Friday, February 26, 2016
Why Are European and American Bicycling So Different?
The breakthrough moment for bicycles came at the beginning of the 1890s, when the "safety" bicycle finally offered a viable alternative to walking and horseback riding for personal transportation. Both Europe and the United States experienced a remarkable cycling boom in the 1890s, often called the "Golden Age" on both sides of the Atlantic. Then, after 1900, their paths diverged.
In the United States, interest in bicycling declined dramatically after 1900, and the 1908 introduction of the affordable Model T Ford led to a craze for automobiles that, in some ways, persists to this day. By 1930 the country was well started on a project to reconstruct its built environment to support an essentially monomodal transportation system based on the car.
Meanwhile, in Europe, things went differently. As Pryor Dodge puts it in his book The Bicycle (1996), "In Europe, where a vast web of local railroads continued to meet the needs of public and commercial transportation, bicycles still served utilitarian ends, and cycling thrived as an organized spectator and club sport long after the Golden Age." (P. 182.)
American bicycling experienced a minor uptick during the Depression years of the 1930s. David V. Herlihy, in Bicycle: The History (2004), reports that "The number of bicycles circulating in the United States climbed to about two or three million by the mid-1930s, but that figure paled in comparison to the European fleets. Germany, which had half the American population, counted fifteen million bicycles. Great Britain and France each had about seven million cycles, followed by Italy with four million. Even the tiny Netherlands had three million: one for almost every other citizen. Every working day, some 400,000 cyclists commuted in and out of Amsterdam alone." (P. 328.)
Herlihy also notes that a 1930 study of traffic in Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark, found that bicycling was the most widely used means of transportation - "bicycles carried fully a third of the populace; 29 percent of the people used street railways, 21 percent walked, and the rest rode in automobiles or some other vehicle." (P. 328.)
A bit after World War II, things began to change. Dodge again: "By the late 1950s, improved economic conditions in Europe allowed consumers to follow the American fascination with the automobile, and the bicycling industry experienced a distinct decline. Yet although the bicycle began to be displaced by an increasingly dense automobile population, bicycle culture remained more deeply embedded in Western Europe, especially in the northern countries, where governments became actively involved in planning for what one author called the 'vehicle for a small planet.'" (P. 182.)
The Dutch and the Danes
Of all the countries of Europe, it was the Netherlands where bicycling was most deeply embedded in the culture. How embedded? Let's ask Inspector Van der Valk, protagonist in a series of detective novels by Nicolas Freeling. Here is the inspector in Double Barrel, from 1964: "Driving the Volkswagen down the falsely genial shopping street, Van der Valk felt like a Mexican on his donkey. Housewives riding bikes, pushing bikes, lugging tiny children off the back of bikes - all in the middle of the road and paying not the least attention either to him in his tiny black-beetle auto or to Albert Heijn's truck, which is ten feet tall and thirty feet long. The housewives are busy with the shopping. ... It looked identical to everywhere else in Holland, and could just as easily have been the Jan Galenstraat in Amsterdam West." (Pp. 48-49.)
As Evan Friss points out in The Cycling City (2015), this picture did not happen by accident. "Indeed, throughout the first half of the twentieth century, municipal governments in cities across the Netherlands grappled with how to promote cycling and, in 1935, officials in Amsterdam designed a comprehensive plan for the city to ensure that it remained commutable for cyclists. The goal was to design a 'bicycle city.' In the Netherlands, and in certain other European centers, the state continued to play an important role in fostering urban cycling throughout the twentieth century." (P. 200.)
(Friss cites a 1999 report from the Dutch ministry of transport, which turns out to be a nice history of Dutch bicycling. An English version is available online. As for the present, take a look at this video on cycling in the Dutch city of Groningen.)
Van der Valk's experience on the shopping street takes place less than ten years before the oil crisis of the early 1970s, which had a profound effect in Europe. As Dodge puts it (pp. 182, 185), "After the world oil crisis of 1973-4, bicycling experienced a notable revival, both as a sport and as an alternative to the automobile. But it was only with the financial assistance and cooperation of national governments that bicycles came to rival automobiles with any degree of credibility. In the late 1960s, the Dutch government began to create a vast network of cycle lanes on a landscape practically designed for the mass use of bicycles; by the late 1980s, over eighty thousand miles of bicycle paths criss-crossed the country. ... By the mid-1980s, bicycle use as a percentage of transport preference averaged between twenty and fifty percent in the cities and towns of the Netherlands: here, cycling had become a practical alternative to the automobile. Denmark also embarked on an ambitious program to build bicycle lanes. By the late 1980s, cycle paths ran alongside seventy-five percent of main roads, and bicycles made up twenty percent of the traffic in urban areas."
I've noticed that, when discussing European cycling, people tend to focus on the Dutch and the Danes. I tend to do this myself. As an antidote, let's have a look at the German city of Muenster. In 1997, John Pucher published an article on bicycling in Germany and particularly in Muenster, which is pretty much the poster city for German cycling. (John Pucher, "Bicycling Boom in Germany: A Revival Engineered by Public Policy," Transportation Quarterly 51:4, Fall 1997, pp. 31-46.) The article was based on, among other things, three extended research fellowships in Germany, in 1984-1986, 1992, and 1996.
