The percentage of Santa Barbarans who commute to and from their jobs by bicycle has spiked from 3.5 percent in 2000 to 6.9 percent in 2012. That number was 4.4 percent in 2010. These new numbers, released as part of the U.S. Census 2012 American Community Survey, shows that for the first time ever, a greater percentage of city residents are getting to work by bike than by bus. In 2012, 6.1 percent of all commuters availed themselves to mass transit. Despite such gains, biking still lags behind walking to work — 7.3 percent — and driving to work, 71.3 percent. Of those who drive, 62.3 percent reported driving alone.
These numbers reflect commuting patterns within Santa Barbara city limits. Countywide, the trend is consistent, though the percentage of bicycle commuters — 5.5 percent — is not so dramatic.
The new figures reflect the persistence of gender-based commuting patterns. Among city bicycle commuters, 9.6 percent were male and 3.6 female. The new census information indicates that more than half of all city residents reported it took them 15 minutes or less to get to work. Slightly more than 14 percent reported taking half-an-hour or more to get to their jobs. Countywide, the numbers were 44 percent and 21.9 percent.
According to Kent Epperson of Traffic Solutions, a countywide government agency that promotes alternative transportation, the shift in commuting patterns is part of a broader national trend that prompted The Christian Science Monitor to write a cover story this summer on the new bike boom seizing the United States. Driving the shift, Epperson said, was the price of gas and the bicycle’s growing popularity and respectability. Younger workers in their 20s, he said, were especially open to jumping on their bikes. “They’d rather spend their money on new electronic gadgets than on their cars and are much quicker to try the bus or the bike,” said Epperson. “That’s certainly the case compared to older generations.” Nationwide, about one percent of all trips are taken by bicycle. That compares to 26 percent in the Netherlands and 10 percent in Germany.
In the coming months, the City of Santa Barbara will be revisiting its bicycle master plan, a lengthy bureaucratic process which will set broad new policy goals for maximizing Santa Barbara’s road space to attract cyclists. At the same time, the Santa Barbara Bicycle Coalition will be conducting an ongoing planning process — much more informal — to study what other cities are doing to make their cities safe and attractive — often the same thing — to cyclists, and to determine what menu of infrastructure additions would make most sense for Santa Barbara. The fact that more than half of city commuters get to work within 15 minutes suggests that there’s a sizable population for whom cycling might be a viable option.
The key, said Epperson, is rider safety. He said recent surveys indicate that a sizable number of people would consider cycling but only if they thought it was safe to do so. Currently many do not. Contributing to this perception, said Epperson, is the reality that Santa Barbara County has one of the higher bicycle fatality records — relative to its population size — in the state. He said segregating bike lanes from the flow of traffic reduces collisions and increases bike ridership. This, he said, has been achieved by reconfiguring the architecture of roads such that bike lanes are located to the right of parked cars and to the left of curbs, creating a significant buffer.
Later this fall, on November 2, Epperson said, Santa Barbara will be celebrating its first Open Streets event, in which a large swatch of Cabrillo Boulevard — as well as the Funk Zone — will be declared off-limits to cars and opened up to cyclists, roller bladers, live bands, buskers, and anyone else who wants to join the festivities. The event is modeled on the CicLAvia celebration held in the City of Los Angeles twice a year. “It’s an amazing event,” said Epperson. “Imagine ten miles of Los Angeles free of cars and filled with cyclists,” he said. “You can’t really imagine what’s that like until you’ve been there.”