Thursday, January 14, 2010


Among the many things my travels have shown me, I have seen that a goodly number of my American bike friends simply don't believe the United States can create world class bicycle cultures. 


Now, my friends and family have remained steadfast in reminding me why the City of Memphis is so far behind for bikes, so I've become well-versed in the arguments about why we'll never be a world class bike city.   

Bike lanes are expensive.  Our cities are already strapped for cash, and in the current fiscal crisis why should we expect our political leaders to designate money for bicycle infrastructure?  It simply costs too much.   

Fortunately, this is a myth.  Bicycles are always the winner in a cost benefit analysis, as our friends at Bicycle Victoria show us here. 

Even the Copenhagen style lanes recently installed on Swanston St. in Melbourne, at a cost of $550,000 AUD for approximately 2 kilometers, is still a fraction of the cost required to create a similar stretch of car lane (see above link).  Given that bicycle lanes have the capacity to accommodate up to 8 times more users per unit of land used than do car lanes, a simple cost/benefit analysis shows that bicycle infrastructure is the more fiscally prudent expenditure per person.  And I didn't even mention the revenue generated by savings on public health costs. 

But maybe you've heard this one: the distances are too great in the United States.  We'll never be able to get where we need to go on a bike because we simply have too far to go.  Actually, 40% of trips made in America are less than 2 miles, and 80% of these trips are done in a personal motor vehicle.  Think about our Western world bicycle models, Amsterdam and Copenhagen.  Approximately 37% of all trips made in these cities each day are done on a bicycle.  If Americans focused on taking the bike for the short trips--the trips of 2 miles or less--our cities might boast bicycle commuting numbers similar to those of Western Europe's bike culture crown jewels. 

Now I know you've heard this one: it's the weather.  It's too hot, or too cold, or too rainy to expect people will ever use the bicycle for a commute.  I mean, you people in Memphis are freezing right now, right?  17 degrees Fahrenheit a couple days ago (-8 Celsius)?   While it would be foolish to argue that the average person enjoys riding a bicycle in freeing rain, many studies conclude that weather has less of an impact on ridership than is speculated.  None of the studies go so far as to say weather is not important.  In fact, 33% of Copenhageners report that rainy days are the most influential factor in their decision to take the bus (see page 12).  Still, weather is not an impenetrable barrier to the creation of bicycle cultures. 

But's dangerous to ride a bike in traffic.  Those drivers out there--they're just out of control.  And the drivers in (insert your city name here) are the absolute worst!  How can I be expected to jeopardize life and limb just so I can ride a bike...and for God's sake it's 17 degrees Fahrenheit?!    

Unfortunately, a large part of the problem in America is traffic safety.  The average person does not feel safe riding their bicycle on an American roadway...even over a distance of 2 miles.  As scholars John Pucher and Lewis Dijkstra report, "the neglect of pedestrian and bicycling safety in the United States has made these modes dangerous ways of getting around.  Pedestrian fatalities are 36 times higher than car occupant fatalities per km traveled, and bicycling fatalities are 11 times higher than car occupant fatalities per km."     

Perhaps at this point, we can call upon on an old Danish fisherman's adage to frame the way we might deal with this substantial barrier to bicycle riding: "there's no such thing as bad weather," the saying goes, "just bad clothes." 

More than a cheeky, "suck-it up" catch phrase from some smarty-pants Dane, the phrase reflects a commitment and determination to find solutions to seemingly built-in barriers and contextual limitations.   

The problem of safety, as with many of the other barriers listed above, is not a permanent feature of urbanized human civilization.  It can, in fact, be overcome through a commitment to creating safe bicycle cities.  In a paper released this past year, Pucher and his co-authors Jennifer Dill and Susan Handy report "Berlin, for example, almost quadrupled the number of bicycle trips between 1970 and 2001 and doubled the bicycle share of trips from 5% in 1990 to 10% in 2007. In spite of the sharp rise in bicycling, serious injuries in Berlin fell by 38% from 1992 to 2006. In only six years, the bicycle share of trips within the City of Paris more than doubled from 1% in 2001 to 2.5% in 2007. The bicycle share of trips in Bogota (Colombia) quadrupled from 0.8% in 1995 to 3.2% in 2006. The total number of bicycle trips in London doubled between 2000 and 2008, while bicyclist injuries fell by 12% over the same period. Amsterdam raised the bicycle share of trips from 25% in 1970 to 37% in 2005; serious bicyclist injuries fell by 40% between 1985 and 2005. From 1995 to 2003, the bicycle share of trips in Copenhagen rose from 25% to 38% among those aged 40 years and older. Yet, there was a 60% decline in serious injuries."  

