It’s a Local Issue
If you asked me whether cycling as a sport is growing or declining in New England, I’d suggest that it is declining. There are countering phenomena to my claim, but there are several factors that contribute to my assertion. First, the overall population in Northern New England is the oldest in the US, which means that here are simply fewer younger people in the area (compared to say Portland, Oregon or Boston, MA) who bicycle (and will brave the cold weather or shoulder-less roads). So, the first factor that skews things is related to regional demographics, which aren’t helping the region grow its base of new cyclists. However, even if there were more millennials in our area, studies suggest that millennials don’t bike any more than previous generations. Second, there is also the more general issue in the US of fewer bicycle sales. These data aren’t from this year, but they’re relatively current.
The National Bicycle Dealers Association (NBDA) recently published a report that really brings this to light. It focused on the continuing decline of bicycling and bicycle sales in the U.S. for the past12 to 14 years. In 2000, 43.1 million people rode bicycles six or more days, which is 148 riders per thousand population; by 2014 this had declined to 35.6million or 111 riders per thousand.
Fewer Americans are Bicycling
The point is that overall, fewer people in the US are riding bikes in the US. Many additional contemporary studies point out that more people choose to bike where there is good bike infrastructure and a comprehensive transit system. So, the third question is whether we have improving bike infrastructure in New England (north of Boston).
When assessing my area (northern New England) there hasn’t been a tremendous amount of investment in biking infrastructure or a comprehensive transit system when looking at the region as a whole. Boston is probably on the top of the investment chart (see this recent article about Allston), while larger areas such as Portland, Bangor and Lewiston-Auburn , Manchester have also been on the upward swing. Typically, active bike associations, like BikeMaine.org or city planners lead the charge to improve cycling infrastructure. In the case of BikeMaine, they recently estimated that their six-year economic total for the state of Maine was six million dollars. However, even with such forward-looking organizations working hard to boost the region’s bicycling infrastructure, it’s fair to say that compared to most parts of the country, northern New England isn’t growing their base of bicyclists via improved infrastructure since these organizations aren’t typically well funded. This is especially the case in the rural parts of New England and in areas where the winters are long and the tax base is thin. Having said that, there are some rock star organizations that are pushing well-planned development forward in their part of Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire or Massachusetts. Even though these numbers aren’t particularly encouraging, why not choose to buck the trend and perhaps even change it? I share some information below that will hopefully encourage you to do so.
Is the Sport of Cycling Following Skiing?
While I’ve been a year-round bicycle commuter for many years even through snowy conditions, I wouldn’t say the number of people like me is growing in my area. It often takes one hard fall to deter even the most dedicated all-weather commuter. And, if you include downhill bicycling, bike touring or e-bikes under the larger “bicycling” category, these forms of biking are unfortunately becoming more costly over time, which means that the sport as a whole now appeals to a smaller cross section of the population. To be fair, comparing some of the more gear-heavy forms of bicycling to a sport like skiing is not far-fetched. It’s hard to know whether cycling resembles skiing in terms of demographics, but studies definitely show fewer millennials are skiing, which is causing an overall downward trend in the number of skiers. One recent study points out that millennials cycle just as much as Gen X, but for slightly different reasons. However, the study points out that, “Overall, millennials do not bike more than Gen Xers.
Of the adults we surveyed that were physically able and knew how to ride a bike, 74% of millennials had not ridden in the past 30days, essentially the same as for Gen Xers (72%). Of those who did ride, millennials rode an average of 6.3 days and Gen Xers rode an average of 7.8 days, a non-significant difference…Only two percent of both generations regularly commuted to work by bike, while millennials were more likely to commute on foot or transit.”
Bright Spots for the Growth of Cycling
Also, compared to where I came from (Oregon) and moved to (Northern New England), I’d definitely say bicycling as a sport isn’t growing. While New England–and Maine and Vermont in particular–are wonderful places for cross country, road biking and downhill biking, it can require a drive to reach the right spot to pursue each form of cycling. Also, for hundreds of miles in each direction here in Northern New England, there are very few sidewalks, dedicated bicycle paths and appropriate infrastructure for road biking. There are definitely cyclists in the area and the cycling can be world class, but are there more of them than in the past or compared to other parts of the US? No, not likely. I should also say that there is a decent amount of off-road bicycling although much of it is unimproved. One can also hop on the East Coast Greenway, Acadia Carriage Trails and numerous other phenomenal bike paths. But, are those bike paths seeing a significant number of new users? Hard to say, but they represent weekend getaway options more than local infrastructure.
The other issue that might complicate things with this question is whether e-bikes are considering “real” bicycles. In many parts of the country, the popularity of e-bikes is picking up and trail managers are trying to figure out whether they should afford them the same privileges as motor-less bicycles. If their popularity grows and they’re granted access to more trail systems, it’s possible the number of “traditional” cyclists will shrink in areas where these become more ubiquitous. Will that mean that the number of cyclists has gone up or decreased?
