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People for Bikes Sponsored Series

The Business Of Biking

Wheels of Change: the Rise of Bicycling in America

By Tim Blumenthal, President of PeopleForBikes

Bicycling in America is changing: it’s getting bigger, better and broader.

Always linked with freedom and fun for kids and fitness for adults, bicycling is becoming fashionable. Just watch any evening hour of network TV: nearly half the commercials you see — for cars, insurance, mobile phones, cereal or whatever — will show smiling, healthy people riding bikes.

Grown-up bicycling for short trips has moved from the quirky category (see Steve Carell in The 40-Year-Old Virgin) to stylish and hip (see Leonardo DiCaprio on a New York Citibike in Us Magazine). Thankfully, the changes in bicycling go way beyond image.

Bike riding in big U.S. cities — especially for commuting and other short trips — has nearly doubled in the last decade. Most mayors and city councils view bicycling as a cost-effective solution — a transportation choice that helps reduce traffic congestion, air pollution, and the costs related to providing parking. City leaders are mindful of one, simple statistic: half of all the trips Americans make are three miles or less. Cities all across the country are investing in better bikeways and supporting the highly visible addition of short-term bike rental systems (bike sharing).

This has been the summer of bike-sharing in America. After impressive launches in Europe and Canada, sophisticated, automated bike rental systems hit the ground in Denver and Minneapolis three years ago. Washington, DC, soon followed.

At first, the usage figures were modest. This year, however, the game has changed dramatically as New York  (Citibike), Chicago (Divvy), and other large-scale American city systems debuted. Today — and every day during Daylight Savings time — close to 100,000 trips will be made on U.S. bike-share bikes. This is a big enough number to change the face of the urban experience…and generally, it’s for the better.

Just about every U.S. city that has installed a bike-sharing system has made simultaneous investments in bike infrastructure. Many cities are building separated, protected bikeways that appeal to inexperienced bike riders who won't pedal if their only separation from fast-moving motor vehicles is a white painted stripe on the pavement. (Unfortunately, the old-school bike lane remains the state-of-the-art in too many places.) Meanwhile, the number of separated green lanes in U.S. cities has doubled in each of the last two years, and this trend seems certain to continue.

U.S. mayors see clear links between bikeways and business. Cities compete fiercely to attract corporations, and many pay special attention to the dynamic companies — particularly in the tech sector — that hire highly educated, highly motivated workers. Mayors know that these firms want to locate in cities where (among other things) it’s easy to live a compact lifestyle and get around on a bike.

Here’s another recent discovery: as bike riding increases in a city or town, businesses benefit. Many restaurants have converted on-street parking spots near the front door to bike parking… turning a spot for a single car into room for 15-to-20 customers who arrive by bike. When the front door is no longer shadowed or blocked by cars or trucks, the entrance seems more inviting, and sales often go up. Retail stores near popular bikeways have noticed another trend that is somewhat counter-intuitive: that people on bikes stop and visit more often and ultimately buy more over time than people who drive.

The list of perks associated with bicycling goes on:

  • Companies save money on health insurance premiums by encouraging (and incentivizing) their employees to bike to work and bike for recreation.

  • Millennials are driving less (and biking more) than older generations. As they do so, they’re saving lots of money.

  • Kids and adults who bike to school and work tend to be more alert, healthier, more productive, and happier.

Not all U.S. bicycling trends are good. More than 600 Americans die each year in bike accidents— most of them collisions with cars and trucks. The U.S. bike accident rate remains one of the highest in the world. The percentage of U.S. trips made by bike is 1/20th that of the Netherlands and a tenth of Germany’s. The simple fact is that most Americans can’t pedal away from their homes or workplace with full confidence that the ride will be safe and appealing the entire way and the lack of safety deters would-be riders.

Nevertheless, we are confident that bicycling will continue to become more popular. We know that it’s becoming safer and more appealing…though not everywhere. We are encouraged by the improving gender and ethnic diversity of the riding public (though both have a long way to go).

As we contemplate the future of bicycling in America, we keep our focus on one simple idea: When people ride bikes, great things happen.

Read more about the business of biking on our full series here...

Tim Blumenthal is the President of PeopleForBikes, a national non-profit organization working to unite millions of Americans to make bicycling safer and more appealing. His 34-year career in bicycling also includes stints as an editor for Bicycling Magazine, the CEO of the International Mountain Bike Association, and a writing/advisory role for NBC Sports at seven of the last eight Summer Olympic Games.

[Image credit: MarissaHuber, Flickr]

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