How do we get more people on bikes?

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Underlying my enthusiasm for Lance Armstrong’s new bike emporium is a common complaint about the bicycle industry in America: commuters get short shrift. Manufacturers and dealers cater to athletes and enthusiasts (collectively: bike geeks), ignoring the much larger group of people who just want a sturdy, affordable beater to get around on.

The Commute by Bike blog recently dug into this issue, which got me wondering: what does the bike-buying experience look like in places that do have a thriving bike commuter culture? Clearly there are a lot of infrastructural hurdles to cycling in the U.S., but what about the commercial and cultural hurdles?

So I asked a Dane. And not just any Dane, but the proprietor of Cycleliciousness, the Copenhagen bike culture blog, chronicle of “life in the world’s cycling capital.”

He graciously answered my questions at considerable length, so I’ll break up the exchange into a series of posts. First, some background on bike culture in Denmark:

Here in Copenhagen there are bike shops on almost every main street and they sell primarily bikes that you call “commuter bikes” in the States. To us they’re just bikes. If you want a mountain bike or a racer you have to hunt for a specialty shop. The vast majority of the 500,000 daily cyclists in Copenhagen ride basic bikes. One or three speeds, many older models, basic transport-oriented bikes.

Every day 36% of the population of 1.7 million ride their bike. Most bikes are quite anonymous looking, but functional. Cycling is transport here, nothing more. A bike needs to get you from A to B and back again via the supermarket. Buying a bike will involve style more than anything. A bike here is an extension of yourself and your personality so you choose one that fits the bill. Cost is important, too. There is a noticeable trend over the past 5 years or so of Danes buying cooler bikes. Brighter colours, cruiser bikes, etc. But you’ll still see, literally, a couple of hundred ancient Raleighs on the bike lanes if you ride around for an hour or so. Cheap, functional but also a style choice for many.

Next: bike shops in Denmark.

Author Bio

adam

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  1. Fritz - March 4, 2008

    In the USA, I’ve long maintained that the largest group of cyclists are bike commuters. They’re invisible to most of us bike advocates, though, because they ride cheap *-Mart bikes with plastic bags dangling from the handlebars, they have brown skin and they don’t speak much English. Even on Bike To Work Day, anybody who does bike traffic counts will note the very large number of Latinos on bikes riding by as the rest of us stop in at the breakfast stations for our free donuts and coffee.

  2. Fritz - March 4, 2008

    I forgot to note earlier Mikael’s quaint western bias in proclaiming Copenhagen “The World’s Cycling Capital.” In spite of the best efforts of Chinese officials, Beijing is possibly still the biggest cycling city in the world, and several other Asian cities outbike Copenhagen. Though auto use is on the rise, Vietnam is famous for the number of bicycles and motorscooters for transportation. Hanoi has bike lanes these days, but Tokyo (with 20% bike modal share) has done nothing special in the way of facilities (besides huge bike parking lots at train stations and shopping centers) until recently. In the USA, we’d call it Critical Mass. In Asia, it’s just riding to the train station or to go shopping.

  3. Mikael - March 4, 2008

    Thanks for the post and the interview. With regards to the ‘quaint Western bias’ comment, you’re right. There are still millions of cyclists in China – for the time being. But I am merely loaning the City of Copenhagen’s “World’s Cycling Capital” slogan. It is all very tongue in cheek.
    Tokyo and other Japanese cities are a dream to ride in. What they lack in bike lanes they make up for with their civilised co-existence culture between motor traffic and bikes. I feared little when riding on the streets there. Hanoi has bike lanes, indeed, but the scooter is king and it is unlikely that it will relinquish it’s throne.
    And while Copenhagen and Amsterdam are the Romulus and Remus of modern bike culture, there is also Ferrara, Berne, Basel, Berlin, Stockholm, and so on.

  4. Adam Stein - March 4, 2008

    Good points, Fritz. I’ve also noticed, when I’m riding my bike around New York on a cold night, that the only other cyclists reliably present are immigrant workers.
    And, yes, a lot of Asian cities and cities in the developing world are much better for bike usage. Still, though, Copenhagen is a better model for the west. I’ve done a lot of cycling in Vietnam — it’s dangerous and fairly awful. People in the states won’t bike out of necessity. It has to be an attractive option.

  5. Fritz - March 4, 2008

    It’s sad to see officials in China, Indonesia and India banning human powered transport in favor of motorized, while in the western world transportation planners and advocates are working to improve conditions for cyclists!

  6. Aaron A. - March 4, 2008

    We’ve already gone round and round as to why more Americans don’t commute. Sprawl, motorists, laziness, etc. etc. I have to wonder, among other things, whether the disposable $100 bicycles available at the big box stores haven’t lowered consumers’ expectations of bikes. Given enough experience with those cheap toys, an entry-level $600 bike seems massively overpriced.
    There is also the matter of selling one’s bike, because a robust secondary market tends to promote greater activity in the primary market*. About the only places I can think of to buy used bikes are thrift stores, and those bikes are often decades old. They still work (usually), but they’re not very fashionable, and they probably wound up there because they’d been taking up garage space**.
    On a side note, Copenhagen won a Certificate of Honour in 2006 from the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (which I believe is loosely United Nations-affiliated) for its bike-friendly infrastructure. One judge noted the city as “a model for others.”
    http://tinyurl.com/2cpwyf [.pdf from ICLEI.org].
    – A.
    * In other words, we tend to spend more on durable goods when we know we can readily resell them. It reduces the initial buyer’s risk of loss if they get stuck with a lemon.
    ** While writing this, I did some Googling and learned that my local bike club holds occasional bike swaps. I left this comment in because I’m sure this thought, in whatever form, has crossed someone else’s mind.

