From the mid-’60s to the early ’70s, the US experienced an unprecedented explosion in cycling popularity – known today as the “Bike Boom”.
Rising steadily from 1965, bike sales doubled between 1970 and 1972 from 7 million and 14 million respectively. TIME magazine dubbed this period “the bicycle’s biggest wave of popularity in its 154-year history”.
For the first time in the US, adults were adopting the bicycle en masse. 45 million bicycles were sold in total during the height of the US Bike Boom, and cycle ownership was higher than ever.
To fill you in on everything you need to know about America’s Bike Boom, we’ll be covering:
- 5 Key Factors That Triggered the Bike Boom
- Why Did The Bike Boom Matter?
- What Lessons Can We Learn From The Bike Boom?
Ready for the lowdown on America’s cycling explosion?
Let’s get started.
5 Key Factors That Triggered the Bike Boom
#1. Bike innovation
Of the 7 million bikes sold in the U.S. in 1970, just 200,000 were lightweight 3-speed or derailleur road bikes. 1.2 million were coaster brake balloon-tired adult bicycles, and the remaining 5.5 million sales were for children’s bikes.
Between 1970 and 1972, the adult market for lightweight 10-speed bikes like the Schwinn Stingray expanded exponentially from a meager 200,000 in 1970 to over 8,000,000 by 1972. Cycling, once seen as only suitable for children and tightly attired athletes, was beginning to become mainstream.
Well-known brands of today such as Cannondale, Specialized, and Trek were founded during the Bike Boom years.
#2. Baby boomers Reaching Adulthood
The baby-boom generation was the product of the sudden increase in births in the years after WW2.
During the ’60s and ’70s, wealth was high in the US amongst young people, leading to high consumer demand for recreational products. Lightweight bicycles were relatively cheap, fast, and fun.
This made them an attractive prospect for young adults looking to flex their independence and explore the world. A mass of money and desire made its way into the bicycle market.
The lightweight derailleur bicycle quickly became the baby boomer bike of choice.
#3. Traffic congestion and air pollution Awareness
With more roads being built than ever before, the social and environmental costs of highway construction and vehicle use were becoming increasingly apparent. People were starting to look for alternatives.
The 1960s and ’70s saw the development of federal programs to regulate the safety of air pollution emissions. Various policies were introduced, such as the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act and The Clean Air Act of 1970.
A popular 1973 article in Scientific American titled “Bicycle Technology”, explained how the bike was the most efficient form of transportation.
Commuters were beginning to discover that they could save time by skipping the rush hour queues, which alongside a growing awareness of the damage done by air pollution prompted more and more adults to switch to cycling.
#4. Growing Health Awareness
Growing concern was being voiced around the deteriorating physical condition of the American population, with heart disease and death rates accelerating at an alarming rate.
Exercise was being advocated in schools and by public officials as a key way to boost the health of the nation, fueling interest in bikes even further.
The bike became a pragmatic solution to preserve heart health.
#5. An Emerging culture of Bike touring
In 1966, Dan Burden embarked on the Hemistour – a bicycle tour from Anchorage, Alaska, to Tierra del Fuego, Argentina – as a way to promote cycling.
It was during the Hemistour that Dan and Lys Burden, and Greg and June Siple would conceive of the Bikecentennial ’76.
With over 4100 participants, the event consisted of a series of bicycle tours on the TransAmerica Bicycle Trail. The route was in commemoration of the bicentennial of America’s Declaration of Independence.
After the 1976 event, adventure cycling in America took off. Several additional bicycle routes across the United States and Canada were mapped. The Adventure Cycling Route now has an extensive network of over 44,000 miles of trails and is the largest bicycle route network in North America.
Why did the bike boom matter?
At the height of the Bike Boom, the US government set out plans to build an extensive network of bikeways, with high-level financial support from the US Department of Transportation.
In 1973, 252 bicycle-focused bills were introduced across 42 states. The Federal-Aid Highway Act of the same year provided $120m for bikeways over three years.
Support like this had previously not existed.
John A Volpe, Secretary of Transportation, routinely rode a fold-up bicycle from his home to Capitol Hill. He petitioned the city council chairman to build bikeways for the growing number of cyclists, who – like him – “were not all long-haired hippies.”
