BY NICOLE FORMOSA
Bicycle riding rebounded to levels not seen since the late 1990s last year as more people in the United States turned to two wheels for recreation and transportation, according to research from the National Sporting Goods Association and the Outdoor Foundation.
According to the NSGA, 44.7 million people age 7 and older rode a bicycle more than six times last year—that’s up from 40.1 million in 2007 and 35.6 million in 2006.
The 11 percent increase could be linked to numerous factors including skyrocketing gas prices last summer, a growing green movement and increased funding for bicycle infrastructure in cities and towns across the country, said Fred Clements, executive director of the National Bicycle Dealers Association.
“It would seem that a lot of pieces are being put in place on a lot of fronts that would equal the payoff of greater participation, so it’s gratifying to see that number go up. It would be depressing to see it go down,” Clements said.
Bicycling spun its way back up to the sixth slot in the NSGA’s participation list, falling behind exercise walking, swimming, exercising with equipment, bowling and camping, in that order.
The Outdoor Foundation found that bicycling was the second favorite activity among Americans age 6 and older with 2.62 billion outings in 2007. Running/jogging/trail running edged out cycling with 3.87 billion outings. The Outdoor Foundation ranked bicycling third by overall participation, behind fishing and running/jogging.
Tom Doyle, vice president of information and research for the NSGA, said his research showed a spike in youth participation in bicycling—from 14.5 million riders aged 7-17 in 2007 to 18.1 million in 2008—which may have also contributed to an overall increase in ridership.
Part of that could be due to the fact that there hasn’t been anything new in the non-motorized youth market for some time. Participation in scooter, roller blades and skateboards has flattened after peaking several years ago, Doyle said.
“I think what you see happening overall is kids are probably going back to the bicycle for personal transportation,” Doyle said. “Just generally comparing year over year more bicycle trails are being developed, more parents are willing to take their kids out because they don’t have to ride on the streets. There’s a lot of good stuff going on.”
However, the study commissioned by the Outdoor Foundation pointed to an opposite trend. That survey showed that youth participation in bicycle riding declined from 18.8 million riders in 2006 to 15.5 million in 2007. The Outdoor Foundation did not yet have numbers for 2008. That study took into consideration kids ages 6-17 who rode at least once during the year. Still, bicycling ranked No. 1 in popularity among kids 6-17 with 1.15 billion outings in 2007, and No. 2 among young adults 18-24 with 223 million outings.
Clements said the industry could do more to attract young riders.
“I think there’s a lot of work to do. We battle huge forces that are societal forces to try to get kids on bikes. Riding to school is not even allowed in a lot of schools. It comes down to infrastructure and safety and parental perception of safety,” he said.
Clements commended the Safe Routes to School program, which funds projects that allow kids to more safely walk and bike to school, but noted that it’s a long-term effort.
The NSGA research pointed to an uptick in the number of female cyclists last year as women accounted for 46.8 percent of riders in 2008, compared with 43.4 percent in 2007. The number of infrequent riders—those who pedaled between six and 24 days a year—stayed about on par coming in at 42.5 percent of all riders last year and 42.8 percent of all riders in 2007.
Although bicycle riding enjoyed a nice bump in participation in 2008, the industry still has plenty of work to do to reel in new riders. Cyclists are still predominantly affluent, white, male baby boomers.
In 2006, Shimano spent millions of dollars promoting its Coasting program to attract new consumers, but the concept never took off at the retail level.
“It was such a noble attempt and yet maybe it reached a little too far and it didn’t work for some reason,” Clements said.
Still, the industry is making progress. There is much more diversity in the product available now with manufacturers churning out a range of more commuter-friendly and urban bikes suitable for all levels of riders, Clements said.
“We do need to reach out better to customers who are not our usual customer base. It’s hard to do because we’re set up to deal with enthusiasts primarily. Then you have something unexpected like $4 per gallon gasoline and end up with customers you wouldn’t expect walking into your store. You’re not set up to deal with them. It’s a challenge,” Clements said.
The NSGA gathered its data through a survey mailed to 10,000 households from a pool of 30,000 pre-recruited households. The Outdoor Foundation, which partnered with the National Golf Foundation, the Sporting Goods Manufacturing Association and the Snowsports Industries America for its study, conducted 40,794 online interviews to gather its information.