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Why Not in America?

A lack of infrastructure -- not sprawl -- hinders the adoption of bicycles.


by Adam Stein

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.”

Adam Stein is a co-founder of TerraPass, where this blog originally appeared. He writes on issues related to carbon, climate change, policy, and conservation.

Image by Flickr/bitpicture.

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I just read the news on mybikermatch.c o m,and there are more related news,maybe you can post it on the site.

Posted by: jone on 8 Sep 08

There are many cities that do not have roadways that allow for safe bike commuting. These cities have been built without any concern for bikers.

There is a simple solution for workers that either live too far from work or do not have a safe bike route to work. The solution is called Remote Office Centers.

Remote Office Centers lease individual offices, internet and phone systems to workers from different companies in shared centers located near where people live.

Remote Office Centers make it possible for everyone to bike commute, since they allow workers to choose their office location regardless of where they live or who they work for.

Remote Office Centers are fairly new, but they can be found in many cities by searching the internet for Remote Office Centers in quotes.

It is time for a paradigm shift. In the old paradigm, workers got in their cars and drove 2 hours each day back and forth to an office which could just as easily be located down the street.

The technology for working remotely already exists. All it takes is for people to change the way they think about getting to work.

Posted by: aullman on 8 Sep 08

Great info, interesting discussion, and overall terrific to look more closely together at what actually helps cycling happen.

Clearly land use isn't everything, and cycling infrastructure is a crying need in the U.S. But the Post perhaps notwithstanding, you can't dismiss the land use dimension, either, and I don't think the tagline for this posting can be ultimately supported.

Just for example, Pucher's recent comparative cycling paper says, "Moreover, strict land use policies foster compact, mixed-use developments that generate shorter and thus more bikeable trips. It is the coordinated implementation of this multi-faceted, mutually reinforcing set of policies that best explains the success ... in promoting cycling. "

Infrastructure _and_ land use. Both.

Posted by: Kevin Matthews on 9 Sep 08

The impediments to cycling in this country are primarily cultural. We have developed mythologies which serve the speed-dominant car culture. Specifically, the myths of danger and delay (Google: America's Taboo Against Bicycle Driving). Those mythologies are what deter people from using bicycles on the roads. This problem is not only NOT solved with separated facilities, it is exacerbated by them. And all at the cyclists' expense. Separation by vehicle type cannot be achieved without a loss of speed and/or safety to the cyclist. And it caters to car dominance, facilitating the very form of transportation you wish to discourage.

It is very tempting to fall into the separatist paradigm when we are overcome with the desire to promote bicycling (for whatever reason). But separation is a car-culture paradigm. Integration is the only method that is truly safe and functional for all road users (see how Oregon has twisted an mangled its traffic laws, beyond human capability, in an attempt to compensate for the fatal flaws of bike lanes). Consider also, the foolishness of adding more asphalt to serve narrow vehicles which already fit just fine in any lane that can accommodate a car.

Creating separated facilities creates dependency in cyclists, because they don't learn proper bicycle driving skills. As a result, they are limited to whatever network of facilities exists. It also creates an expectation in motorists that cyclists don't belong on the road. Worst of all, emphasizing separatist infrastructure as a means of "accommodating" cyclists leads to hideous and unethical shortcuts which exacerbate crash risks. The operational benefits of COMPETENT cyclists are constantly discounted and minimized by the purveyors of junk science and government officials who care more about creating an illusion for those who don't know better, than actually doing something beneficial.

The social marketing to produce a culture which accepts, expects and respects bicycles as a normal part of the transportation mix would cost far less than the billions spent on limited, inadequate and often dangerous infrastructure in this country. And it could yield change which benefits ALL road users and all citizens of a community.

That said. There are important infrastructure considerations. Mass transit connectivity, mentioned in this article, is huge! It extends the range of the bicycle and makes it endlessly more useful. Secure parking is extremely important. Shower facilities for bike commuters is a major issue in encouraging people to use bikes. Connectivity between low-volume streets is a relatively simple solution to some of the problems created by our growth model... it just requires overcoming the NIMBY crowd to connect the broccoli subdivisions and allow cyclists to bypass congested arterial roads.

Let's break outside the lines and consider a new way to promote cycling. One that empowers cyclists, dispels their fears, teaches them the few simple skills necessary to be confident on the road, and opens the world to them.

Posted by: KC on 9 Sep 08


I came across an interesting video from England that is part of a campaign to encourage bike commuting. I put it up on my blog with some US based initiatives to encourage bike commuting. The post is at It is nice to see some postive things like these rather than all of the motorist vs cyclist stories that have been in the news lately.

Posted by: Mike on 9 Sep 08

I would like to echo Paul's comments. As a cyclist in New York, where bike lanes are expanding, I find them especially useless. They are ghettos for bikes, not infrastructure. The more bike lanes, the more drivers honk and yell at cyclists to ride only on bike lane avenues, regardless of convenience. Besides, the bike lanes are blocked by double parking most of the day.

Posted by: Mathew on 10 Sep 08



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