A number of years ago I ran some focus groups for a major cycling manufacturer, and we asked the respondents about their earliest memories of cycling. The differences in their responses aligned with the kind of cyclists they had grown into as adults. The people who liked cruiser bikes talked about earliest cycling memories related to a sense of exploration and independence. The BMX adrenaline junkies remembered their first rush of speed, bombing down a backyard hillside out of control. If you are reading this article, you probably have your own childhood recollection of two-wheeled freedom.
According to a cycling participation study by PeopleForBikes released in April 2019, 53 percent of American kids ages 3-17 rode a bike in the past year. Is that good news or bad?
“In some ways it’s both,” said Jennifer Boldry, research director for PeopleForBikes. “At first blush, half of kids are riding a bike and that’s great.” It’s more than the 32 percent participation rate of the population as a whole.
The downside, Boldry said, is “fewer kids are riding than have historically.”
Boldry points to a number of factors contributing to the decline, including population growth, particularly in urban areas, creating more vehicular traffic to contend with. And parenting styles have changed with the times such that it’s the rare child who is set loose on a bike with a promise to be home by dinner.
According to the PeopleForBikes study, bike participation declines with age. Kids age 3-9 are the country’s most active cyclists, with 56 percent having ridden a bike in the past year. Next come 10-17 year-olds at 50 percent (parents answered the PeopleForBikes survey on their kids’ behalf). There’s a big drop right around the time young people get their driver’s license and take on other forms of adulting: In the 18-24 age group, 38 percent report having ridden a bike in the past year. From there it’s a steady descent to the 55+ group reporting 18 percent who saddled up.
Childrens’ bikes sales, which at just over $700 million in 2018 is the largest category in the bike industry, were down close to $30 million from 2017 figures, according to the NPD Group’s Retail Tracking Service. NPD Analyst Dirk Sorenson said the drop in sales is due in part to the closing of large children’s retailers, but it’s also true that fewer kids are riding bikes. He cites a 5 percent drop in youth cycling over the past 10 years captured in the Outdoor Foundation’s Outdoor Recreation Participation Report for 2018 as cause for concern: “This is a significant decline, which may have impacts to the long-term health of the category,” he said.
The Outdoor Foundation report also found that adults are more likely to participate in outdoor recreation in general—of which cycling is a part—if they are introduced to the outdoors as kids. Fewer kids participating now could lead to fewer adults participating in the future.
Overall, adult cycling sales have been flat over the past few years. In 2018 the “transit/fitness” category fell almost as much dollar-wise as kids bikes, a bigger hit to a category sized at just under $500 million. Mountain bike sales were down as well (with the exception of full-suspension bikes), as were sales for the road/sports performance, lifestyle, BMX and triathlon segments.
However, strong sales of e-bikes and cross/gravel categories provided a positive counterbalance in the cycling marketplace. Gravel bikes—essentially a road bike-like frame designed to accommodate more off-road friendly tires—are likely taking over the front-suspension mountain bike’s mantle as the do-anything bike, Sorenson said.
“For years, front-suspension mountain bikes were the default selection for consumers who wanted a bike that could be ridden anywhere,” he said. “However, this class has experienced declines of almost 12 percent from the end of March 2017 to the end of March 2019.” This, too, he attributes to the closure of large retailers selling this category of bike, but also because riders are finding that gravel bikes are a better solution for their multi-purpose needs.
“For gravel bikes, growth is being driven by the utility nature of the design. There is real appeal to the everyday consumer who wants to purchase a bike that can be ridden in almost every environment,” he said.
As for the rise in e-bikes, kids may be riding less, but Sorenson sees a $60 million dollar increase in e-bike sales due in part to baby boomers trying to ride more.
“Aging cyclists may want to maintain or try cycling as part of an active lifestyle,” he said. “Almost 10,000 U.S. citizens are turning 65 every day, according to the U.S. Census, and we know that these baby boomers continue to seek ways to remain active. E-bikes are a great fit for them.”
And respondents in the PeopleForBikes study said they want to ride more. Of those age 18 and up who didn’t ride a bike in the past year, 26 percent said they intend to ride in the future.
The PeopleForBikes “Places for Bikes” initiative is working to get more people to ride bikes, more often. You need to have a bike to ride, but you also need places where you feel safe riding it.
“Our whole goal is to encourage U.S. cities to build better places to ride,” Boldry says. “It could be a fully separated lane, it could be a path, it could be a trail, it could be a neighborhood road that doesn’t see a lot of traffic. You don’t have to be brave and experienced to ride in that kind of infrastructure. If you build comfortable, connected networks, people will ride.”
The ratio of cyclists to cars is up in areas where it’s easier to ride, according to PeopleForBikes data, which combines factors such as ridership along with safety ratings and quality of biking network to develop its list of the Best Cities for Bikes. While it may come as no surprise to see bike-friendly Boulder, Colorado, Ft. Collins, Colorado, and Eugene, Oregon, topping the list, the fact that Manhattan, New York, and Arlington, Virginia, round out the top five shows that making way for bikes is feasible even in dense metro areas.
Boldry is also involved in a cooperative effort among cycling groups to get more kids on bikes. One approach is building bike parks—a little trail or pump track added to a city park or any undeveloped land has proven to go a long way.
When it comes to data on cycling participation, Boldry prefers to look at the glass half full: “I see it as an opportunity. If only half of the kids are riding, think if we got another 25 percent to ride, imagine the overall growth in ridership,” she said. “My dream is that every kid is a 10-minute ride to a bike park.”
Kids age 3-9 are the country’s most active cyclists, with 56 percent having ridden a bike in the past year. Next come 10-17 year-olds at 50 percent (parents answered the PeopleForBikes survey on their kids’ behalf). There’s a big drop right around the time young people become old enough to drive and take on other forms of adulting: in the 18-24 age group, 38 percent report having ridden a bike in the past year. From there it’s a steady descent to the 55+ group reporting 18 percent who saddled up.
Children’s bikes sales, which at just over $700 million in 2018 is the largest category in the bike industry, were down close to $30 million from 2017 figures, according to the NPD Group’s Retail Tracking Service and other bike sales data.
Places for Bikes—Best Cities for Bikes