US non-cycling excuses, population density.

May 9, 2010

A standard response, when people compare cycling ride shares between the US and Northern Europe, is that “we’re spread out, they’re not”.

Except, of course, that we’re not.

Update/correction: the census data lists both New York City AND its boroughs, which is a substantial glitch. I found this looking at Wikipedia’s list of cities by density (also uses 2000 Census data), and cross-checking made it clear that there was a big error. The graph, as yet uncorrected, needs to be shifted down by 6 million (minus 8 million for NYC, plus 2 million counting the contribution of the smaller, very-dense places). I would like to incorporate the smaller dense places more generally, but don’t know where that data is yet. Most of the conclusions remain the same; the 10% mark is now at 7600/square mile, and the 1/3 mark is now at 2000/square mile.

Over a third of the US population lives in places denser than Assen, Netherlands, and this is an underestimate; any dense city or place with fewer than 50000 people does not appear in this cumulative population (for example, Lexington, Arlington, Belmont, and Watertown).  On the other hand, any place with 50000 people in it is large enough to attract businesses.

(Disclaimer: there’s a few glitches in the data, but they don’t change the overall picture much at all.  This is from the 2000 US Census, with 281,000,000 total population.)


Density alone doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story; even within their boundaries, towns have regions of greater and lesser density.  Assen, in particular, has a dense core, but so do the US cities and towns.  Belmont has several large undeveloped or sparsely developed areas; Lexington has a national historical park, a quarry, and a large area reserved for commercial development.  However, this definitely suggests that mere (lack of) density is not what keeps us in cars and off of bicycles.

The “but it has a dense core” counterargument also has a corollary, which is that if you are going anyplace not in the core of the town, you will be traveling some additional distance.  Looking at Google maps and satellite photos, it appears that Assen is surrounded by a 2-mile donut of forest, park, and agricultural land; if your destination is not in town, then your trip is at least two miles long.  The nearest large city to Assen is Groningen, 19 miles (6020 per square mile, 57% bicycle trip share).

Here’s the data I used to make the graph (and the underlying chart) in OpenOffice .ods format.

The density argument also fails if you consider Norway, Finland, and Sweden. All are less dense than the US, yet all have a higher ride share(PDF, p. 5) than we do. Their population distribution certainly affects this, but so does ours. Using nationally reported distribution information, urban population percentage (definition varies, unfortunately) is similar among all four countries, with Finland reported as the least urban (61%), and 79-83% for the rest. The UN’s definition of urbanization yields a similar pattern.

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