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Bicycles Aren't Just for Kids

As the fastest growing group of cyclists, older adults are pedaling for better health, transportation and fun

Grandparents, Granddaughter Bicyling Together, Livable Communities


Bicycling is an intergenerational activity.

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| "Cycling is the new golf," The New York Times, CNN Money and The Economist have each declared while describing how bike rides are replacing tee times as a favorite pastime for business networking.

And there's growing evidence that the group most strongly associated with golf — older adults and retirees — may be gripping handlebars as much as putters in the years to come. 

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Bicyclists age 50 and over pedaled an estimated 2.6 billion miles on 830 million rides in 2009 (the latest figures available), according to the U.S. Department of Transportation's National Household Travel Survey. That's way up from 1995 when people in that age group covered less than 400 million miles on 175 million rides. Bicycle riders age 70 to 79 alone made 147 million trips in 2009; those 80 and over took 13 million trips by bike.

"The biggest jump we are seeing in biking is among older people," says Martha Roskowski, of the national organization PeopleForBikes.

According to a comprehensive survey released in March 2015 by PeopleForBikes:

  • 19 percent of Americans 55 and older rode a bike in 2014, as did 27 percent between the ages of 45 and 54 and 34 percent of all people over the age of two.

  • 17 percent of older Americans reported riding a bicycle for recreation, seven percent rode as a way to get around and five percent said they bicycled for both transportation and fun.

  • The survey showed that bicyclists age 55-plus hit the road and trails more often than any other adult group with 42 percent riding more than 25 days a year.

Other research has found that:

  • Male bicyclists ride more frequently after the age of 65 than they did before, according to a marketing research report. 

  • 22 percent of the net growth in U.S. bike trips from 1995 to 2009 was by people ages 60 to 79. Their biking quadrupled in those 14 years, the fastest growth of any demographic.

Why Bike?

Older Americans ride bicycles to boost their health, run errands, stay younger, spice up their social lives, save money on transportation and have fun, says Gil Penalosa, founder of 8-80 Cities, an international group that helps communities better serve people of all ages. "If it's good for an 8-year old and an 80-year old, it's good for everyone," he says, "even a 100-year-old."

Penalosa, 58, who commutes year-round by bike in Toronto, explains, "Biking helps people age in place by expanding their mobility options and lessening the isolation some older adults feel." (Watch the video below to see an interview with Penalosa.)

"You see major differences between a 65-year-old or 75-year-old today and those of a generation ago," observes Phineas Baxandall, a senior policy analyst at the U.S. Public Interest Group. "They're not just looking at their stamp collections. They are out and about more."

Baxandall, who monitors transportation trends, was studying the decline of driving among the millennial generation when he noticed a slight increase in driving among older boomers compared to previous generations at the same age.

"But they are biking and walking more too," he notes. "Boomers intend to keep their drivers' licenses but also their bikes. They want to have more mobility options and more fun in their golden years."

After all, baby boomers kick-started the bike boom back in the 1970s, and many of them kept on pedaling. In fact, boomers almost doubled their bicycling between 2001 and 2009, according to AARP Public Policy Institute research by transportation specialist Jana Lynott — although they still account for a small percentage of total trips. 

The Positive Power of Pedaling

Evidence is mounting that moderate physical activity such as biking can prevent a host of ailments — including diabetes, Alzheimer's, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure and colon cancer — in people of all ages by at least 40 percent.

A lack of physical activity exposes people to a greater risk of death than smoking, obesity, high cholesterol or high blood pressure, according to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). Active people in their 80s have a lower risk of death than inactive ones in their 60s, reports ACSM's Exercise is Medicine initiative. 

And it appears that bicycling actually keeps people younger.

"Active older people resemble much younger people physiologically," reports The New York Times about a recent British study of recreational bicyclists ages 55 to 79. "The findings suggest that many of our expectations about the inevitability of physical decline with advancing years may be incorrect and that how we age is, to a large degree, up to us …. As a group, even the oldest cyclists had younger people's levels of balance, reflexes, metabolic health and memory ability."

All this medical research has prompted the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to recommend 150 minutes a week (30 minutes a day over five days) of moderate physical exercise for all adults. This means activities like bicycling, walking, gardening, jogging, dancing, swimming and team sports.

Research by the U.S. National Institutes of Health also found that regular physical activity was as effective in treating depression as the medication Prozac. A study of nursing home residents found that those involved in a therapeutic bicycling program saw a significant decrease in depression compared to those who were not.

