Sprawling, automobile-reliant US cities rarely evoke associations of extensive bike ridership. Yet, despite cycling’s popularity notably varying between the US’ 10 most important metropolises, each one recorded growing household ownership of bikes over 2010-2015, amid declining motorisation rates in most of them. A combination of push and pull factors is driving the change, which local businesses have not missed out on benefiting from.
Top 10 US Cities with the Highest Bicycle Ownership Rates in 2015
Source: Euromonitor International
Push factor: Changing consumer attitudes
Millennials show a generally weaker preference for cars than previous young generations. As found by the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI), in 1983, about 87% of American 19-year-olds, 80% of 18-year-olds and 69% of 17-year-olds had a driver's license. The corresponding shares dropped substantially to 75%, 65% and 50% by 2008. According to the executive director of the League of American Bicyclists, 45% of all automobile trips are within six kilometres of distance, and specifically in this range people want a higher variety of mobility options, a trend led by youth.
Pull factor: Enhanced cycling infrastructure
Pure cycling enthusiasm can rarely produce a visible and lasting change in urban mobility unless there are sufficient infrastructure investments to make biking safe. US cities have recently witnessed a wave of cycling infrastructure projects. For example, in March 2014, along with other six municipalities in the US, the City of Boston was selected by the PeopleForBikes Green Lane Project to take part in its two year programme to organise protected bike lanes. The year 2015 saw Philadelphia join the rank of other major US cities such as New York, Houston and Boston in developing its own bike sharing system. Houston set aside USD211 million just for the implementation of trail and park projects. In the 2015-2016 Bike Plan, Houston set itself a target of becoming a Gold-level Bicycle Friendly City by 2026 as per the League of American Bicyclists’ rating system.
Local businesses take advantage of the trend
In the midst of the cycling surge, US cities are seeing related innovative business ventures. For instance, in Los Angeles a firm called Pure Fix recognised a gap in the market for design-appealing yet affordable bicycles. The company’s product offer was well received and Pure Fix now satisfies cyclists’ demands by both partnering with bike shops and selling online. Some experiment more boldly with looks. Researchers at MIT developed an autonomous electric vehicle that would be especially useful for the elderly and disabled. The vehicle has a protected cover so there is no need to wear a helmet, which is also often a nuisance for women.
In addition, growing use of bikes produces positive spill-over effects for other un-related businesses. In Washington, for example, 20% of firms near a bike share station witnessed higher sales, while 70% recognise the station’s "positive impact" in its vicinity.
A major hurdle that hindered bicycle use in US cities was the underlying suburban culture which pushed people to city peripheries. This consequently accelerated the process of suburban sprawl, making long distance commutes only feasible through the use of automobiles. In recent years, however, there has been a reversal of this trend, with a growing number of residential developments popping up in downtown areas. With distance being less of a limiting factor to commuting, the automobile is slowly losing its place in US society, whilst cycling is catching on as a hot new trend.