Why not in America?

The recent surge in gas prices and growing concern over carbon emissions have goosed efforts to increase bicycle ridership in metropolitan areas, but the U.S. still lags far behind Europe and Asia. A recent survey of worldwide trends in the Washington Post suggests that the reason is not, as is often assumed, some uniquely American pattern of land use. Although no single policy is a magic bullet, the overall prescription is clear: when bicycling becomes more convenient and driving more expensive, many people
switch to bikes.

Early on, the article makes a nod to the “car-centric transportation policies and suburban sprawl” that “make bicycle commuting rare, arduous and relatively dangerous” in the U.S. But America is a fairly urban country, with most residents living in areas at least as densely populated as countries with far higher cycling rates. Although received wisdom holds suburbia chiefly responsible for low levels of ridership in the U.S., a survey of success stories repeatedly highlights infrastructure as the critical factor.

Take Berlin, a moderately dense city of 3.4 million where bicycles now account for 12% percent of all trips. One recent convert to cycling was prodded by high gas prices to give up his car:

> Abraham estimates that he now saves about $35 a week on gasoline. That’s not the only benefit. Thanks to Berlin’s finely tuned cycling network, he also knows exactly how long his 7 1/2 mile commute will take — 35 minutes. If he drives, the trip takes between 20 minutes and 1 1/2 hours, depending on traffic.

7 1/2 miles is not a particularly short commute, even by American standards. Abraham’s story is one of costs and benefits. Gas is expensive, roads are congested, and Berlin’s system of bike lanes is pleasant to use.

Japan’s famed bicycling culture offers a more interesting case study. Tokyo is so thick with bicycles that cycle-riding moms are regarded as an influential political bloc (sannin-nori — three-on-a-bike — is a popular riding configuration). The surprise, then, is that Japan’s infrastructure is for the most part fairly poor. A lack of bike lanes force riders onto sidewalks, where they jostle with pedestrians. Attitudes of transportation officials and police officers towards cyclists range from indifferent to hostile.

The one thing Tokyo does seem to do well is link bicycles and its legendary subway system into a highly effective multimodal transit system by providing convenient access to bike storage at rail stations. The apotheosis of this transit link is a set of $67-million robotic parking towers that store thousands of bikes and return them to owners at the swipe of a magnetic card. “‘It is revolutionary,’ said Minato Karube, 35, a secretary who had pedaled to the parking tower in high heels and a frilly black dress. ‘The bike comes
back instantly.’”

Watch the system in action:

All over the world, the story repeats itself. England has very similar land use patterns and transportation policies to America, and the cycling rate is likewise fairly abysmal. But a combination of infrastructure investment and congestion pricing caused ridership in London to jump 25% in a year.

Bogotá imported some Dutch engineers to redesign traffic flows and improve infrastructure. Cycling jumped ten-fold in two years.

Even Portland, Oregon, America’s bicycle commuting capital, is a relatively recent and somewhat unlikely success story. Neither the city’s density nor its weather suggests that it should have the highest cycling rates in the country. Nevertheless, policies designed to encourage riding have boosted cycle trips 400% since 1991.

The world champions, of course, are the Dutch and the Danish. And, again, nothing about these countries suggest that land use patterns, weather, or other endogenous factors are primarily responsible for their success. Citizens in these countries simply weigh costs and benefits (monetary and otherwise), like citizens everywhere else in the world.

> Commuters in Northern Europe have been lured out of their cars by bike lanes, secure bike parking and easy access to mass transportation. At the same time, steep automobile taxes, congestion-zone fees and go-slow rules have made inner-city driving a costly pain in the neck. In the Netherlands, where such carrot-and-stick policies have been in place for decades, 27 percent of all trips are by bike.

> “It is very clear how to do this,” said John Pucher, a professor of urban planning at Rutgers University and lead author of a global study of strategies that promote cycling. “It is not rocket science.”

