Surprise! People Aged 60-79 Are Leading the Biking Boom

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Michael Andersen blogs for The Green Lane Project, a PeopleForBikes program that helps U.S. cities build better bike lanes to create low-stress streets.

The national surge in adult bicycling since 1995 may have more to do with healthy hips than with hipsters.

Biking rates among people between the ages of 60 and 79 are soaring, an analysis of federal data shows. New trips by seniors account for 22 percent of the nation’s growth in adult biking. And because biking among children is actually falling, these seniors’ new trips are equivalent to more than a third of the overall gain in biking.

As recently as the Clinton administration, biking was for the young. Riding a bicycle over the age of 55 was very rare; riding over the age of 75 was almost unheard of. Even today, the rapid drop in car use among young adults sometimes leads to assumptions that millennials are driving the nationwide boom in bike trips.

Nope.

There’s no question that Generation Y’s tendency to favor city life and declining enthusiasm for car ownership has boosted bike transportation. But as the older civil rights generation and the baby boomers who followed them have entered their golden years, they’ve quietly transformed what it means to be the kind of person who rides a bicycle.

biking rates by age
Vertical scale measures share of all trips taken by bicycle. All data: National Household Travel Survey

Between 1995 and 2009, the most recent year for which National Household Travel Survey data are available, the rise in biking among people ages 60-79 accounted for 37 percent of the total net nationwide increase in bike trips.

Rebecca Serna of the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition said she’s seen the trend in her own family — her father began riding regularly just after retiring, she said — and in the people who show up to her organization’s adult bike safety courses.

“Rarely do we get someone under 30,” she said. “We’ve had folks well into their 70s, late 70s, that have wanted to learn how to ride a bike for the first time.”

“Many people of all ages are looking for alternatives to the car,” said Kathryn Lawler, director of the Atlanta Area Agency on Aging. “Either they’re just tired of it or they don’t feel comfortable driving.”

But there’s a catch, Lawler said: Though a rapidly growing share of older people would like to ride, American cities built during the last 60 years don’t make it easy for most people to do so.

contribution by age group
Vertical scale shows millions of net new bike trips.

“Transportation is the number-one unmet need of older people in the Atlanta region,” Lawler said. “We were ranked the worst place in the country when it comes to transit options for the older demographic.”

This weekend in Atlanta, Lawler’s agency is working with Serna’s organization, with Mike Lydon of the Street Plans Collaborative, and others to turn two blocks of Auburn Avenue into a street that’s friendlier for riders of “all ages and abilities,” by adding physical barriers that turn a buffered bike lane into a protected lane.

Lawler said the goal of “Sweet Auburn: Living Beyond Expectations” is to appeal not to people who currently ride bicycles but those who don’t, because they fall into the wide middle swath of Americans who are “interested but concerned” about riding bikes for transportation.

“I think it’s very fair to say that many older bikers don’t find themselves in that highly expert category,” Lawler said. “We have to make the kind of infrastructure for that middle group if we’re going to find the benefits.”

There’s little question, at any rate, that older Americans’ interest in biking is rising. Phineas Baxandall, who analyzed the decline in driving among young adults through a series of studies for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, said the reasons for the shift among older people are probably complicated, but the implications are interesting.

“The millennial shift has largely overshadowed changes in older people’s travel behavior, but this data shows that boomers are also looking for other ways to get around,” he said.

biking growth by age group
Vertical scale shows growth in the share of all trips taken by bicycle.

Clarification 7/8: A previous version of this post used more confusing language to describe the role of seniors in the modern biking surge. Their trips represent 22 percent of the net increase in adult biking.

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  • Yes, this trend is good news, and if we, as a society, were smart, we’d encourage seniors riding bikes even more by providing them with safe, comfortable routes to ride.

    When you consider that a quarter of Boomers ages 46-64 have nothing saved for retirement, and 22% of those over 65 have run through all their retirement savings (if they had any) and are living entirely on Social Security and/or with the help of relatives, a sizable percent of our senior population only have a few ways to avoid poverty: 1) they can work longer before retiring; 2) they can move in with their adult children; or 3) they can dramatically reduce their cost of living by going car-free. (Or a combination of all three.)

    Seniors that live in walkable, bikeable communities without cars will enjoy a much higher standard of living than those that live in communities where cars are a necessity for basic existence.

    Side note: Phineas Baxandall has got to be one of the all-time greatest names ever.

  • BBnet3000

    Not to mention the health benefits. Its very important to stay active as you get older.

  • EC

    Good article, bad lede. Hip surgeries seem to have little to do with it.

  • Komanoff

    Agree. Puns can be fun, but this one was potentially mis-lede-ing and, worse, demeaning.

  • Gezellig

    There’s definitely a thirst amongst people 8-to-80 to bike and that definitely includes those upper ranges and beyond–we just need the infrastructure to support it!

