Are kids biking MORE or LESS?

IS THE ANSWER…

“The best numbers available suggest that today’s American kids bike as much — if not more — than kids did in the mid-1970s.” - Michael Andersen (The Green Lane Project)

 

OR IS THE ANSWER…

“Since 1996 the number of children, age 7-17, participating in bicycle riding 6 days or more in a year has declined 12,097,800 or 54.6%” - 
Elliot Gluskin (The Gluskin Townley Group)

Great, now that we’re clear on that. 

Wait, what?! Let me get this straight. The first quote, lifted from a People for Bikes (P4B) blog post, says kids are potentially riding more today than they did in the 70′s. The second, sourced from the leading bike industry statisticians, says youth riding participation has fallen off a cliff. 

Here at Buddy Pegs, we simply want to get more kids on bikes since we believe that bicycles not only help build the fundamental building blocks of life long happiness, but they are a simple solution to the world’s most complex problems. No matter how many kids are riding today, we want to see more.

But do we have an endemic biking crisis in the US, or not. Do we as bike advocates need to be sounding the alarm, or just moving forward, steady as she goes?

First of all, I completely support the intention of the People for Bikes post (quoted above) to highlight that an increase in bicycling infrastructure correlates to a decrease in youth bicycling fatalities. Let’s keep communicating that! But what about the stats about the number of kids riding bikes in the US… are they accurate?

A few years back, I sat in on a Gluskin Townley Group webinar about the future of the bike industry. If you don’t know Elliot Gluskin and Jay Townley, they are arguably the leading bike industry analysts, hired by many big names in the bike industry to provide insightful market research. 

After reading the People for Bikes post, I was confused about how the data presented did not line up with data presented in the Gluskin Townley Group webinar. In particular, Elliot and Jay presented data from the National Participation Study (NPS), conducted annually since 1993 by the National Sporting Goods Association (NSGA). This study defines ‘participation’ as the riding of a bicycle at least 6 times a year, and concludes that… 

youth cycling (between ages of 7-17), has declined from 22.1M in 1996 to 10.1M in 2014 - a drop of 54%!

In the People for Bikes post, Michael Andersen writes, 

“Every academic we checked with… agreed about the best available set of data on this question: the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Personal Travel Survey (NPTS) and its successor, the National Household Travel Survey (NHTS).“ 

Given this contradiction, I asked the Gluskin Townley Group for some clarification (academics not consulted for the P4B post). In his response, Elliot Gluskin explained that he feels the NPTS/NHTS are fundamentally flawed, and that the NSGA Participation Study should really be the benchmark. 

“The NSGA data is consistent and the methodology has been the same since 1987 when the association first started measuring participation in sport/team/recreational activities. It is this consistency of methodology that has us advocating for this participation study as being truer in pinpointing changes over time.” - Elliot Gluskin

At this point, my confusion deepens. Don’t worry if you’re not following the difference between all the acronyms: NPTS, NSGA, NHTS. The real point is, 

I’m not sure the bike industry has embraced the actual need for reliable participation data as a benchmark from which to discuss the state of our industry. 

If we have, then why am I just now bringing up this contradiction in reporting? Why is this not the keynote topic at the Bicycle Leadership Conference, The National Bike Summit, Interbike, and other industry conferences? If we were truly concerned about the number of kids riding bikes, wouldn’t one assume this topic would fly to the highest seats in the pantheon of industry leaders? 

Diving in deeper to the Gluskin Townley findings (for you stats nerds out there), the situation seems pretty grim.

“Since 1996 the number of children, age 7-17, participating in bicycle riding 6 days or more in a year has declined 12,097,800 or 54.6%. To provide context to this decline, during the same period the total number of bicycling participants declined 17,700,000 or 33.2%.  Also, on a national basis, the total number of children 7-17 years old in 2014 was 45,567,000 compared to 41,695,000 in 1996 for an increase of 9.3%. In 1996 the number of children 7-17 represented 15.7% of the total U.S. population but in 2014 this age group represented 14.3%. “ - Elliot Gluskin

To put that in non-statistical language… all sharrows point to a doomsday scenario for US cycling.

In the P4B blog, they draw a conclusion that the proportion of American children’s trips taken via bike has remained stable.  This conclusion is completely out of sync with the NSGA study, which obviously shows a gigantic decline in the number of children riding 6 or more days a year from ages 7-17. 

So what exactly is the message we want delivered to the bike industry? From where should our leaders lead?

On one hand there’s the message that we have a crisis because children are not riding as much (in hugely significant numbers).  

On the other hand, we have a message of, don’t panic, numbers are staying consistent. 

One message has the potential to rally our industry together to find unified solutions to endemic problems.

The other has the potential to freeze the bike industry in a state of complacency about youth cycling participation… and the future of biking participation in general.

I would assume we all agree that to have a strong top, you need a solid base. Stones at the bottom of a pyramid were cut far thicker than those at the top. Construction crews spend way more time solidifying the foundation of a sky scraper than they do finishing the top floor.

With that in mind, if there is even a shadow of a doubt that our nation’s kids aren’t riding bikes as much as they used to, shouldn’t we send more construction workers in to do something about it?