey (NHTS), conducted by the US Census Bureau, estimates that only 15 percent of trips are JTW trips, with roughly 85 percent of people’s trips being for other activities in their daily lives – go to the store, go to school, go to the gym, or go out for social activities with families and friends. So while a focus on a modal shift from other methods of transportation to cycling is a valiant goal, the discussion and focus should be on increasing people’s usage of cycling as a transportation mode for more of their daily trips, not just the singular JTW.

Bike Austin picked up on this topic in its blog post reporting the two percent JTW figure back in October 2012. In the short post, Bike Austin noted that the JTW figure “does not include trips from home to school, trips for errands, trips to family and friends, bike-bus or bike-rail trips to work where the bus or rail portion is longer than the bike ride, trips to work where the commuter uses another mode at least three days each week, trips during the workday, and any other trips other than home-to-work-to-home trips.” If one looks at the situation optimistically and recognizes the limitations of the ACS figures, one could say that cycling holds a modal share of greater than two percent for Austin residents when going about their daily lives.

This is where the NHTS comes into play. The survey takes a much more detailed look at the travel behavior of American households and provides a more holistic view of modal splits between transportation options. The next NHTS is not scheduled to be completed until 2015, which is the goal date of Austin’s plans to increase cycling as a mode of transportation. With it’s release, a better picture of where Austin stands in terms of bicycle usage as a mode of transportation will be possible.

At the end of the day, the ACS figures show promising results of the City’s efforts to provide greater access to safe and effective cycling infrastructure, but more can be done. In my view, setting a goal of increasing cycling’s JTW modal share from one to two percent in six years is, while definitely an achievable goal, a bit conservative. With bold and strong cycling initiatives being launched in many cities across the U.S. and the world – from launching bike share programs to reclaiming vehicle lanes for cycling and pedestrianization in urban areas – some cities are calling for and creating a cycling revolution. Austin, along with so many cities everywhere, encounters significant levels of congestion on its roadways. Thinking differently about travel to encourage a shift away from the private car, smoothing traffic flow, creating a cycling revolution, and making walking count will help the environment, encourage activities that benefit the public’s health, and reduce congestion. So congratulations are in order for the City of Austin and the improvements and progress made thus far. But this should just be the beginning. In order to truly enhance cycling and expand the cycling community, bigger goals and larger projects should be envisioned and implemented. Instead of a one percent increase in JTW trips, why not make the goal to increase cycling’s overall modal split to five percent by 2020? Or 2030? It will take time, planning, and working extensively with stakeholders, but in order for Austin to become a “world-class bicycling city” bold goals and objectives are in order.