What is North America’s Busiest Bike Bridge?

(Note: Updated February 20, 2018 with modest top ten shuffling and a new metric.)

Recently, the following headline from the Vancouver Courier got boosted in my Twitter feed: “Burrard Bridge named busiest cycling route in North America.” I knew my city, Portland, had been flatlining on bike mode share for several years (we’re working on it), but it was still a bit of a gut punch to see we’d been bested by our neighbors to the far north. The article listed Portland’s Tilikum Crossing at number two in ridership, and Seattle’s Fremont Bridge number three.

A Cascadian trifecta at the forefront of North American biking? Nice! But it didn’t ring true. And…it wasn't.

The ranking was provided by Eco-Counter, a company that sells multimodal data collection equipment, including highly visible bike counters on some of the world’s busiest routes. Side note here to say, the original blog post from the Eco-Counter website did not claim these were the busiest bike routes in North America, but simply the highest-counting North American Eco installations in 2017. The counters are fun. They collect data that you can sort by month and weekend vs. weekday, so you can explore daily and seasonal fluctuations, weather-related behavior, etc. (You can play around with Portland’s Hawthorne Bridge data here.)

The data portals for the two Portland bridges that have Eco counters, the Tilikum and the Hawthorne, are easily accessible, and it was easy to verify that the Hawthorne is actually about twice as busy as the Tilikum. I flagged this for Eco, and they realized they had accidentally listed the Tilikum number two behind the Burrard when it actually should have been the Hawthorne. (The Vancouver Courier article was not updated to reflect this, but the original Eco blog post was.)

The article piqued my curiosity, though. It’s hard to measure “busiest bike route.” “Route” is a pretty ambiguous term. Where would you even take the measurement? It was notable, though, that the top three locations on the Eco list were all bridges. This made some sense. Bridges by their nature tend to be high demand links where multiple desire lines converge to cross a natural barrier before they disperse again on the other side. They are inherent bottlenecks of multimodal demand.

So I wanted to find out: what are the busiest bike bridges in North America?

This is a post on Medium, not an academic paper, so you don’t get a lengthy methodology writeup. I scanned likely candidate cities — densely populated and/or with high bicycle mode share (thanks, census) — using the publicly available Strava Heatmap. (Yes, I am aware of the potential lack of representativenes of any app-based data. Let me know if you find something better that’s free!) Then I scoured the web for count data at promising-looking bridges.

That’s it. Simple, right?

I quickly found that available counts were all over the map as far as the time periods they reported. Some had peak months only, some counted only weekdays (or a single day!), some counted only peak hours. However, using the detailed, publicly available Eco data to model the shape of seasonal and weekend/weekday bike demand, as well as an assumption of a 10:1 ratio between daily volume and peak hour volume, it was straightforward to extrapolate a September weekday volume.

Can we talk about the top bike bridges now?

Almost. Indulge me with some big caveats first.

  1. The list below is almost certainly WRONG — but it’s the best I could do given the data I could track down. I’m happy to call this a draft list and crowdsource the revisions to people who have better local knowledge, better data, or more time on their hands. Got a well-founded difference of opinion? Go ahead: fight me. It’s what internet comment sections are for.
  2. There were several promising locations I simply couldn’t find data on. Chicago’s Dearborn Street Bridge. The Bridge of the Americas connecting El Paso and Juarez (well, OK, I don’t think you’re allowed to bike through customs, but I think there are a lot of bikes crossing that bridge every day.) Iganicio Zaragoza bridge in Monterey. A few bridges in New York I couldn’t find data on (the Pulaski, Harlem River bridges, Gowanus Canal bridges) — but know that the Brooklyn Bridge just missed the cut here, sitting in 12th position with 2,900 average weekday trips. South Street Bridge in Philadephia was a narrow miss, too.
  3. There were a few cities I was surprised to see unrepresented here: the Denver has a healthy bike mode share and some high count locations, but apparently not over the South Platte. The Bay Area has grown its bike mode share in recent years, but apparently crossing the bay on your bike isn’t a thing. I couldn’t find anything to suggest Montreal or Toronto should make the cut. Finally, my gut feel is that the continent’s most populous city should be represented on the list, but I couldn’t find data (or bridges?) in Mexico City.

Good enough? Then let’s get to it. These are the ten (plus one due to a four-way tie in eighth place), and I’m even going to give them to you without making you click through a slide show with ads.

8 (tie). Broadway Bridge, Portland

Average September weekday trips: 4,000 (Source: Portland Bicycle Count Report 2013–2014)

Broadway Bridge (author photo)

The Broadway Bridge spans the Willamette River, connecting neighborhoods in North and Northeast Portland to downtown and the Northwest district. The facility on the bridge is an 8-foot shared-use path on each side, and connects to standard bike lanes on each end.

8 (tie). Fremont Bridge, Seattle

Average September weekday trips: 4,000 (Source: Fremont Bridge Bicycle Counts by Month)

Fremont Bridge (Gogle Street View)

The Fremont connects North Seattle neighborhoods like Fremont, Ballard, Phinney Ridge, and Wallingford over the ship canal to Queen Anne and downtown Seattle. Or, if you’re being uncharitable, tech bros to Amazon. The facility on the bridge itself honestly kind of terrible — a shared bike/ped space that squeezes around grossing gates and bridge operator towers — but the bridge is short and the connection south to downtown includes some lovely protected bike two-way cycle track along Westlake Avenue, and some no-too-shabby buffered bike lanes along Dexter.

