New data could help policy makers boost cycling as sustainable transport

Drop in global cycle ownership can be halted, says academic

A new study reports that the proportion of households that own cycles worldwide has fallen by half in the last 30 years. The study is published in the Journal of Transport & Health – it measured cycle ownership, but not use, in nearly 150 countries.

The authors of the study, from Johns Hopkins University in the US, say their analysis should be used to boost cycling because it is a sustainable mode of transport.

"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 Jimi Oke, lead author of the study and a member of the Mathematical Optimization for Decisions Lab at Johns Hopkins University. “By pulling together and analysing many sources of data, we have produced a database that we hope will give policy makers the information they need to take action."

The researchers said theirs is the first global study of cycle ownership over time, revealing the patterns of ownership across the world. Although ownership has increased in some countries and plateaued in others, it is decreasing rapidly in some.

According to the study, 42 percent of households worldwide own at least one cycle, adding up to an estimated 580 million cycles owned privately worldwide. Generally, cycle ownership is highest in northern Europe and lowest in parts of Africa and central Asia.

The number of cycles 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. The most dramatic changes in ownership are seen in China, where almost all households – more than 97 percent – owned a cycle prior to 1993. This fell to less than fifty percent in 2007 although had risen to 63 percent in 2009.

Taking China and India out of the picture reveals a steady global decline in cycle ownership, falling from an average of 60 percent of households owning a cycle in 1989 to just 32 percent in 2012.

Oke said: “There are many different sources of data on cycle ownership, but until now no one single source was tracking global ownership over time. The team gathered the information that was already available from 150 countries, representing 1.25 billion households, from 1981 to 2012. We analysed the data, weighted the results and converted data to make everything comparable between countries and over time. We then put everything into a single database.”

The team 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 cycle ownership rates. 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 cycle ownership, surrounding countries also seem to do well," explained Oke.

"We’ve done all the work, now we want people to use the data – we want it to have the biggest possible impact," said Oke.

Could the drop in cycle ownership be used to argue that cycling is in decline globally and therefore should not be catered for?

“The information we have provided could be used to argue for a reduction in pro-bike efforts,” admitted Oke. “But as has been the case in many locales, broad cultural shifts combined with increased demands for infrastructure has been responsible for driving up cycle usage.”

With the spread of bike share systems around the world it is now less important for individual ownership of cycles.

Oke said: “I think a certain segment will always continue to find reasons and means to own cycles but for a larger majority, it might be enough to simply have access to one. Thus, as cycle sharing programs gain more prominence, we may see increased cycle activity, but this may not result in increased household ownership.”

To arrest the decline in ownership Oke said the powers-that-be have to get serious about encouraging cycle usage that included consistently enforcing existing traffic laws, investing in cycle infrastructure, providing cycle parking and other such measures.


"Tracking global cycle ownership patterns" by Olufolajimi Oke, Kavi Bhalla, David C. Love and Sauleh Siddiqui, Journal of Transport & Health, Elsevier.

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