Bike Sales & Entertainment Budgets

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A bike shop owner in Houston, Texas recently stated that “bikes are the new toilet paper.” Since the pandemic began, Americans have been rushing to purchase bicycles at a rate never seen before… so much so that manufacturers and retailers are struggling to keep up.

In larger cities where a higher percentage of the population uses public transit, the uptick in bike sales is likely a result of people looking for cheaper individualized transportation. Instead of riding the subway for their commute or a trip to the store, they’re hopping on a bike.

But in small-to-midsized cities like my hometown of Rochester, the rampant run on bikes is likely more recreational. As someone who rides our robust trail networks on two wheels every day, I wouldn’t be surprised if bike riding was 3 and 4 times what it usually is this time of year. From family rides to mountain bike kings to urban commuters and racing bike enthusiasts, the local trails are reaching the point of congestion levels at times. I, for one, am not going to complain.

In a piece I wrote a few years ago, I referenced a 2015 Marketplace article that outlined why local sports teams really don’t activate new spending in local economies. People will simply take the money that they would have spent on another entertainment outlet and spend it going to “the game,” making it close to a zero sum game for the local economy.

This counters popular thinking that more entertainment options lead to a better economy because more people are spending more of their money. But if entertainment options increase while median incomes stay flat, spending is likely being redistributed, not increased. People simply have a fixed amount of money and time to spend, and as recreational outlets increase, spending simply “sprawls.”

When recreational options decrease, like say, during a pandemic that shuts down bars, restaurants, museums, parks, festivals, sports and more, entertainment budgets will become much more focused. During this Covid-19 time, cycling has been allowed so that citizens can exercise and blow off steam outdoors while practicing physical distancing. With few other options, more Americans have turned to bike riding as an alternative recreational outlet… and their wallets have followed. Quite simply, the money someone might have spent on a month’s worth of $11 cocktails is being spent on a bike. Family trips to the museum, the theater, the movies and to the big game are being spent on shiny new rides for the kids. The time that a person may have spent commuting is now being spent riding with a loved one after a long day of working from home.

In sum, the limited number of options for Americans during this pandemic has caused us to redistribute our time and money on safer, solo or more intimate outlets. Our desire for fun hasn’t decreased… we are human and are programmed for play. But the sudden scarcity of the typical entertainment “go-to’s” has, interestingly enough, re-introduced the nation to an old and reliable friend… the bicycle.