Bicycling Around the World: An Eco-Context for America

The Earth Policy Institute informs us that: "U.S. bicycle promotion initiatives and ridership lag far behind those of Europe. The number of children biking or walking to school has dropped 75 percent within a generation, while obesity rates have tripled, and only 1 percent of all trips are taken by bicycle. Estimates for the number of Americans who regularly bike to work range from 500,000 to 5 million. In contrast, 97 million Americans drive to work alone. Yet more than 100 million Americans own bicycles. With so many bicycle owners but so little bike riding in the United States, there is great potential to increase the role that bicycles play in daily commutes and other frequent trips".Americans have sent the work of making most of their bikes to China. "Production [of bicycles] continues to be dominated by China, where output jumped from 34 million bicycles in 1998 to a record 73 million in 2003. Some 51 million of these bikes were exported; more than a third went to the United States, the world's largest import market".

So, more than "100 million Americans own bicycles," the majority of which were made in China, and which apparently are used mainly as "garage fill." Hmmm. China builds our bike; we shove it to the back of the "stuff" pile, and then hop into the SUV to go 5 blocks for groceries. What gives?

A quick look at sporting goods section of any major retail outlet provides a clue. What sells in the mass market is the cheap mountain bike, even in areas that have no hills at all. Many have heavy steel frames, gaudy paint jobs, pop culture decals, and extra heavy shock absorbers. This segment of bicycle marketing in America, in essence, is the two-wheeled version of the way-too much-horsepower with "spoiler" idiom that dominates the auto industry. Perhaps this is because parents, who themselves never ride, buy the cheap-hot looking ones for their kids, imagining that the racing look is what they'd prefer.

Go to a dedicated bicycle store and you'll likely see an entirely different scene; a balance of road bikes, "hybrids", "commuter bikes" (like you'd see in a European city), and high performance mountain bikes.

It would be interesting to segment the marketing and usage stats into the numbers bought by serious riders who buy from dedicated bicycle stores versus those who purchase them from mass market retailers. That, we suspect, would show a very different picture. Another stat that would be even more revealing, we think, would be to compare per-capita sales of bicycle racks by nation, differentiating the importance of recreational versus everyday use.