The Surprising Future of Bicycling: 12 Reasons Why Its Popularity Will Continue to Soar

For too long biking has been viewed skeptically as a white-people thing, a big city thing, an ultra-fit athlete thing, a twenty-something thing, a warm weather thing or an upper-middle class thing. And above all else, it’s seen as a guy thing.

But guess what? The times they are a-changing. More than 100 million Americans rode a bike in 2014, and bicycles have out-sold cars most years in the US since 2003. Actually, Latinos bike more than any other racial group, followed by Asians and Native Americans. African-Americans and whites bike at about the same rate. Actually, most bicyclists are low-income according to census figures—as many as 49 percent of bike commuters make less than $25,000 a year.

As for other misperceptions, keep in mind that Minneapolis (in chilly Minnesota) and Arlington, VA (in suburban DC) rank among America’s top towns for biking. And the one place where bikes account for more than 20 percent of traffic on local streets is Davis, CA (pop: 65,000).

Slowly but surely, more U.S. communities are realizing that the future of mobility is bigger than cars. Biking is seen as an attractive, cost effective, healthy and convenient way to get around. Bike commuting tripled in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Washington DC, Minneapolis, Portland and Denver from 1990 to 2012, and doubled in many other cities.

This success is changing what people see as possible for life on two wheels. There’s a new push is to make bike-riding more mainstream by creating low-stress routes that conveniently take even inexperienced bicyclists to the places they want to go on networks of protected bike lanes (where riders are safely separated from speeding traffic) and neighborhood greenways (residential streets where bikers and walkers get priority).

But the culture shift in biking is about more than infrastructure. “It’s the transition from a small group of people who strongly identify as bicyclists to a bigger, broader grouping of people who simply ride bikes.” explains Randy Neufeld, a veteran bike activist from Chicago. The music star Beyonce has been known to pedal to some of her own concerts, for example, and the NBA’s Lebron James bikes to his games.

People who don’t ride are perplexed by this boom in biking. But it comes as no surprise to those who do—they know how good it feels to whoosh on a bike, wind in your face, blood pumping to your legs, the landscape unfolding all around. You feel fully alive!

How we got here—and where we want to go

“If you look at the bike infrastructure we had 20 years ago and what we have today, it’s mind-boggling,” says John Burke, president of Trek Bicycles.

“But we still have a long way to go to make a bike-friendly America,” Burke admits. “This is important for everybody because the bicycle is a simple solution to climate change, congestion and the massive health crisis we have in this nation.”

A quick glance at other nations shows what’s possible. Across the Netherlands, 27 percent of all trips are made on bike—double the rate of the 1980s. Even Canadians bike significantly more than Americans. Montreal and Vancouver are arguably the two top cities for bicycling in North America despite freezing temperatures in one and heavy rainfall in the other. Why? The prevalence of protected bike lanes and other 21st century bike facilities.

Reasons why bikes will grow in popularity

(1) Expanding Diversity Among Riders:  People of color and riders over 60 are two of the fastest-growing populations of bicyclists. This is a clear sign of bicycling’s shift from an insider club of Lycra-clad hobbyists to a diverse cross-section of Americans who ride for all sorts of reasons—from getting groceries to losing weight to just having fun.

(2) Safer Streets for Kids: In 1969, 40 percent of all children walked or biked to school—by 2001, less than 13 percent did. Over the same period, rates of childhood obesity soared.

That prompted US Representative James Oberstar of Minnesota to add $1.1 billion to the 2005 Transportation Bill to promote Safe Routes to Schools, a variety of projects and programs in all 50 states to make biking and walking less dangerous and more convenient for students K-12. By 2012 (latest figures available), the number of kids biking and walking to school jumped to 16 percent.

(3) More Women Becoming Bike Advocates: Despite biking’s macho man image, almost a third of all trips were taken by women, according to 2009 Federal Highway Administration. That number is very likely to rise in the upcoming count, thanks to streams of women becoming bike advocates—as grassroots activists, transportation professionals and bike industry leaders.

One telling statistic confirms this trend. In 1990, about 10 percent of the crowd at the influential Pro Walk/Pro Bike/Pro Place conference were women, remembers Wisconsin bike advocate Kit Keller. At the most recent conference, women outnumbered men in both the audience and among the speakers.

