Bicycles outsell cars in Europe, getting close in the U.S.

Could this be a lasting trend? Photo: Tony Fischer Photography, Flickr

WASHINGTON, October 31, 2013—Bicycle sales outpaced automobile sales in every European country except Belgium and Luxemburg in 2012, according to a report by NPR. While much of this shift is likely due to the global economic recession, it is a change people are embracing, even after economic conditions improve.

Many attribute the rise in bicycle sales and decline in car sales to the economic crisis in Europe, coupled with the rise of fuel prices and insurance premiums.

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While this probably makes sense in countries that have been hardest hit by the economic recession—bike sales in Spain outpaced automobiles for the first time ever, and five bikes were sold for every one car in Greece—many well-off countries also embraced bikes. For example, in Lithuania, where the economy grew by 3.6 percent, sales of bicycles outpaced cars 10 to one.

Other information suggests a more fundamental change in how people in developed nations get around that has been taking root since before the recent financial crisis, even in the U.S.

According to a 2012 report in The Economist, car use (measured in car ownership and distance driven) in developed nations has generally increased every year since the 1950s. However, this trend began to change around 2000.

For instatance, in the U.S. total kilometers traveled per person plateaued in 2000 and decreased after 2004; vehicle kilometers traveled plateaued in 2004 and fell after 2007. In Britain, current car usage is slightly higher than in the 1970s despite a larger population, and per person kilometers traveled has been decreasing steadily since 2000. 

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The Economist article points to the same pre-recession decrease in car usage and ownership in France, Spain, Italy, Australia, New Zealand and Belgium.

Additionally, driving and car ownership is not as important to a new generation of young people. Young people are getting a driver’s license later, reports The Economist. The use of public transport in younger households in the U.S. has increased by 100 percent between 2001 and 2009, according to the think tank Frontier Group.

“Young people increasingly view cars as appliances not aspirations,” writes The Economist.

As more people are sometimes enticed, sometimes forced, to travel by bicycle, many decide to stick to it, even when they no longer need to.

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Iván Villarrubia, a 36-year-old urban planner in Madrid volunteers to teach others to commute to work, meeting people at home and riding with them to their workplaces.

“After that, they say, ‘Oh my God, it was very easy. Why was I so stupid not to do this for the past 10 years of my life?’ ” Villarrubia told NPR’s Lauren Frayer in a recent story.

Cycling is thriving in cities with strong traditional bicycle cultures like Amsterdam and Paris, but it is also flourishing in cities and countries that are not traditionally bike-friendly.

In Madrid, for example, Bici Crítica, Madrid’s version of Critical Mass, where bikers take to the street to raise awareness and safety, has grown from four riders in 2004 to thousands of members after the economic recession hit. In Italy, bicycle sales in 2011 and 2012 outnumbered car sales for the first time since World War II; even car-obsessed Germany bought the most bikes—3.9 million in 2012.

The numbers are also getting close in the U.S.

Automakers sold 14.5 million vehicles in the U.S. market in 2012—a five-year high—according to Autodata. Sales of bicycles with wheel sizes 20-inch and above were 13 million, according to industry statistics by the National Bicycle Dealers Association (NBDA).

Bicycle sales actually outpaced car sales in the U.S. in 2010, with 13.5 million bikes and 11.59 million cars sold. As the economy improves, automobile sales are likely to continue to increase.

However, as more people adopt cycling as a lifestyle, cities provide better cycling infrastructure and bike share programs continue to pop up, bikes are only going to continue to increase in popularity in the U.S.


READ MORE: A World in Our Backyard by Laura Sesana

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Laura Sesana

Laura Sesana is a writer and DC, Maryland attorney, joining the Communities in 2012.  She is the author of Colombia: Natural Parks, and has also written several articles on literary criticism.  She writes about food, health, nutrition, women’s legal issues, and the environment.  

In addition to writing for the Communities, Laura also works as an attorney and legal content writer.


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