Where have all the bicyclists gone?
Gone to federal defunding, every one
What let the air out of the tires of the bicycle boom? Is there a political patch kit or a new tube and pump to get us on the road again? Or are we just being flatted without a spare and are now walking our bikes back to where we started?
We had been spinning along in the U.S. and growing to an estimated 56 million bicyclists as of 2005, according to figures by the National Sporting Goods Association. Then things began to soften. Today there are about 15 million fewer people riding bicycles. The 39 million people who rode bikes in 2011 reflected another drop, down 1.2 percent from the previous year.
To put this in perspective, while the number of bicyclists dropped 15 million since 2005, the U.S. population grew by 18 million - from 296 million to an estimated 314 million currently. That means bicyclists are shrinking significantly as a percentage of the population, and perhaps their ability to garner support has shriveled as well. A case in point is what just happened in Washington, D.C., with transportation funding.
Bipartisan accord in D.C. is rare, but it came when the House, Senate and White House all agreed to throw broken glass in front of bicycle funding. Congressional Democrats and Republicans, as well as the president, can't seem to agree on anything. But what they did agree to do was slash federal support for bike and pedestrian programs.
Getting a fair share of transportation dollars for bicycling has always meant riding into a political headwind. There's intense competition for those dollars. Republicans, with a few notable exceptions like U.S. Rep. Tom Petri of Wisconsin, seem to think the bicycle and walking have no place in transportation, that they are frivolities. Democrats, including the president, generally have supported the funding. Until now. Suddenly they decided to allow states to opt out of half of the federal bike-pedestrian money in the bill. Suddenly strange bedfellows emerged in a world of perpetual political stalemate.
Some bicycle advocates scurried to put a positive face on the development.
"We avoided total elimination of bicycling funding, preserved eligibility in other funding programs, and provided new opportunities for local control over bicycling investments," said Andy Clarke, president of the League of American Bicyclists. "Yes, the reduction in federal support for bike programs will slow our progress towards a bicycle-friendly America, but we'll continue to press ahead."
Others, like Mark Plotz, writing in the e-newsletter of the National Center for Bicycling and Walking, took a more strident view. "If there were a way to codify 'Get off the road' into federal legislation, it would probably look like the new federal transportation bill, which effectively communicates that message to the 80-plus percent of Americans who, in an independent survey, indicated that they would either like to increase federal investment in bicycling and walking or at least maintain current funding levels."
I've read that study in detail and Plotz is right. There is great public support for a more bike and pedestrian friendly America.
What we know about the deal between Congress and President Obama is that dedicated funding for transportation enhancements and Safe Routes to Schools has vanished. All while First Lady Michelle Obama pushes a "Let's Move" health program, much of which is aimed at children.
But your kids will no longer be supported by dedicated federal dollars in moving safely to and from school. And one of the reasons behind the general decline in bicycle participation is a drop in the number of children riding bikes, according to NSGA.
Plotz notes the Washington deal forces bicycle supporters to compete for less dollars for "other uses like environmental mitigation (including reducing vehicle-wildlife mortality); historic preservation; removal of outdoor advertising; and the construction of turnouts, overlooks, and viewing areas." He says the deal also allows bicycle funds to be used for projects like adding turn lanes and intersection improvements to highways.
Andy Clarke and the rest of us who think a balanced transportation system would yield economic, environmental and health benefits of immense proportions will now have to press ahead into a stiffening political headwind. It's always been tough to get respect and support for bicyclists and pedestrians. It may become even tougher because of what's happening demographically and economically, as indicated by the NSGA data.
Theories abound as to why bicycling participant numbers are dropping. The bad economy. Need for austerity. Increasing political partisanship. People aging and riding less or just dropping out. Fewer children are bicycling because there aren't enough safe routes to schools or anywhere else they need to go.
In the mean time, there's a fat epidemic spreading itself like butter across the land. Sixty percent of Americans are obese, according to a Cornell physician who recently challenged the current way of measuring obesity. And obesity is related to a myriad of diseases, ranging from diabetes to heart failure to cancer.
The people in political power, who are currently debating ways to ensure sloth via national health care, don't seem to grasp that active lives burn the calories that otherwise would accumulate as fat. Nor do they understand that if you build the facilities, people will come and use them. And that would benefit us all.
Health care costs associated with ballooning spare tires and butts are out of control. And the politicians, in Congress and the White House, are riding tandem to accommodate it.
Bill Hauda is a bicyclist, veteran of some 50 marathons, including 13 in Boston; a former competitive triathlete; founder and first president of the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin; currently a BFW board member; and former director of Wisconsin's two major cross-state bicycle tours, GRABAAWR and SAGBRAW.