Survey: 100 Million Americans Bike Each Year, But Few Make It a Habit

Many Americans have bikes at their disposal and go for a spin at least once a year, though few bike regularly for transportation, according to a survey [PDF] conducted by Breakaway Research Group for People for Bikes, the industry-backed advocacy organization. While most Americans want to bike more, 54 percent said that fear of getting hit by a car or truck holds them back.

Photo: Richard Masoner
Photo: Richard Masoner

The findings are important because solid information about Americans’ bicycling habits is hard to come by. The Census tracks only bike commuting — and commute trips are a relatively small share of total trips. The more detailed National Household Transportation Survey is conducted infrequently and has its own set of limitations.

The results of the People for Bikes survey echo Census data in some ways and reveal similar attitudes as local surveys (Portland famously found that 60 percent of residents are “interested but concerned” about biking in traffic), but the data is unusually broad and deep, and it includes some surprises.

The responses come from an online survey of 16,000 American adults, which was then weighted to correspond to national demographics. The respondents also answered questions about the biking habits of 9,000 children ages 3 to 18 who live in the same households. The survey controlled for positive response bias by eliminating participants who said they have visited a fictional website.

Here are the big findings.

About 100 million Americans bike each year, but only about 14 million bike at least twice a week

The study found that about 34 percent of Americans over the age of three rode a bike at least once in the last year. For adults over 18, the share was a slightly smaller 29 percent. But of everyone who bikes, less than half ride more than twice a month, and just 14 percent bike at least twice a week.

Slightly more than half the people who bike made only recreational trips. About 15 percent of Americans — or 45 million people — made at least one bicycle trip for transportation in the last year.

The biggest obstacles to riding 

There’s a good deal of interest in biking among Americans, even from people who haven’t logged a trip in the past year. Of everyone surveyed, 53 percent said they would like to ride more often.

The single biggest reported obstacle was concern about traffic. About 54 percent reported they are worried about being hit by a car or truck, and 46 percent said they would be more likely to ride if they could bike in areas physically separated from traffic. One of the Breakaway’s main conclusions is that more bike infrastructure could be the best way to increase cycling in the U.S.

The second-biggest barrier, the survey found, is lack of access to a working bike. Only 52 percent of Americans reported they had a functioning bike available to them. Services like bike-share and bike libraries might help expand access to this group and increase total cycling activity, researchers concluded.

The bicycling gender gap may not be as big as once thought, and most transportation biking is not commuting

The survey revealed a smaller gap in cycling between men and women than the Census, which only measures commuting. The Census finds that about one in four bike commuters are women. But this survey, looking at biking trips of all kinds, found 30 percent of women had ridden a bike in the last 12 months compared to 39 percent of men. Of the people who bike, men are also somewhat more likely than women to ride twice a week or more (16 percent to 12 percent), but this still would not account for the gender discrepancy in the Census.

The survey results also reinforce the idea that the Census over-emphasizes commute trips. Breakaway found that the most common types of transportation biking trips are “traveling to and from social, recreation, or leisure activities” and “running errands or shopping.” Commute trips came in third.

Other interesting findings

  • A greater share of Latinos than whites or blacks had biked for both transportation and recreation in the past year.
  • People with incomes under $20,000 and people with incomes over $100,000 are more likely to have ridden a bike in the past 12 months than other income groups, but people on the low end of the income spectrum bike more frequently for both transportation and recreation than others.
  • Biking for transportation is most common in the western region of the country, while people in the South bike the most for recreation.
  • anon_coward

    the last thing i want to do is bike in the freezing cold or the summer and stink up the office

  • murphstahoe

    cool story bro

  • BBnet3000

    If you can walk in a given weather condition, you can probably bike a few miles. Its not that hard.

  • Gary Fisher

    Anon, You are a dull person.

  • p_chazz

    No, just one who is respectful of his coworkers.

  • Greg Costikyan

    Biking in the freezing cold is a concern, but as the Swedish say, “There’s no such thing as bad weather — only the wrong clothing.” I’ve biked into the teens; if you can walk in that temperature, you can bike in that temperature (indeed, in a way, it’s easier, as the exercise warms you up). The secret is that you need damn thick gloves, because you’re gripping metal rods (albeit ones covered with rubber).

    As for hot weather: It’s ideal if a shower is available at your work; a sponge bath can also be helpful, if you have privacy in the bathroom. But also: Don’t overestimate how stinky a little sweat will make you. Underarm dehydrant advertisements have made us excessively sensitive to this issue, which mostly isn’t one.

  • suspicious_package

    The last thing I want to do is shove a red hot poker up my bum while being punched in the face and listening to Nickleback. I guess we just differ.

