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Who bikes, drives, walks, or rides transit to work in Philly?

Attitudes about transit riders, cyclists, and motorists are heavily tangled up in identity politics. In the absence of good information, stereotypes tend to color people's impressions about how different types of people get around, and consequently, what kinds of transportation policies officials should choose.

Attitudes about transit riders, cyclists, and motorists are heavily tangled up in identity politics. In the absence of good information, stereotypes tend to color people's impressions about how different types of people get around, and consequently, what kinds of transportation policies officials should choose.

Last spring, Ethan Conner-Ross and Rinoa Guo of Econsult Solutions helped bring some clarity to this discussion locally with a series of graphics about who drives in Philly, using American Community Survey (ACS) data from 2008 to 2012. That analysis found that in general, motorists are more likely to be whiter, wealthier, and own their properties, while non-drivers were more likely to be non-white, less affluent, and renters. 

As the topic of who bikes in Philly always seems to be a hot topic of conversation on social media, we reached out again for some further analysis of cycling demographics. Econsult researcher Caitlin Furio crunched the numbers for us from the 2008-2012 Public Use Microdata Sample (PUMS) data from the ACS*, and then Guo and Conner-Ross used it to produce some infographics that get right at several of the main points of interest about commuting behavior.

Before diving in, one note: This analysis rests on imperfectly-reported data from the American Community Survey, and that commuting to work isn't the only type of travel people do. Some people may drive to work in the suburbs, but ride Indego all weekend for fun and errands in the city. There is more going on here, though the commuting data is still worth engaging with as it does tell us something valuable about one of the most routine and important trips people make.

Who bikes in Philly

Researchers looking at national data find that most cyclists aren't white hipsters, which is significant because big city politicians often view cycling advocacy as something mainly white upwardly-mobile residents care about. Were awareness of this fact to spread, politicians might perceive bicycle commuters as a more sympathetic constituency that more closely mirrors their voters.

Extrapolating this story onto Philadelphia is problematic though, because local bicycle commuters are apparently overwhelmingly white: According to the ACS data, 81% of Philly cyclists are white, 10% are Asian, 4% are black, and 5% are members of another racial group:

When it comes to earnings, a large majority of cyclists are either in the middle of the pack or toward the lower end of the earnings scale. Twenty-eight percent earn $35,000 a year or less, 31%  earn between $35 and $100,000, and the largest cohort (41%) earns over $100,000 a year.

They're also primarily young adults (67% are between 16 and 34 years old) and college-educated (58% have Bachelor's degrees, with 21% having completed some college.) Citywide, male bike commuters outnumber female bike commuters 65% to 35%, and the trend is most pronounced in Southeast Philly where male cyclists outnumber females 79% to 21%[Excel file.] 

Southeast Philly is the most demographically mixed region for bicycle commuting, with "only" 67.6% of bike commuters identifying as white, 21% as Asian, and 9.6% as another race. Forty-three percent of Southeast Philly bicycle commuters have less than a high school education, and about 40% work in service sector jobs.

So in Philly's case, the stereotypes about who bikes appear to line up fairly closely with reality, although Southeast Philly has a more diverse population of bike commuters than other regions.

Equitable access to transportation options 

Some might look at these numbers and come to the conclusion that cycling advocacy is primarily about helping white, male, educated Philadelphians get around town. But another way of looking at the situation is that Philly's status quo bike infrastructure and business-as-usual bike planning process is working OK for white young men, while falling short for women and lower-income cyclists.

For anyone looking at these numbers from a pro-equity perspective, the big opportunity to make life better for marginalized communities looks to be in the transit category. Fifty-four percent of transit commuters are black, compared to 33% of car commuters, and only 12% have a B.A. The income spread is more similar to bicycle commuters than to car commuters, who tend to be wealthier on average. Transit commuters make up 26% of commuters though, compared to 2% for cyclists, so improving transit frequency and increasing SEPTA ridership has the potential to help a lot more working class people than improving cycling conditions.

Neighborhood modes

The Econsult team also highlighted the regions where the different commuting modes are more popular than the citywide average. For instance, although transit mode share is just 26% citywide, it's 44% in North Central Philly, 36% in Southwest Philly, and 35% in West Philly.

Though bicycle commuters make up just 2% of commuters citywide, the percentages are much higher in Southeast Philly (7%), Center City (6%), and Southwest Philly (4%). These three sub-regions account for fully 78% of the 11,379 self-reported bike commuters in Philadelphia.

And in Center City, 30% of people walk to work, compared with just 8% citywide. North Central and Southwest Philly also beat the citywide average with 9% and 10% walking mode share, respectively.

Here is a detailed breakdown of commuting mode share for all the different Census regions:

Who drives? 

They also broke out the car commuting percentages by region. No major surprises here, although it's an interesting contrast with the perception that "everyone drives," which sometimes seems to have outsized currency at community meetings in the Southeast, Southwest, and Center City neighborhoods. Around half or fewer of the residents of these areas actually drive to work.

Commute times

The last infographic looks at commuting time to work for different transportation modes, and here too there are few surprises. A vast majority of biking and walking commutes clock in at under half an hour, and about half are under 15 minutes.

Transit and car commutes are generally longer, though it was surprising to see 28% of car commuters drive less than 15 minutes to work. You can get further driving in 15 minutes than you can biking or walking of course, but with rush hour traffic, one wonders how far exactly. Individual circumstances make it hard to generalize about this, but it's interesting for thinking about how many automobile commuters could realistically switch to transit, cycling, or walking commutes.

Anyone interested in viewing the full data set can download it here. Let us know in the comments if you find any noteworthy trends. 

PlanPhilly, a project of WHYY and, is an independent newsroom dedicated to covering design, planning and development issues in Philadelphia.