In late November, the Motorcycle Industry Council announced that “Nearly one in five motorcycle owners is now female,” based on the results of their 2018 Motorcycle/ATV Owner Survey. “Moto-news” outlets, sycophant servants to the industry at large, content to serve as mere mouthpieces and mostly concerned with being first to Facebook, trumpeted the good news, quoting the press release and adding nearly nothing even approximating insight or analysis. Ecommerce retailers set their content farmers to the task of using the news to drive sales of “cute” boots with pink accents. That one website, revered for its supposed “no bullshit” take on all things moto, expressed a smidge of doubt, but the author, as always, kept his criticism vague and gentle, his punches so soft they might not have penetrated wet tissue paper.
Industry folks and individual riders—or perhaps more accurately, motorcycle owners—gleefully shared these links on social media, wi-fiving each other for this progress, while oldsters in painfully homogenous, monochromatic forums man-to-mansplained at each other, expounding on the topic of female ridership based on their experiences standing around the parking lot at their favorite pre- or post-ride haunt, confident and cocksure, blissfully unaware of their myopia.
This is the state of things, of course. The percentage of people who comprehend—or even read—beyond headlines is smaller than the percentage of women riders, whether we use this new 19% figure or 2009’s pathetic 10%. But we at CityBike have a long history of what I’ll call “doubting” the MIC’s takes on their data, which they often conveniently keep to themselves and their member companies, making analysis and informed commentary by thinking motorcyclists difficult—which of course, has not stopped us from talking shit.
So I sent a bunch of questions to the MIC: may I please look at the actual data and methodology? Will you share the question set with me? Can you provide more background on the statement “the data suggests that women could soon make up one quarter of owners?” Can you share a breakdown of street versus dirt / ATV ownership among men and women? Were there any questions about ridership: annual miles, types of riding, etc? Am I correct in assuming that ownership in the survey is not household, but individual?
Why so many questions? Why not just be happy that more women are riding, or rather, owning motorcycles?
A Half-finished Glass of Haterade
If you’re a doubter, it’s easy to direct a stinky eye at the PR efforts about this joyful news. The release looks to have been rushed out in an unfinished state to coincide with the Women in Powersports gathering preceding IMS New York. It seems incomplete and unclear—for example, the MIC survey is about motorcycle and ATV ownership, but the release only talks about motorcycle ownership, presumably lumping it all together. I’ve said it before: all these powersports variations may be important parts of some dealerships’ and manufacturers’ revenue streams, but they’re not motorcycles. I also dislike that this industry group with an obvious interest in painting a rosy—or more accurately, a less shitty picture of the American motorcycle industry’s health, expects us to trust their interpretation at face value, with just the smidgiest smidge of publicly-released supporting data.
Never mind that they’re sidestepping the question of how many owners are actually riders, actually a somewhat immaterial concern to the business of selling motorcycles. I’ve said this before too: it’s not the small base of oh-so-hardcore enthusiasts—the real riders, the racers, the true grit adventurers—that keep the industry alive, it’s the owners, the consumers. As much as the low-mileage, high-bling Ducati bike night posers—sorry, the Ducatisti—love to belittle the so-called Harley pirates and their penchant for excessive “investment” in chrome everything and too-high bars, and despite many of those big-bike buccaneers still calling anything that’s not a Harley a “rice rocket,” it’s these types of clowns—sorry, consumer segments—spending money, on motorcycles, varying levels of gear, accessories and the like.
Anyhooskies… I was all set to throw some shade on this triumphant song of burgeoning moto-equality based on my own extensive motocultural observations, but I’m a thinking man, who having basically called every quick-draw share button-puncher an asshole in the first couple paragraphs here, had two thoughts: first, that I’d better get my facts in order before publishing anything, lest the the jibber-jabbering masses catch on and call me on my own bullshit; and second, that I can’t be the boy that cried “where’s your data?!” without some data of my own.