8 (tie). Kinzie Street Bridge, Chicago

Average September weekday trips: 4,000 (Source: Spring 2015 Bike Count)

Kinzie Street Bridge (Google Street View)

Chicago River bridges are “bridges” in the same sense that tall buildings in Portland are “skyscrapers.” But Chicago’s bridges, short as they are, are still essential multimodal links, and the Kinzie Street Bridge provides an important link from the North Milwuakee Avenue bikeway into the central city and towards the Dearborn Street protected bikeway. Strava data suggests that the Dearborn Street Bridge may carry even more bikes, but there’s no data. Come on, Chicago.

8 (tie). Steel Bridge, Portland

Average September weekday trips: 4,000 (Source: Portland Bicycle Count Report 2013–2014)

Steel Bridge (author photo)
Portland’s Broadway and Steel Bridges: same place, different users (Google Maps)

The Steel and Broadway have similar counts, and are geographically closer than any two other bridges on this list.The two bridges serve similar catchment areas, but the bike facilities are quite different. The Steel provides a 10-foot two-way shared use path cantilevered off the south side of the lower deck. It connects to the Eastbank Esplanade on the east and the Waterfront Park Trail on the west with almost no change in grade, but because of how close to the water the bridge’s lower deck sits, there are frequent delays for bridge lifts throughout a typical day.

7. Massachusetts Avenue Bridge, Boston

Average September weekday trips: 4,300 (Source: 2017 Boston Bicycle Counts)

Massachusetts Avenue Bridge (Google Street View)

Also known as the Harvard Bridge, this one connects Cambridge to Boston’s Back Bay. Meaning: lots and lots of college students. Like the Steel Bridge in Portland, it has direct connections to riverside paths on both sides of the Charles. Note: this one I had to update just before hitting “publish” because the 2017 data was just reported this week. (Note that “data” in this case is just one day of counts. Come on, Boston.) If I had stayed with the 2016 data the Harvard Bridge would have been out of the top ten.

6. Hawthorne Bridge, Portland

Average September weekday trips: 4,600 (Source: Hawthorne Bridge Bicycle Counter)

Hawthorne Bridge (author photo)

Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Not that long ago the Hawthorne was in second or third place, but Portland went flat while biking kept growing in other U.S. cities, plus the no-car Tilikum Crossing siphoned off about half a million annual trips when it opened in 2015. The Hawthorne is still Portland’s top bike bridge, but the relatively poor bike portals at either end (we’re definitely working on it) put it behind several other North American bridges. Note — the data for the Hawthorne is wonky, with missing data in one direction or the other for weeks at a time, so I had to do some cleaning.

5. Burrard Bridge, Vancouver

Average September weekday trips: 5,400 (Source: Bike lane stats by month)

Burrard Bridge (Google Maps)

The Burrard is a key link connecting the University of British Columbia and neighborhoods like Kitsilano into downtown. It has all the right geographical ingredients for a great bike bridge — proximity to downtown, college students, and hip neighborhoods — but then the city went and took it to the next level with upgrades to the bike portals.

Upgraded portal at the south end of the Burrard Bridge (Google Maps)

The recent improvements at both ends of this bridge are pretty spectacular. The image above shows the downtown (north) side interface, but the south side is where things really pop. This is a bridge that begs people to ditch their cars and join the peloton into downtown. The Burrard is not the number one bike bridge in North America by ridership, but certainly punches way above its weight for a mid-sized city.

4. Queensboro Bridge, New York

Average September weekday trips: 5,800 (Source: 1980–2017 East River Bridge Counts)

Queensboro Bridge (Google Street View)

The 59th Street Bridge is the key bike connection into Manhattan for close-in Queens neighborhoods like Astoria and Long Island City, but also further-flung neighborhoods via a few nice new bikeways like Queens Boulevard.

The Queens-side portal to the bridge is actually pretty lovely given the spaghetti nature of the ramps and subway lines coming on and off. Queens Plaza, at the base of the bridge, includes a two-way protected bikeway that immediately gets you east and west without thrusting you into a confusion of heavy traffic the way some bridgeheads do.

Plus: nice views (and aerial trams!) if you go in for that kind of thing.

3. Manhattan Bridge, New York

Average September weekday trips: 6,900 (Source: 1980–2017 East River Bridge Counts)

Manhattan Bridge (author photo)

The Manhattan sits right next to the Brooklyn, but judging by the counts, the Manhattan is much preferred for bike trips. To be honest, it isn’t the most beautiful ride — it feels more industrial and desolate than the other East River bridges, and you’re right up against the four noisy MTA tracks. But what it lacks in charm it makes up for in utility. I mean, you COULD take the Brooklyn, but who wants to shoulder through throngs of selfie-stick wielding tourists?

2. Washington Avenue Bridge, Twin Cities

Average September weekday trips: 7,400 (Source: Bicycle & Pedestrian Count Report 2016)

Washington Street Bridge (Google Street View)

I think this count is from 2012. Why there aren’t more recent counts at this too-cool-for-words bridge is beyond me. The high ridership shouldn’t be a surprise: it connects two halves of a huge university campus and has good proximity to the downtowns of two major cities. The facility on the bridge and the treatments at the portals are great, too. Nice job, gophers.

1. Williamsburg Bridge, New York

Average September weekday trips: 7,800 (1980–2017 East River Bridge Counts)

Williamsburg Bridge (author photo, but might as well be street view)

It would be easy to be cynical with this one — after all, any time you connect hipsters and jobs, you’re going to get a ton of bikes. I would probably get annoyed/bored with this bridge if it was my daily commute, but as a tourist it puts a stupid grin on your face. There you float, a good forty feet above the roadway and MTA tracks, with an expansive view of East River and the sky as you travel an elevated two-way cycle track along the north side of the bridge. Ths south side has its own elevated path for people walking, so the whole organization fo the bridge is pretty bike-friendly.