Ready to Ride: America Finally Embraces Biking

biking - © Gabriella Sarlay / Alliance for Biking & Walking

The “typical” bike commuter (read young, white, male) is a thing of the past. Meet Sara Armstrong. She and her husband Peter Crumlish have three boys—10-year-old twins Sam and Caleb and 7-year-old Finn. Thanks to an explosion of cargo bikes of various sizes, shapes and positions (front-carry and rear-carry), they have been able to get around their home city of New Haven, Connecticut, by bike most of the time. They do have a back-up car, but it’s the losing parent who has to drive it when they carefully plan out their days

Cycling is on the rise across America among many populations. Both bike commuting and recreational riding have increased, and sometimes the two merge, as when someone commutes along a quiet, shady rail trail, getting exercise while heading to work.

America Gets Motivated

At the 2012 League of American Bicyclists LAB, Summit in March in Washington, D.C., both formal presentations and informal buzz focused on the expected merger of three of the country’s biggest, most visible biking and pedestrian advocacy organizations. A joint press release stated: “We must determine how to combine the diverse strengths of a powerful alliance of state and local organizations [the Alliance for Biking and Walking], a storied national user group [the LAB, which was founded in 1880 as the League of American Wheelmen] and a vibrant industry association [Bikes Belong] in a way that preserves their unique attributes and realizes the game-changing potential of a single entity.” The leaders expected to announce a merger later in the year; what they quietly announced instead was that the merger was off, but that cooperation among the three groups would continue. Still, it’s instructive to learn where each of these organizations sees cycling headed.

biking © John Luton / Alliance for Biking & Walking

Andy Clarke is executive director of the LAB. He says recent developments have given a big boost to cycling, including gasoline prices rising to $4 a gallon and beyond. On the positive side, infrastructure like bike lanes, programs like bike shares and events like ciclovias (a Spanish word indicating a bikes-only gathering where streets are closed to motor traffic) have all exceeded organizers’ and planners’ expectations. In Washington, D.C., the bike-sharing program Capital Bike Share is two years old. “There were a million trips in the first year,” Clarke says. “The second million was reached in six months, and that’s so far ahead of where organizers thought it would be.”

The LAB has 20,000 individual members and 900 affiliated organizations (250 advocacy and 650 recreational clubs). It has a Bike Friendly Community (BFC) Program, through which cities and towns can apply for a rating of platinum, gold, silver or honorable mention for the sum of their bike improvements. The League offers a similar program for universities and businesses. Clarke says several factors are important in a successful application: “having a champion, having a plan, having a bike advisory committee, putting infrastructure in, making sure there’s [bike] parking and that there’s an education program” that illustrates the responsibilities of both motorists and cyclists.

Clarke notes that gasoline didn’t stay at $4 a gallon after 2008, but, “When gas prices went down, people didn’t abandon the bike because they saw it actually worked—they could get where they needed to go, and it was actually fun.” Of course gas prices did rise to $4 a gallon again in 2012.

Not everyone is straddling a bike for economic reasons. They are turning to bikes for exercise and stress reduction as well as concerns about air pollution and climate change from fossil fuel use. There’s also been a recent shift in the transportation desires of 20-somethings. Where for decades the pursuit of the American dream included some kind of car—a Mustang, perhaps, or a VW Bug or at least Mom and Dad’s cast-off Volvo wagon—now growing numbers of young people don’t want a car at all. “They want a new urbanist lifestyle,” says Clarke. “They don’t want to be burdened with the cost of owning and operating and storing a car. It’s not the only option.”

biking © Barbara Richey / Rails to Trails Conservancy

The Car-Sharing Solution

One development that’s made it possible for many urban dwellers to live without their own cars is Zipcar, a rent by-the-hour car-sharing system. It began in 2000 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and several years later merged with a competitor, Flexcar. “We’ve conducted a study of millenials (age 18-34), says Colleen McCormick, the company’s public relations manager, “and we’ve found they tend to be more interested in access over ownership, and that’s part of the beauty of Zipcar—‘wheels when you want them.’ They’re available on demand, hourly or day rates, gas and insurance included, so we make it really simple. No waiting in line, no paperwork. The majority of our members don’t own cars. Some are two-driver households with one vehicle. A lot of our members rely on public transport or biking or walking.”

