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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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