Home > Bike Types > Commuter

Food for Thought: How to Get Non-Cyclists Riding Bikes

Support us! Bikerumor may earn a small commission from affiliate links in this article. Learn More


Almost overshadowed by the cover story / photo spread of Megan Fox was, on page 56 of the June 09 issue of Esquire, an article entitled “The End of Car Culture.


There was no “?” after it the title. It was, in fact, a statement.  And it was backed up with actual numbers and charts, such as:

– Americans drove a collective 222 billion miles in the year ending in January 2009, or 727 miles per resident.

– That’s down 4% from the 757 miles per resident recorded as of January ’08.

– January 2009 was the 15th consecutive month in which the average American drove less than they had a year earlier.

There’s a summary of historical trends of gasoline prices versus automobile use, showing a delayed correlation between gasoline price spikes and delayed use, suggesting that it takes almost 12 months for American’s lifestyles to full adjust to not using a car so much.  There’s hope that last Summer’s outrageous $4.05/gallon average finally jolted people into reconsidering their use of a car, but given the timeframe in which people can realistically change, it’s only now that we’re seeing a real drop in miles driven.  The encouragement comes from the set of statistics cited:

Bryan Christie Design
Bryan Christie Design - © 2009 Esquire

The largest decline in home values between 2004 and 2008 occurred in Las Vegas (-37%), Detroit (-34%) and Phoenix (-15%), all highly car-dependent cities.  Conversely, Portland, OR (+19%), and Seattle, WA (+18%), had the largest gains in home values.  If you’re still reading this, you know full well that those two cities have excellent cycling and alternative transportation infrastructure.

So, what’s my point for mentioning all this?  It’s background to put forth a couple of thoughts and questions.  First, which comes first, the cycling culture or the infrastructure?  Or, do they grow simultaneously?  Does one drive the other’s progress more than its counterpart?

Second, how do you get a non-cyclist to consider a bike as “transportation?”

This question came to me after Sweetie said “we should buy a lottery ticket, the jackpot’s at $90 million.”  To which I replied “why don’t you ride your bike up to the store and get one.”  To which Sweetie immediately snapped “I’m not riding my bike to the store just to buy a lottery ticket.”

For reference, the store in question is literally three blocks away.  It’s the same store I rode to, purchased the case of Yuengling (pictured at top) and rode home from in order to supply our Mother’s Day cookout with neighbors.  It took me less than 10 minutes, and given that there are several traffic lights and left turns involved, it was almost certainly quicker than driving.  Thus, the question arose…why wouldn’t Sweetie consider riding her bike there? (hit ‘more’ to see if this story has a point…I think it does.)

Nearly 11 years of marriage have taught me it’s pointless to argue the subject with Sweetie, but it makes me wonder: What would it take to get non-cyclists on a bike for short, simple trips or, crazy as it sounds, just for fun?

Part of the answer certainly is infrastructure.  If there ain’t any, a bike probably won’t cross people’s minds.  Another part, I contend, is apathy.  It’s just so habitual to drive, or in Sweetie’s case, to walk (not that there’s anything wrong with walking), that changing habits doesn’t even cross some people’s minds.  What to do, what to do…

Regarding infrastructure, my hometown of Greensboro’s really just getting started.  Dirt’s being moved, greenways paved and bike lanes painted, but we’ve only scratched the surface (to our credit, though, we do have more than 40 miles of singletrack!).  So, I figured who better to comment on the subject than Jonathan Maus at BikePortland.org:

BIKERUMOR: Which is more important for creating change: Cycling culture or cycling infrastructure?

JONATHAN: I think they feed off of each other.  The bike culture tends to come before the infrastructure.  People tend to define “bike culture” as the flashy folks that ride around a lot, but culture is really about having all the pieces in place that provide the right infrastructure and facilities.

In different cities, there’s a different relationship between what’s happening on the streets and what’s happening at the bureaucratic level. In Portland, we have a really tight relationship between the two.  For example, this month, our mayor will dedicate a new public artwork that’s a functional bike rack.

BIKERUMOR: OK, but if you had to pick one? 

JONATHAN: I would say, philosophically speaking, it would be having a lot of people out there that are super excited to bike and would ride regardless of the infrastructure or climate (attitude, not weather).  I think it’s easier to get people excited to ride a bike than it is to change things at the governmental level.  But having that constituency that likes to bike, politicians have to pay attention because they like to get re-elected.  Ultimately, having that population also helps the infrastructure to be better because an active and engaged cycling community can help steer design and implementation of facilities and lanes.  Otherwise, it’s just a bunch of planners and city workers putting stuff in without knowing how it’s going to be used.

BIKERUMOR: How do you get a non-cyclist on a bike?

JONATHAN: The best answer to that question is to have a friend or neighbor get really excited about it.  That’s why social marketing is so important.  A person to person referral is the way to get a non-biker on a bike.  A non-cyclist isn’t going to look at a sweet bike lane and think “oh man, I have to ride that.”  They’re going to see their friend or neighbor pulling their kids or having a good time and want to join the fun.

Man, I think he answered both questions raised here.  Smart guy, that Jonathan.

I’ve tried a few other things that have gotten Sweetie on a bike, perhaps you may find them useful:

1) Beer ‘n’ Bikes – (aka: Social Activities) Every month, the guys get together and ride our bikes somewhere that has cheap beer specials and tolerable food, usually something involving burritos  Sometimes it ends with people doing things like riding down a slick metal spiral staircase (per below).  Once in a while, we’ll make it co-ed, and Sweetie enjoyed that.  Heck, she’s even talked to a few of her friends about a girl’s Beer ‘n’ Bikes.  Disclaimer: Riding during or after drinking beer is a) probably not legal and b) probably not a good idea, and you do so at your own risk.


2) Just Make Plans – The other weekend, I borrowed our neighbor’s kid trailer, I put it on my bike, put the kids in it and announced that we were riding to the park.  It worked, and good times were had by all.  In fact, there were screams of “enjoyment” from the kids on the way home.  It was a short trip, but it proved that the concept was viable, and (Sweetie, skip to the next paragraph) subsequent trips will be to more remote parks or ice cream stores.  Sure, having the kids excited about it helped make the initial trip a reality, but I’ve found sometimes just planning things for people gets them out of their routine just long enough to try something new.

So now what?

Get out there and ride your bike.  Have fun.  Do it in front of people so they get excited to ride a bike.  Make your friends and family join you occasionally.  Email your city and county council occasionally, or at least join and encourage your local cycling club or advocacy group to represent the local cycling community to the elected officials.

Regardless of how you do it, the end result is more people riding bikes, and getting excited about it, which a good club or advocate can leverage for positive change in your community, which results in more infrastructure.  And, thus, the circle becomes complete.

Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
15 years ago

I started riding my bike last year to ride to work, run errands, etc and it wound up being my primary transportation until winter hit. Then I started up really early, as soon as the snow melted here in AK… Tons of people that I never saw on a bike have gone out and bought one and ride to work, especially co-workers. I think just the act of you doing it, showing how much you enjoy it and just staying committed to it is enough to get others on bikes.

t.a. barnhart
t.a. barnhart
15 years ago

riding after drinking is not just “at your own risk” – bicyclists can, and do, hurt other people. riding under the influence can get other people hurt. it’s just as stupid on a bike as in a car.

Subscribe Now

Sign up to receive BikeRumor content direct to your inbox.

Subscribe Now

Sign up to receive BikeRumor content direct to your inbox.