  • Biking shouldn’t be considered a “habit” any more than driving a car is. If people are going to bike, it needs to be safe and convenient. Unfortunately, up until now, most bikeways in America force people to choose one or the other while many really fail on both measures. Yet, agencies continue to try putting in “dual user” systems, a move that ultimately benefits no one.

  • BBnet3000

    If you stink after riding a bike 3 miles, you are probably riding a bit too hard.

    They also make “freshening” wipes to hit the important areas that you could try out.

  • anon_coward

    looking around NYC, 99.999999% of the people agree with me

  • anon_coward

    it’s almost 12 miles from where i live, which is why i take the subway or LIRR and walk the last 5-15 minutes. just like most people here

  • Bolwerk

    And who is this hundred millionth citizen of NYC who doesn’t? I do believe I saw a few of him today.

  • Bolwerk

    Meh. Real men stink!

  • BBnet3000

    45% of people in New York City work 5 miles or less from their jobs.

    I doubt the grocery store or many other things you do are more than 5 miles from where you live if you’re within the city. Hell even in Nassau County. Last I saw most car trips in New York are only ~2 miles.

  • BBnet3000

    Or it could be that they don’t feel safe riding on our shitty roads.

  • Joe R.

    Not only that, but the more you ride, the better shape you’ll be in, the less you’ll sweat both on and off the bike. Back when I was at my peak in my early 30s I would barely sweat when walking in 90+ degree weather, for example. Even now I can ride for two hours in the summer, come home, not jump in the shower, and still not get any BO comments from those in the same room. Just a simple thing like rinsing your underarms and changing your undershirt solves that problem. You can do that in any office bathroom.

    It’s also worth noting sweat is odorless unless you let it linger for a while. I personally feel the whole “cyclist stinking up the office” meme is hardly based in fact. Most of the time when I encounter people who really stink they’re grossly overweight, like 400-500 pounds. I don’t know any cyclists who weigh that much.

  • BBnet3000

    Agree totally but your regular way of getting around becomes a habit whether its comfortable or not. But only once we have some good infrastructure can we actually start encouraging people stuck on other modes to try cycling.

    Getting them on the bike today will only turn them off to it once they reach the end of their (maybe) relatively calm neighborhood block and hit a main road.

  • Joe R.

    Americans in general are overly sensitive to body odor. There’s actually a line of thought which says showering every day deprives the skin of natural oils, making it drier. This also may make you more prone to infection. Of course, if you shower every other day, or perhaps even every 3 or 4 days in cooler months, you won’t smell “freshly-showered” but you won’t stink, either, unless you’re doing heavy manual labor all day.

    http://jezebel.com/how-often-do-you-really-need-to-shower-1510228527

  • Alex Brideau III

    I am definitely in this boat. I have two bikes but rarely ride them (mostly during CicLAvia events) because I’ve seen how LA motorists drive and don’t trust them. If (when?) LADOT ever gets around to debuting protected bike lanes (more than just the 2nd St Tunnel) I’ll probably get out there more often.

    And speaking of the 2nd St Tunnel “protected” bike lane, I’ve actually used it and by virtue of the road diet it imposed (and accompanying lower car speeds), I felt relatively safe compared to the standard LA-style bike lane. Even though the tunnel lane only uses plastic delineators as protection, to me it still felt safer than mere paint. (I’m sure many LA drivers are probably more concerned about the delineators scuffing their paint jobs than buzzing a person biking, but if that’s what it takes, so be it!)

  • M

    I’m part of that 14% that rides multiple times a week and sadly, I wish I didn’t understand the concerns of those that don’t ride more often, but I do.

    I try extremely hard to look out for others and follow the rules. Just this evening on my bike ride home I was almost hit by another cyclist after I stopped at a stop sign and then started turning right at the intersection when the other cyclist, who was biking on the wrong side of the road on the same lane as me and who I could not see when stopped at the sign because I didn’t expect anyone coming from that direction and parked cars blocked my view of seeing them, turned left into my path without stopping at their stop sign. Just a short while later, I was biking on a residential street when a car came behind me, tapped on their horn twice and then sped past me on my left within inches of me, not the 3 feet required by California law. The driver then proceeded to only do California stops at the next 3 stop signs on the same 25 mph residential street. I have no idea why such unsafe maneuvers were carried out on a residential street, but I came home with adrenaline pumping in my veins and wondering how on earth someone else could put other’s lives in danger like that.

  • AndreL

    i can’t see (neither do I want to see) co-workers under their clothes, but it is not really difficult to sense somebody is not totally fresh. I’m not talking about perfumes, just the general smell that over-worn or sweat have, especially in closed spaces with little or no wind. It is annoying.

