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Older Americans Rediscover Bikes

They pedal for fun, health, transportation and to enjoy a stronger sense of community

In the Netherlands, older people bike at exactly the same rate as the rest of the population-- about 25 percent of all trips. (Photo by Amsterdamize under a Creative Commons license.)

“Cycling is the new golf,” declare the New York Times, CNN Money and The Economist, describing how road rides are replacing tee times as a favorite pastime for business networking. And there’s growing evidence that the group most strongly associated with golf--older people--may be gripping handlebars as much as putters in the years to come. 

“The biggest jump we are seeing in biking is among older people,” says Martha Roskowski, Vice President of the national organization PeopleForBikes.

Riders 50 and over pedaled an estimated 2.6 billion miles on 830 million rides in 2009 (the latest figures available), according the USDOT National Household Travel Survey.  That’s way up from 1995 when people in that age group covered less than 400 million miles on 175 million rides. 

This is good news for everyone, not  just bike shop owners, since people on bikes enjoy better health and strengthen the sense of community where they live.

Why Bike?

Older Americans ride bicycles to boost their health, run errands, stay younger, spice up their social lives, save money on transportation and have fun, says Gil Penalosa, founder of  8 80 Cities, an international group helping communities better serve people of all ages. Penalosa, 58, who commutes year-round by bike in Toronto, explains, “Biking helps people age in place by expanding their mobility options, and lessening the isolation some older adults feel.”

“You see major differences between a 65-year-old or 75-year-old today and those of a genearation ago,” observes Phineas Baxandall, Senior Policy Analyst at the US Public Interest Group.  “They are not just looking at their stamp collections.  They are out and about more.”

After all, baby boomers kickstarted the bike boom back in the 1970s, and many of them kept on pedaling. In fact, yet-to-be-published AARP research found that boomers almost doubled their biking between 2001 and 2009-- although it still accounts for a small percent of total trips.

Louis Moore, 74, a retired congressional staffer in Minneapolis, took up biking 20 years ago when injuries forced him off the basketball court.  “I had a knee injury and two bad ankles,” he remembers. “When I started cycling and the pains went away.”

Moore is president of the Major Taylor Bicycling Club (named for a world-champion bike racer of the early 20th Century), which promotes biking in the Twin Cities’ African-American community. “We show up at neighborhood events to encourage people to get active to curb some of the health problems in the community,” he says. They also take part in Orange, a program that offers training and loaner bikes to low-income people.

The club, a majority of whose  members are over 50, rides Wednesday and Thursday nights from April to October.  Moore also organizes spontaneous rides with his friends, and pedals to meetings and social events.  “The rewards of biking are being physically healthy, being outdoors, and knowing that I can still ride 20 miles,” he says. “I always enjoy just the feeling of being on a bike.”

“My advice to everybody is get up off the couch, get a physical to see what your capabilities are and then find a bike.  Take it slow.  Go ride a mile your first night.  Ride on trails until you feel ready for the streets.  Find a friend in your class of fitness and ride once or a couple of times a week.  Next thing you know, you’ll be having a great time.”

Positive Power of Pedaling

Evidence is mounting that moderate physical activity such as biking can prevent a host of ailments in people of all ages by at least 40 percent, including diabetes, Alzheimer’s, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure and colon cancer.

A lack of physical activity exposes people to a greater risk of death than smoking, obesity, high cholesterol or high blood pressure, according to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM).  Active people in their 80s have a lower risk of death than inactive ones in their 60s, reports ACSM’s Exercise is Medicine initiative. 

And it appears that biking actually keeps people younger. “Active older people resemble much younger people physiologically,” reports the New York Times about a recent English study of recreational bicyclists aged 55-79. “The findings suggest that many of our expectations about the inevitability of physical decline with advancing years may be incorrect and that how we age is, to a large degree, up to us…. As a group, even the oldest cyclists had younger people’s levels of balance, reflexes, metabolic health and memory ability.”

National Institute for Health research also found that regular physical activity was as effective in treating depression as Prozac.  A study of nursing home residents found that those involved in a therapeutic biking program saw a significant decrease in depression compared to those who were not.

