The list of advantages and benefits for bikes are numerous. Health, Emotion, Financial, and so much more. Also, the many societal benefits. Yet, in the United States, people overwhelmingly prefer the automobile or other powered forms of transportation. Even ride shares and Uber's. Why don't more people use bicycles for transportation?
I've seen in various forums recently, and articles encouraging more of this or that claiming it will help more people ride bikes. I've seen condemnation of bike shops for selling primarily to those who already ride. I personally think the picture is much bigger.
As an engineer in the bicycle industry, an avid cyclist, and as citizens of the world, I support alternate transportation, and encourage bikes. Not in a fanatical way. Yet, with all the claimed benefits, many people DON'T choose to ride. Obviously all the benefits are not convincing. So, why don't more people ride at least some of the time?
Through the process of questioning (call it an informal study over many years), I find 7 Reasons (categories or paradigms) for why people don't prefer a bike. 7 simple reasons, and they all make sense. To me, lists like this from Treehugger miss some of the point. If the advocates (including me) really want to change the world of transportation, we really must conquer these.
What Is "Transportation"?
As we consider riding bicycles more, it's important to think about purposes. For many, if you talk about bicycles for transportation, it means riding daily to work. Others see it as riding for enjoyment, exercise, or recreation. Not many have the first thought of running errands, for instance.
In the United States, bicycling for recreation is predominant. Some for just getting out and enjoying a ride. Others for exercise. Kids often see the bicycle as freedom to get to a friend's house faster and easier. Some people see bicycling as a form of adventure.
For purposes of this article, we'll use the concept of "Bicycling For Transportation" as any activity on a bike that replaces the use of a car (categorically speaking). Electric bikes are on the line. For our purposes here, we'll consider an electric bike with pedals (where the rider contributes to propulsion) as a bike. Other forms we'll consider a motorcycle, which go in the category of "motorized mode".
For the reasons below, think about bicycles for Transportation. The informal surveys show a very different attitude with respect to "Transportation" (things we need to do), versus riding for "Recreation" (choices for having fun).
Bicycles for Transportation? Why Not?
With so many amazing personal and societal benefits to riding, why not bicycles? Here are the 7 big reasons many people express as hurdles to riding bicycles for more than recreation. There are more reasons, and there are certainly variations to all of these. So, take these as categories boiled down.
As you read, you may be tempted to insert the "fix". And, you won't be wrong - there are a lot of inventive solutions. The bicycle industry is extremely inventive. More patents in this category than any other. Yet, even with all the creativity, when the option is as easy as a car, attitude and emotion still rule the day. This is the big missing piece in the articles and forums mentioned above.
Here is the list. Order for the list is important, and we'll talk about order below. I list them here in order of expression. Top of the list subjectively seems to carry a little more emotion.
I get this concern. If you commute to work, for instance, depending on the distance and hills and outside temperature, sweat is likely. Most people don't want to be that person smelling like a gym all day at work. For women that wear makeup, that is one more level. So, we might consider this as arriving unpresentable.
People have also expressed concerns about hair and looking their best. Certainly, if you put on a helmet (strongly encouraged), then sweat, it has a serious effect on the hairdo.
Finally, if your place of work does not have showers or a place to change and spruce up a bit, this concern is even more valid as we consider bicycles for transportation.
One point of interest, the concern of arriving sweaty is far more prevalent in thinking about bicycles for a daily commute. It is not expressed nearly as often when asking about running errands, for instance. (Simple tasks like dropping by the bank, post office, etc..)
Weather Concerns (Hot, Cold, Wind, Rain, Snow)
All the possibilities of weather bring many concerns. Hot and rain are the most expressed for objection. Though for most people, bicycling in the snow is not even a consideration. Depending on where you live, rain or wind, hot and cold, make the concern more or less.
Interestingly, clothing and arriving sweaty have a strong connection with weather. People have a pretty good idea that clothing matters with weather, and the idea being without the right clothing certainly exacerbates this hurdle.
This hurdle is really polarizing. For many people, this is a non-starter. They do not want to be on the road with cars. Other people blow it off as no big deal. Yet, even people that are comfortable on the road will express that they won't ride on XYZ street because it is unsafe.
Many communities are making big efforts to build and maintain bicycle lanes and paths. While this does help bicycles for transportation, most people say they don't know how to get from A to B without exposure to motorized traffic. So, to them, the lanes and paths don't really matter. It's the concept of the last mile (or middle mile, or whatever).
