For those accustomed to the hip and healthy lifestyle taking over many American cities today, it may seem like bicycle use is on the rise, and over the last few years this may actually be true. But a comprehensive new study shows that global bicycle ownership has significantly fallen in the past three decades.
Published in the Journal of Transport & Health, researchers from Johns Hopkins University analyzed data from 1.25 billion households in what they consider to be the the first global study of bicycle ownership over time. They found that the number of bike owners, while increasing or holding steady in some countries, has plummeted in others, "showing that cycling is not yet proving to be a widespread sustainable transport solution."
With some 42% of households worldwide still owning a total of nearly 600 million bicycles, Olufolajimi Oke, a civil engineer and lead author of the study, thinks policymakers can use the data from the study to figure out what will help cycling gain its momentum back. Bicycles have been an enduring part of human transportation for over 125 years, and that isn't going to change anytime soon. With around 7.3 billion people in the world today, there's an estimated bike for every 12 people.
Oke told Fusion that while he was surprised that bicycle ownership has declined so much, especially since the turn of the century, bicycles are "experiencing something of a renaissance in many American cities today, and elsewhere around the world."
"The 1990s was the decade of the automobile," he said. "It's only in the past five years, especially in America, that there's been a resurgence of sorts."
While rapidly modernizing countries like India and China would seem the obvious source of the decline in bicycle ownership, this isn't the full story.
Disregarding China and India, the study found a "steady global decline in bicycle ownership" falling from an average of 60% of households owning a bike in 1989 to just 32% in 2012. Oke was careful to say that this fact doesn't mean people are necessarily using bikes less, and bike share programs could be picking up some of the slack. At the same time, in wealthy countries like the United States there is a higher ratio of bike owners but less bicycle use when compared to developing countries like India or those in Africa.
According to the study, since 1992, bicycle ownership in China dropped from more than 97% of all households to just under half in 2007—only to rise again to over 60% by 2009. In India, bicycle ownership actually nearly doubled from 25% in 1992 to 45% in 2011, according to Oke, who said it has since declined somewhat. India has been much slower to develop into an industrial and commercial powerhouse than China over the last three decades, and until recently bicycles were even a luxury. Together, India and China account for around a quarter of the world's households.
Oke thinks it's possible to extrapolate from the percentage of people owning bicycles to the level of sustainable transport in a region, and even further to a "measure of the quality of life in that place."
The study found that bicycle ownership is generally highest in northern Europe and lowest in parts of Africa and central Asia. This would seem to align with countries known for advanced transit systems, higher incomes and better quality of life.
Oke said bicycle usage (and less so bike ownership) depends a lot on how people regularly get around, especially when commuting to work. A recent study found that just 1% of Americans age 16-34 bike to work, compared to 73% that drive, numbers that haven't changed much over the last decade.
For more Americans to bike to work, riding conditions will likely have to become safer and more pleasant. This is not something that will happen by chance, but will rather require forward-looking policies that promote bicycle use.
Take Denmark for example. Oke's study points out that in the mid-1970s, Danish planners "embraced a novel experiment" in which they promoted bike-friendly policies over those focused on motorization. Decades later this attempt to "address traffic fatalities, looming energy crises, and environmental concerns" has been validated. Researchers found that "cycling creates a virtuous cycle with numerous positive feedback loops" that makes it a key element to "livable cities." On top of connecting easily with other forms of transit and stimulating local business, the public health benefits of cycling outweigh the risks.
Meanwhile in the United States, cycling in major cities like Baltimore, where the bicycle first arrived in America according to Oke, "can feel like putting your life at risk."
"People are buying more cars and roads are less car-friendly than before," said Oke.
As someone who bikes to work regularly from Brooklyn to Manhattan, I can confirm both the feelings of danger and the prevalence of bikers.