Simple Way to Make Streets Safer for Everyone

Since biking is so good for our health, how do we encourage more older Americans to ride again?  The answer may be found in the Netherlands, where 25 percent of all trips taken by people 75 and older are on bicycle---compared to less than half of one percent for Americans over the age of 65.  Indeed, Dutch people 55 and over bike at the same rate as the population as a whole.  (Another study shows that Germans over the age of 65 are 25 times more likely to ride bikes than Americans of the same age.)

How do they do it? Sure the Netherlands is largely flat, with older compact cities and a long of tradition of bicycling, none of which is true for the US as a whole.  But the biggest reason for the popularity of biking among Dutch people of all ages, according to international transportation experts, is something that we can do in the US: create safer streets for people who bike.

In Dutch towns (and many rural highways), bicyclists traveling on busy roads are physically separated from rushing traffic, usually by a curb or posts.  These “protected bike lanes” make bicycling safer for people of all ages (an American bicyclist is seven times more likely to be killed than a Dutch rider)--but also more comfortable and enjoyable.

Bicycling across the Netherlands has nearly doubled since protected lanes began to be built in the 1980s. Many Dutch and German cities have also lowered speed limits and designed city streets with traffic calming measures to deter speeding drivers, according to an AARP report. This encourages people to travel more by bike or foot, which means they get physical activity as part of the daily rhythm rather than just at times set aside for exercise.

“Protected bike lanes provide an additional level of comfort for older riders,” agrees Kathryn Lawler, Director of the Atlanta Area Agency on Aging, which is promoting the concept throughout the region.

Over the past three years, more than 100 protected bike lanes have popped up from Cincinnati to Tucson to Honolulu. “Many cities are now listening to a spectrum of people, young and old, who are saying they want to bike but don’t want to fight the traffic,” says Roskowski of PeopleForBikes, which helps communities pioneer this next generation of bike lanes.  

“We’ve found that protected bike lanes are particularly attractive to older Americans, some of whom feel more physically vulnerable biking in traffic,” says Jana Lynott, Senior Strategic Policy Advisor for AARP’s Public Policy Institute. Even older people who never ride a bike appreciate that protected bike lanes significantly decrease the number of bicyclists they must contend with walking on sidewalks or driving on streets.

More Ways to Get Older Americans Back in the (Bike) Saddle

Bike Buddies-- Biking can change your life through social activity as well as physical activity.  Strong community connections have been shown to improve people’s overall health and happiness, and biking opens up many opportunities to meet fellow riders informally, or through bike clubs. In Minnesota alone, there are more than 50 registered clubs across the state, some of them specially focused on older riders.

Bike Share-- In many cities across the country, bikes can now be easily rented with the swipe of a credit card at convenient street corner stations.  Bike sharing offers older people an affordable, accessible way to travel on sturdy bikes with wide tires.  And it makes regular biking easier for folks who live in apartments, townhouses, senior buildings or other homes without garages by eliminating the necessity of lugging their bike up or down stairs.  Washington DC’s Capital Bike Share system, one of the largest in the US, reports that 19 percent of its members are 45 years or older, and 24 percent of its casual users.

Pedal-Assist Bikes-- Older bicyclists daunted by hills, strong winds or long distances can get a boost when they need it--literally-- with a pedal-assist bike.  You still pedal but a small electric engine provides a little extra oomph, which can be turned on or off depending on your needs.  Already common in Europe, they are now becoming more popular in the US.

Three Wheelers-- Who says a cycle must only have two wheels? A number of older riders appreciate the greater stability of three wheels, and manufacturers are meeting this demand with a variety of styles. The Portland, Oregon, park district offers special cycling classes for older adults that start out on tricycles.

Just Do It-- Even if it’s been decades since you climbed on a bike--or never--it’s not too late.  The great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy learned to bike at age 67, reported Scientific American at the time, “much to the astonishment of the peasants on his estate”.

Reprinted with permission from AARP Livability