Biking is receiving new attention in the United States as a way to reduce commuter trips by car in urban centers. Thirty years of European infrastructure investments and education have produced a different pattern of urban transportation—one that could influence decisions in the United States.

houstoun_1_300Amsterdam’s Central Station reveals both the positive and negative aspects of bicycles as a form of urban transportation. There is at least a half acre (0.2 ha) of parked bikes ready to transport their owners arriving by train for work or shopping. Other clusters are scattered wherever there is space. A nearby concrete, four-deck parking structure for the exclusive use of bikers is stuffed with hundreds more. Beyond the station, bikes are parked in places small and large, planned and unplanned, legal and illegal. The shear visibility of the parked bikes underscores the enormous success of public planning and investment intended to replace private automobiles; it is an utterly successful civic endeavor.

And the negative aspect? No one knows how many of those bikes occupying so much scarce urban land are actively owned by anyone. On the rare occasion when an area needs to be cleared for construction, a substantial share of the bikes remains unclaimed. Unidentified orphan bikes clutter the pedestrian domain. The Dutch annual report on biking reveals that there are 1.1 bikes per capita in a nation of 6 million people.

Biking is receiving new attention in the United States as a way to reduce commuter trips by car in urban centers. Thirty years of European infrastructure investments and education have produced a different pattern of urban transportation—one with the potential to influence decisions in the United States.

Who Bikes to Work?

Some generalizations help illustrate the current U.S. experience. People have a variety of reasons for using bikes for commuting. Cyclists see this mode as one that saves time and money—thousands of dollars a year in fuel, insurance, and storage if it replaces a car. Many count the associated exercise as a motivating factor. Commuters may use bikes for the entire trip to work or school, or for only the trip to reach transit, the trip from transit to the workplace, or both.

Who are the cyclists? Typical American workday users are under age 25 and male, use equipment more expensive than the common one-speed European urban bikes, and engage in weekend recreational cycling. Cyclists are often traveling to and from educational institutions and sometimes job sites; some are messengers. Speed is important: cyclists often proceed the wrong way on one-way streets, ignore stop signs and traffic lights, and weave among pedestrians on sidewalks. Enforcement of rules is infrequent. Bike lanes painted on street pavement seem irrelevant: few bikers (or drivers) pay them any attention. Cyclists appear to be moving at three times the speed of pedestrians, sometimes faster.

Portland, Oregon, is probably Bike City USA, as it claims. Decades of downtown traffic improvements substantially improved biking conditions, contributing to the relatively high proportion of commuters who regularly bike to work. Advocates say it is part of Portland culture, but biking there is not without its costs. Portland reported six biker deaths in 2007. One blogger wrote that cycling in Portland is “scary,” and a Portland lawyer advertises his success representing injured bikers.

The Philadelphia Biking Coalition notes that 3.2 percent of the city’s downtown workers commute by bike at least once a week—representing more than the 1.2 percent of all Philadelphia commuters and a substantially higher percentage than the 0.4 percent in the multicounty metro region, where homes and destinations are scattered. Center City is fairly flat, favoring bikers, but most of those who live and work downtown walk or use transit. A high share of regular bikers appears to be students. One-third of cyclists in the Philadelphia area surveyed by the business improvement district report they wear protective helmets, and users complain of the lack of bike lanes, unsafe road conditions, and the speed and volume of auto traffic. The growing downtown residential population in those surveys complains of the city’s failure to enforce bike and auto rules. In Miami, in response to a Miami Herald article on government plans to improve biking conditions, bikers were enthusiastic while others complained about public funds devoted to this small population group. Said one, “I’d like to see just once a cyclist stop for a STOP sign.”

In contrast, European urban cyclists during rush hour are a balance of men and women, and a substantial share is made up of the middle aged and retirees. They proceed at moderate speeds—perhaps twice the speed of pedestrians—and appear more inclined to obey traffic controls than their American counterparts. Evidence of the extent to which city biking is considered safe is the fact that many parents transport their offspring to daycare by bike using various carrying devices. Some bikes are fitted with racks capable of carrying the groceries, and some stores make deliveries by bike. The sampled cities—Amsterdam, Utrecht, and Haarlem, Netherlands; and Copenhagen, Denmark—all have somewhat more precipitation than is common in the United States, but the use of appropriate clothing appears to allow cyclists to overcome most adverse weather concerns.

