Study: Bike ownership around the world drops by half in 30 years

First study of its kind shows a troubling trend

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Between 1989 and 2012 bicycle ownership has dropped by half, according to a new study conducted by researchers at Johns Hopkins University and published in the Journal of Transport & Health. The number of households that have at least one bike went from 60 percent to just 32 percent.  The research, which is believed to be the first of its kind, analyzed data from 1.25 billion homes around the world. “We looked at different surveys that are being done annually or bi-annually,” Olufolajimi Oke, a civil engineer and co-author of the study, says. The surveys covered 150 countries.

The number people who own bikes has been increasing or holding steady in some nations, but it has plummeted in others. “Ownership sometimes an indicator of usage but no always,” Oke adds. This means that cycling is not yet a widespread sustainable transport solution.

The study says that 42 percent of households worldwide own at least one bicycle – that is about 580 million bicycles. The U.S. is in Tier 2 where the average PBO (percentage bicycle ownership) is 60 percent, Oke said. America has a higher ratio of bike owners but less bicycle use when compared to developing countries like India or those in Africa.

Just 1 percent of Americans between 16 and 34 years of age bike to work, compared to 73 percent that drive, numbers that haven’t changed much over the last decade, according to a recent study.

The most astonishing fact for Oke, he said, was that poor countries own more bikes. Burkina Faso’s average bike ownership percentage is 96. In comparison, the U.K., a wealthy and developed country, is in Tier 3 the average in which is 40 percent.  

Since 1992, bicycle ownership in China, the most populous country in the world, dropped from more than 97 percent to 60 in 2012. Bicycle ownership is generally highest in Scandinavian nations and lowest in parts of Africa and central Asia.

“Investing in infrastructure is a big factor” in bicycle ownership trends, according to Oke. “It is the one thing that can encourage more people to own [and use] bikes.” Another reason why people tend to use bikes, even if they own them, is safety. Designated lanes on the road, separated tracks, and more facilities will definitely boost usage. Burkina Faso, for example, Oke says, has a lot of physically separate tracks for cyclists.

The study analyzes data that goes as far as 2012. That is right before bike sharing programs became popular. “This is definitely something we’d like to investigate and see if it works,” Oke added. Being able to take a bike and drop it anywhere has definitely increased usage in urban areas, according to him, but a scientific connection is yet to be established. The bike sharing programs have the potential to fix the worrying trend of fewer household owning bikes but this is not at all a certainty. “Bike usage doesn’t necessarily affect ownership because you can just hop on and hop off.”

An interesting trend parallel to bike ownership dropping by half worldwide, made by My City Bikes, a public health campaign, is obesity increasing 158 percent in the U.S. “It's a tragedy that more than two-thirds of Generation Z are growing up in a household without a bicycle," Gabe Wallace, co-director of My City Bikes, says. “This is an especially stark fact when mirrored against the simultaneous rise of one of the greatest public health crises of our time: obesity.” It has gone from 11.1 percent in 1990 to 28.6 percent in 2012.

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