Muenster is a pleasant college town in northwestern Germany founded, according to the available records, in 793 A.D. It currently has a population of a little over 300,000, and for some time it has had a simply spectacular network of bike paths.
The backbone of the bike path network is a ring-road that follows the footprint of the medieval city wall. Unlike the situation in many other European cities, this ring-road is devoted to bicycles, not cars. (Imagine the D.C. Beltway or the Vienna Ringstrasse, only smaller, and with bicycles.) This "bicycle expressway" connects with 16 major outbound bike routes leading to suburbs and the countryside, and also 26 bike routes heading in toward the town center.
In Muenster, in 1994, 32 percent of all trips were by bicycle; 22 percent by walking; 10 percent by public transport; and 37 percent by auto. Other German cities had lower, but still quite respectable, bicycling numbers. Munich, the third largest city in Germany, with about the same population as Philadelphia, had a bike share of 15 percent in 1995.
Germany, Europe, the U.S.
Pucher takes a look at western Germany (before reunification in 1990 this would have been West Germany) and finds an overall biking rate for all trips of 12 percent. This is well below the 30 percent rate in the Netherlands or the 20 percent rate for Denmark, but it is well above the 8 percent rate for England and Wales, or the 5 percent rate for France, and it is 12 times the 1 percent rate of the United States.
It's interesting to follow England, France, and West Germany from the seventies to the nineties. In Germany, urban bicycling rose from 8 percent in 1972 to 12 percent in 1995. Munich's bike share rose from 6 percent in 1976 to 15 percent in 1992. Meanwhile, cycling in England fell from 12 percent in 1975 to 8 percent in 1991; in France it fell from 8 percent in 1978 to a low point of 4 percent in 1990.
Pucher attributes these arrows headed in different directions to public policy. The Germans worked hard to promote bicycling, and the English and the French didn't.
It's also worth noting that European countries weak on bicycling may be simply fabulous on walking. Sweden does 10 percent on biking, but 39 percent on walking in Pucher's data. And France, a European bicycling laggard at 5 percent, does 30 percent on walking. Meanwhile the U.S. does 1 percent on biking and 9 percent on walking - the lowest walking number among the countries Pucher studied.
At the same time, the U.S. did 84 percent of its trips by car, while most European countries were in the 40's and 30's.
As I look at these numbers, several thoughts occur to me. First, cars aren't going away. Even in biking heaven - the Netherlands - where 30 percent of trips are by bike and 18 percent by walking, 45 percent are by auto.
Is there an irreducible minimum for trips by car? In the world we live in, I think so. I don't know what the number is, but I think it's greater than zero and less than 40. In that range you can have a balanced transportation system.
Meanwhile, in America, with an 84 percent car share, you have The Amoeba That Ate Cleveland. There's very little room for anything else.
The Essential Difference
Why is the American transportation system so different from the systems we see in Europe? Answers to such questions are normally complex, but in this case the answer is starkly simple: Government policy. In the mid-1920s, Herbert Hoover, as U.S. secretary of commerce, effectively ceded control of national transportation policy to the car manufacturers and their allies, a situation that continued unabated until the late 1960s and is still largely intact today. (See Peter D. Norton, Fighting Traffic, 2011, pp. 178-196, 230-234, 253-254.)
The Situation Now
In 2012 the MIT Press published the best survey of current biking conditions and issues that I have been able to find. Edited by John Pucher (he gets around) and Ralph Buehler, City Cycling has contributions from 21 scholars on four continents.
And guess what? There's a bunch of good news. American bicycling is showing definite signs of life. Our national numbers are still low, but there are many bright spots at the local level.
Let's have a look at Davis, California, and Boulder, Colorado. Like Muenster, both of these are college towns. And they both came to the bicycle game early. In 1967, Davis "striped the first bicycle lanes in the United States." Also, in 1967, "Boulder became the first US city to institute a sales tax dedicated to the purchase of open space and the funding of transportation infrastructure." Boulder's 1995 transportation plan was the first in the United States "to set a goal of reducing vehicle miles of travel." (Pucher, ed., 2012, pp. 261, 263-264.)
As of 2009, "Davis and Boulder especially stand out with 15.5 percent and 9.6 percent of workers, respectively, reporting that they usually commuted by bicycle in the 2005-2009 American Community Survey." (Ibid., p. 260.)
Portland, Oregon, has raised bike commuting from 1.1 percent in 1990 to 6.0 percent in 2008 - a more than five-fold increase. Portland has been helped by its location in the state of Oregon, "which since 1971 has required that 1 percent of state highway funds be devoted to bicycles and pedestrians." (Ibid., pp. 134, 292.)
