Is motorcycling dying out in the UK?
Older bikers | Decline | Motorcycle licence holders | Statistics | Born again bikers
▲ Recognise that feeling? Riding with one or more friends? Two cool motorcycles on a clear road? The sun blasting down through the atmosphere? Fresh air? Sticky tarmac? And all to play for? Well according to some, that's a dying dream. Certainly motorcycling in the UK is on the back foot, but is it just a phase or a new reality?
It depends on exactly what you mean by dying out. If your question is: "Is motorcycling in the UK going to decline and disappear completely?" then we think that no, it probably isn't. Not in the foreseeable future anyway.
But if you mean: "Is motorcycling in the UK shrinking and becoming a much, much smaller activity?" then we can see that happening over the next 10 or 20 years. Certainly, there's already plenty of anecdotal evidence that UK bikers are ageing rapidly as a demographic. Go to any bike meet or motorcycle event and count the number of grey beards. They've clearly dramatically increased over the past decade or so—and it isn't simply that more people are wearing beards.
Insurance company statistics certainly suggest that there are more policy enquiries from riders aged fifty or above. But wait. You have to be careful with statistics. They're as apt to confuse the picture as clarify it.
Insurance stats and the DVLA
It might be, for instance, that there really are many more "older bikers" on two wheels getting insurance quotes. Or it might mean that these older bikers are simply more likely to be cautious with their money and seek multiple quotes—as opposed to more impatient younger riders pretty much accepting the first or second quote that comes their way. Or it might be that there are more younger riders on the road without any kind of insurance. And it might be that some or many of these older bikers have included sons and daughters on their policies. And it might be that older bikers ten to build up collections—and not necessarily with all bikes going onto the same policy. And it might be that (non-biking) motorcycle investors are showing up more in insurance stats. And there might be any number of other reasons why oldsters show up more in insurance company stats.
Meanwhile, the DVLA tells us that there are a little over one million motorcycle licences held in the UK. That is to say, that's the number on the DVLA database. But it's not clear if this data has been cross-checked/correlated with other data confirming how many of these licence holders are still active, or even still alive. Moreover, there are an unknown number of riders on the road, possibly new immigrants to the UK, who have no licence at all. And maybe these new immigrants are riding on motorcycle licences that were granted in other EU countries.
New motorcycle sales
New motorcycle sales in the UK are clearly falling. No doubt about that. In the 1980s, new bikes sold accounted for around 300,000 units per annum. Currently, however, we're looking at around 100,000 new bikes coming annually onto this British market. So that's down 200,000 units from the high water mark.
But it's not clear how many second-hand bikes there are on the market, and it's by no means absolutely clear which demographic is riding which type of bike; i.e. new or second-hand. Therefore, it's very difficult to paint a clear and unambiguous picture.
All the data is out there somewhere; with the police, insurance companies, the bike industry, the health service, the office for national statistics, and so on. But as far as we know, there are no reliable, all-encompassing, unarguable stats that tell us exactly how the motorcycle market is changing. But the grey beards keep coming.
And here's something else to factor in. People are simply living longer, and they're living healthier and more active lives. That means that whereas most bikers might have hung up their lids for the last time when in their 50s or 60s, there are now plenty of riders still on the move well into their 70s and 80s—and that number is likely to increase, not least thanks to new motorcycle technology that's offering everything from traction control, to ABS, to self-stabilisation gadgetry.
But there's no way of telling if that increase in oldsters will stabilise the demographic picture.
At the moment, our own feeling is that motorcycling in the UK will undergo huge rationalisation. Consequently, we believe (and this is purely subjective) that over the next decade or so we will see a large decline in the "pool" of active (and note the word "active") motorcyclists in the UK. These will be the guys and girls born in the 1950s and 1960s whose heyday was the 1970s, 1980s and possibly 1990s when biking was more popular, if new bike sales offer a reliable metric.
These riders are now (as of 2019) "reliving their youth" and buying and (to a lesser extent) riding the machines on which they grew up. This is a clear pattern that's been with us for a while. Some, of course, will morph into (or have already become) what is unflatteringly referred to as "born again bikers", often on unsuitable high powered machines. And some will be content to rediscover the machines of their youth.
Either way, these guys will become increasingly familiar on the wider motorcycle scene. But they might not be so familiar as regular road-riding bikers. So in that sense, active motorcycling we think will probably decrease. However, the real question now is: How sustainable will biking be when the numbers drop below a certain threshold? We're referring to a fairly comprehensive biking show scene, or club scene, or autojumble scene, or even a decent biker dealer scene. Will it all still be viable?
And so far, we have no answer to these questions.
Could the UK's motorcycle decline fuel growth elsewhere?
Overall, here at Sump we don't predict an end to biking in the UK, per se. But we do foresee plenty of changes. Meanwhile, there's still little evidence that much new blood is coming into the biking market. However, that might change if the UK economy continues to struggle as youngsters re-evaluate the most cost-effective transport options in their continuing search for work.
One more thing. Older bikers, especially the more affluent, are more likely to leave the UK for warmer climates than youngsters, notably to Spain and France. So we could also be looking at a situation where local biking (i.e. in the UK) decreases fairly rapidly, and retirement biking increases in warmer climatic zones.
Watch this space.
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