U.S. Census data shows that cities are growing faster than suburbs, the reverse of a decades-long trend, and that much of that growth is fueled by millenials. So for taking a day trip, doing a big grocery run or moving a pile of belongings, the $8 an hour rate (which varies slightly by class of vehicle and location) is a good deal. AAA says the annual cost of owning a car has risen to $8,946, based on driving an average of 15,000 miles, counting car payments, insurance, gas, repairs and maintenance. Other estimates are significantly higher. Throw in the hassle of keeping track of which side of the street it’s legal to park on and finding a parking spot and urbanites are increasingly asking “Why bother?”

Zipcar has 730,000 members worldwide in the U.S., Canada, the UK, Spain and Austria. Zipcars—available in a range of sizes and vehicle types, including both hybrid and gas-powered models—are available on more than 250 college campuses and most venues are open to the local communities.

Biking Made Easy

biking © Zipcar

Jeffrey Miller, president and CEO of the Alliance for Biking & Walking, says the power to promote bicycling is in the hands of state and local organizations. “We know there’s a backlog of demand; we know an impressive number of Americans want these mobility options, and we know there’s an absolute ‘safety in numbers’ benefit,” Miller says. “The more people who choose to bike and walk, the safer it is for anyone. When you triple the number of trips by biking and walking, you cut the total number of crashes in half, because bicyclists and other road users are looking for and expecting bicyclists and pedestrians. Bike lanes, bike parking, cycle tracks, protected bike lanes are all great. And,” he adds, “not thinking of a bike lane here or there, but a network: how do we connect schools, workplaces, shopping areas? We know that a full half of all trips in this country are three miles or less and a quarter of all trips are one mile or less; we should be able to cover these by biking and walking.”

Miller and Clarke both agree that bike-share programs have been a game changer in the 30 North American cities where they operate. In 2013 New York City will roll out its program with 10,000 bikes, dwarfing Washington, D.C.’s program with 1,670 cycles, and doubling Montreal’s, which is currently the largest on the continent. So far all the bike-share programs in the U.S., and most around the world, do not require or provide helmets, and one that does, in Melbourne, Australia, has struggled to gain adherents.

The fact is that cities with the highest number of cyclists, like Copenhagen and Amsterdam, have the lowest percentage of accidents, and hardly any riders wear helmets. In the U.S. riding is definitely riskier, but some analyses indicate that even here, the negative impacts to health and well-being of discouraging riders by insisting on helmet use is greater than the negative impact from the occasional accident.

From Serious to Curious

Many parks around the country have closed their streets to motor traffic on weekends, but ciclovias take it one step further. These bike gatherings, says Miller, “allow people to explore, to reconnect, to experience their city in an absolutely safe, fun, engaging and neighborly way.” More than 70 cities in North America offer these events, up from just a handful a few years ago. They include all kinds of related activities like safety classes, kids’ activities and yoga. Miller says a recent event in Los Angeles—dubbed cicLAvia—attracted an impressive 200,000 participants.


Tim Blumenthal is president of Bikes Belong, with 450 institutional members, representing all the companies in the U.S. that make and sell bikes and about 250 of the country’s leading bike retailers. The Bikes Belong Foundation has a campaign called People for Bikes, which comprises 700,000 individuals, “people who ride bikes who’d like to see cycling grow and become safer and more convenient and stress-free,” Blumenthal says

He says bike riding for commuting and short trips, especially in cities, has gone “through the roof,” in some major cities doubling the number of trips made by bike. According to census data from the American Community Survey, of 4.5 billion trips per year, “Only 14% of them are for commuting to work. About half are purely recreational; other short trips are about three times more common than going to work and those trips are really increasing.”

