Gary Fisher of Fisher brand bikes replied in an interview recently to the question, what is the next big thing in bicycles? He stated and I paraphrase, educating dealers and mechanics to better serve the public. Then he went on to say safer places to ride. This narrow scope is telling as dwindling bicycle ridership in America is influenced by perceptions such as these that impact dealer trust and rider fears.
The first big thing Mr. Fisher refers is an objective point he is making about new engineering and technology for bicycle designs. Introduced into the marketplace, new designs present challenges to bicycle mechanics to keep abreast of these trends. Mr. Fisher’s second professional pronouncement is the idea of safer places to ride, which is purely subjective. I agree the emphasis on educating dealers and mechanics on new technology is very good for business. You want to be able to repair what you sell. But, that is not a Big Idea, that’s business 101.
Dealers and mechanics are overwhelmed not by the technology that proliferates but the gamble on which designs to stock. Bicycle wholesalers like Trek for example have over 450 model and style combinations. The customer expects every bike to be available if they see it online. The unfortunate dealer is caught between the supplier who may not have a style in stock and his customer who may go elsewhere when the bike is unavailable. New bike sales and accessories’ have been and continue to be where the profits are. Dealers rely on repairs to keep the doors open. But dealers who try to be everything to everybody in this erratic business climate find it hard to stay in business when their supplies may or may not exist. Trust is hard to trump, but Mr. Fisher pulls out his Ace of Spades with the dreaded fear card.
Given the dearth of new riders the bicycle industry is contracting. Mr. Fisher is stuck in the 20th century and recreational pursuit rather than utilitarian 21st century transportation. His second big idea is for safer places to ride. Fear does not sell bicycles nor add uninitiated riders to swell the local population of riders. Safe riding places have increased in suburbs and cities through the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act and the Transportation Equity Act funding bicycle trail, paths, bridges and bike sharing programs. These funds amount to over 5 billion dollars since 1991 when the ISTEA established to double the percentage of bicycle trips and reduce crashes by 10 percent.
In 1991 the originators of the funding would have benefited if they knew then what we know now. Apparently, the more bicycles present in a district the rate of accidents decreases. Car drivers see more bikes in a place and safety concerns become a mitigating factor. Could it be that some car drivers are also bicyclist and are aware of sharing the lane space? It is a myth that streets are unsafe. Fear can take on many disguises.
Ridership has decreased in the past 20 years but not by fear alone. We all know too well the sedentary culture that has grown to epic proportions. US Census data from 1990 shows 53 million people were considered bicyclist when the population was 248 million. In 2010 the US Census estimated 308 million Americans of which 45 million people were cyclist. Of that population 23 million or 50% rode bicycles less than 24 days a year. The ISTEA anticipated the doubling of percentage of trips by bicycle, but 20 years has proven that infrastructure does not change human behavior.
While there are less bicycle riders in our cities not more, and safe places to ride may frankly be our city streets, it is more bicycle rider trips by a smaller percentage of riders that we see in our cities and towns. The fear Mr. Fisher advocates is unsubstantiated and exasperated by a myopic federal policy to segregate bicycle use. In an atmosphere where trusted leadership and fear around every corner exist it may prove wise for the individual to navigate their streets and become their own bicycle expert.