For too long, biking has been viewed skeptically as a white-people thing, a big city thing, an ultra-fit athlete thing, a 20-something thing, a guy thing, a warm weather thing, or an upper-middle class thing.
But times are changing. More than 100 million Americans rode a bike in 2014, and bicycles have outsold cars most years in the U.S. since 2003. Latinos bike more than any other racial group, followed by Asians and Native Americans. African Americans and whites bike at about the same rate. Most bicyclists are low-income, according to census figures—as many as 49 percent of bike commuters make less than $25,000 a year. From 1990 to 2012, bike commuting tripled in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Washington D.C., Minneapolis, Portland.
We still have a long way to go to make a bike-friendly America.
What’s driving the culture shift in biking? “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.
“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.”
Here are 12 reasons biking will grow in popularity:
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.
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 U.S. Rep. 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, the latest figures available, the number of kids biking and walking to school jumped to 16 percent.
More Women Becoming Bike Advocates
Despite biking’s guy image, almost a third of all trips were taken by women, according to 2009 Federal Highway Administration. That percentage is likely to rise as more women become bike advocates—as grassroots activists, transportation professionals, and bike industry leaders. In 1990, about 10 percent of the crowd at the influential Pro Walk/Pro Bike/Pro Place conference were women, says Wisconsin bike advocate Kit Keller. At the most recent conference, women outnumbered men in both the audience and among the speakers.
Comfortable, Convenient Bike Routes
Expanding access to biking means moving beyond one-off bike lanes to connected networks that give bicyclists the same ease of transportation 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 U.S. by Big Jump Project—can already be glimpsed in certain neighborhoods of Brooklyn, New York; Indianapolis, Indiana; Austin, Texas; Calgary, Alberta; and Fort Collins, Colorado.
Bikes Available When You Want Them
Bikeshare systems—where a rental bike is yours with the swipe of a credit card or a click 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 bikesharing is changing how people—including those who do not own a bike— get around town. In China, a new kind of bikeshare in which bicycles are available everywhere and not just at designated stations is resurrecting biking dramatically.
Riding Boosts Our Health
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends 30 minutes of moderate physical activity—such as bicycling —five days a week. That’s 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.
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 because of weight, bike activist Randy Neufeld says.
Growing Grassroots Activism
Neighbors across the country are rising up to have a say about the future of their communities. 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 emphasizing 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.
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 3 miles or less are made by motor vehicles, the vast majority of which could be biked in less than 20 minutes.
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,” says 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.
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.
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.
Adapted from The Surprising Future of Bicycling in America. (A fundraising campaign is underway to expand the report into a full-scale book.) The report was created with Melissa Balmer and Pedal Love with support from Bosch eBikes Systems Americas.
Jay Walljasper writes, speaks, edits, and consults about creating stronger, more vital communities. He is a Senior Fellow at Project of Public Spaces, editor of the Blue Mountain Center Commons, and author of The Great Neighborhood Book and All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons. Walljasper is a YES! contributing editor.