(4) Comfortable, Convenient Bike Routes: Expanding access to biking means moving beyond from stand-alone bike lanes to connected networks that give bicyclists the same ease of mobility that motorists enjoy on roads and pedestrians on sidewalks. That’s how many European nations have achieved big increases in bike ridership over recent decades.

This vision—being jumpstarted in the US by Big Jump Project—can already be glimpsed in certain neighborhoods of Brooklyn, Indianapolis, Austin, Calgary and Fort Collins, Colorado.

(5) Bikes Available When You Want Them: Bikeshare systems—where a rental bike is yours at the swipe of a credit card or clicks on a smartphone—have swept across America since 2010. Eighty eight million rides were taken on 42,000 bikes in the 55 largest systems last year, evidence that bikeshare is changing how people—including many who do not own a bike— get around town.

Meanwhile in China, a new kind of bikeshare, where bicycles are available everywhere on the streets not just at designated stations, is resurrecting biking on a dramatic scale.

(6) Riding Boosts Our Health: The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends 30 minutes of moderate physical activity like bicycling five days a week based on medical studies showing that it reduces your chance of dementia, depression, anxiety, diabetes, colon cancer, cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis and other health threats by at least 40 percent. Enough said.

(7) The Dawn of E-Bikes: This technological innovation—in which riders’ pedaling can be boosted by a rechargeable battery—answers many of the excuses people have for not biking: hills, long distances, sweaty clothes, strong winds, hot weather, cold weather, and not being able to carry things due to weight, says bike activist Randy Neufeld.

(8) Growing Clout of Grassroots Activists: Neighbors across the country are rising up to have a say about the future of their communities. Sick and tired of planning decisions that favor automobiles over people, they advocate solutions that promote biking and walking such as Complete Streets (roads designed with all users in mind) and Vision Zero (a strategy to eliminate traffic fatalities).

Many bike advocates are also expanding their vision to emphasize social justice. “We must also talk about public health, gentrification, people of color, women who feel harassed on the street, older people,” urges Tamika Butler, former director of the Los Angeles County Bike Coalition.

(9) Curbing Climate Change: Almost daily headlines remind us that climate disruption is a problem we must fix now. Transportation makes up the second biggest source of greenhouse gases. Seventy-two percent of all trips three mile or less are made by motor vehicles today, the vast majority of which could be biked in less than twenty minutes.

(10) The Rise of Autonomous Vehicles: Sooner or later driverless cars will dominate traffic on America’s roads, which could result in a surge of bike riders. Research shows 60 percent of Americans would bike regularly if they felt safer on the streets and this new technology can dramatically reduce crashes. Also, autonomous vehicles require far fewer parking places, opening up space in the street for state-of-the-art bikeways.

“It may be that only every third street has cars allowed on it,” muses Gabe Klein, former transportation director in Chicago and Washington. “The choices we make about how autonomous vehicles are regulated are crucial. If we get it wrong, the future is grim for any not in a car,” cautions Andy Clarke, Director of Strategy for Toole Design Group.

(11) The Emergence of Bike Planning and Advocacy as a Profession: Thousands of professionally-trained people are now employed by government, private business and nonprofit organizations to improve biking in America’s communities.

(12) Better Communities—Even for Those Who Don’t Bike: When National Geographic magazine and the Gallup organization recently rated the 25 happiest cities in the US, the article’s author Dan Buettner noted, “There’s a high correlation between bikeability and happiness.”

Even people who never hop on a bike benefit from bike-friendly improvements—a safer environment for walkers and drivers, less traffic and more vital neighborhoods and business districts.

From The Surprising Future of Bicycling in AmericaThe report was created with Melissa Balmer and Pedal Love with support from Bosch eBikes Systems Americas. Author of the Great Neighborhood, Jay Walljasper consults, speaks and writes about how to create stronger, brighter communities.  

 

 

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12 Responses to The Surprising Future of Bicycling: 12 Reasons Why Its Popularity Will Continue to Soar

  1. Walker Angell
    Walker Angell December 4, 2017 at 1:16 pm #

    Jay, good points. Now we just need to get more protected bikeways so that people are and feel safe riding to places they want to go (and get bike shops to sell bikes more conducive to daily riding rather than recreation)

    E-bikes are a bit of a double edged sword. E-bike riders can quickly become a nuisance to other path users and discourage use. This has become an increasing problem in The Netherlands, Sweden and elsewhere. Limiting overall power to perhaps 150 watts (equivalent to a very fit daily bicycle rider), tapering the amount of total power available based on speed (150w @ 9 MPH >>>> 0w @ 14 MPH) and limiting overall power to no more than 50% of total propulsion (E.G., rider must provide at least 50%) would help.