In short, not only is it possible to get more people on bicycles more often, but making bicycle travel a tenable possibility for the average person creates safer road conditions in urban areas.  As for domestic numbers, this site shows us that Minneapolis, one of the coldest urban areas in the U.S., almost doubled it's mode share from 2007-2008. 

So how did they do it?  How did these cities across the globe, from a variety of cultures and over a slew of geographical landscapes, make bicycle use a tangible possibility for their populace?  

Pucher's paper attempts to answer this question.  He points to dozens of strategies from around the globe that have been used to increase bicycle travel.  Have a look...I found it quite refreshing to see so many different kinds of strategies all presented together, explained in detail and evaluated empirically for their effectiveness.  

His conclusions?  It wasn't infrastructure, education, or marketing that made the difference.  It was, in fact, all of these and none of these factors concurrently. 

There can be no silver bullet for creating bicycle cultures, and Pucher warns us against blindly applying the same policy prescriptions in Copenhagen that you would use in Memphis: "the very same infrastructure provision, program, or policy might have different impacts on bicycling in different contexts, making it risky to generalize about the effectiveness of any individual measure."  

Pucher confirms what most of us know on a gut level: it's neither bike lanes nor bike tracks nor ride to school programs alone that promise to increase the overall level of bicycling in a city.  Rather, it's a commitment to pursuing a variety of context sensitive strategies aimed at making bicycling a possibility for the average person.  

It's commitment.  And commitment means finding the opportunities within each barrier rather than simply focusing on the barrier itself.  Weather, for example, changes.  Some days are beautiful for riding a bike while others are abysmal.  In Melbourne two days ago it was 45 degrees Celsius (113 Fahrenheit).  Today, it's 19 (66.2). 

The point then, and ironically this is perhaps why my American friends have felt challenged by models around the world, is that a commitment to identifying barriers to bike culture growth is perhaps the most important step in sparking that growth.  

Educating ourselves about how cities across the globe have used bike tracks, environmental concerns, sharrows, cycling education and bike design manuals to effectively overcome weather patterns, geography, lethargic lifestyles and cultural intolerance to bicycle travel holds the key to the future of bicycle cultures in America.     

So while it's important to debate which kinds of interventions work best, I'm contending that it is un-helpful to argue that *some* kind of intervention can create the same kinds of world class bicycle cultures in America found in Copenhagen and Amsterdam.  

This differentiation, this distinction between innovation and stagnation, is the difference between cities that have and have not committed to moving by bike.


  1. I've got (what may at first glance, appear to be)a conspiracy theorist explanation - just like GM and Ford bought up and closed down the streetcars in more than a dozen US cities in the middle decades of last century, bicycle infrastructure is perpetually subject to VicRoads (DoT) groupthink. VicRoads is beholden to car culture lobbyists - who are the big motoring interests. Hence, we get disjointed, missing and inadequate infrastructure - as a method to keep cycling (literally) on the margins. We're seen, tacitly, as a threat to the status quo of more and more freeways, and it's only the relatively feeble efforts of BV and local government (with token and occasional efforts from state and federal governments) which manage to allow us to stake out our very marginal foothold in the transport landscape. GM should have been allowed to go bust, and then I think we might have found VicRoads somewhat more receptive, eventually, to cycle-centric traffic.

    The motor industry thrives on generating waste, and territory acquisition and subjugation, and bikes don't generate or require a lot. Maybe that's why they don't like us. We're too efficient. We're too healthy. We're too friendly (you can talk to people around you on a bike - you can't in a car). We're not centralized and controlled down a heirarchy of part and fuel and consumeable supply, and fee and charge networks. We don't need a lot of 'stuff' to get around. We eschew the suit of armour, which in reality is a cage. It's an artifact of our civilization. Don't see indigenous people needing it. But, too late, we realize that it and its attendant worldview has killed the biosphere, or near as dammit. Henry Ford, I want to go back in time and sterilize your Dad. Otto Daimler, you should have died in the Franco Prussian War. But, like gang leaders, another one rises to take the chief scumbag's place when he gets offed. It's an evil which started somewhere - in the bowels of the industrial revolution? Prior to that - in slave-taking imperialism? "Pleased to meet you, hope you guessed my name, but what's puzzling you is the nature of my game . . . " Ta, Mick and Keith.

  2. One problem is believing in ourselves. Despite having bicycle commuted though high school and college even with an automobile at my disposal and doing all my local errands by bike since 2006, I don't feel in my gut I can rightfully take the lane on a busy road. I suspect there are a lot more like me who agree with Anthony intellectually but don't have the fire in the belly.