How does cycling vary across cultures?
At this point in our class, and probably long before now, it’s strikingly evident that the Dutch model of bike infrastructure far outpaces that of the United States. But the readings from Ralph Buehler and John Pucher provide a larger contextual lens to view other societies through. Unsurprisingly, the Netherlands still takes the cake compared to other countries; however, Buehler and Pucher examined other cities in Germany, Denmark, Canada, Australia, and the United States to get a full picture of where the West is in terms of sustainable transportation. Overall, the Europeans, particularly Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands, are strides ahead of Canada, Australia, and the United States. Their combinations of policies, built environments, and cultural values have made them the prime example of how a country can revolutionize its transportation systems. Not only do these countries focus on roadway design as part of their bike integration method; they use programming to educate their citizens on safety; they provide proper infrastructure for parking and maintaining bikes; they even implement policies to discourage people from buying and using automobiles. With the effort that our European engineering and policy-making counterparts put into bicycling, it’s no wonder why their citizens do it so much more frequently. In the United States, bike trips account for 1% of the total trips taken by commuters. In the Netherlands, it’s 26% (Pucher and Bueler 2012). 26%! Talk about a stark contrast. So, what can the United States learn from our friends across the Atlantic?
How do they do it?
There is a vast number of pages that the United States can take from the Europeans’ metaphorical bicycle playbook. The first is safety. It’s difficult to properly emphasize just how much a cycling experience improves when people feel safe. One way that some European countries emphasize safety is by building it into the curriculum of grade school. German school children must take and pass a course on bicycle safety as part of their coursework (Pucher and Bueler 2012). By educating its citizens early, Germany not only gives people the right tools and knowledge to be able to ride bikes; it also emphasizes bike-riding from an early age. This can help influence culture in a way that makes commuters more inclined to select two wheels. Additionally, the design of roadways in European countries allows riders to feel confident in their own personal safety. Separated cycle tracks allow for a more comfortable cycling experience. Traffic calming devices like speed bumps make cars go slower. More inclusive intersection designs make the most dangerous points in commutes easy to navigate (see my second post for more details!). The increased levels of safety have a few important effects. One is that they reduce the risk of serious injury to people on bikes. Riders in the United States are nearly 20 times more likely to be injured while on a bike than are riders in the Netherlands (Pucher and Bueler 2012). Another effect, and one that might not be as obvious as the former, is that safety increases the number of bike-riders. If someone feels safer riding a bike, they are more likely to do so!
Another way that some of these European countries work to increase the number of bike riders is by integrating bikes into their public transport options. For instance, the Netherlands uses large bike parking facilities located near train stations to allow for commuters to store their bike safely while they take a train to their destination. This allows longer trips, which could be made in a car, to be made instead with a combination of biking and riding transit. In contrast, the United States tries to directly integrate bikes with transit by allowing for bikes on certain train cars and by using bike racks on buses. While these policies are progressive in that they enable commuters to take their bikes with them, it is limited in how many bikers it can truly accommodate. While a train station bike parking facility in the Netherlands could have over 3000 spaces, a bus rack can only carry a tiny fraction of that (Pucher and Bueler 2012).
In addition to making biking safe and integrating bikes into transit, another tactic European countries implore to increase cycling is by making automobile usage and ownership less economical than biking. To do this, they implement large taxes on the purchase of cars. While taxes on car purchases are low in the US (usually around 10-20%), they can reach up to 180% in the Netherlands (Pucher and Bueler 2012). That’s a staggering difference, and it makes it clear why cars aren’t more popular among the Dutch. Along with making purchasing a vehicle more expensive, the Dutch and other European countries also use taxes on fuel to make driving more of a financial burden. By making fuel almost twice as expensive as it is in the US, cycling emerges as an extremely economic alternative for transportation. It’s a financial no-brainer! This is yet another example of how simple policy changes can lead to a better, more sustainable transportation network.
In the past 50 years, the cultures of Europe and the United States have had very different approaches to cycle integration into their respective transportation infrastructure. While Forester’s “antibikeway philosophy” of smaller, more unsafe shared bike lanes prevailed in the United States for a few decades, policies far more progressive, like protected cycle tracks, won out in Europe (Pucher and Bueler 2012). As a result, major US cities are far behind major Dutch, German, and Danish cities in terms of bike usage. For instance, Portland has the highest percentage of bike trips of any major US city at 6%, but that’s equal to the German city with the lowest percentage, Stuttgart. In the Netherlands overall, that number is 27% (Harms and Kansen 2018)! Clearly, there is a great deal of ground to be made up if the US ever wants to have transportation as progressive and integrated as the Europeans’. Luckily, there have been great strides in the past 15 years to progress towards that goal. Cycle tracks have become much more prevalent in cities; municipalities have increasingly recognized the need to integrate bikes into other transit options; proper design policies have even crept their way into design manuals for engineers. There are even companies and initiatives that have been created in the past two years that are accelerating the rate of bicycle infrastructure development like city-wide shared bike programs and Uber’s Jump bike initiative. The fact that we as civil engineers even get to take a class like this is evidence of the growing awareness of the need for sustainable infrastructure. Overall, what’s most exciting to me is that there were numerous leaders in American sustainable transport who had been specifically influenced by time spent in the Netherlands. Maybe that could be one of us! What is certain, though, is that if the United States' plan is even half as ambitious as the Dutch vision laid out in the National Policy Strategy for Infrastructure and Spatial Planning, we'll be well on our way to meaningful change.
Harms, L., & Kansen, M. (2018, April 1). Cycling Facts 2018. Retrieved from https://www.government.nl/ministries/ministry-of-infrastructure-and-water-management/documents/reports/2018/04/01/cycling-facts-2018
Pucher, J., & Buehler, R. (Eds.). (2012). City cycling. Retrieved from https://ebookcentral.proquest.com
Summary National Policy Strategy for Infrastructure and Spatial Planning. (2013, July 24). Retrieved from https://www.government.nl/ministries/ministry-of-infrastructure-and-water-management/documents/publications/2013/07/24/summary-national-policy-strategy-for-infrastructure-and-spatial-planning