  • Jame

    There are loads of reasons not o bike regularly:

    1. you need special stuff: lights, an extra set of clothing, safety/high vis stuff, a helmet. I don’t really like to carry these things around.
    2. you have to bring all your stuff with you everywhere you go: personally I do not want to carry around panniers everyday. Or all of the extra layers you may need to bike at night
    3. appearance concerns: hair, sweat, appropriate clothing. Not everyone has a shower at work. Or place to store a change of clothing for the day or the week. Personally I am not a big makeup person, but biking can be a little hot, and you may get a little perspiration, maybe not enough to be smelly, but enough for your makeup to wear off, kill your blowout (depending on hair texture/type) and make you feel not polished enough for your destination
    4. safety: in both infrastructure and in public. There are areas that I don’t really want to be a woman alone at night in any mode of transit besides a locked metal box
    5. fear of street harassment: this can happen to women, and happens to me. I also know a larger guy who gets harassed when he rides his bike to work, along the lines of “hey fatso!” Let’s just say this stuff doesn’t make your ride pleasant
    6. insecure bike parking or storage

    This is my top of mind list! I do bike occasionally, mostly on weekends to certain types of errands, but there are many many reasons it isn’t all that convenient to bike I know I am just scratching the surface.

  • Tyson White

    You’re right. Always go with the majority and do what the majority does. Everyone else is also unique, just like you!

  • After I have been commute biking for almost 5 years, the issues you have listed no longer become an issue. But then again, I don’t have obligations with certain time constraints like children and an employer who doesn’t allow bringing my bicycle inside the premises. I average 20 miles a day (Strava says it’s under 16 but I don’t record a lot of 1 milers).

    1. I really don’t carry a lot of special things. Just a backpack with my wallet, small back of tools, cable, u-lock, and sometimes touch-up makeup. I just need lights (knogs are bright enough and annoying to look straight at), I NEVER wear high-vis (to me it looks more visible in the day and the color dulls out at night unless it has reflective strips), I do wear a helmet but I leave that on my handle bars or the coat rack by my desk. If I have to carry it with me, it’s no big deal. It hangs off my purse handle.

    2. I don’t carry panniers nor extra layers. I’ve never had to change because I’ve built up my body through years of commuting daily. It does start off difficult and you do sweat but the more you do it, the difficulty goes away. I don’t even ride hard: avg speed is 12-14mph on a 32lb porteur style bicycle coming from North San Jose to the Caltrain in downtown (6-ish miles).

    3. I don’t wear special clothing. My inspiration are the Dutch commute cyclists. If they can wear whatever they want, I wear what I want. If I sweat, I always carry a small packet of wet naps and a clean dry hankerchief that easily fits in a purse or my backpack. It only takes me a few minutes in the bathroom to touch up. Hair wise, I just keep a low pony tail, braids or let my hair down and I don’t have helmet hair if I don’t ride hard. I don’t need updos.

    4. This I agree. Not everyone is comfortable with biking through certain locations. Trails can be pretty intimidating at night (although I eventually got over it because I discovered there are still a lot of commuters who cycle through the trail in my area).

    5. I guess I’m a special case and it’s a very rare occurrence for me. In my bike lifetime I’ve only had one cat-call, “NICE LEGS”. Most of my interactions with people I don’t know are mainly other commuters who just wave and say good morning/evening as we cross paths to go work/home.

    6. Depends on employer but I understand that not all employers allow bringing them inside. Also not all places have a spot where you can visibly watch your bike when you go out to eat/shop. This is pretty much what I keep in mind when I’m out and I have a list of go-to places for these needs.

    I love taking selfies daily too to keep track of what I wore out biking on that day. So if you want to know what a 20 mile daily rider looks like:
    https://instagram.com/jillycube/
    But I get it. Not everyone has the same perspective or confidence in how they want to ride and that’s fine.

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

Census: American Bike Commuting Up Nine Percent in 2012

|
Congratulations, America. We’re biking to work more than ever before. We’ve known for a while that Americans are driving less than they used to, even as the economy grows. And just about every quarter, the American Public Transportation Association delivers more stats about increasing transit ridership. Now the Census brings another measure of Americans’ shifting transportation […]

Why Do African Americans Tend to Bike Less?

|
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. It took a week in Copenhagen for Albus Brooks to start thinking seriously about bicycling. The Denver City Council member, 35, had never owned a bike. By the time he headed home […]

FHWA Will Help Cities Get Serious About Measuring Biking and Walking

|
The lack of good data on walking and biking is a big problem. Advocates say current metrics yield a spotty and incomplete picture of how much, where, and why Americans walk and bike. The U.S. Census only tells us about commuting — a fairly small share of total trips. The more detailed National Household Transportation Survey comes with its own drawbacks: It’s […]