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  1. flashdaddy - September 10, 2008

    The nice thing is that the infrastructure can in many cases be added to make bicycle commuting more accessible. My commute is 27 miles each way so biking is out and instead I car pool. The lot we meet at is a park-n-ride owned by the city, easily within biking distance, but there was no place to store the bike. I sent a letter to my city coucilmen, and two weeks later a rack was in place. No big petition, meetings, just a 5 minute email and a thank you note.
    The next step is establishing bike lanes on the major streets in town, but surprisingly, this looks to be pretty easy too. We’ve been making measurments to legal lane requirements can be maintained and still add bike lanes, this will of course take more than an email. But things can happen more easily at a local level.

  2. Jeffrey - September 10, 2008

    Here in Atlanta, the cost of driving a car will have to become an impossible burden before people will consider commuting by bicycle. I’ve been commuting by bicycle for two and a half years; while the recent gas-price jump inspired a few people to ride to work for a few weeks, they’ve all reverted to their cars.
    A significant number of my fellow workers live closer to work than I do. They could easily walk to the office. But they choose to drive. We definitely need some kind of infrastructure for bicycling, but I don’t think it will make much difference until the costs of driving become prohibitive, or until employers offer some kind of cash reward for employees who use alternative transportation.

  3. Henry Halff - September 10, 2008

    Three other opportunities for increasing the popularity of bike commuting
    1. Bikes geared to an aging population–easy to mount, stable, low-gear ratios.
    2. Weather-proof bikes–bikes that can be ridden safely and comfortably in foul weather. (Here in Texas, heat is more of a problem.)
    3. Cargo–cargo is an afterthought on most bikes, but many people carry work from home to office. A bike that could comfortably carry a laptop and associated gear should be popular.
    I also think that the macho culture in the biking community is a hindrance to wider acceptance of biking. I sometimes think that for bike commuters, biking is some combination of penance, a test of endurance, and proof of virtue. Maybe if they thought of ways to making biking more comfortable …

  4. Ed Heath - September 10, 2008

    In Pittsburgh I am trying, in baby steps, to commute by bike. I have a 13 year old bike with too large a frame and the seat stuck low. So my fee can touch the ground, but the riding position is not optimal. I bought a new bike, which probably has too small a frame, but mostly I am having issues with the pedals.
    My commute is only four miles, with a big hill at the beginning. It is down going to work and up coming home. Pittsburgh is barely bike tolerant, at least around the University district. We recently had a huge outcry against bicyclists when the City hired a biking/pedestrian coordinator. The infrastructure specifically for bicycles is virtually non-existent; we have tododge the same potholes as the cars.
    My brother lives in Peachtree City, Ga, and commutes 3 miles by bike to work. You should investigate Peachtree City, it has a network of biking/walking trails that criss-cross the city, making it possible to largely avoid traveling on roads and still get most everywhere in the City. But people do not ride bikes there, they use … golf carts.

  5. Diana - September 10, 2008

    My experience in Japan is not that “A lack of bike lanes force riders onto sidewalks, where they jostle with pedestrians.” In Kyoto, there are intentional bike lanes on the sidewalk – between the pedestrians and the curb. As a biker who is fearful of cars, I much preferred this set up to being on the street. Especially since Japanese bike commuters are not fast cyclists; they use the bike as a faster mode of transport than walking, but not to be nearly as fast as a car, as some cyclists do here in the U.S.
    I can’t imagine officials being indifferent or hostile to bike commuters as they are simply so ubiquitous in Japan – one has no choice but to accept their presence.
    In general, my memories of biking around Kyoto are wonderful. I lived in Portland, OR and was much more fearful of taking to its “bike friendly” streets than I was in Japan.