  2. norski99 December 8, 2017 at 3:24 pm #

    I’ve become an almost-daily bicycle commuter in Duluth (spring through fall)–thanks entirely to an e-bike.

    Walter, in my experience, your suggested 150 watt-limit would not provide enough power to serve as useful assistive technology. 250-350 watts are the minimum needed for an e-bike that’s more than a toy or novelty, and a 500 watt battery (like the one on my bike) is completely legit for challenging terrain and longer distances.

    To clarify, I’m not talking about e-bikes that use throttles but those with torque-sensing pedaling. Operating at the 150% setting (multiplying my own exertion by one and a half times) I can persist in the face of stiff headwinds, and at 300% (three times my still-considerable effort), can manage steep lengthy inclines.

    It’s true that I’m able to ride faster than before, but that doesn’t make me a speed demon or a “nuisance.” On crowded bike paths I moderate my cadence, or ride on the road (pleasantly surprised to find that a higher speed, in the 18-21 mph range, increases my comfort and confidence in vehicular traffic). And I must note that even with my 500-watt advantage I still get lapped by the spandex-clad!

    E-bikes have tremendous potential to encourage all kinds of people who, like me, need a physical assist to ride bikes more easily and more often. E-bikers are “really” bicycling, not just coasting along on a mini-motorbike, nor will we run rampant over the bike trails. The benefits of this technology far outweigh the downsides and I’m concerned that the extent of regulation you’re proposing would prematurely undercut its effectiveness and its ability to get more folks out there on bikes.

    • Jenny W December 11, 2017 at 11:11 am #

      Great points, norski! Your comment about matching cadence to environment spot-on. Just because someone is able to go 20 mph (ebike or no ebike), doesn’t mean they will always be going 20 mph. And enabling more people to bike (or to bike further, or to bike more easily, or to bike faster, or to bike more often, or to haul more stuff by bike) is a great thing.

    • Walker Angell
      Walker Angell December 11, 2017 at 2:26 pm #

      First, I’m not saying this based on theory, but actual experience of what has become problematic in The Netherlands and elsewhere. It’s a problem that we do not want and one that we can head off before it becomes a problem.

      150 watts is the equivalent of a fit human. That is enough for you to keep up with the majority of others without pedaling. Add your own pedaling and you have more power at your disposal, about twice as much actually, than most. Why do you need more power than others?

      While you may limit your speed and maneuvering to something in line with others, many others will not. Along with that, people who don’t put forth considerable effort themselves tend to be less safe and less considerate of others. It seems to be kind of an ‘I’m more powerful than you so get out of my way‘ type of thing. That is the problem that The Netherlands, Denmark and others have encountered. One of the results is that in some areas fewer people ride bikes and so drive cars instead because of the nuisance of motorized traffic on the bikeways.

      There is also a bit of a collective ‘we’re all in this together‘ thing among people riding for transportation. All struggling against the wind together, all struggling up a hill together, all riding together. When an elderly person easily pedals by them up a hill then most people think more power to them. When a 40-something does the same then people too often think cheater or they get discouraged and loose their interest in riding.

      More: https://streets.mn/2013/08/27/getting-a-handle-on-e-bikes/

      The solution in Europe is that they are beginning to try to limit the types used on bikeways and force the others to use the streets. The problem is that there are a gob of people with more powerful e-bikes or with throttles instead of just pedal assist and these people scream and shout that they purchased this expensive bike to ride on the nice clear bikeways and they must be allowed to do so… And be a nuisance to others at the same time. The politicians often give in and so the nuisance continues with the result that either fewer people ride at all or they convert to e-bikes themselves creating more of a nuisance and reducing the health benefits.

      I’m a huge fan of e-bikes. I expect to get one when I’m older. But they should not be allowed to be a nuisance to others. Greater than 150 watts and a throttle is fine for streets but if we want to grow bicycling then we need to limit what is allowed on MUPs, SUPs, Bikeways and trails.

