Photo by Olgierd Rudak, Flickr CC

In a new study investigating bicycle commuting across the U.S., Derek Burk poses a sort of “chicken or egg” question: does the presence of bike paths and bike lanes encourage more bicycling, or does increased rates bicycling encourage the creation of more bike paths? In other words, which comes first — infrastructure or practice?

Burk proposes two perspectives that might explain the relationship between bikeways (paths and lanes) and bicycle commuting — the demand-driven perspective and the political perspective. From the demand-driven perspective, the argument is that increased bicycling leads to more bicycling infrastructure, like bike paths. The political perspective asserts the opposite — the creation of bike paths and lanes is what induces bicycling. To test which perspective is more accurate, Burk uses longitudinal data on bicycle-commuting in 62 U.S. cities from 2000 to 2014, combined with longitudinal data on the number of bikeways in each city, to determine the relationship between bicycling infrastructure and practice.

The results offer support for both perspectives, but with one important caveat — local environmentalism. Burk finds that more bikeways leads to more bicycling, and that more bicycling can lead to the creation of more bikeways, but both effects depend on the number of environmental organizations within a city. He finds that in the most biked cities, including Portland, OR, Minneapolis, MN, and San Francisco, CA, there are a high number of environmental organizations that fight for the creation of bikeways and promote bicycling as a positive lifestyle choice. In the least biked cities, like El Paso, TX, Omaha, NE, and Oklahoma City, OK, the effect of increased bicycle-commuting on bikeway construction is negligible because there are few environmental organizations to support bicycle commuters. In short, the relationship between infrastructure and practice is always influenced by political processes.