  6. Monty - September 10, 2008

    Bicycle lanes on the road are a bit irrelevant to me (I think they are more important to automobile drivers since I am more than happy to ride on the road, ignoring the safety issues). For me, it is more about your employer. If your boss encourages alternative forms of transportation and the place of business provides a shower, then commuting on a bike becomes a reasonable option. My commute is about 8 miles, and it is a perfect distance for me (about half an hour), but if I did not have a place to shower and welcoming employer then I am not certain I would do it.

  7. girlonbike - September 10, 2008

    I just finished reading a fascinating and wonderful book discussing the various aspects of this topic: Pedal Power: The Quiet Rise of the Bicycle in American Public Life, by J. Harry Wray. Dr. Wray is a professor at DePaul University in Chicago, and teaches a class devoted entirely to the subject of cycling and politics. And political climate seems to be a major driving factor (no pun intended) in whether or not communities develop an active and ‘successful’ bicycle commuting culture.
    Myself, I live in a very rural area in the Southeast. Our weather is great (save the high heat of summer), but bike lanes or even road shoulders are virtually non-exisitant. I travel by bike nearly every day – to get groceries, run errands, etc. I have an Xtracycle, which rides like a dream, can carry nearly everything from dog food to lumber, and I don’t have to mess with a trailer. I have developed my own circuitous network of safe routes to get me nearly everywhere I need to go. Sexist it may be, but most drivers tend to be very courteous toward me (a woman), passing with ample space. Loose dogs are my bigger problem. Many people, I am sure, think I am nuts, and would never consider ditching their pick-ups for a bicycle. I would love to see more bike-friendly policies adopted in our town – from parking/racks to bike lanes or even simple sign-age, but I doubt that the cultural climate here will ever allow it to happen. Cyclists here are an unnoticeable minority.

  8. 2wheeler - September 10, 2008

    I’ve been biking to work for 3 years now here in Columbus OH. Our midwestern city just came up with a big comprehensive plan for 250 miles of bikeways, lanes and paths in a network all over the area. Bike to work week this spring was a big hit here. My commute is 4.5 miles each way. Most days I pass about 5 other bicyclists each way on my ride.
    On really bad weather days, I take the bus but it takes me 70 percent more time that way. I could drive and pay to park, in about 4/5ths the time it takes me to bike– but there’s the principle of it and the cost savings, plus my big bonus of the exercise and health, including mental boost to my mood from biking.
    Yes, We Can!
    …that is, we can bike to work, make choices for sustainable living, and care for the planet.

  9. Marcia - September 10, 2008

    Interesting string of posts. I am a bike commuter in the Erie, PA area, and my home to work communte is a 40 mile round trip. I would not trade those miles on my bike for anything. The 20 mile ride in the early morning hours is a great way to start the day, and my 20 mile ride home is a great way to decompress from my job counseling youth-at-risk at a local high school. Yeah, some people think I’m nuts, but I know I am doing what is healthy for me physically and psychologically.
    I generally drive 1 or 2 days a week to swap out my supply of professional clothes that I keep at work, or to avoid extreme inclimate weather. The downer is that once winter hits, I must resign to driving as we get plenty of snowfall in this area.
    Without question some people would be more willing to try bike commuting if Erie had cycling lanes, but I don’t see that manifesting anytime soon. Although I must say that I have noticed more and more cyclists on the road despite the fact that we have to jockey for room on the roads with motorized vehicles. I also must add that, for the most part, the motorists here are quite courtious to cyclists.

  10. Chad - September 10, 2008

    Like Diana, I lived in Kyoto for a while and used a bike for my regular commute, weather permitting. The bike lanes on the sidewalk made it easy, and in spots where the road was a better option, I found that cars, being used to bikes and scooters, were courteous and aware of our presence. The only place I didn’t take my bike was into the very heart of downtown, as it would be so crowded you would be forced to walk anyway…not that this was a bad thing.
    The wonderful mass transit system in Japan is one reason cycling works so well. Say you ride to work in the morning, but walk out into a heavy storm after work…no problem! Just take the train or bus home, and back again in the morning. What is most important, though, is that bicycling is just part of the culture. Cars, cyclists, and pedestrians all expect each other to be there and learn to share. Each sort-of has their own space but everyone knows how to share when these spaces merge or intersect. This lies in stark contrast to America, where I have literally had people threaten me with death because I had the audacity to “take the lane” to get around some cars parked on the side of the road. Heaven forbid someone had to slow down to 10mph from 30mph for fifteen seconds. Ironically, the reason I had to leave the shoulder for the center of the lane was because while the shoulder used to be a bike lane, but was converted to road-side parking because people in the neighborhood could no longer fit all their behemoth vehicles in their driveways and garages.

