Why I bicycle but my neighbors don’t

By Susan Handy

Davis is one of the few places in the United States where bicycling is a substantial mode of transportation. According to the latest American Community Survey, more than 15 percent of Davis workers usually commute to work by bicycle. Surveys we have conducted at the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis have produced even more impressive numbers:

  • 53 percent of Davis residents bicycle at least one per week;
  • 46 percent of UCD faculty and 40 percent of staff who live in Davis commute to campus by bicycle;
  • More than one-third of Davis High School students usually bicycle to school; and
  • 18 pecent of youth soccer players bicycle to their games.

Compare this to less than 1 percent of daily trips by bicycle in the U.S. as a whole.

The fact that so many people in Davis bicycle is of great interest to other communities that hope to emulate Davis’ success. But even more interesting to me is the fact that so many more don’t: Nearly half of adults had not bicycled in the previous week, more than half of students arrived at the high school by car, more than three-quarters of soccer players were driven to their games. So what explains why some Davis residents bicycle but others don’t?

For adults, the answer has much to do with individual attitudes. In our studies, we found that comfort with bicycling was one of the most important factors explaining who bicycles regularly and who doesn’t. Another important factor was agreement with the statement “I like riding a bike”: those who strongly agreed with this statement were far more likely to bicycle regularly even than those who just agreed. Residents who bicycled regularly also were those for whom a bicycling-oriented community was an important factor in deciding where to live.

In other words, Davis has so much bicycling in part because it attracts residents who like to bicycle.

For children, attitudes matter, too, but as much the attitudes of parents as of the children themselves. Distance from home to the soccer field was an important factor in whether families bicycled to their games, as was the ability of the child to bicycle. But equally important was whether the parent regularly bicycled. In other words, some families are simply more bicycling-oriented than others.

We saw this same effect in our high school study: distance to school was important, but students with parents who were willing to chauffeur them places and whose parents did not encourage bicycling were far less likely to bicycle to school.

Having a driver’s license and access to a car — a condition over which parents have a significant influence — also reduced bicycling. The student’s attitudes mattered as well — liking to bicycle and confidence in bicycling — but much less so than parental encouragement.

In all these studies, women bicycle less than men, and differences in attitudes largely explain why. Women express greater concern for safety, both fear of being in a collision and fear of being attacked. They report feeling less comfortable bicycling and like bicycling less than men.

In our UCD survey, less than 60 percent of women said that they are “very confident” riding a bicycle, compared to more than 80 percent of men. At the high school, girls liked bicycling less and felt less confident bicycling.

A consistent message thus emerges from our studies: While good infrastructure is a necessary condition for getting many people bicycling, it is not a sufficient condition for getting most people bicycling. To get more people bicycling, the city also needs programs that will change attitudes.

For example, training programs for children and adults can help to increase confidence in bicycling ability, while community events may help to increase enjoyment of bicycling. Such activities encourage more residents to take advantage of the opportunity to bicycle that our good infrastructure provides.

Personally, I find it both frustrating and disappointing that bicycling in Davis is not more pervasive than it is. I didn’t move to Davis for the bicycling, but I naturally embraced it as my primary travel mode once I got here. Now I can’t imagine going back to a car-dependent lifestyle, and I wonder about my neighbors who choose to drive even when bicycling is so attractive an alternative.

But, of course, not everyone sees it that way, and that is exactly what we are trying to understand in our next study: Where do attitudes toward bicycling come from and why do some people enjoy bicycling so much more than others? We’ll see.

— Susan Handy is a professor of environmental science and policy at UC Davis and directs the Sustainable Transportation Center. Her research focuses on strategies for reducing automobile dependence.  This column is based on an article that appeared in Access.

3 Responses to “Why I bicycle but my neighbors don’t”


  • I think it’s called “being lazy”.

  • Your neighbor would probably be cycling if it were not for the massive subsidies received by car drivers.

    Just to take one example, the number of staff and students who drive to Davis high schools would be a lot less if very expensive car parking were not provided. That cost comes straight out of the education budget. Every dollar spent on providing car parking is a dollar not spent on education.

  • Having ridden in Europe (Germany, Switzerland, and a tiny bit of France), albeit 2 years ago, what I noticed is that most bicycles were city or commuter bikes. These were front & center in the bicycle shops over there. They are even sold with accessories: think lights, racks, kickstands, etc… Here in the US & Canada, on the other hand, what are mainly displayed at the bike shops are the athletic bikes: the BMX’s, the mountain bikes, the road (racing) bikes, and cyclocross bikes.

    Imagine, if you will, if the car-dealerships only sold sports cars and nothing else. For bicycling, that is the end result of an image problem. Simply put generally, Americans and Canadians cannot imagine bicycling as a transport or traveling activity. On this side of the Atlantic Ocean, it’s viewed primarily as athletic or recreative.

    We need to market bicycling as a practical civilian activity inclusive of everyone. That means lay off on the helmet- & costume-related stuff and concentrate more on bike boulevards, parking, and lanes; ride in normal-looking clothes; and hold weekly ciclovias.

    In fact that last suggestion is the most doable and most effective: Davis should close off some key streets to motor-traffic every Sunday, and have people celebrate the day walking and riding together as family and friends. Include live music and picnic food, and it makes a perfect day. Recruit the churches as allies to this project. Learn from Bogotà (Colombia)and much closer LA about how they do it. This, eventually, may convince more people to ride… and keep at it.

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