The future of kids’ bicycling appeared dire until the pandemic hit. Now, a new generation of bicyclists is emerging.
Back in the glorious, pandemic-free summer of 2019, things were looking a bit grim for youth bicycling. From 2014 to 2018, the number of kids who regularly rode their bike (25 times per year or more) dropped by more than 1 million, according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association. The market research company NPD Group reported that from 2018 to 2019, children’s bike sales dropped more than 7%, impacted by steel tariffs and a resulting 5% increase in the average price of kids’ bikes.
The repercussions of this decline in youth cycling are significant and the stakes are high. The WHO ranks the U.S. third in the world for depression and anxiety rates and the CDC reports that one in five U.S. children are affected by obesity. These trends had the bike industry, parents, teachers and youth program providers concerned, with some taking action to address the decline in youth ridership. In 2019, 10 national youth biking organizations came together to form the Youth Cycling Coalition in order to get more kids on bikes and keep them riding into adulthood. Taking a “stronger together” approach, the partnership combines program offerings that are unique but complementary and is already proving effective at cultivating a biking ecosystem in Morgantown, West Virginia.
Still, at the outset of 2020, there was no guarantee that the downward trend wouldn’t continue. In March, however, when the world as we knew it ground to a halt, many Americans rediscovered outdoor recreation. As schools and daycares closed, parents found themselves with more “kid time” on their hands. Families sheltered in place for weeks that turned into months, and as the days grew warmer and longer, many found respite from the walls of their homes through biking. The Burrow family of Parker, Colorado, are one of many that started biking during the pandemic summer of 2020.
“There was so much time to slow down and take a look around at what we were and weren’t doing,” said Ali Burrow, whose sons Flynn, 9, and Charlie, 6, both learned to ride last summer. “We realized the kids were missing out on some of those key, classic elements of childhood like bike riding. We didn’t know how long the quarantine was going to last so we wanted to make sure the kids knew how to ride their bikes. Now biking is one of our main family activities, a huge part of our lives — this year we became a one-car family.”
The shift to lockdown and rise in outdoor recreation meant more kids on bikes, resulting in an uptick in kids’ bike sales across the country. According to NPD group, May 2020 trail-a-bike sales grew by 142% and kids’ bikes sales were up 59% compared to 2019. An Aspen Institute study on the state of play found that bike riding moved from the 16th most popular youth activity pre-pandemic up to the third most popular youth activity in 2020.
Youth Cycling Coalition member organizations — including The National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA), the USA BMX Foundation and Project Bike Tech — consistently reported massive increases in participation for 2020 among both kids and coaches. Despite all the challenges associated with the pandemic, Project Bike Tech graduated 500 students last year and will be launching 10 new schools this fall. Over the last year, NICA has also seen rapid growth, with student sign-ups increasing by 16% and coach registrations by 11%.
In 2020, the youth bicycling nonprofit Outride added more than 44 new schools to its Riding for Focus middle school-based physical education program and in 2021, saw an almost 90% increase in the number of applications — the organization plans to announce its largest cohort ever in the coming weeks. Similarly, Outride’s community grant program, the Outride Fund, has seen more than 90% growth in the number of applications in both 2020 and 2021, resulting in its largest matching round to date with $530,000 committed to 53 organizations across 27 states. The growth is a testament to the demand for investments in youth bicycling across the country.
Sabra Davison, the co-founder and director of Little Bellas, an organization that spans 17 states and offers non-competitive mountain biking programs for girls age 7-18, saw a similar jump in participation.
“Little Bellas has seen more girls excited to participate than ever before,” said Davison. “We are seeing an increase in both renewing and new riders signing up for our programs. As a result we’ve seen more smiles and heard more giggles on singletrack.”
The positive impact that learning to ride has had on 9-year-old Flynn is apparent. When we chatted over Facetime, he eagerly jumped up to show off his green and black “hybrid bike with gears.” He was especially proud of his “cool” grey helmet, complete with a retractable visor best described as, “World War II but with a bunch of robots in space.”
“Biking helped a lot during the lockdown because school was out more days and if I wasn’t biking I’d probably be inside playing video games,” he said. “It’s easier to get to places and takes half the time of walking. It’s fun to ride with your friends.”
The best part about this upward trend in youth riding is that there are numerous indications that it is not just a passing phase. An April 2021 Rutledge report on COVID-19 impacts on bicycling found several points of evidence: Habit formation has already begun to occur and 45% of those surveyed reported that they would continue to commute by bike over using public transportation, even once it was an option again. The report also highlights the lasting positive impact of rapid-build pedestrian and biker-friendly infrastructure.
When we asked Flynn for his thoughts on his own bike future, he said, “I think I will definitely keep riding when I get older. And I really want to get an electric bike just like my dad has.”