For too long biking has been seen – like the title of the popular book and blog – as “Stuff White People Like.” It’s also viewed skeptically as a big city thing, an ultra-fit athlete thing, a twenty-something thing, a warm weather thing, an upper-middle class thing, a Portland-and Brooklyn-thing, a foreign thing, and a thing for people without kids. Paradoxically, in some communities, it’s also viewed as a “loser” thing or “weirdo” thing.
Above all else, it’s seen as a guy thing. (This is truly ironic, given early feminist Susan B. Anthony’s lavish praise: “Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.”)
But guess what? The times they are a changing. More than 100 million Americans rode a bike in 2014 (latest figures available), and bicycles have outsold cars most years in the U.S. since 2003. The widespread stereotypes about people who ride bikes don’t hold up on closer inspection:
- Bikes are not-so-white. More Latinos actually bike than any other group, followed by Asians and Native Americans. Black people and whites bike at almost exactly the same rate.
- Older Americans account for about a third of new people taking up bicycling each year.
- 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 (outside DC) rank among America’s top towns for biking. And one place where bikes account for more than 20 percent of traffic on local streets is the small city of Davis, CA (pop: 65,000).
“There’s growing diversity in the movement, but it’s important to hear more diverse voices—people from lower income communities, people of color. And more women too,” says Keith Benjamin, director of Charleston, South Carolina’s transportation department.
Slowly but surely—thanks to work by bicycle advocates, the bike industry, neighborhood activists and forward-looking transportation professionals—more and more U.S. communities are realizing that future of mobility is bigger than cars. Companies like Ford are now calling themselves mobility or transportation companies rather than car companies, and Lyft and Uber have both recently purchased bikeshare companies. When we take into consideration the rise of traffic congestion, global warming, and the risk of sitting ourselves to death, biking is becoming an attractive, cost effective, healthy and convenient way to get around.
The growth of biking as transportation
Bike commuting tripled in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Washington D.C., Minneapolis, Portland, and Denver from 1990 to 2012, and doubled in many other urban centers. This leap in people-powered transport is not just a big-city phenomenon. Bicycle trips of all kinds increased 64 percent in U.S. metro areas with populations between 500,000 and 1 million between 2001 and 2009 (latest figures available). In metro regions between 250,000 and 500,000, it was 42 percent.
“I love seeing crowds of cyclists at intersections in the bike lanes at rush hour,” says Suzi Wunsch, the founder and editor of New York based Velojoy.com. “For me, it’s daily visual confirmation of the momentum behind the cycling boom in New York City, with 450,000 trips daily, up from 170,000 in 2005.”
This success is changing what people see as possible for life on two wheels. The main thrust of bike advocacy until recently was legitimizing bicycles as a form of transportation – focusing on creating painted bike lanes on streets and off-road paths. Now there’s a new push to make bike-riding more mainstream with low-stress, convenient routes that take even inexperienced riders to all the places they want to go by creating networks of protected bike lanes (where riders are safely separated from speeding traffic) and neighborhood greenways (residential streets where bikers and walkers get priority).
Protected bike lanes are sprouting in communities coast to coast. This 21st century upgrade can now be found in 82 cities across 34 states. Their proliferation is prompted by studies showing that most people of all ages, races, regions, and incomes want to bike more, but are fearful about sharing busy streets with fast-moving vehicles.
“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 advocate who founded the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation (now the Active Transportation Alliance) and is now director of the SRAM Cycling Fund. Another marker of the bike’s expanding popularity is the many new models designed for casual riding, rather than racing or pedaling up mountains. Stylish brands—including Electra, Public, Linus, Shinola, Tern, and Martone Cyclery— show off bicycling as an active, happy, and even sexy way of living.
Meanwhile, we’re seeing more e-bikes (you still pedal but a battery gives a boost when needed) and bikeshare stations (where you can rent a bike right on the street). And the ultimate sign of a bright future for biking is how often bicycles turn up in a wide range of pop-culture images, including advertising of all kinds of products wanting to a convey a healthy, vital image.
Of course, green and sustainability aficionados like Ed Begley Jr., and David Byrne are known for riding their bikes, but so is Beyoncé. She’s such an enthusiastic rider she’s been known to pedal to some of her own concerts. Lebron James has also been known to bike to his NBA games (we’re hoping he’ll continue to do so now that he’ll be playing for the Lakers), and actress Keri Russell loves to ride whether or not she has her children along.
There are many theories to explain the recent rise of biking—from people’s increased health consciousness to a widespread desire for a more leisurely, relaxed life.
People who don’t ride are shocked at the steady growth of bicycling over the past two decades. But it comes as scant surprise to those who do—no matter whether young or old, male or female, rich or poor, urban or suburban or rural, white or not. That’s because bicyclists know how good it feels to whoosh on a bike, the wind in your face, blood pumping to your legs, the landscape unfolding in front of you.
Gear shifters: Monica Garrison & Black Girls Do Bike
“The simple act of riding a bike can be a catalyst to wonderful and life-changing experiences for women of all ages,” says Pittsburgh resident Monica Garrison. She launched Black Girls Do Bike in 2014 after returning to bicycling to beat her wintertime blues. She quickly realized that a black woman on a bike was a rare sight and decided to do something about it. Since then, more than 83 Black Girls Do Bike riding chapters have been launched across the U.S. and the Virgin Islands, with 15,000 members and 13,400 Facebook followers. In 2016 and 2018 she hosted successful Black Girls Do Bike meet ups in Atlanta for 300 women.
Gear shifters: Maria Contreras Tebbutt
Davis, CA resident Maria Contreras Tebbutt runs the volunteer bike education and learn-to-fix-your-bike programs “The Bike Campaign” and “The Bike Garage” for Yolo County from Douglass Middle School in Woodland, just 10 miles from Davis. She launched both programs when funding ran out for the suicide-prevention education program she hosted at the same school. The morning she received word of her funding cut, Tebbutt was standing in the school parking lot wondering what she was going to do with her life next when she noticed something that both fascinated and disturbed her. Many of the children getting out of their parent’s cars were quite overweight.
Davis has the highest bike-commuting rate in the country, but that bike-friendly stance doesn’t expand far beyond the city’s limits. An avid bicyclist, Tebbutt decided she could do something about this and has.
“The Bike Campaign is delighted to be that catalyst that took the stigma away from biking and turned thousands of drivers into joyful bike riders in Woodland.” Tebbutt said. “Our number one goal in Woodland has always been to reduce car trips to school. Seven years later it is exciting to see our local leaders riding bikes and entire families out on the bike lanes.”
This article is an excerpt from “The Surprising Promise of Bicycling for America,” by Jay Walljasper and Melissa Balmer, set to be published in October 2018. Learn more at: PedalLove.org.
Photo for Mobility Lab by Sam Kittner.