11. Where Bikes Rule: A Cautionary Report

European cities have reconstructed streets to encourage bikes rather than cars. The left lane is for pedestrians; next is the bike lane, followed by the car park lane. At right are cars, buses and trams

Biking enthusiasts in the United States tend to overlook the costly infrastructure investments that have made bicycle commuting so successful in Europe. In the Netherlands, biking has substantially reduced the number of cars used for the journey to work (only 0.4 percent of commuting trips in the United States are made by bicycle). The Guardian (London) reports that a cyclist’s risk of injury in the United States is 30 times higher than in Holland.

Amsterdam’s Central Station reveals one of the positive and one of the negative aspects of bicycles as a popular form of urban transportation. Bikes, moving and parked, are everywhere, unbelievably so. At each of several adjacent locations are at least a half acre of parked wheels and seats and handlebars and locks ready to transport their owners departing or arriving by train for work or shopping—a veritable sea of bikes, closely packed. A concrete, four-deck parking structure stuffed with hundreds more bikes is nearby for the exclusive use of commuting cyclists.

Beyond the station, bikes are parked in places small and large, planned and unplanned, legal and illegal. The sheer visibility of the unridden bikes underscores the enormous success of public planning and investment intended to replace private automobiles; it is an utterly successful civic endeavor.

No one knows how many of those bikes occupying so much scarce urban land are actively owned by anyone. On the rare occasion when a block or so needs to be cleared for construction, a substantial share of the bikes remains unclaimed. Orphan bikes clutter the pedestrian domain. The annual report on biking in the Netherlands reveals without comment that there are 1.1 bikes per capita in that nation of 6 million.

Biking is receiving new attention in the United States as a potential means of reducing journeys to work by car in urban centers. This article compares the current situation here with four recently examined European centers where bikes have been made important resources for commuters. It treats bicycles as economic, not recreational, tools. It is intended to sharpen American vision regarding some practical concerns that will need to be faced should a significant effort be made to increase bike use in order to achieve various social goals, including reducing petroleum consumption, air degradation, and global warming while improving individual health and the urban environment. Thirty years of European infrastructure investments and education have produced a successful transition from automobiles to bicycles.

Who Bikes to Work?

Some generalizations will help illustrate the current U.S. experience. Why do people use bikes for commuting? Users see this mode as one that saves time and money—thousands of dollars a year in fuel, insurance, depreciation, and storage if it replaces a car. Many count the associated physical exercise as a motivating factor. Commuters may use bikes for the entire trip to work or school or for the trip to transit or from transit (or both).

Typical American workday users of bikes are under 25 years of age and male, and they use equipment more expensive than the common one-speed European urban bikes. Commuting cyclists are often traveling to and from educational institutions and sometimes job sites; some are messengers. Speed is important; bikers 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 pavements seem irrelevant and sometimes dangerous; few bikers (or drivers) pay them any attention. Cyclists appear to be moving at three times the speed of pedestrians.

Portland, Oregon, is probably Bike City USA, as it claims. Decades of traffic improvements in downtown Portland substantially improved biking conditions, contributing to the relatively high proportion of commuters who regularly bike to work. Advocates say, “It’s part of the culture, it’s what people do here.” But biking in Portland is not without its costs. Portland reported six biker deaths in 2007. One blogger wrote, “It’s scary.” A Portland attorney advertises his success representing injured bikers and will not charge “if there is no monetary recovery.”

The Philadelphia Biking Coalition notes that 3.2 percent of downtown workers commute by bike at least once weekly, more than the 1.2 percent of all Philadelphia commuters and substantially higher than the 0.4 percent of commuting cyclists in the multicounty metro region where origins and destinations are scattered. Center City is fairly flat, favoring bikers, but most of those who live and work in downtown walk or use transit. A high share of regular bikers appears to be students. A third of surveyed cyclists report they wear protective helmets (required by law in nearby New Jersey), and users complain of the lack of bike lanes, unsafe road conditions, and the speed and volume of auto traffic. In surveys, the growing downtown residential population complains of the city’s failure to enforce bike and auto rules. In response to a January 22, 2009, Miami Herald article on government plans to improve biking conditions, bicyclists enthused while others, who don’t ride bikes, complained about public funds devoted to this small population group. One noncyclist said, “I’d like to see just once a cyclist stop for a STOP sign.”

In contrast, European urban bikers in rush hours evidence a balance of male and female users and a substantial share of middle-aged riders and retirees. They proceed at about 10 miles an hour, comparable with auto speeds and perhaps two or three times the speed of pedestrians. They appear more inclined to obey traffic controls than their American counterparts. As evidence of the extent to which city biking is considered safe, many parents transport their offspring to day care using various carrying devices. Some bikes are fitted with ample capacity for shopping. Some stores make deliveries by bike. The sampled cities all have somewhat more precipitation than is common in the United States, but appropriate clothing appears to overcome most adverse weather concerns.