Advocates divide the U.S. population into several groups based on their affinity for cycling. At one end are the “enthusiasts,” who would ride no matter what and comprise 7% of the population; at the other end are the one-third who will never ride, either because they’re not physically able or not interested. In the middle are the 60% dubbed “interested but concerned.” Blumenthal says, “If the only place they have to ride is on a busy street with fast-moving cars and trucks, they’re not going to do it, even if there’s a white line painted down the road [to mark a bike lane]. One of the reasons it’s growing is we’re starting to provide services for that big group” to make cycling safer, like separated bike lanes, traffic calming things for motorists and more.

Blumenthal says mayors of cities are very supportive of bicycling because for a relatively small investment they get a big return for their city. Bike infrastructure, he says, “reduces road congestion, which is the enemy of business and of quality of life. Cities are struggling to meet the capital costs of road repairs and building new parking lots, so anything a mayor can do to avoid spending big bucks like that—mayors love that. Also, it seems that cities that are most successful at attracting and retaining a highly trained, highly motivated workforce are those with a high quality of life, and bike amenities contribute to that.”

When asked why the proposed merger of Bikes Belong, the Alliance for Biking and Walking and the LAB failed, all three leaders give a similar answer. Blumenthal sums it up: “It’s hard to get even two different groups together, with different bylaws, different boards of directors, different physical locations, different staff and project priorities, different financing. We couldn’t agree to dissolve our individual organizations and become one. No question that if we had one absolutely clear and unified national presence with one name, and one brand, there would be no confusion, it would help us with government at all levels. Even though it was daunting, we thought it was worth exploring. We came pretty close and who knows? Maybe we’ll return to it.”

He says his organization is focused on increasing the number of trips taken by bike in the U.S. from just over 1% currently to 5% by 2025, although he adds that those responding to the census can pick only one transportation mode, and that leaves cycling out of the equation for a commuter who usually drives but sometimes bikes.

biking © Recycle-a-Bicycle

Forging New Roads

Other groups have focused on off-road trails, some paved, some not. Nationally, the Rails to Trails Conservancy has taken the lead in this arena since 1986, with 150,000 members who’ve supported converting abandoned rail lines to multi-use trails for biking, walking, jogging, Rollerblading, wheelchair users and babies in strollers. In some parts of the country, they’re horse trails, and some become cross-country ski trails in winter. “We started with rail trail conversions,” says the Conservancy’s Marianne Fowler, “but they didn’t always take people where they wanted to go, so we expanded our mission to connecting trails so it’s a system.”

The U.S. has over 21,400 miles of open rail trails, most often spearheaded by state or local departments of parks and recreation, she says. “The intention behind building them was that they would be recreational. Nobody envisioned that’d be used as transportation corridors as well.”

But they are. Among the best known are the Minuteman Bikeway heading west from Boston; and the Burke-Gilman Trail around Seattle. All states have at least three trails; Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin lead the nation in the number of miles of trails, with roughly 2,600, 2,300 and 2,000, respectively. Fowler says there’s no national data on trail use, but anyone visiting a local rail trail on a beautiful weekend afternoon will likely see a very well-used and well-loved corridor. “The approach so far has been project by project,” she says. “In the past five years we’ve tried to shift that to a systems approach.” Fowler concludes, “I think we’re in a very critical time. The number of national and local groups and individuals who want to walk and bike is exploding because [the government] made resources available, and if we’re going to make more progress we have to have more resources.” (See sidebar “Building National Support for Biking,”).

Ride, Women, Ride

Cycling organizations are increasing efforts to encourage women cyclists, too. In many European countries, the numbers of male and female cyclists are about even; in the Netherlands women slightly outnumber men. But in the U.S., three-quarters of bike trips are taken by men, according to Alliance for Biking and Walking’s 2012 Benchmarking Report.

