Cyclists in Assam, India

Cyclists in Assam, India

New data shows that in the past two years, cycling has grown at almost five times the rate of population growth, but this is just the story for industrialized nations. What’s the situation for bikes in the developing world? How does this change our overall picture?

New Data

Eco-Counter, a French company that develops devices for measuring pedestrian and bike traffic, just released its data from 2015. The results show a 3% increase in biking between 2014 and 2015. Looking at the past two years, that number is 5.2% and can be compared with a 1.2% increase in population over that time. That means there’s a lot more biking going on, and much more than can be attributed to just population growth.

There’s one major caveat, though.

While Eco-Counter has devices that measure the rate of cycling on six continents, their data comes only from countries with ten or more devices. It turns out, that’s just 17 countries, all of which are in Europe, North America, and Oceana (Australia and New Zealand). As others have also pointed out, this means that these statistics fail to tell us anything about developing nations, where the trend might be different. Instead of showing a global cycling increase, what these data really show is an increase in cycling in the industrialized world.

If we want a global picture of the state of cycling, we must understand what’s going on outside of Europe and North America. Are we seeing more or less biking? What does the trend look like? Is this trend showing any signs of changing? What does this mean for bikes in the global picture?

Beyond the ‘Industrialized’

Worldwide, four in every ten households have a bike and despite significant gains in some parts of the world, the overall rate of bike ownership is on the decline. This is largely due to the increased wealth of those living in developing nations and the proliferation of low-cost options, making it easier for larger numbers of people to afford cars and other motorized forms of transportation. (This number may also be somewhat influenced by the recent global popularity of bike-share programs, but we’ll leave that aside for the moment.) In countries like India and China, this has led to an alarming increase in the amount of pollution and street congestion, among other issues.


The recent increase in the number of cars on Indian streets has been staggering. Every day, 1,400 new cars hit the streets of India’s capital, Delhi, where commuting by bike has decreased by 30% in the past 50 years. In Mumbai, despite 91% of trips being made on foot or by public transportation, traffic due to private vehicles has made the streets miserably congested. In Pune, a city which once boasted the highest rate of bike ownership in India, the number of households with bikes has decreased from 48% in 2001 to 33% in 2011.

Unfortunately, India has yet to see much progress on the bike-share front. Bikes are still viewed as an option for people who cannot afford a car instead of just an alternative (Interestingly, in the US, wealthier individuals are much more likely to own a bike.) This mindset is one of the biggest hurtles that cycling must overcome for its successful reimplementation in India.

There are some signs of improvement, however. The Equal Streets movement, whose goal is to retake street space monopolized by motorists and give it back to pedestrians and cyclists, has been gaining some momentum and cycling as exercise has also begun to catch on amongst wealthier sectors of the population. Still, though, the fight for cycling will be an uphill battle.


China was once considered a “Kingdom of Bicycles” with people’s mental image of the country being that of improbably large crowds of cyclists commuting to and from work. However, with China’s recent economic upsurge, so too has there been an upsurge in car ownership. In 2014 alone, 17 million new cars were purchased. In Beijing, the bike mode-share has decreased from 62% in 1986 to just 16% in 2010. Similarly, bike ownership has decreased from 97% in 1992 to 63% in 2009.

Despite these depressing figures, there’s been a recent resurgence in the popularity of bikes. China is now a world leader in bike-share programs, increasing  the number of shared bikes from 0 to 650,000 in only 7 yearsAll but four of the 20 largest bike-share fleets are found in Chinese cities. At the top is Hangzhou, a city 9 million located near Shanghai. Not only do they have 78,000 shared bikes, they’ve also developed their infrastructure, with 84% of Hangzhou’s major and secondary roads having separated bike lanes.

The Future

The reality, then, is significantly more detailed and complicated than the one painted by Eco-Counter’s results. Despite the overall decline in bike ownership worldwide, the future seems to look good in many industrialized and developing countries. One sign is that bike production is increasing. While automobile production has been steadily increasing in the post-WWII period, the data on bicycles tell a slightly different story. Beginning in the late 80s, bicycle production began to decrease, but in the 21st century, we’ve seen a massive increase in the number of bike produced.

In the end, a shift towards cycling and away from cars is dependent on mindset. Bikes must be seen as modern forms of transportation and as viable alternatives to cars and public transit. It’s heartening that a larger-scale transition towards that mindset seems to be in its beginning stages. Remember, though, it’s up to us to keep it going.

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