Many factors seem to limit urban biking in the United States. For those older than 25, fear of losing in an encounter with a speeding car is probably the most important reason, with adverse weather being another. Relatively few of those who bike to work do so every day; bad weather requires a backup plan. Lack of convenient bike storage is common in city apartments, and there is a justifiable fear of theft. Commuting in America for so long has meant single-occupancy cars that the mindset is doubtlessly hard to break. Also, Americans have grown accustomed to the $8,000 annual cost of auto ownership (including depreciation), so saving money by cycling is a less pressing concern. Plus, American streets have been designed and refined to facilitate automobile traffic at speeds of 30 miles (48 km) per hour or more—and are less safe for bike traffic.


houstoun_3_300In the Danish capital, decades of investment in bike infrastructure have produced an impressive record in modal shift from cars to bikes. Thirty percent of travel to work there is by bike, and further investments in bike parking, green biking routes, bike lanes, and increased safety are intended to improve that record. Recent city statistics record an 18 to 20 percent increase in bike use and a 9 to 10 percent decline in car traffic over the decade.

Most of these gains are the result of the bicycle tracks, which are separated from other traffic by their own curb—as distinguished from the less expensive bicycle lanes, which are marked with white stripes. While bikes are not allowed in the Strøget, the city’s famous pedestrian zone, they are allowed on the adjacent street that allows limited auto use. Most subway trains and many buses have racks for carrying bicycles. Special traffic lights are installed at most major intersections controlling and protecting bike transportation; round signs with a blue background and a white bicycle indicate bike lanes or routes. Bikers are instructed to yield to trams from any direction.

Asked in a recent survey about perceived risk, 62 percent of cyclists reported that they feel secure in Copenhagen’s traffic, up from 58 percent in 2004. The introduction of cycle tracks over the past three decades, where bikers feel most comfortable, has increase bike traffic and reduced car traffic, but accidents have increased with the greater volumes.

The Netherlands

The Dutch work hard to make biking safe, in part through public education. Cyclists are instructed not to ignore red lights, carry a passenger, ride on sidewalks, fail to use a warning bell when passing, fail to use lights at night, or chat on phones while biking. Bikers are reminded to use hand signals and, when in doubt, walk bikes through intersections. Users are warned to lock bikes, walk bikes on crowded streets and in busy pedestrian areas, obey traffic signs (police will pull over bikers for running a red light), and be aware of tram tracks. Visiting cyclists are warned to watch for pedestrians who do not understand local bike rules and to never stop in a bike lane.

Despite this campaign, common errors observed in Amsterdam, Haarlem, and Utrecht include infrequent use of hand signals and people chatting on mobile phones, even while transporting a child. Bikes are generally equipped with lights for night travel, and bikers tend to obey their special traffic signals. No cyclist was observed wearing a safety helmet, and few seem to obey the signs intended to bar bike parking, instead locking their bikes anywhere it is convenient. Dutch cyclists proceed at a moderate pace—about ten miles (16 km) per hour—but the traffic controls mean that they and motorists complete their trips at about the same pace, though bikers probably have an edge because cycles are usually stored closer to destinations than are cars.

The Dutch are biking more, and buying more and more elaborate bikes. Forty-six percent use their bikes for commuting, 40 percent for recreation, and bikes are used for other purposes such as shopping. Sales of bikes with small motors have increased.

Amsterdam tried bike sharing—allowing cyclists to use and drop off bikes without charge—but discontinued the program when an unacceptable number of bikes were stolen. Washington, D.C., has started a sharing program with support from the U.S. Department of Transportation. Some costs will be met with revenue from advertising on bus shelters.

Freedom from Fear

houstoun_4_300“Of the many complaints an American cyclist can make, a concern over his or her safety is the most serious,” Nick Martens wrote in his 2008 article “The Problem of Biking in America,” published in the online magazine The Bygone Bureau, of which he is an editor. “It is also the best reason to stick with a car.” Martens describes the common problem of a motorist unexpectedly opening a car door in the path of a cyclist properly staying in the bike lane on the right side of the street. Without question, fear of bike-auto collisions is among the most pervasive factors limiting bike use for U.S. commuting trips. In the United States, the driver-side door opens into the bike lane; in European streets designed for bikes it does not.