To make my position abundantly clear, I’m not hating commenting on the MIC’s press release because I don’t want more women riders, or even just motorcycle owners of any gender, race, color or creed. If you look at the makeup of the crew here at CityBike, we’re way outperforming this 19% “progress” that the MIC and everyone else is so excited about, and we’ve been vocal about how badly the motorcycling world often treats women. But I recognize the MIC’s need to balance transparency and truth against touting their efforts and the efforts of the motorcycle industry to member companies, and the half- and kinda non-answers I received only served to reinforce my dubiosity as to the veracity of their claims. Though we’ve been known so spin some tales ’round here, we’re also concerned with truth—the whole truth—in areas where truth ought to be a concern.
I know, how quaint.
The MIC Responds to Officer Kimble
The MIC’s VP of Communications, Ty van Hooydonk, responded to my questions, and even sent me the survey methodology. I was hoping for more details, but it was well within norms for this sort of work. Here it is, in the name of cranking up the word count so my editor won’t yell at me for “lacking substance” or whatever:
2018 Motorcycle/ATV Owner Survey
Data collection was conducted via an online survey to a national panel of 2.5 million regular survey respondents and balanced to represent all U.S. households.
The target sample size for owners is 2,000, for non-owners 1,500. The interview begins with a screening question to determine if someone in the household owns a motorcycle/ATV. If it is a non-owning household a separate questionnaire is completed to determine attitudes toward motorcycles and reasons for not owning. For owning households, basic model information for each vehicle is obtained. For households with more than one vehicle, one of the vehicles is randomly selected for detailed questioning.
Review and Model Coding
The responses are reviewed to confirm legitimacy and model codes along with associated model year, engine size, engine stroke, etc. Illegitimate responses are not used in the sample for statistical analysis.
Processing & Analysis
Using various statistical methods, the data is checked and adjusted for logical inconsistencies, methodological bias, seasonal bias, and other issues that might affect the results of the survey. In addition, the data is weighted to make it representative of the population at large.
Not surprisingly, the MIC wouldn’t share the source data or the full question set from the survey, but Monsieur Hooydonk did give me the MIC’s ownership numbers going back to 1990:
Percentage of Women Motorcycle Owners
The trend suggested by this table is the foundation for one of the leading statements in the press release: “the data suggests that women could soon make up one quarter of owners,” but the release goes further, saying: “the 2018 survey showed even greater female ownership within younger generations. Among Gen X motorcycle owners, 22 percent were women; among Gen Y, 26 percent were women.” According to MIC Director of Communications Andria Yu, “as the number of Boomer and mature motorcyclists shrink and are replaced by newer riders, we could soon be looking at a solid 25 percent of motorcycle owners being female.”
More on that in a moment.
I really wanted a breakdown of street and dirtbike / ATV ownership because, based on observations of CityBike staffers both male and female, I had a hypothesis that the “family” nature of the off-road world, the overall percentage might be skewed by higher female ownership in that segment. While Señor Hooydonk confirmed that they are indeed looking at individual, not household ownership, he told me he couldn’t share a breakdown of the types of motorcycles and ATVs owned by those surveyed because the MIC is “still compiling the results of the MIC 2018 Motorcycle/ATV Owner Survey. More is coming. But the MIC will report an increase in ownership among both men and women and the counts for both are slated to be released in January.”
More on that in a moment, too.
As with types of motorcycle ownership, I also didn’t get anything about miles ridden, types of riding, or any other details. I assume the survey included such questions, and I was eager to to have something quantifiable to clown “real man” riders with, but alas, not today.
More Better Data
I’ll certainly receive some feedback (hate mail) from some clever jerk(s) about how you can make data say whatever you want; statistics and damn lies; assumptions and asses; and all manner of other powerfully astute rejections of my analysis here, because I only gathered data from California. But I’m here to tell you, pops, we all know California is the best damn motorcycling state in the union, and really, the only state that matters. All the real riders live here, after all.
I reached out to a variety of organizations, and got solid answers—with real numbers—from the California DMV and Total Control Training, which is the current curriculum vendor and program manager for the California Motorcyclist Training Program (CMSP).
The DMV couldn’t give me a breakdown of motorcycle registrations by gender, which would have been wonderfully apples-to-apples, but they did give me a breakdown of licensing by gender.
