The trend is sensitive to the time-frame selected – imports of children’s bicycles, Australia (source data: ACPF)

The Guardian reported yesterday that imports of children’s bicycles are “plummeting”, sparking fears that children are exercising less:

The number of children’s bicycles imported into Australia for sale has fallen by 22% in the past decade, prompting concern that children are not being encouraged to be active. The data shows that 492,000 child bikes were imported by wholesalers in 2007-08, compared with 382,000 in 2016-17.

The Guardian’s story is based on a media release, Decade decline in children’s bike sales points to crisis of physical inactivity, put out yesterday by cycling industry lobby group, the Australian Cycling Promotion Foundation (ACPF). The organisation pins the blame on children being driven to school:

The Australian Cycling Promotion Foundation is concerned that it has become too hard for children to be active as part of their daily trips to school and other local destinations.

Regular readers know I’m bullish about the potential for small, slow two-wheelers to improve transportation within cities. But I’m not as convinced that the outlook for children cycling is as gloomy as the ACPF paints it.

Some points to consider:

First, the numbers cited by ACPF are for bicycle imports. They’re presumably a fair guide to sales and hence of great interest to the members of the ACPF, but they don’t measure, as the ACPF and others claim, the number of children riding “to school or other local destinations”.

Second, “plummeting” seems an exaggeration. The data is sensitive to the time frame and the ACPF is selective in the years it chooses to compare i.e. 2007/08 vs 2016/17. If the start of the period is instead taken as a year later, the trend is close to flat. Or if the period is selectively taken as from 2008/09 to 2015/16, the trend is strongly upward. This might be more about annual fluctuations than anything else.

Third, imports of bicycles vary from year to year in other countries too. For example, imports in the UK were constant over 2012-2015, but fell 11% in 2016. There were 17.4 million bicycles sold in the US in 2015; that was down substantially on sales of 19.8 million in 2005, but much higher than the 14.9 million sold in 2009.

Fourth, it’s unlikely the pattern of annual imports has anything to do with fewer children cycling to primary school. Back in 2009/10, the Victorian Integrated Survey of Travel and Activity (VISTA) showed only 3% of children in Melbourne cycled to primary school. That’s not a large share of school travel. The VISTA data for 2013/14 shows the proportion is still 3%.

Fifth, there are many reasons why sales might fluctuate from year to year e.g. prices, weather, incomes. 

Sixth, if it turns out the 2016/17 import figure really does presage a significant and sustained decline in children’s bicycle sales in future years, the idea that children are cycling less wouldn’t be the only possible explanation. For example, it might be the market is approaching saturation; note that according to the ACPF’s figures, a whopping 4.4 million children’s bicycles were imported into Australia over the last 10 years. Or it might be that other recreational fashions, like scooters, might displace cycling for some children.

The industry naturally worries about drops in sales of bicycles from year to year because it affects members’ livelihoods, but I’m not convinced that necessarily means children are riding substantially less (see also Is cycling really declining in Australia?). However I agree with the ACPF that conditions for cycling – in particular, better infrastructure – need to continue to improve to induce travellers of all ages to cycle.

The bigger issue, though, is the decline in walking to primary school. Many more children walk to primary school than cycle and always have; walking of course has similar social benefits to cycling. VISTA shows 22% of Melbourne children walked to primary school in 2008/09; by 2013/14 the proportion had fallen to 20% (see How many students cycle to school?).

I’ve canvassed before the reasons why walking to primary school in Australia fell from around two thirds of all students in the early 1970s (see Why has walking to school stumbled so badly?). They both have an important role, but not withstanding my optimism for cycling more generally, my sense is walking (and in due course automated public transport) has more potential to replace car trips for primary schoolers than bicycles.