Here in America, the number of kids who ride bikes has declined by 19 percent since 2007, and 2018 holiday bikes sales were down 10 percent from 2017. Advocates and industry analysts offer all sorts of explanations as to why this is happening, from the pervasiveness of video games and screen-based entertainment, to the highly structured and programmed nature of childhood recreation in general. But the most obvious and fundamental reason fewer kids are riding bikes these days is sitting right in your driveway.
It’s your car.
For all the stranger danger! and just say no! warnings that we’ve subjected our kids to over the years, the number-one threat to their lives is cars. Only guns come close. Therefore, everything that makes it possible for you to drive everywhere also serves to ensure that their environment remains deadly. The roads are far too dangerous thanks to all the car traffic, and even the sidewalks are bisected by active driveways. Car dependence also means our retail districts are no longer to human scale, much less the scale of a child; whereas once upon a time a kid may have ridden down to the soda fountain for an egg cream or whatever they used to drink, today it’s a Cotton Candy Crème Frappuccino® Blended Crème dispensed from a Starbucks surrounded by a hundred parking spaces.
On top of all that, our cars are only getting bigger and more powerful, and there are more of them on our roads every year. According to Federal Highway Administration data, as of 2017 there were about 272 million registered vehicles in the United States, up from 260 million in 2014. Furthermore, these vehicles are increasingly SUVs and pickup trucks with jacked-up chassis and higher horsepower, which means they’re more likely to kill. Meanwhile, the Washington Post reports that between 2014 and 2018 the number of kids who ride bikes regularly fell by one million—hardly surprising when you consider that the roads are ruled by motor vehicles so large that a child on a bicycle barely clears the front bumper.
All of this is fairly obvious to anybody who walks or rides a bike. Nevertheless, researchers continue to try to make sense of child ridership data like confused diners attempting to sort their refuse at Whole Foods. For example, a poll by C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor, Michigan, found that “parents of kids who do not ride bikes cited lack of interest (51 percent), not knowing how to ride (40 percent) and having no safe place nearby to ride (22 percent) as the main reasons for not riding.”
You can chuck these numbers into the same bin and be done with them. The “lack of interest” is no doubt on the part of the parents, who don’t ride bikes for exactly the same reason their children don’t. (Too many cars, see above.) The “not knowing how to ride” is because these car-addled parents aren’t teaching them, and the reason they lack safe places to ride is because there aren’t any. In 2019 there is absolutely no place left in America that is safe from cars—not even your local pizzeria.
So why does any of this matter? After all, times change, and if kids would rather drive around in electric Jeeps then what’s wrong with that? Well, nothing really, apart from the fact that you’re totally depriving them of any chance of attaining true and lasting happiness. The bicycle is freedom, and research shows that free kids are happy kids. Furthermore, some of the freest and happiest kids on the planet just happen to live in parts of the world where they’re able to ride bicycles. (Dutch kids are among the happiest in the world, and it ain’t because of the weather.) Most importantly, a cycling child has a better chance of sustaining that happiness into adulthood, since cycling is the happiest form of transportation. Car commuting, on the other hand, makes people miserable, unhealthy and violent.
Or, if you prefer to look at it more pragmatically, the United States is urbanizing along with the rest of the world. This means your childen will most likely be seeking their fortunes in cities, where cars are a liability and planners are shifting to bike lanes and bike share programs. Would you leave your kids alone at the pool if they couldn’t swim? No you wouldn’t. So why send them to the city car-dependent and unable to get around by bike?
In light of our children’s health and happiness, and the environment, and 40,000 traffic deaths a year, and a thousand other reasons, we should be weaning ourselves off cars as quickly as possible and equipping our kids for a two-wheeled future. Cities such as New York clearly recognize the demand for more bicycle infrastructure, which is why they’ve been adding it, albeit slowly. What they haven’t been doing is creating bike infrastructure safe enough for people of all ages to use it, which should be the real standard. (New York’s “protected” bike lanes often don’t offer true protection even for adults, just like your “organic” food may not really organic.)
And what no city in America has done yet is to officially prioritize children’s lives over driver convenience by redesigning streets to that end and enacting policy to match, which is what they did in Amsterdam in the 1970s. Until that happens we’ll never break the deadly cycle that compels us to shuttle our children around in what are basically armored personnel carriers—until they’re old enough to take to the streets on bikes by themselves, at which point we treat them like criminals.
In the meantime, you really owe it to your kids to get them riding. It may take a little effort, but it’s far from impossible. And if you don’t they could resent you for it later.