US Congressman Ed Koch galvanized the movement by joining the 1970s protest bike rides. In 1971 he stressed: “The only way to ensure safety for the many thousands of New Yorkers who want to bicycle is to designate official and exclusive bike lanes.” Koch later installed bikeways when he became mayor of New York.
The Bike Boom copped a flat
Ambitious plans to build urban cycleways similar to those in the Netherlands were envisioned but came all too late. Bicycle sales had more than halved within the first few months of 1975. Bike shops were canceling overseas orders and bikes were swiftly being resigned to the garage.
State highway planners reined back what had been grandiose plans to construct bikeways. The automobile took center stage once again.
Mr. Koch himself said, “My own gut tells me they’re not working and if they’re not working, rip them up.” The newly installed New York bike lanes were removed along with scores of other ambitious cycling programs and infrastructure plans across the country.
During a Senate committee in 1976, the chairman of the Bicycle Manufacturing Association of America sounded the death knell: “The Boom has turned into a bust.”
Lasting Effects of the Bike Boom
Although bicycle use fell sharply, some states followed through with their investments. The Bike Boom had some lasting effects, fuelling the beginnings of a rich cycling culture in North America.
In Portland, Oregon, the bike lanes stuck. Sam Oakland, a professor who led a group known as the Bicycle Lobby, told the Associated Press in 1971: “We want to redesign Portland to make it a city for people… instead of what it now is: a giant, smelly parking garage for commuters.”
The bicycle lobby worked on obtaining funds for cycling infrastructure. A bill was passed which set aside 1% of state transportation spending for bike-specific facilities – the first designated state funding for cycling in the US.
Culture and infrastructure are closely related. Infrastructure supports cycling by reducing barriers to entry, such as inefficient routes and perceptions of danger.
But it’s a two-pronged solution. As seen in New York under Koch, an empty bike lane will be reclaimed by motorists. Without strong ridership, it can be difficult for councils and governments to justify bike-friendly spending programs.
Roger Geller published a report for the City of Portland that evaluates enthusiasm and support for cycling in the city. It showed that:
- 0.5% were “Strong and Fearless”. They cycle no matter the weather or traffic conditions.
- 7% were “Enthused and Confident”. Without city infrastructure, they wouldn’t ride as often or at all.
- 60% were “Interested but Concerned”. This group makes up the majority of residents, who show an interest in cycling but are deterred by perceived barriers related to safety and access to convenient bike routes.
- 33% were “No way, no how”. opposed to riding a bike as a form of transportation, and no circumstances will change this.
In March 1972, Interior Secretary Stewart Udall said: “Give people a choice, build more bikeways. People cling to their cars because there is no alternative.”
Udall commissioned the influential Trails for America report, which advocated the construction of networks of recreational trails still enjoyed today.
Today, Portland is now one of America’s most cycle-friendly cities.
What Lessons Can We Learn From The Bike Boom?
The world has seen major disruption in the last 2 years as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.
In Britain, there has been a reported 200% increase in cycling participation. Bike shops are all but empty, waiting lists as long as 12 months and bike touring all the rage.
There are plenty of parallels to be drawn with the US Bike Boom.
Many cities across the UK have already acted upon the dramatic uptake in cycling for those looking to exercise or commute, installing temporary bike lanes and announcing new plans for installing cycling infrastructure.
As we’ve seen from the US Bike Boom though, streets can be changed, with parts of London, Brighton, and many other cities restricting roads to bicycles. Across Europe too, with Paris adding hundreds of miles of temporary cycle paths along the Rue du Rivoli.
This change is radical and will meet resistance but has already started to create the demand needed to justify such policies.
Unique to the current bike boom is the concurrent rise of e-cargo bikes. In major cities it is now common to observe a delivery driver sitting upright, whistling softly as they whiz by on an e-bike trying to unite owner and package.
E-bikes have the potential to entirely remodel transportation. In many cities, LEFVs (light electric freight vehicles) can travel faster than a traditional delivery van.
Will changes such as new bike lanes, corporate commuting incentives, and leisure cycling become permanent? Only time will tell.
If we can learn anything from the previous bike boom in the 1970s it’s that advocacy groups, politicians, and individual cyclists all need to push for the desired change. Once the initial enthusiasm lessens, they need to push a little harder.
Change is possible – and it promises a greener, healthier world.