  11. Ron Beland - September 10, 2008

    I am a 59 yo man in Boston with >35years of bike commuting experience, and a 7 mile year round commute. A safe place to park my bike is ultimately the most important factor to me. Bike lanes are just alright with me as they imply that roads without them are unsafe or off limits.. As long as the road is wide enough, I’d rather not have them, since cars park in them, and one often still needs to turn left. Far more important is keeping the right side of the road clean of debris, ruts and bumpy sewer grates.
    I’ve never felt a need for a shower at work as I simply dress properly for the weather and change clothing at work on hot days and don’t race to work.

  12. Marcia - September 10, 2008

    Ron B. – You make a good point in that by providing “special” bike lanes, others may deduce that other roads are “off-limits” to cyclists or are otherwise unsafe. And yes, I’ve often seen cars parked in the bike lanes in cities where I have visited that have designated bike lanes. And for my commute, there is always the issue of having to cross a double lane of traffic to make a left-hand turn.
    Road debris, potholes, and “killer” sewer grates are major issues in urban bike commuting.

  13. Henry Halff - September 10, 2008

    The “We don’t need no stinkin’ bike lanes” may be attractive to the crusader eager to assert the rights of bicyclists show the world he ain’t afraid of no cars. However, I’m not sure that opposing bike lanes is the best way to get more newbies out of their cars and onto bikes.
    The parking and left-turn issues something of red herrings. Left turns are no more difficult with bike lanes than without them. That cars park in bike lanes means only that they don’t afford perfect protection.

  14. Janet - September 10, 2008

    As a child I loved riding my bike to school, my friend’s house, and everywhere else – it was my freedom in a small town. However, as an adult it is totally impractical for me. Dressing professionally for work is a must and the thought of getting up that much earlier, toting multiple bags and briefcases of items onto a bike, riding to work and then being sweaty and smelly as I try to pull pantyhose over my legs is an obstacle I simply cannot overcome. In addition, many days I must leave my office and run all over town to meetings where I must also look clean and polished. If I had a casual job where I could wear jeans and tennis shoes that was within a few miles of my home, I would try it – but with most jobs today being office/sit down jobs I just can’t see ladies taking to a bike anytime soon. I wholeheartedly support those folks who DO commute by bike and applaud them.

  15. Alex - September 10, 2008

    I’ll also add that Portland’s geography makes its story less likely. I’m surprised we do so much better than east of the Rockies, where the cities are flatter.

  16. Tim - September 10, 2008

    I wish I could commute by bike to work. I basically only use my car to go to work. The problem being that I work overnights, and my work place is 10 miles outside of town on a major highway with no overpass or outer road nearby. In fact, I have to cross in my car what we call a suicide crossing: it’s dark, there are only stop signs, and it’s ground level, no overpass. It’s bad enough in a car let alone on a bicycle.
    Also, the city I live in (Columbia, MO) got a huge grant to make the city bicycle friendly which they have squandered on useless bicycle lanes that cover about 200 feet before abruptly ending. They are also only found on fairly low traffic roads on the outskirts of the city, where most people doing their daily business by bike don’t go. Don’t you love bureaucracy? I believe that there is some sort of auditing process for the grant, so I’m hoping the shame that will be brought on our supposed liberal oasis in the middle of Missouri will be so great that some real progress will be made.

