Bicycling in the Rust Belt

Angie and Kate have posted about the Great Lakes Urban Exchange’s “I Will Stay If …” campaign a few times here; and as I was leafing through some of their photos recently, I noticed a number of references to bicycle unfriendliness of some of the Rust Belt cities.

With the Census Bureau’s 2008 American Community Survey data now available, I took a look at what the numbers look like throughout the Rust Belt. I should note that I used only core-city geography data, so the comparisons are not completely fair, given the arbitrary nature of political boundaries, but I think they are reasonable enough for this sake of this comparison.


The purple bars show the proportion of commuters who cite a bicycle as their primary source of commuting. The green bars show the number of bicyclists divided by the squared area (excluding water) of the city. Although similar, they give a little different perspective.

The best place for a bicyclist in the Rust Belt is probably Philadelphia. Having biked in Philly over the summer, I can speak from experience that they have done a good job promoting cycling. Erie has a slightly higher proportion of cyclists than Philly, but a smaller total number. On the other end of the spectrum, Detroit, Toledo, Akron, Dayton and Cincinnati all have pretty dismal numbers. I haven’t biked in any of those places, so hopefully someone who has can comment on whether the numbers reflect the reality.

9-08-commuter-amy-greeneNevertheless, even the best cities in the Rust Belt have a long way to go to catch up to the best overall bicycling cities in America (which have a long way to go to catch up to the best bicycling cities in Europe, but I digress). Rust Belt bicyclists might feel a little more at home in a place like Portland (6.0% / 130), Seattle (2.9% /117), Minneapolis (4.3% /150), or Washington, DC (2.3%/113). Unless, of course, we can keep working to make our own cities better for cyclists.

-Rob Pitingolo


Filed under Featured, Public Transportation

9 responses to “Bicycling in the Rust Belt

  1. schmange

    I have a lot to say about this.
    I definitely don’t think Cleveland does a lot to make the city biker friendly. I keep hearing we have bicycle planners at the city and at NOACA and I keep thinking, what do they do?
    But on the other hand, it’s a pretty flat city, so that’s an advantage. I used to see a lot of people biking from the west side.

    The thing about Rust Belt cities is we don’t have an ideal biking climate, at least year round. However, I did just see and article (I wish I could find it) that said Ohio had the third highest number of women who commute by bike. The author of the article said this was surprising but I’m not surprised. There are a lot of environmentally conscious people in Ohio. It’s time the government got behind them.

  2. HHF

    @schmange – Going to have to disagree about this city being flat! The problem is that most of the population who lives on the East Side lives up in the Heights area. That hill is a huge challenge, and not just for the height and steepness. There really is no safe way to get up or down the hill, IMHO. Stokes/Fairhill – disconnected bike facilities. Cedar – have to ride on sidewalk (which apparently is illegal). Edgehill – terrible pavement and unsafe corner. Mayfield – grade is too steep and too much traffic. While I was surprised to see Cleveland is where it is on the list, I bet it could be higher if Cleveland could do something to make it safer at least to get up and down that hill.

    Also bike planning is the city is more “bike planning” than anything. Sigh.

  3. Rob

    I think Cleveland is flatter than, say, Akron, but HHF is right. Cedar Hill is a seriously problematic bicycle bottleneck on the east-side. I believe NOACA has it designated as “unsafe but without alternative” (or something similar) on their maps; and it’s really the only connection for a lot of people between University Circle/Downtown and the Heights neighborhoods.

    To me, it seems like there are a number of reasonable opportunities for bicycle improvements throughout Cleveland, so I was surprised when I looked at NOACA’s bicycle report and didn’t see any of them flagged for near-term development. I don’t know if it’s a problem or politics or money or shortsightedness or what – but it’s disappointing to me too.

    I really have a hard time buying into the climate argument. It seems like Minneapolis should have one of the most bicycle-hostile climates, yet they are one of the most bicycle friendly cities in America. I’ve heard the argument in reverse, too. Around here, people say, “who would want to ride a bike in Ohio? It’s too cold/snowy for half the year.” In Dallas/Houston/Phoenix/Atlanta people say, “who would want to ride a bike there? It’s too hot/humid for half the year.” But when you look at comparables, Chicago is more bicycle friendly than Cleveland, despite very similar climates. Austin is more bicycle friendly than Dallas, again despite very similar climates. I think climate is a convenient excuse, but not a very good one.

  4. Sarah Hartley

    Is Toledo bike-friendly?

  5. Special K

    As a former Toledo resident, I thought the city was bike friendly in some ways: good trails, especially in the Metro Parks, and it is FLAT as can be. However, there are a lot of streets that don’t have bike lines, which was a big downside. Angie, you biked to work sometimes, what did you think? I’ve been impressed with the biking in Pittsburgh so far.

  6. Great post. Interesting to see the comparison between cities. I’m not much of a bike commuter, but I have plenty of friends who are here in Columbus, and love to see it encouraged and developed as a safe alternative mode of transportation. Columbus does have the advantage of being extremely flat, so I think that helps us a bit, but we’ve had a lot of auto-centric transit planning over the past 50 years that has made a lot of our thoroughfares tough for cyclists.

    I’d be interested to see a summary of what all these cities are doing to push bike transit forward. Columbus has a “Bicentennial Bikeways Plan” that was launched in 2008 that will add 538 miles of on-street bikeway facilities throughout Columbus over the next few years.

    A good summary of the plan can be found here:

    Good step in the right direction, but always interesting to look at innovating things that other cities are also doing.

  7. schmange

    The thing was, Toledo was actually a pretty good place to bike. And here’s why, it’s sad but, there was hardly any traffic.
    Same goes for Cleveland to a certain extent.
    The downside is, both these cities had pretty awful streets, so you had to be careful.
    Youngstown was the same story but it had Mill Creek Park which went all the way from the South Side to downtown with bike trails. That was great.

  8. Rob

    I think schmange is on to something… it’s a sad reality, but the light traffic in these Rust Belt cities really does make bicycling easier on shared-roads. Another thing I would add is that, no matter how bad the locals make the situation seem, the average motorist around here behaves much less aggressively than in other parts of the country.

  9. There was something in the NYTimes about re-purposing Detroit as a bike mecca if only for the sole reason that there is hardly any traffic anymore…

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