Do most people bike for work or fun?

biking for fun or work
© michaeljung/Shutterstock

I set out to settle a debate with a friend about biking.

I recently got in an argument with a friend about cycling. I argued that, when you see someone biking in New York, they're usually trying to get somewhere — workplaces, grocery stores, friends' apartments, etc. After all, there are plenty of delivery boys and bike messengers who ride all day, all year. Surely their many rides outweigh the occasional hobbyist bike trip. My friend, on the other hand, claimed most bike rides are recreational.

It's no idle question. If he's right, then biking is just some pastime for the wealthy. Why should cities bother making more bike lines or bike rental programs? On the other hand, if I'm right, then biking is an eco-friendly, inexpensive way for everyone to get around without all the pollution and resource-hogging of cars.

So I reached out to Ralph Buehler, a professor of urban affairs at Virginia Tech who studies biking. And it turns out ...

It's pretty 50/50. In urban areas, 46.9 percent of bike trips are recreational. (Since my friend and I were talking about New York City, I technically win the argument, whoo!) But in rural areas, 61.5 percent of trips are recreational.

Most people biking to get somewhere are commuting, working, shopping or visiting friends. Kids are by far the best bikers; 5- to 15-year-olds are taking 39 percent of all bike trips. But that's down from 2001. Since then, adults have started biking way more than they used to. 40- to 64-year-olds used to take only 10 percent of trips, now they're taking 21 percent.

"A bicycling renaissance has indeed been underway over the past two decades, with growing cycling levels and widespread interest in cycling in both the USA and Canada," Buehler and his colleagues wrote in a study.

Income does make a difference, but it's not that rich people are making most of the bike trips.

"Concerning income, there is an overall correlation in the US between cycling and income," Buehler told me, "but looking at it more closely, it is more likely U-shaped, with more cycling among those who are poor and high incomes."

Poor people tend to bike to get to work, while rich people tend to bike for recreation.

"Cycling levels have increased in both the USA and Canada, while cyclist fatalities have fallen," the scientists continued. "Almost all the growth in cycling in the USA has been among men between 25–64 years old, while cycling rates have remained steady among women and fallen sharply for children." Cycling rates doubled in cities in the first decade of the millennium.

Of course, cycling in the U.S. pales in comparison to cycling in Europe. In the Netherlands, bike rides make up nearly 30 percent of daily trips. So we've got a ways to go ... hopefully on bikes.

Do most people bike for work or fun?
I set out to settle a debate with a friend about biking.

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