Data on bicycle ownership could help boost cycling

Bike ownership on the decline since 1989, finds new global study of 1.25 billion households

Bicycle ownership is lowest in Africa and parts of Asia. (This map was featured in the original research article by Oke et al in the <em> Journal of Transport & Health</em>.)

There’s plenty of parking available for bicycles in Amsterdam, as this parking facility at the central train station demonstrates. (Photo by Alison Bert)In Amsterdam, tens of thousands of people hop on their bikes and cycle to work every morning. The city is geared up for cyclists, and it’s a way of life for most people. But with an estimated 18 million bikes – more than two for every household in the country – the Netherlands is not the norm when it comes to cycling or bicycle ownership.

Bicycles don’t need to be licensed or registered, and there’s no way of knowing how many kilometers people are clocking up around the world every day. But understanding bicycle usage is very helpful if we want to increase the use of this sustainable mode of transport and improve infrastructure supporting it in the right ways.

A new study published in the Journal of Transport & Health pulls together data from 1.25 billion households around the world. The data reveals that bicycle ownership has declined over the last few decades, with the average percentage across 148 countries of households with a bicycle falling by half since 1989.

This information, say the researchers, could give policy makers good examples of where ownership is highest, helping them boost cycling as a sustainable mode of transport.

Lead author Olufolajimi Oke is  a PhD candidate in Civil Engineering at Johns Hopkins University.“Everyone is focused on what’s happening now, but looking to the past can really help policy makers – it can show them what worked and what didn’t and give them ideas,” said lead author Olufolajimi Oke, a PhD candidate in Civil Engineering at Johns Hopkins University. “By pulling together and analyzing many sources of data, we have produced a database that we hope will give policy makers the information they need to take action.”

What the data reveals

There are many different sources of data on bicycle ownership, but until now no one single source was tracking global ownership over time. The researchers first tried to gather all the data in one place, then see what they could do with it.

“We hoped that by studying ownership, we could get some useful information on how it affects usage,” Oke said. “Ultimately, usage is what we’re interested in.”

The team gathered the information that was already available from 150 countries, representing 1.25 billion households, from 1981 to 2012. Household surveys often include a question about bicycle ownership, as it is an indirect indicator of wealth, so they could gather data from surveys conducted by the UN, World Bank and other regional and national organizations. They also received data from the Institute of Crime Victimization Studies in Europe, as bicycles are stolen so frequently.

The researchers analyzed the data, weighting results and converting data to make everything comparable between countries and over time. They then put everything into a single database.

“We had created a fantastic source of data, but it took us a long time to decide what to do with it – there were so many possibilities,” said Oke. “Eventually we decided to classify the countries in terms of the percentage of households that have bicycles. But deciding how to define those groups and subgroups is tricky, and many alternatives have been proposed over the years.”

They conducted what’s called a gap test to find the optimal number of groups in the dataset. This gave them four main clusters of countries with similar bicycle ownership rates, with an average of 81 percent of households owning a bike in group 1, 60 percent in group 2, 40 percent in group 3 and 20 percent in group 4.

Tracking bike trends around the world

Bicycle ownership by country

The Netherlands has one of the highest rates of bicycle ownership. (Photo © Alison Bert)

The researchers put the 150 countries they analyzed into four groups according to the average percentage of households that own bicycles):

  • Group 1 (81%): Scandinavian countries, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Burkina Faso
  • Group 2 (60%): USA, Canada, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, China, Australia, New Zealand and several European countries
  • Group 3 (40%): Russia and parts of Eastern Europe, the UK, Malawi, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia, the Indian subcontinent, Maritime Southeast Asia, Mexico, Chile, Panama and Nicaragua
  • Group 4 (20%): most West, Central, and North African nations, the Middle East and Central Asia

According to the study, 42 percent of households worldwide own at least one bicycle, adding up to an estimated 580 million bicycles owned privately worldwide. The actual number of bicycles is highest in India and China, which account for a quarter of the world’s household population, having a big effect on the global average. Taking China and India out of the picture reveals a steady global decline in bicycle ownership, falling from an average of 60 percent of households owning a bike in 1989 to just 32 percent in 2012.

Patterns started to emerge in the groups, with geographic proximity and cultural similarities leading to similar levels of ownership. “If a country doing well in terms of bicycle ownership, surrounding countries also seem to do well,” explained Oke.

But there were some outliers too. Take Burkina Faso, for example. Although it is surrounded by countries in groups 3 and 4, it has a surprisingly high average bike ownership, putting it in group 1. Looking at countries like this can help policy makers put measures in place to increase cycling.

Peru was another surprising outlier. It’s a country well known for cycling, so the researchers expected to see it in the top end of the grouping, but it actually fell into group 4.

“Most of the cycling in Peru is tourist-driven, so even though it’s a popular pastime, it’s not translated into ownership and regular usage,” Oke said.

Oke thinks the decline could be down to industrialization. The majority of the world’s households are in developing and emerging countries. In the 80s and 90s, those countries were rapidly industrializing; bicycle ownership was discouraged and stifled, so a lot of money was spent on roads for cars. More cars mean more unsafe roads for cycling, which would also have had an effect.

“Sometimes you’re literally putting your life on the line,” he said. “Baltimore, where I live, used to be a national and global cycling hub with a rich cycling history. But now, there are fewer cyclists and many feel unsafe and marginalized on today’s roads for good reason. The authorities are working on improving the situation, but this pattern is seen across the US and in many other countries.

Armed with our data, policy makers will be able to make better informed decisions that support cycling.”

Read the study

Elsevier has made the following article freely available until 25 February 2016:

Olufolajimi Oke et al: “Tracking global bicycle ownership patterns,” Journal of Transport & Health.

The Lead Author

Olufolajimi (Jimi) Oke is a systems engineer who studies and models networks to improve access to infrastructure and sustainable usage. He uses optimization, data mining and visualization techniques to solve various problems in energy, transportation and other fields. In particular, Jimi is interested in schematic mapping, bicycle networks and the equilibrium modeling of energy markets.

Jimi is currently a Gordon Croft Fellow at the Energy, Environment, Sustainability and Health Institute at Johns Hopkins University. He is a doctoral candidate in Civil Engineering at the Mathematical Optimization for Decisions Lab and works in affiliation with the Systems Institute, both at Johns Hopkins University.

The Journal

The Journal of Transport & Health is devoted to research on the many interactions between transport and health. These include the impacts on public health of noise and air pollution generated by transport, road traffic injuries and perceptions of danger, the factors affecting transport choices and policies that promote or discourage healthy and sustainable transport modes. Read more.

Elsevier Connect Contributor

Lucy Goodchild-van
  HiltenAfter a few accidents, Lucy Goodchild van Hilten discovered that she’s a much better writer than a scientist. Following an MSc in the History of   Science, Medicine and Technology at Imperial College London, she became Assistant Editor of Microbiology Today. A stint in the press office at Imperial saw her stories on the front pages, and she moved to Amsterdam to work at Elsevier as Senior Marketing Communications Manager for Life Sciences. She’s now a freelance writer at Tell Lucy. Tweet her @LucyGoodchild.

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