    My grandparents are 81 and they both bike every day. However, they only do it within the safe 4mph-limit confines of the narrow streets within their senior community. It’s sad that biking to the shopping center a mere half mile away from them means biking on the “bike”…uh…”lane” whose image I attached here. Yeah, right. My grandparents are physically quite able to operate a bicycle just fine but even I probably wouldn’t bike that stretch. The crazy thing is there’s totally room for a protected lane in a lot of places in America that look just like that without even needing to have the parking wars!

  • The really scary thing? That 45 MPH speed limit sign to the right of the pic, just above the Bike Lane sign.

  • Gezellig

    Yeah, and we all know most drivers go way over that anyway.

    I mean, are they joking? Surely “infrastructure” like that has got to be a joke.

    I see potential, though. A lot of the postwar suburban US has very wide rights-of-way just like that. There’s totally room for a very physically separated bike lane there even *without* a road diet (aka it can’t be branded “anti-car”).

  • You guys are right – this one went beyond fun into causing confusion and potentially some unintended bad feeling. I’ve rephrased. Thanks for the critique.

  • You’re right — there is a lot of ROW potential in a lot of those places.

    What’s more, there won’t be much NIMBYism because of that brick wall — the neighbors probably don’t even know there is a sidewalk just on the other side of it…,

  • Gezellig

    Yeah, no Polk St. Merchants to come out and decry the falling sky, either! Retrofitting that kind of suburbia definitely has an advantage over places like SF in that respect in that street parking and parking lots are already beyond plentiful. And in that case above there’s no parking to remove, anyway.

  • voltairesmistress

    Amazing stats. I had NO idea of this.

  • tylerchill

    I’m 61 and bike 26 miles round trip everyday to work. I can’t describe how happy that little fact makes me.

  • Be willing to bet electric bicycles are a significant contributor to the growth for the over 50 crowd.

  • Komanoff

    Thanks Michael. Very poetic rephrase!

    Can you give us more data? First, can you subdivide the 20-year cohort (ages 60-79) into two or four sections? Second, can you give the raw data that went into the percentage increases shown in the charts? Thanks.

    Last, should we be skeptical that 65-74 y-o’s have a higher cycling share of their trips than 55-64’s?

  • Andy B from Jersey

    In Germany yes, where e-bikes are a 1/3 of all bikes sales. Here I’d say no, at least not yet. Big fan of E-bikes though. I wonder how e-bikes could transform cities like San Fran and Seattle.

  • Andy B from Jersey

    Gezellig,

    As the guy always extolling the virtues of VC, I can tell you that the road you have pictured above scares the crap out of me even with the bike lane. One thing I always teach as an LCI is find the route with the slowest and least amount of traffic that get’s you where you want to go. Unfortunately shit like this is sometimes all you have.

    Where is this anyway? Arizona? Nevada?

  • Andy B from Jersey

    My hypothesis is that boomers are now empty-nesters and/or retiring and now have more time to ride to work of just for fun. They remember the days when they were younger, riding bikes in college and/or during the other bicycle boom caused by the burgeoning environmental movement and oil-crises of the 1970s. They are looking for ways to stay fit as they get older and cycling is a great, low-impact way to stay in shape.

    I’ve been riding with the Cascade Bike Club for the past 2 months out here in Seattle and most riders are over my 42 years of age and many are women. I even rode with one guy on a very hilly 40 mile ride around Seattle who was 85 years old and he was only going a little slower than me on the climbs! To make his fittness even more amazing is that he broke his pelvis last October!!! (I’m not worthy!) 🙂

  • lostjr

    “US bike boom of 1965–1975: The period of 1965–1975 saw adult cycling increase sharply in popularity — with Time magazine calling it ‘the bicycle’s biggest wave of popularity in its 154-year history'” Wiki

    These people rode bikes in college.

  • On the other hand, talking about percentage gains exaggerates the actual use of bikes in the US. Cycling is not really a significant factor in the country’s transportation system”http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_slatest/2014/05/08/bicycle_commuting_still_not_that_popular.html

  • Sure. You can download the data directly here:
    http://nhts.ornl.gov/det/Extraction3.aspx

    Or look at the data on the spreadsheet I used:
    https://docs.google.com/a/peopleforbikes.org/spreadsheets/d/1PngnW5pfZREt_gd6YBV3kRqP10LCxWgFQnoxjJEEkCk/edit#gid=0

    As to why people over 65 seem to bike slightly more, I think what you’re looking at is a bunch of Social Security and Medicare checks. These figures account for recreational as well as transportational trips, so they’re going to be affected by people entering retirement.

  • Gezellig

    This is from suburban Phoenix where they live, where the post-1960s obsessions with the street-hierarchy system of development is the norm. This of course means quiet residential streets only link up with slightly bigger feeder roads and only those in turn link up with arterials, which are the only roads that actually go anywhere beyond the local residential-only neighborhoods.

    Since these hierarchies aren’t grids and have very few and controlled access points, this unfortunately makes the parallel backstreets bike-boulevard strategy impossible in many cases.