California Motorcycle Licenses and Endorsements by Gender
Period / Type
As of July 1, 2018
Motorcycle License Only
As of July 1, 2017
Motorcycle License Only
As of July 1, 2016
Motorcycle License Only
I was gonna add columns for year-over-year percent changes, but as you can see, there’s no need—overall licensing and breakdown by gender are pretty stagnant. As for the small drop in licenses and endorsements from 2017 to 2018, I can only assume that’s due to people hearing I got hit by a car and marching down to their local DMV to surrender their license. “If even The Surj can get taken out, I’m done!”
It’s true that California isn’t the entire US, but the Golden State’s nearly 1.5 million licensed motorcyclists, or rather people with motorcycle licenses, is a much bigger sample size than the MIC’s 2,472, and if anything, I’d expect the percentage of women riders to be higher here, given our enhanced state of woke-ness, not to mention the constant shit-talking from “real Americans” in “free states” about how far-left female politicians wear the pants here and there are no “real men” left in California.
On to Total Control’s numbers. Lee Parks’ Total Control Training organization runs the California new motorcyclist training program under the auspices of the CHP / CMSP, as well as military-specific and other rider training programs across the country. Bobbie Carlson, Program Manager at Total Control, shared a breakdown of Motorcyclist Training Course (MTC, basic / new rider course) student by gender.
California Motorcyclist Training by Gender
2018, through 9/10/18
As with the DMV’s numbers, Total Control’s numbers are pretty flat—there’s no marked difference year to year suggesting increasing female ridership. However, the 20/80 split is right in line with the MIC’s 19%. As for why the percentage of women with a license or endorsement doesn’t line up with the training numbers, I’d guess it’s because new training numbers are a tiny minority compared to the long-standing number of dudes with endorsements, who cling to that shit as a last link to youthful rebellion, even if they haven’t sat on a motorcycle since we had an honorable president, let alone ridden. After all, there were 955,293 motorcycles registered in California in 2017—roughly 35% fewer bikes than the number of licenses and endorsements, and almost every rider I know has more than one motorcycle.
Is the MIC Telling the Truth?
Though I love to jawjack about the MIC and think that any increases in women owning and riding motorcycles are more likely in spite of—rather than thanks to—the industry’s oft-clumsy efforts; and wish they’d held off on pushing their half-baked analysis until someone completed the couple hours of spreadsheet jockeying required to include more of a conclusion, there’s no reason to believe they’re cooking the books here. Not really.
But… California’s data sure doesn’t jive with the trend the MIC is seeing. If we make the relatively safe assumption that new rider training is likely to include a larger portion of the Gen X and Y women that the MIC claims are replacing the outgoing oldsters, wouldn’t the percent of women taking the MTC course be higher? And given that men are arguably more given to dipshittery like riding without a license, wouldn’t we see a higher percentage of licensed women, instead of an even lower percentage?
Maybe I’m wrong about how dumb the average male motorcyclist is. I look forward to your feedback on that topic, dear reader.
There’s also this bit: “the MIC will report an increase in ownership among both men and women and the counts for both are slated to be released in January.” That statement is in stark contrast to the widely-reported challenges faced by the motorcycle industry. Maybe the “flourishing used bike market” I keep hearing about is driving this supposed increase in ownership. Maybe the MIC’s coming-soon update will clear things up for us in January.
Look, attempts at likely-too-opaque jocularity regarding the motorcycling supremacy of California aside, the Golden State’s topography and weather make it a hell of a place to be—or more germane to the matter at hand, become—a motorcyclist. This environmental factor would seemingly imply that California’s numbers ought to be better than the MIC’s national numbers, rather than barely even with, or even worse, in the case of licensing.
But in the interest of serious independent moto-journalism—we didn’t earn our reputation as the New Yorker of motorcycling by half-assing things—our team of interns has been tasked with ringing up every state DMV office across this already-great land, in hopes of painting a more complete picture of motorcycling humanity.
Just kidding. I’m our only intern, and I’ve got a Buell that needs fixin’.
Surj is the Editor and Jackass of All Trades here at CityBike. If you like excessive swearing and musings about how things were cooler back when Minor Threat was still a band, you’ll love his Uneasy Rider column.