Certainly, we have spent billion$ on safety and infrastructure. And more on creating maps. Yet, it boils down to perception. If someone does not feel safe, the billion$ don't matter.
Side note. I applaud the effort Google as put into maps, and the bicycle routes filter. I find that many people don't know the filter exists. The routes are not always complete, and routing is not always what I would choose, but it's pretty good. More than anything, it's great for becoming aware of paths and streets to knit into a safer, often more direct route.
Pedaling Takes Effort / Not Comfortable
This is one that some people struggle to admit. It actually comes pretty high on the list, however. It is also expresses as "I'm Not Comfortable On A Bike". At first blush, these two ideas (effort and comfort) seem quite different, but they boil down to similar things. Riding a bike requires physical activity that is not like riding in a car. For some it's the "lazy" thing and they admit it. However, in some discussions it's more about discomfort of physical activity, or the wrong equipment, or the wrong setup.
So many times I have spoken to people riding their bikes - obviously not comfortable - and offered to make some quick adjustments on the spot. For those people willing to stop for a minute, a few adjustments can make a bike much more comfortable, and the required physical activity more pleasant. Even the simple things like proper tire pressure, chain lube, seat height, and lever positions can make a big difference.
Sometimes it is about the bike. The size, the setup, and the maintenance. I believe many people don't understand it, and don't know even what to ask. Then, there are physical differences. If you are not used to sitting on a bike seat, it becomes uncomfortable quickly. Same for weight on your wrists and hands. While some things are easy to overcome, others take time (and desire). If your experience on a bike has always been uncomfortable, why would you want to ride? Especially, why would you want to ride bicycles for transportation?
Effort and comfort are often cited as hurdles. When drilling in, however, proper equipment, proper setup, and proper maintenance are often in neglect, or not understood. What is the real problem? Yes, some can categorize Laziness as a part, but it's more, and it's irresponsible to lump it all as lazy.
Hard To Carry Things
A legitimate part of bicycles for transportation is certainly carrying things. We go shopping, and need to carry the groceries home. We take things to the cleaners, or take kids to activities. These are all valid. Several people in my questioning asked how do I carry eggs, or a gallon of milk on my bike?
I get it. And, this also mixes in to the "Arrive Sweaty" discussion above. How do you carry a change of clothes, with a laptop and a purse or briefcase? We take things with us often, so solutions for bicycles in transportation must also have good answers for carrying things.
Bicycling Takes Time
In our busy rush rush society, time for transportation is a big concern. We worry about beating rush hour and about leaving in time to get to an appointment. Riding takes significantly longer than driving for most people and places, and that takes important time. Even with efficient bike lanes that allow you to zoom right past traffic jams, it almost always takes more time to ride.
Then, we add the pre-ride and post-ride activities (like "Arriving Sweaty", and securing the bike). These are additional time consumers when we consider bicycles for transportation.
As a side note, this hurdle is not high on the list of people that don't ride, but it rises quickly on the list as people begin to ride. It's a bit hidden from initial view, but it's a significant hurdle to sustained alternative clean transportation.
What an awful feeling when you realize your bike is stolen. You're left stranded, and you now have to deal with the police and finding another bike and more. This possibility (or reality) is a big concern with respect to bicycles for transportation. Not very many places offer much for good bicycle security.
You can lock a car, and it's too big for a thief to pick up and run off with. With a motorcycle you can't leave things on the seat, but it's still too big for most thieves to carry off. Bicycles are another matter. Locks that are light enough and compact enough to easily carry are too often easy to defeat.
Many employers make accommodations for bicycle security, and that helps. However, very few businesses do the same for customers. The bank, the grocery, XYZ shop, etc.. That makes security an important hurdle to using bicycles as an alternate form of transportation.
Analyzing the Results
In many discussions about the above reasons, I see a significant difference in the order of the reasons based on how people perceive the hierarchy of their answers. Safety, maybe weather, are often listed as most concerning (because they feel these are respectable or honorable reasons), but digging in, "Arriving Sweaty" and "It Takes Effort" are more likely the real top concerns in riding bicycles for transportation. These reasons are perceived as less honorable by some, so depending on the person, they are hidden a little.
This comes from a perception in discussions, so it's hard to say exactly. Anyway, take the order of importance with a grain of salt.