    These kinds of designs forcing people into unnecessarily long journeys are most damning for walking, but I think biking is actually fast enough that it kind of negates the problem somewhat (after all, bikes aren’t going *that* much slower than cars on the lower ends of the pre-arterial hierarchy). I do see people (including my grandparents, of course) biking on the residential streets there but this comes (literally) to a screeching halt at the arterials.

  • JustMe

    Perhaps older people have more time to get from one place to another.

  • JustMe

    Look at all that room over to the right for a protected bike lane!

  • Gezellig

    Yeah! This is the awesome potential suburban areas often have for being retrofitted–there’s often lots of room for protected infrastructure even without having to modify the car infra much or at all. It’s hard to be labeled “anti-car” if you’re not even removing any car travel lanes or on-street parking.

    Especially since the 1960s-70s and beyond a lot of suburban development has been obsessed with huge setbacks from arterial roads meaning lots of space for something like road-adjacent cycletracks. A typical example from Irvine, CA:

  • Rideonoldie

    It’s fun and gets me outdoors. I feel better and can’t wait to get on my bike each day, whether I’m going anywhere in particular or not. You don’t have to have a purpose to ride a bike. I would use it for transportation if it was safer to do so here.

  • R.A. Stewart

    Thanks for reporting this! I’m closing in on 64, and just about the only thing that bothers me about the coverage on Streetsblog (and makes me think “wait a minute, that’s not what I’m seeing”) is that, when older people are mentioned at all, the implication is usually that we’re a bunch of NIMBYs who don’t want transit, bike infrastructure, or anything else but more roads on which to putter along at 3 miles per hour in our boat-like Cadillacs. Personally I’d love to see the 23.5-mile stroad half a block from my house fitted up end to end with rail transit and protected bike lanes.

  • I wouldn’t call this a “surprise”, but it is good to see. The people who choose to be active and strong in their 60’s and 70’s are finding their bodies have a lot left to give. It’s a great thing to see – and for them to experience. Even those who struggle with cycling from lack of strength or other health problems can now generate significant power with the help of electricity. How fun would cycling be for anyone if your max power output was 70 watts? E-bikes are incredibly empowering machines for this demographic.

    It’s always funny for me to see the differences in people at these ages. Some are totally stubborn, “No thanks! I can use my own muscles!”, while others welcome some electric power and end up taking the bike whenever possible.

  • R.A. Stewart

    “… and if we, as a society, were smart …”

    Ah well, that’s that idea deep-sixed, then. 🙁

    Agreed, Phineas Baxandall is a wonderful name. I’ll bet he likes it better now than he did when he was a kid.

  • EC

    Still having trouble seeing what hips have to do with anything, but at least now it’s just confusing, not misleading. Nevertheless, thanks again for the article–this is important news.

  • Eric Winn

    I’m 55 and recently began competing in ultracycling – distances over 100 miles, 6 hour, 12 hour, 24 hour endurance races/challenges, etc.

    In Feb I completed 254 miles in the Bike Sebring 24 hour, completing the first 100 miles in 5 hours 39 minutes. Not so good at the National 24 Hour Challenge this year as I had a crash and a mechanical issue so I only completed 163 miles where I did 202 miles last year on my first 24 hour attempt. There are others near my age and older doing much better than I have so far. The oldest participant at http://www.n24hc.org this year was 82 and I think did over 200 miles. The farthest distance of the 75+ male age group completed 394.7 miles in 24 hours.

  • Myra Hill

    I am 54. I use my bike to travel to different places, to get exercise and for fun. I ride several miles each day.

  • Myra Hill

    I work full time and I make the time to ride the bike for a few miles after work.

  • Mr. Friendly

    I am 38. I use my bike as a club. I’ve killed multiple squirrels with it.

  • Gary

    This age group represents our largest segment of electric bike sales. They love that they can get as much exercise as they want but don’t have to exhaust themselves on the hills.

  • @lostjr – Interesting. I guess Time didn’t know about the 1890s, and of course they couldn’t predict the 1990s return of the scorcher.

  • bosco222

    I’m 53 and have always ridden my bicycle. I find I can get to the store faster by riding my bicycle than using my car, and I don’t have to lose my good parking space.

  • David Reeck

    Don,
    That is what I am counting on. I am starting up a business to import and sell Electric Assist Bicycles in Oregon. David Reeck

  • pto49

    At 66 I am still setting riding goals and reaching them one ride at a time. I can’t ride every day anymore, but that’s Ok. Try riding a 38 pound cruiser for the winter then get on your road bike this spring. Talk about moving on. (Specialized Expedition- Trek Domane 5.9C Di2)

  • ronaldfurr

    I am a 60 YO triathlete that loves to ride and I am also managing a Pedego Electric bicycle store in Aurora CO. These electric assisted bikes are getting people off of the couch and back to a fun and active lifestyle. If you have not tried an ebike give it a shot you will be pleasantly surprised.

  • John Gallagher

    After the financial debacle of 2008, many seniors are living on nothing but Social Security. We just can’t afford a car.

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