Portland is in a class by itself, but other cities are turning in solid performances. Washington, D.C., moved commuting bike share from 0.8 percent in 1990 to 2.3 percent in 2008. In 2010, in D.C., approved bike infrastructure projects amounted to $8 per capita per year. (Ibid., pp. 134, 292.)
Let's check in with some of our old friends in Europe. Amsterdam's bike share for commuting went from 27 percent in 1990 to 34 percent in 2009; Copenhagen went from 30 percent in 1990 to 37 percent in 2005. (Ibid., p. 292.)
And here's a new friend: Berlin's bike commuting share went from 6 percent in 1990 to 13 percent in 2008. Other European capitals are lower, but still quite strong by American standards. Paris had an all-trip bicycling share of 1.0 percent in 2000 and 2.5 percent in 2010. London went from 1.2 percent in 2000 to 2.0 percent in 2007. (Ibid., pp. 292, 323.) And remember, Paris and London are very walkable cities. Not to mention the metro and the tube.
So What Can We Learn from the Europeans?
Europe continues to be well ahead of the United States when it comes to bicycling. The national rates are higher - sometimes eye-poppingly so - and their standout cities still outshine our standout cities. So, aside from having the right government policies, what can we learn from them?
In the end, bicycling boils down to an individual walking out the door and climbing on to a bike. The people who do this, or might do it in the future, are not a homogeneous group. I'd like to suggest several different approaches to breaking the group down for closer analysis, along with some implications.
The skinny guys in spandex, and the "interested but concerned." Not all of us want to be bicycle messengers. That's because we're not "strong and fearless." No diss intended. "Strong and fearless" is one of four categories originally developed in Portland. After strong and fearless comes "enthused and confident," followed by "interested but concerned" and my favorite, "no way no how."
This typology has been around for a number of years. A recent national poll, covering 50 major metropolitan areas in the United States, found that the "interested but concerned" category was by far the largest, with about half of all respondents, a figure comparable to the results of other polls.
Here's the thing about the "interested but concerned" folks. If you want them to go biking, you need to give them a protected bike path at minimum. Just striping a bike lane on a street won't do it.
Why is this? It's because the "interested but concerned" are worried about their safety - more specifically, getting into a crash with a car.
If you want to see biking numbers in your city that are comparable to the numbers in Europe, you need a large network of protected bike lanes. It's that simple.
Men, women, children, old people. Humans aren't really four different species. It just feels that way sometimes. Take old people, for instance. There's an unexamined assumption that they're too frail to bicycle. Well, not in Europe. In Denmark, cycling holds steady from 50 years to past 70, and is actually higher than it is for the 30-49 crowd. The Netherlands is similar. (Pucher, ed., 2012, p. 14.)
On to kids. In the Netherlands, 49 percent of children in primary school (ages 5-12) ride bikes to school; 37 percent walk; and only 14 percent ride in a car. In Odense, Denmark, 38 percent of nine-year-olds bike to school. High-schoolers - 15 years old - bike at the rate of 67 percent for boys and 64 percent for girls. (Ibid., pp. 236-237.)
Never happen in the U.S., you say. Sorry. Davis, California, again, where 43.4 percent of high-school boys bike to school, as do 30 percent of girls. "Davis has no regular school bus service because bicycling is the usual mode for children to get to school." (Ibid., pp. 113, 216.) Congratulations, Mom. You just got fired from your job as a chauffeur.
Professor Peter G. Furth, writing in Pucher's 2012 book (p. 135), says, "It is this writer's opinion that the turning point will be when children begin again riding bikes to school in large numbers. When bicycle infrastructure and children's safety become intertwined, funding for bicycle infrastructure will be secure."
Recreational cyclists and commuters. Actually, let's broaden "commuters" to "utilitarian cyclists." You'll remember Inspector Van der Valk and the Ladies Who Shop. Historically, the ethos of U.S. cycling has been overwhelmingly recreational, although there have always been utility riders. If we want to build a real bicycling community, we need to think about commuters, and we need to think about all those intraday trips - taking the kids to pre-school, grocery shopping, you name it. There are implications here for where we put bike lanes first, and where we put Indego bike-share stations.
Beyond that, we need to rethink the spandex thing. The Dutch aren't riding $3,000 road bikes; they're riding utility bikes, with comfortable seats, handlebars well above the seat, chain guards, fenders to keep the mud off. (See Pucher, ed., 2012, chapter 5.) And they're wearing street clothes. So when they get to the office, they don't need a shower, they don't need a locker room, and they don't need to change their clothes because they're not spattered with mud (at least not most days). The Danes even have a bike fashion blog, called Cycle Chic. (To see it, click here.)
Here we are at the end. Before we part ways, let's consider for a moment what the Europeans are really doing. It's not just about bicycles. It's about rebuilding our public spaces for people, not cars. I think it may be hard for us to admit that we've been doing it wrong since the days of Herbert Hoover. But maybe the Europeans really do have a better idea. Personally, I'm quite certain of it.
See also Cars and Bikes - the Back Story and Reimagining Our Streets: Bikes Will Lead, But They Will Not Be Alone.