Another way of thinking about order is the difficulty in overcoming the hurdle. People that ride bicycles for transportation have found ways to overcome these hurdles — and it works for them. However, a solution for one person may not be acceptable to another. For example, many cyclists find good clothing solves the weather concerns. Others say "There's no amount of clothing that will make it pleasant to ride in the rain!" I hear similar things when discussing safety. Some cyclists get along fine with cars. Others say "I've seen how people drive, there's no way I'm riding on the same road with cars!"
They key difference I see in all the results — those who ride and those who don't — is desire. Those who want to ride find ways. I think the hurdles are there for all of us in varying degrees. Conversations certainly indicate willingness to work around some issues more than others. But in the end, it seems like the micro-environment of our own personal situation rules our decisions. While bike lanes and creative inventions lower the hurdles, they don't solve the desire.
While it is generally wrong to lump people into categories, results show 3 general (very rough) groups. First, people who use bicycles for transportation. Second, people who love to ride, but not for transportation (as we define it above). Third, people that don't ride, or don't ride much. These groups only become important with respect to attitude.
Things like "I hate cyclists because they . . . ." Or, the unspoken attitude that many cyclists portray in "get out of my way". I think both are on the edge, but there is a lot of tempered versions of the above, and they don't help.
Two interesting points (at least for me) from people that love to ride bikes:
- There are many who love the bike, and even ride frequently for recreation or exercise. Yet, when asked, using bicycles for transportation is not on their list.
- On the other side, some people who love their bike for transportation, will down-play the reasons above with a touch of disgust. Maybe we expect that, but the reflected ego does not help.
Anyway, I find this divide in attitude from avid cyclists really telling. And, I suppose attitude is an 8th reason. But I diverge.
Overcoming The Hurdles To Bicycles For Transportation
To claim the benefits of bicycles for transportation, we must conquer the reasons people don't want to ride. While many solutions exist, they are not right for every circumstance or individual. We can argue that Electric Bikes provide a significant step forward in overcoming some of the hurdles, but even they are not a complete solution. We can talk about infrastructure too, but how do we address security? Who would pay to put bike lockers at every store?
It is not my purpose here to propose solutions for all the concerns. While I have found ways around most for myself, I fully realize that what works for me in my area and situation, won't work for everyone. For that matter, I still use a car for many things. My bicycles, as wonderful as they are, do not handle all of my transportation needs, and I can't expect any more from others.
Helping out a little here and there is my way of encouraging more people to ride. I stop frequently to help people with their bikes. Yet, in all I've done, I have come to realize that bicycles and hurdles are very personal with respect to transportation. We can shorten hurdles, but it's super hard to take them away.
The efforts of government to create more bike lanes and to assist with safety are huge. Efforts by stores and land developers to include bicycle security is fantastic. Allowance by store owners and employers to allow bikes inside also goes a long way. I applaud all of the above!!
Yet, in all the above, we must keep in mind the individuality of transportation, of need, and of desire - as we consider bicycles for transportation.
The Underlying Hurdle
I'd love to change attitudes. Certainly, the acceptance in many european countries is admirable, but it didn't happen overnight.
In the United States, we have a love affair with the car that will take a long time to break. Perhaps most important is the way we've built our country. We have places we live, places we work, and places we go for entertainment, shopping, etc.. In the USA, we've generally put divisions between these, and never the 3 shall meet. We have also put big highways connecting them. That increases distances for driving (or riding), and decreases safety.
I see this as the underlying hurdle because it exacerbates so many of the reasons above. Longer distance means more time, more likely to "Arrive Sweaty", harder to overcome "It Takes Effort", less safety, longer weather exposure, etc.. This is just one of the paradigms we have in the USA, and it is not helpful to say we should be more like _____ country.
As we encourage more bicycles for transportation to replace using a car, we must also be compassionate and realistic about individual circumstances. I truly believe the world would be a better place with more cycling, and I believe there are ways to replace the use of cars for some things. Yet, I am not naive enough to believe bicycles can suddenly work for everyone.
King Of Transportation
If I were King, I'd ask everyone to eliminate one trip in the car each month, and do it human powered — walking, skateboard, riding a bike, etc.. I believe as we see the benefits of one trip each month, we'd soon find value in replacing more. For me, it does not matter what form of human powered trip — bicycles for transportation are as good as walking.
Well, I'm not King, and really wouldn't want that anyway. Yet, the idea remains. Will you accept this challenge?