  17. Henry Halff - September 11, 2008

    Continuity in bike lanes is a problem since they are usually only put in on new streets or when streets are repaved. However, it’s a problem that eventually goes away if a city sticks with the program.

  18. Christine - September 13, 2008

    One of the most fearful issues for me riding my bike (walking as well)is the disrespect of vehicle drivers. It is distressing to have a vehicle less than five inches from my left leg or have a driver suddenly veer into my trajectory as if I don’t exist. I think when others learn to respect all travelers,pedestrians included, travel would be much more pleasant.

  19. Ed - September 13, 2008

    I saw last year that the House had passed an energy bill that included an incentive – my memory is that it was $3 a day – paid by your employer to people who biked to work. But it didn’t pass the Senate in part because oil companies fought it.
    Bicycles a threat to Exxon! Maybe there’s hope.

  20. Wench - September 13, 2008

    I’m actually glad you bring that up Christine, because one of the scariest parts of DRIVING for me is bicyclists! It’s pretty frightening to have a cyclist suddenly veer in front of me, or squeeze between me and the parked cars on a narrow road with mere inches to spare, or weave in and out of stopped traffic as the light turns green. It’s frightening not seeing cyclists until it’s almost too late at night because they don’t have lights or reflective clothing, or nearly hitting cyclists because they’re running a red light (which happens with depressing frequency here in Boston)… don’t even get me started on other drivers or pedestrians!
    Don’t get me wrong, I definitely agree with you: everyone, including drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians, needs to respect all travelers on the road. I feel though, that we have a long way to go on that, as respect for others just doesn’t seem to be valued in American culture as a whole right now – whether that’s in travel or anything else. And drivers are far from the only issue in this case!

  21. Albert - September 16, 2008

    People who don’t use their bikes would cite danger caused by cars as a reason they don’t ride. We have to start somewhere. Car drivers have to be educated. Bike riders need to obey traffic signals. Dedicated bike paths have to be put in alongside roadways.
    In the US, most cyclists are recreational weekend riders who don’t have much understanding of traffic laws or using the proper equipment. Once bicycles are recognized as a legitimate form of transportation, people will understand how to drive and to ride properly.
    I live in a medium-sized (pop. 750,000) city in the Southwestern. The weather is from warm to hot and dry year round and is not very hilly. I don’t have a job that requires “business attire”. It makes perfect sense to ride. Since I use only my bike to go to work, I put on less than 2,500 miles a year on my car, a hybrid Insight (66 mpg); another 2,000 on my scooter, a Suzuki 400 (64 mpg). I’m happy to leave a relatively small carbon foot print.

  22. Josh - September 26, 2008

    There is a silver lining to the black cloud of suburban sprawl, in that forward-thinking city planners have the chance to design bike-friendly cities from the ground up. I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, where bike-friendliness actually increases the further you get from the urban areas. SF itself is a deathtrap for bikes, while the older suburbs like Mountain View have good bike trails and the new suburbs south and east have top-notch trails like the 40-mile Iron Horse trail in Dublin/Pleasanton.

  23. David Hembrow - October 24, 2008

    As someone who has lived and cycled both in the UK, where very few people cycle, and in the Netherlands, where virtually everyone cycles for at least some of their journeys, I think I have a reasonable perspective on this.
    The difference between the two places is simply that cycling is so much more pleasant here in the Netherlands. Not only does it feel safe, but it is safe. This country is the safest in the world to cycle in. What’s more, the well designed cycling infrastructure results in journeys which are more direct and faster than they would be by using the roads.
    People don’t cycle here despite bad conditions. They cycle because it is a very pleasant and efficient thing to do.

  24. Brian - November 6, 2008

    I do not see how bicycles will go mainstream as biing several miles in inclement weather is something tta only the die hards will do. But I would have predicted scooters would be more prevalent in Manhattan over the last few years and they have not been. Seems a perfect solution.