      • Adam Miller
        Adam Miller December 11, 2017 at 3:12 pm #

        In Amsterdam, scooters seemed to regularly use the bikeways. Maybe it’s just busy enough that they can’t really be too much of a nuisance, because there’s no room to go faster than the crowd? I was surprised and they seemed out of place to me.

        • Walker Angell
          Walker Angell December 11, 2017 at 4:41 pm #

          Out of place is a good way to put it for scooters and mopeds (snorfiets!). 🙂

          There are probably some instances of crowded bikeways where they are less of a problem and recently there has been an improvement in some behavior due to the threat of their being completely outlawed. This particularly in Amsterdam where the city itself is pushing for a ban vs the nationwide ban before Parliament that will take much longer to pass and take effect.

  3. Pete Barrett December 9, 2017 at 12:16 pm #

    What’s with the woman riding a bike with a cup of coffee (or some other beverage) in her left hand? Hope she doesn’t crash or have to stop or veer suddenly.

    Hang up and drive!

    • Walker Angell
      Walker Angell December 11, 2017 at 2:36 pm #

      It’s not such a problem on a bicycle. Because of the threat to their own skin, bicycle riders pay much better attention to what they’re doing than drivers in a protective shell do.

      In The Netherlands there are occasional calls for people to not talk on their phone because it does lead to distracted riders but it’s really not a huge problem and these things never pick up any steam like the calls for not allowing drivers to do the same. There have, that I’ve heard, never been any complaints of people carrying a drink while riding (or umbrella or whatever). There are days when I’ve probably seen hundreds of people carrying drinks while riding and doing so completely safely.

      • Pete Barrett December 11, 2017 at 3:19 pm #

        It’s an unsafe practice. Even if it only endangers the rider, it’s still unsafe. My standing on top of a step ladder may not be unsafe for you, but that doesn’t make it safe for me.

        It’s not hard to not notice a branch, a small pothole, etc. That’s why it’s best to keep two hands on the wheel, handle bars, whatever.

        By your logic, a bike helmet is unnecessary. I think both are foolish and unnecessary risks. I have 25 years of experience in the construction industry. Safety is all about doing the little right every time. Cutting corners = injuries.

        • Walker Angell
          Walker Angell December 11, 2017 at 4:16 pm #

          Pete, it may seem unsafe, but it is simply not a problem. Tens of thousands of people ride around cities throughout Europe every day carrying a coffee without a problem. Fietsberaad, CBS, and others keep detailed statistics on the causes of bicycle crashes in The Netherlands and someone carrying a coffee does not even register and what people are carrying is a bit that’s asked of all involved. There is no point in outlawing something that is not an issue.

          As to bike helmets, yes they are unnecessary and actually undesirable as they discourage people from riding. The health benefits of riding far outweigh any risks from riding without a helmet. More importantly, foam helmets do not appear to provide any actual benefit. They have not reduced the rates of TBI in any instance where they have been mandated such as New Zealand, Australia and some Canadian provinces. In each they have reduced the rate of bicycling though. The U.S., with a high rate of helmet wearing, has the same rate of TBI as The Netherlands where nobody wears a helmet. If helmets were effective then we should have a much lower rate of TBI.

          Interestingly, MN has one of the highest rates of helmet wearing in the U.S. and we also have, according to the MN Brain Injury Alliance, a TBI rate (of bicycle crashes) of 38% which is much higher than the 33% of The Netherlands and the U.S. average.

          To reduce deaths and injuries we need protected bikeways built to Dutch CROW standards. Even bikeways built to Danish, German or Swedish standards would be far better than the current situation in the U.S. Thanks to the promotion of vehicular cycling, bicycle driving and cycling savvy we have the most dangerous bicycling of all developed countries. That’s not good. And helmets have not appeared to do anything to reduce deaths and injuries.

          Would you rather continue the death rate of the U.S. or have one more like The Netherlands?

          For 40 years the U.S. bicycle industry has promoted vehicular cycling and the wearing of helmets. It as resulted in the lowest rates of bicycling in the world and the highest injury and fatality rates. That’s a failure that we should not continue.

          • Pete Barrett December 11, 2017 at 4:27 pm #

            Parse my words carefully. Where did I mention anything about illegality?

        • Adam Miller
          Adam Miller December 12, 2017 at 10:00 am #

          With good facilities, bike helmets are unnecessary. Almost no adults wear them in the Netherlands.

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