June 2, 2009

The decline of biking, and does it make bikes more hip?

Thinking more about how kids these days don't have a life, I thought of more ways to measure the change. It would be tough to find data on how often kids spend time playing outside, or what percent of the time they spend at playgrounds or parks is supervised. But there are at least two things I remember doing a lot as a kid that I don't see at all today -- riding my bike and shooting basketball at the hoop in someone's driveway. The basketball data will come soon, but for now, let's have a look at how the popularity of riding a bike has changed over the past 20 or so years.

The data are recorded in the Statistical Abstract of the United States, and they go from 1986 to 2006. (For the later age groups, the first two years used broader groupings, so in the graphs below, they start in 1988, when the finer-grained groupings begin.) They show what percent of people have gone bike riding at least 6 times in the past year. Here are the graphs for all age groups, and then broken down by smaller groups:

As you can see, most of the graphs tell the same story: popularity peaked sometime in the late '80s / early '90s, and since then has plummeted to about one-half of the peak value. Pretty odd since that's when crime started declining, so you don't have to worry so much about being attacked or having your bike stolen. And interestingly, the decline is consistent across all age groups -- so it's not just helicopter parents keeping their small children from riding their bikes around the neighborhood unsupervised. We just don't like being outside as much as we used to -- a pattern that showed up before in the data on the decline in going to parks.

Perhaps this partly explains why so many of the Stuff White People Like items have to do with the outdoors, bikes, and green stuff in general -- 20 to 30 years ago, it wasn't very rare for the average person to enjoy these things, although they wouldn't have tried to brag about their eco cred to others. Now most of us trap ourselves indoors all day long, so the hip people may be trying to proclaim their unique awesomeness by going outdoorsy. I realize that this could well be as idiotic as the idea that the elites only took up tanning once the commoners started working indoors. But at least the timing is right in this case -- as bikes were being abandoned by the population at large, suddenly the insecure status-climbers appropriated them as a symbol of coolness.

I'd probably buy a used bike and use it for shorter trips, but I couldn't stand getting sucked against my will into the SWPL bike culture once they spotted me -- having some Rastafarian queer talk your ear off about which bike repair shop is the best, how much his seat with the customized large black dildo cost, or whatever else. Thanks, but I'll drive.


  1. I suspect there are several reasons for the decline. Here are two:

    1. Helmet advocacy.

    2. The cul-de-sac-ification of suburbia.

  2. How much of this could be caused just by more people driving cars due to growing wealth and easier credit, and moving to less densely populated suburbs where there's not really much in biking range? Even those too young to drive would be affected, as parents would be able to drop them off somewhere - especially if the family has more than one car.

  3. Maybe crime decreased because people started avoiding activities that made them more likely to be victims?

  4. Maybe crime dropped precisely because we're all couch potatoes that won't go outside?

  5. "having some Rastafarian queer talk your ear off about which bike repair shop is the best, how much his seat with the customized large black dildo cost, or whatever else."

    LOL.....good stuff

  6. biking has taken off with the hipster crowd in Raleigh, NC that's for sure.

  7. Once upon a time, I went looking for info because I couldn't take another minute of the over hyped innumerate media ranting that normal life was a massive pressing tragedy threatening our nation and I stumbled across a post by agnostic at gnxp.com.

    That was a pretty good day. : )

    Sure do love the data, graphs and commentary.

    It is amazing how facts make things easier to understand.


  8. Biking and other outdoor activities are very popular among adults of all ages in the Pacific Northwest. However, I do notice that kids do not play outside as much as we did when we were kids (I practically lived outside during the warm season). My travels to other regions of the country seem to fit the observations of this blog. Aside from "outdoor-oriented" regions of the country (Pacific Northwest, Rocky Mountain states), Americans seem to be more indoor people now.

    Montana is actually quite nice. My last visit there (last summer) I saw lots of thirty-something women who were in shape and looked healthy. Everyone does outdoor stuff in Montana.

    Outside of the Boston area, New England seems quite nice (but with cold winters). Are New England people into outdoor sports?

  9. Outside of the Boston area, New England seems quite nice (but with cold winters). Are New England people into outdoor sports?Quite a bit. Skiing is popular, as is hiking.


  10. Right on! Fuck helmet advocay. I don't know of a single child who sustained a head injury cycling. I'm sure it happens, but damn, mang, kids need to be able to skin their knees and get dirty and ride a one-speed without looking like they're suiting up for American Gladiators.

  11. Not armand Assante6/3/09, 4:35 PM

    Faggity nineties, chat rooms are gay, and now some Rastafarian queer and that's just recently.

    You should do a post about your constant need to make gay jokes.

  12. I bike everywhere, and my strictly subjective impression is that it leaves one far less vulnerable to crime than either walking or public transit, as it is easy to get out of range of almost anybody who is on foot. It is extremely rare for motorists to purposefully run over a cyclist.

    Also, there's nothing inherently left-wing about cycling. The bicycle is not a political technology. I am fairly apolitical these days, and cycle mainly because it is cheap, fast, convenient, fun and good exercise.


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