Cycling is much more than an amenity or a status symbol or a reason to buy, although it can be all those things. It’s wellness on two wheels. And wellness is, as the New York Post recently reported, the new cronut of travel and recreation. Compared to that, golf is child’s play.

At the Urban Land Institute’s Fall Meeting in Chicago this month, recreational real estate developers contemplated a question they dread in one of the panel sessions: “Is golf dead?” In a room where the majority of the (mostly) older white male attendees were avid golfers, the question was meant more as provocation than prognostication. But while the majority of the panelists answered “no”, one panelist’s presentation of a recent survey of Del Webb community owners and potential purchasers was telling.


For us, the message was clear: increasingly, the future of recreational development – and, in the bigger picture, tourism – will be happening on two wheels, not in a golf cart.

Del Webb is one of the country’s leading developers of “active adult,” or what many would call “retirement” communities – many of which are built around golf courses. While 40% of current Del Webb community owners believe golf to be an important amenity, so too did 37% of the 4,000+ prospects they surveyed, indicating that golf was just about as popular with prospects as current owners.

Of course, since many of their communities are known for golf, there is an inherent bias built into the sample itself. However, it was striking to understand the relative importance of golf compared to other amenities and activities – and to see the differences in what owners and prospects were looking for. Current owners wanted to see amenities such as tennis courts, while potential prospects ranked walking trails and cycling trails as most desired amenities: 86% rated walking trails as important and 60% wanted cycling trails (versus 50% of current owners.)

In short, younger Boomers still seemed to find golf almost as appealing as older Boomers, but the younger Boomers placed more importance on walking and cycling trails and other amenities. So golf isn’t dead, it’s just not as highly prized as it once was, relative to a variety of other activities – particularly cycling.

In our own research on affluent U.S. households (HHI $150k+) for the 2013 Resonance Report, we’ve seen that while the current rates of participation in cycling and golf are virtually identical, twice as many affluent households want to try cycling as golf and the percentage skews higher the younger the age cohort.

Part of the appeal of golf was its connotation of status: an experienced golfer clearly needed both time and money to succeed at the famously difficult game. Road cycling, the new darling of affluent professionals (primarily men), offers a different kind of bragging rights: the time and money to purchase pricey equipment and train for official events or just friendly competition. For cyclists, like golfers, practicing the sport internationally is the cherry on this rich sundae.


So while cycling fitness is edging out golf’s technical finesse as a status symbol amongst the leisure elite, cycling is also gaining ground as a lifestyle. The news is full of stories about bike lanes, bike sharing and Bike to Work. According to the League of American Bicyclists, commuting by bicycle increased nearly 50% between 2000 and 2011 – the time frame in which the oldest Millennials entered the work force. In the past five years, the number of golfers in the U.S. has dropped by 13%, according to the National Golf Foundation and there are a million fewer private golf club members today than there were in the early 1990s.

So is cycling really the new golf? Not exactly. Because cycling is much more than an amenity or a status symbol or a reason to buy, although it can be all those things. It’s wellness on two wheels. And wellness is, as the New York Post recently reported, the new cronut of travel and recreation. It’s the biggest obsession of our unwell times. At the recent Global Spa & Wellness Summit in New Delhi, CEO Susie Ellis reported that wellness travel is growing at nearly 10% per year. So why are communities and tourism destinations lagging instead of leveraging it?

We’re not talking here about mountain biking, which has been a staple of tourism and resort planning for more than a decade, and some destinations, like Utah’s Moab, have built their brand around it. Mountain biking is still a popular niche (like golf), but for the most part, it’s a solo sport, and one that requires a high level of fitness. Road cycling can be gentle – more about the journey than the performance.

When it comes to road cycling, we tend to think of it as either practical (a way to get around) or competitive (Gran Fando, etc.) The next step is to think about creating cycling trails and programming – throughout destinations and communities – as an integral part of building an overall destination experience. With the correct planning, cycling can become the reason to visit or buy in a community, not just a means to get around.

Actress Heather Graham recently tweeted a photo of herself (and her bike) on Vancouver’s Seawall, declaring Vancouver “the most bike-friendly city ever.” Yet not many people know about the Seawall and Jericho Beach until they arrive in Vancouver. Manhattan, a city hardly known for its leisurely pace, has the Waterfront Greenway, a bike path that essentially lets cyclists ride the entire perimeter of the urban island. Cities would do well to focus on creating these types of attractions: things we think of as exclusive to locals can effectively draw tourists and their dollars. In fact, cycling tourism emerged as a key product development opportunity in the Tourism Master Plan we authored for the City of Vancouver this year.

And while definitions and measurements of wellness itself are squishy, the economic benefits of designing cities, towns and resorts for cyclists is undeniable: The state of Wisconsin estimated the economic impact of bicycle recreation and tourism to be more than $924 million. When the town of Leadville, Colorado opened a bikeway, sales tax revenue increased 19%.

We’ve just begun to think about cycling in North America as a viable means of transportation. The opportunity now lies in thinking about how to develop it as a cornerstone of recreation, whether for a city, region or resort community. The best news is that cycling offers a phenomenal opportunity for return on investment: Cycling infrastructure requires strategy and planning, yet the implementation is relatively inexpensive (especially when compared to a celebrity-designed golf course). As Millennials reach their earning peak in the coming decade and begin to control a growing share of spending on travel and leisure, the destinations and communities of the future will be those that offer extensive and varied cycling opportunities.

Is cycling the new golf? No. It’s way, way more.