I guess the question is whether Northern New England is bucking some of the national trends. One data point or trend is the percentage of people who commute to work. Here’s a recent window into that measure, “All that said, in 2017, according the ACS, the share of commuters cycling to work actually dipped by 4.7 percent compared with the previous year. Less than 1 percent of American commuters regularly use their bicycles to get to work. But 84 percent of the seventy largest cities in the US have seen an upward cycle commute trend over the past 12 years.” And taking Maine as an example of a Northern New England state, even though Maine has ranked high as a “bike friendly”state, they recently dropped in their ranking because the new criteria prioritized cycling infrastructure more than in previous years as part of their evaluation formula. In the Ted Talk video below, some compelling information is shared about weight loss and other benefits of commuting to work or school using a bicycle.
Commuting to Work on a Bicycle
Lastly, a recent article about commuting to work points out some of the observations I’ve made here: fewer people are commuting to work in areas where there is a lack of cycling infrastructure.
See the reference to Portland, Maine below.
The most interesting aspect to these numbers—and certainly not a new one—is the uncovering of a profound cycle commuting gap. In the five US cities with the highest share of cycle commuters (Davis, Santa Cruz, and Palo Alto, all in California, along with Boulder, Colorado, and Somerville, Massachusetts), an average 11.7 percent took bicycles to work last year. But in the next five(Cambridge, Massachusetts, Berkeley, California, Miami Beach, Florida, Portland,Oregon, and Ames, Iowa), just 7 percent do. Take cities 20 to 25 (Redwood City, California, San Francisco, Bloomington, Indiana, Portland, Maine, and Salt Lake City), and just 3.1 percent of those cities take bikes to work. You’re either a cycling city, one that opens its streets to two-wheeling—or hardly one at all. A recent Ted Video examines this question in great detail with healthcare as a backdrop.
“I shouldn’t be surprised, but I’m always a little bit surprised by the difference between the regions and just how far ahead Western cities tend to be compared with every other region,” says Ken McLeod, the League of American Bicyclists’ policy director, who wrote the report. In the West’s top 20 cycling cities, an average 5.9 percent of commuters cycle to work. But just 2.2 percent of workers pedal to the office in the Midwest’s top 20 cities; it’s 2.1 percent in the South. Maybe most surprising of all: in America’s East, known for its dense, urban places that should be hospitable to cycling, just 2.5 percent oft hose in the region’s top 20 cycling cities actually ride to work.
In this last study, note the reference to the Eastern part of the US (probably more Mid Atlantic here) being almost equivalent to the South in terms of cyclists commuting to work. If you controlled for Boston, I’d bet that number would be well below 2% in most of New England. Make sure you spend a few minutes to watch this short video about the economic benefits of bicycling and walking in Vermont. It’s a little dated, but relied on a longitudinal approach to arrive at its conclusions.
Economic Benefits of Cycling in the United States
A recent article by Scott Lane entitled, “Show me the money: Why complete streets make economic sense“dives into these economic benefits of biking with hard facts and the data to back it up. In a 2016 article by Strong Towns.org about the economic benefits of bicycling, the author refers to Lane’s article, “Cycling alone contributes an estimated$133 billion annually to the U.S. economy, supporting 1.1 million jobs and generating nearly $18 billion in tax revenues.”
That’s 18 billion dollars…and more than a million jobs. Another article by the Bike League offered these reasons for bicycling in terms of economic benefits.
- People who ride bikes buy other things, too. Bike-‐accessible business districts benefit by catering to these customers.
- People on bikes are also more likely to make repeat trips to their local stores.
- People who ride bikes on vacation buy food, have travel costs, and pay for lodging. Bicycling tourists bring millions of dollars to cities and towns across the country that wouldn’t otherwise end up there.
At the state level, Michigan released a report in 2014 that showed more than $668 million dollars of economic benefits were garnered by the state due to bicycling.
“The 2014 Phase I report finds that bicycling provides an estimated $668 million per year in economic benefit to Michigan’s economy, including employment, retail revenue, tourism expenditure, improved health, and increased productivity. Using both quantitative and qualitative data, the report takes a unique approach to illustrate both the economic benefits of bicycling on a statewide basis, as well as broader benefits bicycling can have on communities. Phase II of this project includes data on the economic impact of bicycling “events,” bicycle touring, and Michigan as a bicycle destination. Released in the spring of 2015, the report estimates out-of-state participation in organized bicycle events contributes nearly $22 million to the State economy. It also includes a detailed analysis of the direct expenditures of six large organized events along with secondary impacts of these events.”
Even though some of the more gear-heavy forms of bicycling aren’t growing as fast as conventional road cycling, there are millions of reasons for cities and states to funnel more economic development and planning into this area of urban (or rural) planning. Although New England may not be at the forefront of this movement, there are viable examples scattered across Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. For example, MaineBike.org, the New England Mountain Bike Association in the Bethel area of Maine sets a gold standard for how communities can leverage their surrounding natural resources to help boost tourism and improve environmental stewardship. Another stellar example of advocacy around cycling (and outdoor conservation) is the Kingdom Trails Association in Vermont.
Whatever your passion, spending some time to support your local bicycle association pays off in many different ways.