October 17, 2014

Past and Present: The Impact of Cycling on Transit

Streetcar 1While travelling in Minnesota a few weeks ago, I had the chance to read a biography of a little-known Minnesotan, Tom Lowry.  The title of the book gives you a good idea of his contribution to Minneapolis.
Lowry was a business leader in the last half of the 19th-century, a risk-taker, the classic American entrepreneur, at home in finance and investment.  “But his heart and his dreams were never far from the streetcar company he created.”
Lowry’s Twin City Rapid Transit Company was one of the most important in the U.S., stretching over 48 miles, shaping Minneapolis in the process.  Not much, it seems, is remembered of  his legacy – people may know of Lowry Hill – but his story is a classic, told in this now-obscure biography.
I reference it, though, for this amazing development that occurred at a moment in crisis in much of the financial world – the Panic of 1893 – when earnings from fares were critical if Lowry was to keep his company.  Yet fares were declining drastically – and here’s why.

Coincidentally with the slump in business due to the financial panic, the company had to contend with severe bicycle competition during the years 1893, 1894, 1895, and 1896.
Everybody remembers the extent to which the bicycle was used for business and recreation purposes during those years, by all classes of people, rich and poor, men and women, young and old.   Between the hours of 7:30 and 9:00 am each week day, all the principal streets to the downtown district were crowded with bicycles, and the same condition prevailed in the evening, which greatly reduced the company’s revenues.
This so-called Bicycle Craze hit the liveryman as hard as it hit the Minneapolis Street Railway.  Outdoor recreation parties on holidays, Sundays and evenings always took to the bicycle.  Bicycling was carried to such an extent that many fashionable people went to the theatre on their wheels instead of in carriages.
It is hard to give the public an adequate idea of the extent to which the bicycle craze cut into the street railway earnings.


A phenomenon of the past? Maybe not. Here’s an excerpt from Nathan Pachal’s observations on last year’s June-to-June decline in transit use in Metro:

About 50 percent of all bus trips take place in Vancouver and UBC. According to TransLink data, bus ridership actually grew in most part of the region in 2013. Vancouver/UBC and the Northeast Sector were the major exceptions. So while more people are taking the bus in Surrey, less are in Vancouver.
Looking at the preceding table, the Trolley Bus Network saw the largest drop in ridership. As the Trolley Bus Network really only serves Vancouver/UBC, it support previous data that transit ridership is mostly declining in the City of Vancouver.
I believe that are several reason for this decline. One of the reasons is likely due to overcrowding on the bus network; people are simplly deciding to not take the bus. With the City of Vancouver investing heavily in quality cycling infrastructure, I wouldn’t be surprised if people are shifting to cycling. It would be interesting to see the mode split between driving, transit, and active transportation from 2010 forward in the City of Vancouver.

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  1. I used to take the seabus and bus combination to get to work in North Vancouver from Kitsilano, but switched to cycling over the Lion’s Gate Bridge. My motivation for the change was that while the bike ride takes about the same amount of time, it also includes a built in work out – and I have a guaranteed seat the whole way! The only drawback to cycling is that in the summer season the cycle lanes through the downtown and over the bridges can be congested and hazardous during rush hour. This is not unique to Vancouver, as throughout the western world cycling infrastructure is being constantly pushed to its limits as more people take to bikes.

  2. That’s actually also seen in that famous 1907 film of Vancouver shot by Seattle’s William Harbeck. There are a huge number of bicycles on the road amidst the streetcars and horses and wagons. A bicycle was cheaper than a horse or car and gave its rider freedom from fixed streetcar routes and schedules. If you look through the archives, you’ll find that bike paths were also big at that time in Vancouver. Many downtown office buildings had bike racks in their lobbies. There were “bicycle riding schools” too.
    When the days are nice, it’s not surprising. Riding a bicycle is often faster than taking a bus and once again you are free from the constraints of bus routes and schedules.

  3. Yeah, it makes sense. We have good transit here but some connections aren’t so good late at night. I used to only cycle when the weather was nice and in the daytime but then I got a night job and got off work at 2 am. It was the “No fun city” days, so there were no night buses to get home. I learned what type of clothing I needed to wear to cycle at night in the rain. I also learned how getting wet is no big deal either if you have a warm home to go home to.
    More recently my other job took 45 minutes by bus to get home, which included waiting twice for a long time for a transfer, but cycling it was about 10 minutes. Easy decision there.
    Some people think my decision to cycle is ecological but really it’s practical.

  4. The days I ride my bike to work, there’s one less passenger on the bus. I’m not at all surprised to see that my choice is being reflected on a larger scale. If you’ve already chosen transit over driving your circumstances and/or priorities are different than someone who chooses to drive.