The LAB Summit in March 2012 was immediately preceded by a forum in which half a dozen women cyclists addressed an enthusiastic (and mostly female) audience about how to overcome the disparity. Then in September, the first-ever National Women’s Bicycling Summit was held in Long Beach, California. Felicia Williams, who, as an African American woman, is doubly under-represented among cyclists, began riding in 2008 and was enthusiastic about the chance to meet and network with women from around the country. “We had all in one room a lot of different types of women who cycle for different reasons. It was one of the first times I was able to sit with women and find out why they bike. I was on the Transportation Committee in Pasadena at the time and thought I should probably understand bicycling.” Now she commutes 50 to 75 miles a week, twice to work and other trips around town. “For me it was easy because I am in good shape,” she says, adding that concerns women expressed include the inherent dangers in sharing the road with motor vehicles, lack of physical fitness “and logistical problems like ‘I have to drop my kid off before work’ or ‘I can’t shower when I get there.’”

Pasqualina Azzarello, the executive director of Recycle-a-Bicycle, also attended the summit. Her organization promotes youth cycling, with a special emphasis on getting girls involved. “I led a panel called ‘Young Women Who Ride’ about youth engagement from community-based bike shops,” she says. “The question was, ‘How can we use our resources to support more youth, especially girls, to ride?’ Then we entered into another conversation, which is, ‘Why is this so essential?’”

She says health statistics, which show a sharp drop over the past 50 years in the numbers who walk or ride bikes to school and a sharp rise in the childhood obesity rate, are cause for alarm. A visioning session at the 2012 annual Youth Summit, sponsored by Recycle-a-Bicycle, addressed the questions, “Why do kids ride?” And “What keeps kids from riding?” To the former, the answers included independence, fun, being fit, “no gas money,” meeting new people, going new places and wanting to help the environment. Barriers to biking included no access to bikes, danger from cars, not enough bike lanes, parental restrictions, weather, lack of safety in their neighborhoods and the prevalence of bike theft.

Then the youth brainstormed 53 action steps to get more kids riding. Their responses indicated that young people want to bike more and will work toward creating the conditions to make that possible, including bike education in schools, after-school biking programs, bike repair classes, making affordable, quality bikes more available, changing the stereotype of who rides bikes and “teach[ing] all kids that bikes are a legitimate means of transportation.”

Kids on Bikes

“For me safety is key,” Azzarello says. “The more we can create a safe infrastructure, the more kids we’ll get [riding], and their families, too. We have a ride club that started 17 years ago and now has more than 100 kids pedaling collectively 23,000 miles throughout the city and beyond. It’s been able to grow exponentially because of all the infrastructure development that’s been happening for the past several years in New York City. Parents say when their kids ride alone they’re only allowed to ride in the green [designated bike] lanes because they’re more visible and there’s more of an intention of sharing the street. When kids are riding in a group it’s almost like they become one entity and each one is responsible for the whole. I think that reinforcement from peers can be really instrumental in developing self-confidence and self-assurance on a bike.”

Perhaps one of the most encouraging recent signs is the change of heart by Jim Cameron, chairman of the Connecticut Rail Commuter Council, representing passengers on the busiest rail corridor in the nation, which takes riders between New Haven, Connecticut, and New York City’s Grand Central Terminal, and points between. For years he objected to allowing bikes on trains, saying there weren’t enough seats for all paying passengers. (Now bikes are allowed, at the discretion of the conductor, only on off-peak trains, which means bike commuters can’t board the train at the most likely times they would need to in order to get to work.) But with the addition of new train cars that will increase the seating capacity of the trains, Cameron came out foursquare in his column in a local Connecticut newspaper in favor of allowing bikes on all cars, on all trains, and for creating more bike parking at train stations. He goes on to call for bike-sharing programs, lockers and showers at workplaces, more bike paths and bike lanes and respect for cyclists on the road. He acknowledged the leadership of the bike advocacy community in pushing for these changes and said building true multi-modality is the wave of the future. “Bicycles may never replace cars or trains,” he concluded, “but they are a common sense alternative for many of our transportation needs and need public support.”