Question to US readers (about a weird claim in a French book about cycling in the US)

by EmmanuelM   July 7, 2014  

Hello,

In a French book just out by Frederic Héran, a chapter starts with the claim than more than half of the Americans can't ride a bike, while almost all the French can. No translation problem here, I promise ("Les Français savent presque tous rouler à bicyclette (contre moins de la moitié des Américains)", p.126, "Le retour de la bicyclette", F. Heran). He really means that if you put a few adult Americans on a bike, more than half of them on average will fall instantly because they didn't learn how to ride a bike.

He gives no source, and well, overall, the book is quite superficial to my taste (but it has a very good reputation on some French bike forums though, and the author is now the kind of expert you can hear on radio when the topic is about bicycles). But this particular claim sounds incredible to me. I tried to find on the Internet the figure of the proportion of Americans who can't ride a bicycle, to no avail (because it's as little as elsewhere ?).

I think that the actual figure may be that half of Americans don't own a bike, which is a totally different picture. Or possibly that because of some health conditions, many can't imagine using a bike even if they were close to to their workplace etc (ie : a poll like "Why don't you use a bike ?" "I can't") - but more than half ?!?

Could you help me find a proof that Americans can ride a bike as much as the rest of the world ? [And yes, I read a little anti-American bias in the fact he put such a fact without any source, as the beginning of a chapter in which he explains the bicycles are back in France]

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Don't know that particular statistic but it reminded me of the tragic story of the 6 African-American teenagers who drowned in 2010 after one of them got into trouble when he accidentally stepped into deeper water in a river and panicked. His five friends rushed to help and they all drowned. None of them could swim. None of the adults present could swim either
Astonishingly they estimate that close to 70% of African-American children can't swim.
So large sections of the population not having access to bicycles (or public swimming pools) would surprise me...

posted by SPAM Naval [141 posts]
8th July 2014 - 14:21

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Well, in France we have 20% of people who can't swim, according to a stat I found easily on the Internet. I also could find a stat that says that 30% of French children before 14 yo can't ride a bike. But in the end I think everyone agrees that most French can ride a bike, while there is no stats for the adults I know of, that would allow me to prove it to a foreigner. Let's say the author describes America as being several leagues below France in that matter, while I think that, at best, you have to use different ways of measurement to obtain that result (one could say that "30% of 14 yo French child can't ride a bike" and "most French can ride a bike" are incoherent claims, for instance).

There is also indeed some subsets, like French women born in Africa, where the proportion is indeed probably higher : whose who run "bike schools for adult" (for free) around Paris, talk often about that.

So, if it is true that "more than half of Americans can't ride a bike" (a very, very spectacular figure IMO - how would the "bike in Paris" tours run if half the US tourists couldn't ride a bike ? Smile ), there should be at least a way to find a figure about it.

If there's none, I suspect because the actual figure is very low, and that it's rather that "more than half of Americans don't own a bike" (I found figures close to that in some local polls in some US cities).

But it's very difficult to find a proof to give to those who think this French author is competent (his book is full of figures and not full of sources, he's the current "bicycle expert" one can hear on radio etc...).

posted by EmmanuelM [7 posts]
8th July 2014 - 16:15

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I guess fewer Americans ride a bicycle because it's easier to outrun the muggers in a car. Laughing

posted by truffy [532 posts]
8th July 2014 - 16:49

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It's hard to say what's the right stat for America as a whole.

Here in Seattle, we live in one of the most cycling friendly cities in America. Despite the roads being rubbish, there are a lot of non-car trails, so it's very unusual that a kid won't learn to ride at least at some point. Even on the roads the traffic is pretty cycle friendly, with only the occasional idiot in a pick-up truck (white van man) or a Cadillac (BMW driver).

Compare with Mississippi, Louisiana and [INSERT SOUTHERN STATE HERE], where there is little to no cycling infrastructure, there are rednecks a-plenty, and cities are all optimized around driving from A to B. There is not much incentive to teach kids to ride a bike when it's dangerous to ride on the street and nowhere else to ride off it.

Overall, I think that 50% of Americans who cannot ride is high, many do learn at some point. Equally, 50% of Americans who currently ride or even would think to ride is high. That said, with 300 million of them there are more than enough who can in order to find one that can cheat their way to more than 5 Tour wins.

posted by Gordy748 [98 posts]
8th July 2014 - 18:33

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I am always surprised at how arrogant French people are in regards to Americans. This author just tossed an unsubstantiated figure out into thin air, and he actually got published? Amazing.
The U.S. has millions of bicyclists, and evidenced by the increasing number of bike races, clubs and Pro events here, it is obvious he is writing fiction. In an unofficial survey of all the people I have known in 40+ years of life, I can't think of one single person who hasn't ridden a bike at some point in their life. And WELL over 50% of them currently ride. At the very least, I will discourage all of them from ever reading a wine-drinking, stinky cigarette smoking French "writer" in the future.

posted by keroyd [4 posts]
8th July 2014 - 20:59

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truffy wrote:
I guess fewer Americans ride a bicycle because it's easier to outrun the muggers in a car. Smile

Applause Another shining example of typical European mediocrity. Rolling On The Floor

posted by keroyd [4 posts]
8th July 2014 - 21:09

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Maybe the author is getting his own back for American stereotypes of the French?