In the Netherlands, the degree to which the safety of bikers is protected varies with development density. Outside city limits, some roads are marked for bike lanes, but many have no indication of where biking is encouraged. In cities, however, the Dutch have invested heavily in dedicated bike lanes with special safety controls—essentially a separate set of red, yellow, and green lights for cyclists. The most elaborate arrangement of roadways includes areas designated for four different means of transit. Those designations are:

  • the center lane, for cars, trucks, trams, and buses.
  • the next lane, for auto parking; the driver’s door does not open toward bikers.
  • the bike lane.
  • the lane next to the buildings, for pedestrians: the sidewalk.

The ability to make streets multimodal and widely used by bike commuters depends on the degree to which the dedicated lanes are made reassuring to potential users. To produce comfortable conditions for bikers requires clarity: what are the rules? how should bikers and drivers behave? what is our turf and what is theirs? Ambiguity breeds uncertainty, which in turn contributes to accidents and discourages potential bikers. Where European bicycle traffic is greatest, investments in clarity are most apparent. Clarity factors include separate, protected lanes; traffic signals dedicated to cyclists; and obvious signs signaling where bikes may go and where they should not.

The broad popularity of biking in dense European cities at peak periods has resulted from the infrastructure investments that produce a comfort level almost unimaginable in the United States. Gray-haired women pedal to go shopping; parents move their preschool children by bike through downtown traffic. On a scale of one to ten evaluating biker concern about possible injuries, conditions witnessed in northern Europe would generally rate an eight or nine, while U.S. cities would rate a two.

Prospects for American Conversion

Those who advocate planning for expanded U.S. use of bikes frequently cite improved health or expanded recreation, mixing these desirable goals with the most salient of the European gains, those related to bikes as urban transportation. Occasional recreational use will not contribute significantly to cleaner air, less-congested streets, or wider use of public transit.

Martens notes the political impasse associated with encouraging public investment in bike- friendly U.S. cities when there is so little daily biking occurring—a condition in large measure attributable to the lack of bike-friendly conditions. American bikers are predominantly young, male, and urban—not a powerful constituency. Most Americans are car owners, happy with that condition, and sometimes antagonistic to bikers.

Any jurisdiction contemplating a serious modification of streets to reduce fear of cyclist injuries and expand use of bikes for commuting and shopping should study the results in Copenhagen. Important options have already been tested there. Starting with specified goals would help planners avoid some expensive missteps. Copenhagen, for example, seeks to increase the share of bikers who feel comfortable or secure when biking to 80 percent, and is well along toward that goal.

The shift from cars to bikes in Europe can be traced to the steady, persistent, decades-long pace followed by governments there in adapting streets to create bike-friendly transportation routes. A cheap effort will not do it. An inexpensive stripe next to a parking lane does not produce comfortable biking conditions; in many cases it is a recipe for collisions with car doors. It is hard to imagine U.S. cities committing to two or three decades of block-by-block reconstruction and continued bike-oriented education and rule enforcement. Opposition could be expected to proposals to move car parking toward the center of the street and install special traffic controls and curbs designed to protect bikers.

Also, there are stronger competitors for America’s infrastructure funding. The highway lobby has a 50-year lock on gasoline tax revenues. Other claimants—subways, buses, and commuter rail—may receive a larger share of these funds as the country tries to cut petroleum dependency. There is also the newly recognized need to repair and upgrade thousands of bridges and tunnels that elected officials pray will not collapse on their watch.

Probably the best prospects for financing conversions would follow use of appropriations for a larger public cause, such as reducing global warming or employing jobless workers. Two or three good examples in American cities might influence others. New York City is modifying some streets to favor biking. Philadelphia might create a bike connection linking the convention center, seven museums, and the Schuylkill River trail, connecting Drexel and Pennsylvania universities with existing bikeways reaching Norristown and beyond—more a recreational than a transportation benefit, but it would produce substantially more people on two wheels than at present. Broad Street and Market Street may be wide enough for bike lane protection, with some loss of curb and delivery parking. Requiring bike storage facilities in new residential buildings and fewer car parking spaces would help. A gasoline price of $10 per gallon ($2.64 per liter) would boost bike use, but do little for the comfort level in peak-hour traffic.

In a nation attuned to quick and cheap solutions, the widespread replacement of cars by bikes as accomplished in European cities will be seen as a long-range and expensive objective.