  7. Jan - March 5, 2008

    I wish I could bike to work at least some of the time. I live 7.5 miles outside of Manhattan in NJ. There are major impediments that prevent me from biking to work (or around my town for that matter):
    1. No safe place to ride including through the Lincoln Tunnel;it’s all highways
    2. I have to wear a suit to work & can’t arrive sweaty and needing a shower
    3. No place safe to leave the bike
    It’s going to be hard to encourage commuter biking while the infrastructure–ridiculous dress codes and car-friendly towns and cities–doesn’t lend itself to bikers unfortunately. Given limited public funds, I’d say better public transportation–trains and buses–are more of a priority.

  8. Monty - March 6, 2008

    The comments here are excellent. I would add another large impedement to cycling is terrain. Ten miles on a flat commute is easy. Ten miles with numerous hills is very difficult.
    To that point, I think people’s perceptions of cycling is based on $100 bikes. My first year of commuting was on one of these, and I was telling myself that I need to first prove I would stick with it. The first day of year two I went and purchased an $800 road bike, and it was an amazing transformation. Suddenly riding to work became vastly easier.
    That said, I would not have done it if my employer did not have facilities for showering when I got here. There are usually ways to get around impediments (not certain about the Lincoln Tunnel, though), but being able to shower when you get to the office is a must.
    That said, while I love the thought of more people cycling, I recognize it is not likely to reach a critical mass in the U.S.

  9. Brian - March 6, 2008

    I like the idea, but this is probably a better idea in small towns or ultra-dense urban areas. As it stands, I live 26 miles from work. The difference between that distance and 5 miles is about $225 per square foot. Not exactly a practical tradeoff at my salary, but I am also not willing to ride a marathon twice a day in 95 degree heat and 90% humidity…with a suit. Unfortunately, there are another 2-3 million people in my same boat where I live.
    Bikes are great for the inner-city. Rail is needed for the rest of us.

  10. Chad - March 7, 2008

    Brian, bikes and trains can be very complementary. Far too many people DRIVE to the train station in order to make the long commute into big cities. There is no reason these 1-3 mile drives could not be eliminated on most days.

  11. disdaniel - March 7, 2008

    Well since some TerraPass carbon trading schemes are coming into question…perhaps TerraPass could look into subsidising commuter cycling? I don’t know where such efforts rank in $/ton, but it certainly could raise awareness of low carbon transport options.
    I’m not thinking of a big subsidy…perhaps TerraPass could work with some community that is already championing commuter cycling.

  12. peterH - March 9, 2008

    I rode a bike to and from work – 13kms each way [about 25mins] for over 15 years – in the hot monsoonal tropics, usually over 30C. Was VERY sweaty arriving at each end, and yes….SHOWERS are essential. Otherwise, hot weather should not be an issue, for most commutes of 10 -20kms.
    Showers are absolutely essential. Usually took a suite of clothes in once a week or if working at the weekend, via car. And there were many others doing it also.
    Just need to get organised. I sympathise with the “suit brigade”, as we wore open necked shirts / long trousers as office attire.
    BUT….it can be done. With an office at home now do not need a commute by bike, but still use for local short trips, even to the gym or pool. Attitude is critical, as is overcoming lazy habits!

  13. Kitleigh - March 12, 2008

    Adam, looks like you have a follow up article here: how do the Danes, or the Chinese, for that matter, deal with the sweat issue? Maybe I’m naive, but somehow I don’t think everyone’s showering at work. And, I wonder about taking in a week’s worth of clothes once a week. That wouldn’t work if, say, you were biking to a date. What’s the secret?

  14. Adam Stein - March 12, 2008

    I can’t speak for the Danes, but I had my sweat glands removed several years ago. Haven’t missed them one bit.

  15. Fritz - March 12, 2008

    Mostly, they deal with sweat by going slow and of course the shorter commute distances help quite a bit. Also, Continental Europeans are quite as picky about body odor as most Americans are.

  16. Adam Stein - March 12, 2008

    On a more practical note:
    - One thing that helps is to bike more slowly. Americans tend to think of cycling as a high-intensity sport. I suspect in a lot of countries where bike commuting is widespread, the average pace is a lot slower. This makes a big difference, as air flow on a bike can regulate your temperature quite a bit.
    - You could learn to love sweat. It’s actually pretty clean stuff. The type of sweat you tend to work up during light exercise isn’t the really nasty stuff. Or so I’m told.
    - Ask for a bike shower at work! It’s the constitutional right of every American.

  17. skierpage - March 13, 2008

    I never thought about biking to work, then when I did the heavy traffic on main arteries put me off. It took me 5 years and a bicycle coalition presentation at work to realize I could pedal one street over.
    People need encouragement to try something new, and more infrastructure (bike racks, bike lockers, showers, bike lanes, etc.) to make it easier. So: Hey, everybody, try cycling!
    What’s sad is people driving a two ton SUV to the gym only to get on a stationary bike.

  18. Rose - March 14, 2008

    Skierpage — amen to the last sentence! I see it all the time, every day, and it makes absolutely no sense. Such an odd mentality we Americans have….

  19. Mark Likes2Bike - May 26, 2008

    Slower cycling is certainly a key to slower sweating. I – a Californian – rented a bike in Amsterdam last year and I was the fastest guy around, just cycling at my normal USA pace. Normal communting/errand-running distances are shorter there.
    Mark Likes2Bike

  20. Edward - July 14, 2008

    Do you know how many bicycles are there in Denmark in 2008? what is this quantity expected to be in 2009?

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