Few inventions have been as socially radical as the bicycle. It might not seem like it today, when cyclists are regularly barged off streets by outraged car drivers, but our metaled roads were originally built for the bicycle. The bike also gave freedom to women and made inter-city transport and commuting possible.
But for the last 30 years, as humans in even the most remote or poorest corners of the world have switched to motorized transport, global bike ownership has declined, according to a new study out of Johns Hopkins University. At the same time, as humans have switched to motorized transport, the balance of human illness has shifted from infectious diseases to diseases like diabetes and heart disease–that is diseases we bring upon ourselves through our lifestyles. Coincidence? Probably not. By charting the decline in bicycle ownership and use, we can also chart the decline in our health.
The Johns Hopkins study gathered data from 150 countries, including 1.25 billion households, from 1989 to 2012 (with partial data going back to 1971), and holds some surprises about the shape of and the changes in global bike usage.
The study confirms the success of the re-introduction of bikes as a popular transport system in places like the Netherlands. But in 2010, the country with the highest bike ownership by population percentage was Burkina Faso (84%), and the lowest was Armenia (4%). The biggest change has probably come in China. In 1992, 97% of Chinese owned a bike. By 2007 that had dropped to 49%, but just two years later, in 2009, ownership had risen again to 63%.
The researchers divided the results into four groups, based on ownership numbers. You won’t be surprised to learn that the top group is made up almost entirely of Scandinavian countries (plus Burkina Faso), but you might be interested to learn that the U.S. is up in group 2, along with much of South America and North/West Europe. That may be down to all the discarded racing bikes languishing in the country’s basements, or it may be that Portland and San Francisco have skewed the figures for the entire U.S.
And money, it seems, is not necessarily a factor. The U.K., one of the world’s wealthiest nations, is way down in group 3. “Attitudes, safety and poor infrastructure may have contributed to the relatively low level of ownership in the U.K., compared to its neighbors,” says the report. Neither does popularity of cycling correlate with ownership. The study cites Peru as a popular cycling destination, mainly for bike tourists and mountain bikers, and yet bike ownership in Peru is just 20%, compared the South American average of 52%.
Within each group, ownership has remained steady since 1990, but the outliers (if you can call such huge nations outliers) are China and India. These both still have high levels of bike ownership, despite large declines of their own, but with both countries removed from the total, the global ownership figure drops from 60% in 1989 to 32% in 2012.
In China, this may be down to increased wealth, and the car as a status symbol. According to a 2008 report by Earth Policy Institute:
From 1995 to 2005, China’s bike fleet declined by 35 percent, from 670 million to 435 million, while private car ownership more than doubled, from 4.2 million to 8.9 million. Blaming cyclists for increasing accidents and congestion, some city governments have closed bike lanes. Shanghai even banned bicycles from certain downtown roads in 2004.
The same report says that, in 2006, China’s central government ordered the reversal of bike lane closures and instigated bike-sharing plans in the run up to the 2008 Olympics. The Johns Hopkins figures–showing a rise in bike ownership from 49% to 63% from 2007 to 2009–suggest that the policy reversal was successful.
Perhaps the most interesting story is that of Burkina Faso, a West African nation of 18.6 million people which has three times the regional average for bike ownership
Although one of the poorest nations in the world, Burkina Faso has invested substantially in cycling infrastructure (on a scale perhaps not seen in other African nations), and its positive attitudes toward cycling have been well documented. Cycling is also popular in Burkina Faso as a sport (for example, Tour du Faso since 1987) and as a tourist activity—further evidence for the widespread acceptance of bicycles in the country.
The overall takeaway from the report seems to be that government policy has a huge effect on bicycle usage, even if that government’s resources are limited. Denmark and the Netherlands have been slowly improving infrastructure and laws for decades, Burkina Faso has enjoyed a startling success thanks to government support, and even considering the totalitarian power wielded by China’s government, the two-year boost caused by policy change is remarkable.
Clearly, then, infrastructure is the key to increased bike use in the future. If only cyclists had the lobbying power that we had back in 1880, when the League of American Wheelmen forced the government to build proper roads.
If you want to dig into the data yourself, it is available to download here.