I remember when the world's then-oldest woman died, who happened to be French, I think it was Jay Leno who commented along the lines of "I'd like to pay tribute to Madame Croissant, the world's oldest woman, who died today aged 114. We've estimated that during her lifetime she'd have walked about 285,000 miles, drunk about 27,000 litres of wine ... and had 4 showers."

posted by Joeinpoole [308 posts]
8th July 2014 - 21:17

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Joeinpoole wrote:
Maybe the author is getting his own back for American stereotypes of the French?

I remember when the world's then-oldest woman died, who happened to be French, I think it was Jay Leno who commented along the lines of "I'd like to pay tribute to Madame Croissant, the world's oldest woman, who died today aged 114. We've estimated that during her lifetime she'd have walked about 285,000 miles, drunk about 27,000 litres of wine ... and had 4 showers."

Curious that writing a unsubstantiated "book" would be to revenge a 5 second comedic attempt by an unpopular tv host.

posted by keroyd [4 posts]
8th July 2014 - 22:20

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Well, notice that it's a French reader (me) who was very surprised by this claim, to say the least, and came here to find some substance to prove for once to other French readers that this economist is dead wrong on that matter.

Yes, I think too it shows some anti-American bias, but it's not the real topic IMO.

The irony is that his book is full of "Hey French fellows, look at what they do in other countries" content, it's all very, very superficial IMO, but this particular claim (that is on the first line at the beginning of a chapter, it's not in a little note !) was nonsense to the max to me when I read it.

Now, how could I find a figure that shows it's wrong ? Mind you, I would not be able to find a figure that prove that 90/95/97/whatever % of French can ride a bike...

But I found that 60% of French households have a bike. Could it be "less than half" for the US ? And then the author mixed up "can't ride a bike" with "don't own a bike"...

posted by EmmanuelM [7 posts]
9th July 2014 - 2:43

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Ironically I was born in Paris but grew up in the US (Midwest-- farming region) but now live in Portland, a very bike friendly city and most people I know ride bikes. I was a middle class child and most of us got hand-me-down bikes from older siblings, using our bikes as transportation to little league or to tool around town. Nowadays in some of the poorer neighborhoods I notice fewer cyclists and the ones I do see are mainly Caucasian, yes, Portland is very white but that was also the case when I lived in Seattle and Minneapolis. I think the majority of Americans learn how to ride a bicycle at some point. Whether they continue to ride or currently own a bicycle is less true, which is why I'm doing my part by riding 100+ miles per week and growing my N+1. Just picked up a late 70s Bianchi last weekend Big Grin

Melancholy is incompatible with bicycling. ~James E. Starrs

movingtarget's picture

posted by movingtarget [136 posts]
9th July 2014 - 6:19

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I know it's a bit different, but here's a lightweight list (albeit with sources) for top 10 bicycles per capita:
http://top10hell.com/top-10-countries-with-most-bicycles-per-capita/

Interesting to see that France doesn't feature, although the US is included for comparison purposes:
People: 310,936,000
Bicycles: 100,000,000
Bicylists: ~32,2%
In the USA only 0,9% of all trips are made by bike.
The average distance cycled per person is 0.1 km

In contrast, the US does of course have the highest gun ownership per capita (97 guns for ever 100 citizens), so the really depressing figure might be how many more Americans learn to shoot as children rather than cycle... and therein lies the very heart of the US' problems in the 21st century.

dafyddp's picture

posted by dafyddp [181 posts]
9th July 2014 - 9:00

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But it's our god given right to bear arms which is why things like this keep on happening.

http://us.cnn.com/2014/07/08/us/north-carolina-family-shooting/index.htm...

Oh no, we don't need gun laws in the US ... [insert very sarcastic tone here]. It's pretty appalling and distressing but I must disagree with dafyddp. The root of most of bathe problems in the US is the growing disparity between the top 1% who control 42% of the the country's wealth and corporations are individuals and can pump as much money as they want into elections to get the outcome they want. In polls most Americans want stricter gun laws and background checks but the NRA gun lobby just pours money into the campaigns of gun-friendly candidates. Money is the root of many evils in the US because without it you don't really have a voice. Ugh. Now I'm depressed. Going to go for a ride with my riding buddy and watch my friends race up a 5-10% grade on an extinct volcano.

Melancholy is incompatible with bicycling. ~James E. Starrs

movingtarget's picture

posted by movingtarget [136 posts]
9th July 2014 - 18:00

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It would not surprise me.

True story: I was in the mid west chatting away to a normal, what I thought was an intelligent guy, when he asked me where I was from? I told him England, wow, England he repeated, then he asked me if we spoke English in England Nerd so it wouldn't surprise me if over half the population can't ride bikes, over half don't own a passport!!

“Never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups.”

― George Carlin

“Talk sense to a fool and he calls you foolish.”

― Euripides, Bacchae

Cyclist's picture

posted by Cyclist [226 posts]
10th July 2014 - 18:41

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