A Simple Way to Make Streets Safer for Everyone

In the Netherlands, 25 percent of all trips taken by people 75 and older are on bicycle compared to less than half of one percent for Americans over the age of 65. Indeed, Dutch people age 55-plus bicycle at the same rate as the population as a whole. (Another study shows that Germans over the age of 65 are 25 times more likely to ride bikes than Americans of the same age.) How do they do it?

Sure, the Netherlands is largely flat, with older compact cities and a long of tradition of bicycling, none of which is true for the United States as a whole. But the biggest reason for the popularity of biking among Dutch people of all ages, according to international transportation experts, is something that can be done in the U.S.: Create safer streets for bicyclists.

Bicycling across the Netherlands has nearly doubled since protected lanes began to be built in the 1980s. Many Dutch and German cities have also lowered speed limits and designed city streets with traffic calming measures to deter speeding drivers, according to an AARP report. Safer streets encourage people to travel more often by bike or foot, which means that physical activity is a part of their daily lives.

"Infrastructure can help a lot. A big problem for older people is that they don't feel safe biking on the streets," says David Gepner, 71, the retired owner of a car-leasing business in Richfield, Minnesota, who has been instrumental in improving bicycle facilities in his suburban community. "Some of it is psychological, but anything that gets people biking is good, because the more people biking, the safer biking becomes for everyone."

"Protected bike lanes provide an additional level of comfort for older riders," agrees Kathryn Lawler, director of the Atlanta Area Agency on Aging, which is promoting the concept throughout the region.

Over the past three years, more than 100 protected bike lanes have popped up from Cincinnati to Tucson to Honolulu. "Many cities are now listening to a spectrum of people, young and old, who are saying they want to bike but don't want to fight the traffic," says Roskowski of PeopleForBikes.  

"Conventional bike lanes [a stripe painted on the street] haven't worked well to get new people on bikes," notes Roskowski. "Those lanes mostly serve cyclists who are already biking. Most people aren't comfortable riding a bike in the midst of cars. Bicycling should not be a badge of courage. It should be a way for anyone to get groceries or go to work."

"We've found that protected bike lanes are particularly attractive to older Americans, some of whom feel more physically vulnerable biking in traffic," says Lynott. Even older people who never ride a bike appreciate that protected bike lanes significantly decrease the number of bicyclists they must contend with while walking on sidewalks or driving on streets.

A Tale of Two Cyclists

Phyllis Counts, 54, was one boomer who gave up her bicycle. Then about 15 years ago a friend invited her to join a group ride from Seattle, where she lives, to Portland, Oregon. She bought a new bike and thoroughly enjoyed the 200-mile trip. Now she and her husband Dennis, 71, bicycle for shopping, meetings, appointments and recreation — and they do so up Seattle's formidable hills and through its frequent rain. 

"I feel better when I bike," says Counts, a graphic designer and artist specializing in websites. "I get more chances to socialize with people. And when I pedal up to a meeting, I get to see the surprised looks of all the thirtysomethings."

Counts describes an evening when several couples biked together to and from a restaurant. "You can have a second piece of pie since you'll burn it all off on the way home."

Louis Moore, 74, a retired Congressional staffer now living in Minneapolis, took up biking 20 years ago when injuries forced him off the basketball court. "I had a knee injury and two bad ankles," he explains. "When I started cycling the pains went away."

Moore is president of the Major Taylor Bicycling Club (named for a world-champion bicycle racer of the early 20th century), which promotes biking in the Twin Cities' African-American community. "We show up at neighborhood events to encourage people to get active in order to curb some of the health problems in the community," he says. Residents can also take part in Orange, a program that offers training and loaner bikes to low-income people.

The club, a majority of whose members are over 50, rides Wednesday and Thursday nights from April to October. Moore also organizes spontaneous rides with his friends, and he pedals to meetings and social events.

"The rewards of biking are being physically healthy, being outdoors and knowing that I can still ride 20 miles," he says. "My advice to everybody is get up off the couch, get a physical to see what your capabilities are and then find a bike. Take it slow. Go ride a mile your first night. Ride on trails until you feel ready for the streets. Find a friend to ride with once or a couple of times a week. Next thing you know, you'll be having a great time."

Age needn't be a barrier to either riding or learning to ride a bike. In fact, the great 19th century Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy learned to ride a bike at age 67. As the journal Scientific American reported at the time, "Count Leo Tolstoy … now rides the wheel, much to the astonishment of the peasants on his estate."

Jay Walljasper is a Minneapolis-based writer, consultant and speaker who specializes in livability topics.

Published June 2015

Featured Video

Get a taste of the weekly Via RecreActiva, a weekly open streets program in Guadalajara, Mexico, and hear from Gil Penalosa, father of the Bogotá Cicolvia and founder of 8-80 Cities.

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