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Fred Clements: Note to children: Ride to Live

Published June 3, 2014
A blog by NBDA executive director Fred Clements

Editor’s note: This blog post was written by Fred Clements, executive director of the National Bicycle Dealers Association. Clements’ previous blog posts can be read on bikedealerblog.wordpress.com.

Bicycle riding was down in 2013, as 35.6 million Americans ages 7 and older rode a bicycle six or more days, according to new information from the National Sporting Goods Association (NSGA).

That represents a 9 percent drop from 2012, continuing a trend of flat or declining cycling participation in recent years.

The number of children riding fell to just 10.1 million in 2013 — the lowest participation number of the last decade at least.

There’s more to the story, though. While adult cycling seems to be relatively stable, cycling continues to lose young participants at an alarming rate.

Despite an unexpected spike in adult participation in 2012 (to 28.5 million), adult cycling has remained at about 25.5 million participants since 2000. The 2013 number was exactly that: 25.5 million.

For the same period, the number of children (ages 7 to 17) declined 43 percent, going from 17.6 million participants in 2000 to just 10.1 million in 2013. That is the lowest participation number of the past decade at least.

The NSGA has been conducting sports research for 30 years. Its research has perhaps the longest history of any research program in the sports arena based on a consistent methodology. While we can quibble with some of the parameters (Why age 7 and above? Why six or more times a year?), these numbers have been a consistent barometer for participation in 50 activities ranging from the mainstream (baseball, football, skiing, backpacking, cycling) to the more esoteric (paintball, muzzleloading, billiards, dart throwing). Detailed reports are available for purchase from nsga.org. The cycling data is also included in the NBDA market overviews authored by Jay Townley of the Gluskin Townley Group. A few additional highlights:

  • For all adult participants, cycling frequency has dropped from 61 days per year in 2000 to 52 days per year in 2013 on average.
  • While overall participation dropped by 17 percent from 2000 to 2013, the decline was slightly greater for women (18 percent) than men (17 percent).
  • Cycling has attracted more people from higher incomes since 2000. The number of participants earning $50,000 or more per year grew by 11.1 percent, while those earning less than $50,000 year declined by 41 percent.
  • The number of less-frequent cyclists (one to five rides per year) has grown since 2000. There were 13.8 million infrequent cyclists in 2013, compared with 9.6 million in 2000. Are people trying cycling and then dropping out?

Jay Townley believes these numbers can be used as guides to help the industry to chart a course and move forward. He sees a huge opportunity for dealers to engage with infrequent cyclists through rides and clinics aimed specifically at them. “If exclusivity works for you, that’s cool,” he commented. “But it doesn’t work for the bulk of the industry.”

He urged that the industry double its efforts in welcoming to cycling all sorts of people, cyclists or not, and of all backgrounds and income levels. Become “the third place” where people want to be when they’re not at their first two places, home and work.

Focus on women as well, because they participate somewhat less frequently than men and are often the gatekeepers for their children’s activities.

Make a stronger effort to recruit children and youth (step away from the monitor, young 'un!), so we don’t lose an entire generation.

The bicycle industry has made huge strides on many fronts since 2000, yet the overall cycling participation number has been incredibly difficult to move in a positive direction. Comparing 2000 with today, there are many miles of bike-friendly facilities now on the ground thanks to focused advocacy and government relations work. We are seeing an apparent trend toward urban cycling, and many cities are turning to the bicycle to ease congestion and attract jobs. There is even a promising new industry effort to gather different and more regional cycling data to quantify what works and what doesn’t, comparing areas that are showing growth versus areas that are not.

Flat participation numbers are hardly inspiring, but now is not the time to become discouraged. There are many powerful and strategic initiatives underway that deserve our support — nationally, regionally and locally. They will make a difference.

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