More Than Half of America Never Gets on a Bike

Bike commuters in Toronto this morning. (Photo: Lloyd Alter).

There are many planners and urbanists in North America who believe that bikes should be considered part of our transportation systems, just like transit or cars. They are convinced that with proper infrastructure and encouragement, our North American cities could be more like European cities, where a significant proportion of the population uses the bike as daily transport to work. (In Copenhagen, it’s 55 percent of the population!)

how often ride bike chart

But they certainly won’t get much joy out of a recent poll by YouGov. The poll* found that 51 percent of Americans never ride a bike at all, and 6 percent don’t even know how. Only 17 percent of Americans ride a bike more than once a month. Of those who never ride, there's quite a split between the sexes; 42 percent of men never ride and 60 percent of women. As noted in a 538 article by Mona Chalabi, women cycle less because of safety concerns, grooming issues and fears of harassment. They also worry about how they can carry kids.

this is biking with kids in Copenhagen
How it's done in Copenhagen. Lloyd Alter

These are serious concerns that can be dealt with, and they are dealt with daily in other countries. Separated bike lanes, proper storage and showers at offices, cargo bikes for kids — all these things can be done, but they are not done in North America. Why? Because bikes are considered toys, not transportation.

primary reason

The YouGov study clearly shows why there is so little investment in bike infrastructure and support. Just look at the reasons people use bikes in America. About 53 percent use the bike as a leisure activity, while only 3 percent use a bike to get to work. I would have hoped that millennials would have had significantly higher use of bikes, but the 18-34 age group is all of 4 percent. Surprisingly, twice as many women use bikes for commuting as men.

Education has a lot to do with who bikes to work as well; only 1 percent of those with high school education or less commute by bike, but 5 percent of college grads do, and 6 percent of post-grads.

But it’s clear that in America for most people, bikes are still little more than a recreational or fitness activity, and are not seen as actual transportation by more than a small fraction of the population. Bikes are fun things to cruise in the park or to be a MAMIL (middle-aged man in Lycra) racing down the streets and terrifying everyone. But as real transportation? Forget it.

This is a real shame. Highways and transit systems cost billions to build and operate. The New York City Second Avenue subway is costing $2 billion per mile; The Seattle tunnel that right now is plugged with a broken boring machine is costing $4.2 billion and rising. Bike infrastructure is cheap. Riding bikes is good for you. Bikes are reliable, emission-free, small and cheap to operate. Instead of scaring people off their bikes, governments should be doing everything they can to get people on them, to push that number up from that ridiculously low 3 percent.

Note from YouGov: All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 1,196 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 6th - 8th August 2013. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all U.S. adults (aged 18+).