When I announced that I was leaving my position at the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership to build a scaleable, secure bike parking solution, I got more than a few blank stares. “The market for cycling isn’t big enough,” was the refrain I heard again and again. One successful CEO told me that New York had a “long way to go” before it was like Amsterdam. Even some bike advocates expressed a degree of skepticism; cycling, for the most part, is still seen as a mostly recreational activity.
Conventional wisdom subscribers are missing a key opportunity. Here are five reasons why:
1. Explosive Market Growth
Urban cycling has exploded in popularity over the past 30 years. Here in New York, there has been a more than 330% increase in bike traffic between 1990 and 2015. Chicago has seen a 389% increase, while bikes are about 5x more popular in DC today than they were in 2000.
These kinds of numbers are unprecedented.
The proliferation of bikeshare systems (more on this later) has underscored urban cycling’s new mainstream popularity. Since 2010, many of the nation’s largest cities, including New York, Los Angeles Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston and Washington have leveraged public resources to introduce immensely popular public bikeshare systems. New York’s Citibike, the largest of these systems, recorded over 14 million trips in 2016.
2. Government Investment
Public investment in urban bike infrastructure will only accelerate the pace of adoption. In 2005 Los Angeles had 245 miles of bike roadway infrastructure, by 2013 that number had more than doubled to 562 miles. New York City added nearly 500 miles of bike lanes to its network since 2007.
These investments aren’t scheduled to stop anytime soon. The mayor of Chicago recently announced that the city would build more than 50 miles of protected bike lanes as part of an effort to make the city more attractive to cyclists. Last year, Houston unveiled a $500 million dollar bicycle plan that will generate 1200 new miles of cycling infrastructure. Not to be outdone, London has committed $1 billion towards cycling improvements, and Detroit’s bike plan will reshape that city’s Downtown.
Such infrastructure improvements can have a major impact on adoption, with research showing that streets which receive protected lanes see as much as a 171% increase in cycling traffic. These investments will almost certainly incentivize far more people to ride.
Bikeshare programs and similar schemes have also signified government’s commitment to the pedal. Cities have invested hundreds of millions in public resources into planning and operating schemes that deliver public bicycles to the streetscape.
It’s not hard to understand why public officials and planners love the bike.
In the era of climate change, not only are bikes greener than motor vehicles, they’re also far more efficient in their use of space; in urban settings, bikes have the speed of a car, with a fraction of the space requirements. Bicycle transport also closely aligns with existing city spending programs in walkability and public transit.
If this pace of investment continues, expect the exponential growth of bike travel to only accelerate.
3. New Urbanism Movement
Cities are becoming denser and more walkable, a pattern that favors continued growth in bike transportation. Amongst both private developers and public policy makers, New Urbanism is in and sprawl is out. Roughly defined as embracing sustainable, walkable and transit rich environments, this new school of urban development means that cities will look more and more like Cambridge, Massachusetts and less like Houston, Texas. Across America, cities are pouring resources into their urban cores, and moving them away from the sprawling suburbs.
This is exactly where bikes thrive.
Studies have found that bikes are most competitive in shorter trips of under 8 miles, with a sweet spot of between 1 and 5 miles. With a new dense urban future on the horizon, one where people live physically closer to work and play, bikes are poised to play a much larger role.
Additionally, other aspects of New Urban development also favor cycling transport. Walkability means smaller, narrower streets and lower amounts of slower moving vehicular traffic. These types of street conditions translate into a safer, friendlier environment for those who use bikes, and a much slower trip for those electing to drive.
American cities are slowly becoming more European, and cycling transport is very popular in Europe.
4. More Gaps and Unmet Needs
While motorized transport is largely saturated by highly competitive major players, the world of bikes of comparatively untapped. New adopters experience a world that is very much like the wild west; few services, few norms and few rules. There are major gaps in the market, each with an associated, unmet need.
For example, despite the fact that there are hundreds of thousands of cycling trips each day in New York (at least), there isn’t a uniform registration or insurance system. As cycling becomes more commonplace, so will accidents and the need to impound vehicles. For example, when I was at the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, we would regularly remove and eventually dispose of derelict or illegally parked bicycles. Not only was there no way to contact the owner, if someone did eventually claim a bicycle there wasn’t a way to verify that claim beyond the pinky swear.
More seriously, other issues like theft, maintenance, and service are haphazard. As many as half of all cyclists have experienced bike theft; and estimated 15,000 bikes per year in NYC alone. Local bike shops charge expensive fees for maintenance service (that’s where their best margins come from) but provide limited service hours and differing quality. There isn’t a system in place for bike shops to speak to each other or even to know what previous work had been done on the bicycle.
Today’s service providers continue to operate under a recreational paradigm when the market is increasingly moving toward daily transportation.
5. Overlap With Other Sectors
Cycling’s overlap with other strong market like health and fitness are another reason to expect to see continued strong growth. I first started riding as a way to inject my routine with more physical fitness; a 30 minute ride can easily burn 300 calories. Commuting back and forth from home 5 days per week on a bike can burn more than 3,000 calories.
In the era of rising obesity, and more attention to physical fitness solutions, I expect to see more people give cycling a try simply because it allows them to remain physically fit.