Power to the pedals: after decades of trial and error, the ingredients for robust urban cycling cultures are becoming clear.

AuthorGardner, Gary

Early this decade, Parisian city planners grappling with traffic congestion, air pollution, and other challenges ventured outside the box. They were well aware that traditional transportation remedies such as widened roads and expanded parking typically relieve congestion in the short term but seed even greater longterm crowding while worsening pollution and carbon emissions. So they decided to use bicycles--some 20,000 of them, scattered across the city at metro stops and other convenient locations--to extend the reach of the Paris public transport system and to provide inexpensive, healthy transportation for short trips. Not your father's transit plan, to be sure, but Paris's public bike initiative symbolizes the new respect bicycles are getting in a growing number of municipal governments worldwide.


Public bike programs are just one of many bike-centered tools used by city leaders to address a wide range of urban challenges: to relieve congestion and reduce carbon emissions, of course, but also to raise the fitness level of citizens, improve the quality of neighborhood life, and relieve pressure on municipal budgets. Advances in cycling infrastructure, marketing programs, financial incentives, and zoning are being leveraged to increase cycling rates in more and more cities, most notably in Europe but also in the United States, Colombia, Australia, and China. Not since the automobile hijacked transportation planning decades ago in cities worldwide has the bicycle had so many arguments, and allies, for claiming its natural niche in urban transportation ecosystems.

Rates and Payoffs

Cycling rates vary dramatically around the world, from 1 to 25 percent of trips at the national level (see figure) to nearly 40 percent of trips in some cities. In decades past, the line between high and low cycling rates seemed to be drawn by industrialization: As the automobile became the dominant mode of transport in industrialized countries over the course of the twentieth century, the bicycle was increasingly abandoned. Indeed, the anti-bicycling pattern continues today in rapidly industrializing countries such as China--once dubbed the "Bicycle Kingdom"--where official transportation policies often displace bikes and pedestrians in favor of cars. (In truth, however, many Chinese cities still have very high cycling rates by world standards).

But a closer look reveals that the fault line between cycling and noncycling countries or cities is created not by industrialization, but by transportation policies. Research by cycling analysts John Pucher of Rutgers University and Ralph Buehler of Virginia Tech University reveals that some of the world's highest rates of urban cycling are found in highly industrialized northern Europe. In the Netherlands, Denmark, and Germany in particular, a number of cities boast cycling rates of greater than 20 percent, and even 30 percent, of urban trips (compared with about 1 percent of trips in most U.S. and Australian cities). Amsterdam is a standout, with 38 percent of all trips made by bicycle in 2008. Half of Amsterdam's residents ride a bike daily, 85 percent ride at least once a week, and remarkably, people over 65 use bicycles for one-quarter of all trips. Far from being a marginal transportation option, the bicycle plays a major and critical role in urban transport in many cities of northern Europe.


The Amsterdam case also demonstrates the power of pro-cycling policies. Although the city has a long tradition of cycling, its cycling rate fell from 55 percent after World War II to 25 percent in the 1960s as suburbanization led to increasing rates of car ownership. But as the city adopted a series of pro-cycling policies in the 1970s and thereafter--from traffic calming and safe bikeways to secure parking and integration of bicycles with public transport--the cycling rate rose again to the 38 percent level it enjoys today. Encouragingly, most of the pro-biking policies employed by Amsterdam are not uniquely suited to that city, but can be, and are being, adopted for use in many other places.


Bicycles are valued in a growing number of cities worldwide because of the array of diverse benefits they offer. These benefits accrue to both individuals and communities, according to Kevin Krizek, an assistant professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Minnesota. The cyclist gains mobility through improved cycling conditions and shorter travel distances, better health because of increased physical activity, and enhanced safety due to fewer crashes. For the community, cycling means an improved urban ambience thanks to decreased congestion and pollution, better quality of life because of proximity to bike paths and increased open space, and sounder fiscal health via increased economic activity and reduced taxes. Taken together, the multiple benefits of a well-designed bicycle program raise the quality of urban life...

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