What appears to limit U.S. urban biking to work? For those older than 25, fear of losing in a potential bike-auto conflict is probably the most important reason; adverse weather is another. Few who bike to work do so every day. Bad weather requires a backup plan for getting to work. Convenient storage facilities are rare in city apartments, and there is a justifiable fear of theft. The American commuting pattern has for so long meant single-occupancy cars that the mind-set is doubtless hard to break. Americans have grown accustomed to the $8,000 annual cost of auto ownership (which includes depreciation), so saving money is a less pressing concern. American streets are designed and refined to facilitate automobile traffic at speeds of 30 miles per hour or more; they are not designed for safe bike traffic.


Decades of investment in bike infrastructure have produced an impressive record in modal shift from cars to bikes in the Danish capital; 36 percent of travel in Copenhagen is already by bike, and added investments in parking, green biking routes, more bike lanes, and increased safety are designed to improve that record further. Recent city statistics record an 18 to 20 percent increase in bike use and a 9 to 10 percent decline in car traffic. Most of these gains are the result of the “bicycle tracks” that are separated from other traffic by their own curbs, as distinguished from the less expensive “bicycle lanes” that are only marked with white stripes.

Although bikes are not allowed on the famous pedestrian linear facility, the Strøget, they are allowed on the adjacent street. Most subway trains and many buses have bike storage capacity. Special traffic lights at most major intersections control and protect bikers. Round signs with a blue background and a white bicycle indicate bike lanes or routes. Bikes are instructed to give way to trams from any direction.

The Danes are enthusiastic about their success in shifting from streets once jammed with cars and the frustration of searching for parking spaces. Copenhagen looks forward to being designated as the world’s top bike city based on usage. Cycling is so important in Danish transportation that authorities invest in research into accidents and injuries associated with the street arrangements mentioned above, plus circumstances where bikes and autos are mixed. Sixty-two percent of cyclists reported that they feel secure in Copenhagen’s traffic, up from 58 percent in the 2004 survey. The cycle tracks, where bikers feel most comfortable, have produced an 18 percent increase in cyclists and a 9 percent decrease in car traffic, although accidents have increased with the greater volumes.


The Dutch work hard to make biking safe, in part through public education. Amsterdam warns visitors not to imitate abuses by some local bikers. Don’t, for example, ignore red lights, carry a passenger, ride on sidewalks, forget to use warning bell when passing, or fail to use lights at night. Don’t 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 (high incidence of theft in Amsterdam), walk bikes on crowded streets and pedestrian areas, obey traffic signs (police will pull bikers over for running a red light), and beware of tram tracks. Visiting bicyclists are warned to watch for pedestrians who don’t understand local bike rules—in other words, “drive defensively.” Never stop in a bike lane; move to the side of the lane.

Despite this campaign, common errors observed in Amsterdam, Haarlem, and Utrecht include infrequent use of hand signals and chatting on mobile phones, sometimes while transporting a child. Bikes are generally equipped with lights for after-dark travel, and bikers tend to comply with special traffic lights for bikers. No one wearing a bike safety helmet was observed. Few seem to obey the signs intended to bar bike parking; they lock their bikes anywhere it seems convenient.

Saturday shopping via bicycles is popular in Utrecht. While Dutch cyclists proceed at a moderate pace, the protected lanes and controls mean that bikers and drivers complete their journeys at about the same time. Bikers probably have an edge; bikes are usually stored closer to the intended origins and destinations than cars.

The Dutch are biking more, owning more and more elaborate bikes, and using their bikes for commuting (46 percent), recreation (40 percent), and other purposes such as shopping. There has been a recent increase in sales of bikes with small motors.

Amsterdam tried bike sharing—pick it up and drop it off without a charge—but discontinued the program when an unacceptable number were stolen. Washington, D.C., has started a sharing program with support from its department of transportation. Some costs will be met by advertising on bus shelters.

Freedom from Fear

Writing of “The Problem of Biking in America” in the Bygone Bureau journal, biking advocate Nick Martens says, “Of the many complaints an American cyclist can make, a concern over his or her safety is the most serious. It is also the best reason to stick with a car.” Martens describes the common and disastrous consequences of the unexpected opening of a car door in the face of a biker properly staying in the designated bike lane on the right side of the street. Without question, fear of bike-auto conflict is the most pervasive factor limiting bike use for commuting in the United States. In the United States, the driver-side door opens into the bike lane; in European streets designed for bikes it does not.

In cities, 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 segregated lanes includes the following features that facilitate four different modes. Sideways from the center of a city street:

  1. The first lane (in the center) is for cars, trucks, trams, and buses.
  2. The next lane is devoted to auto parking; the driver’s door does not open toward bikers.
  3. The next lane—at the curb—is the bike lane.
  4. Next to the buildings is the pedestrian lane, the sidewalk.

Making streets multimodal and widely used by bike commuters depends on the degree to which the guideways are reassuring. To produce comfortable conditions for bikers requires clarity: What are the rules, how must bikers and drivers behave, what is our turf and what is theirs? Ambiguity breeds uncertainty, which in turn contributes to accidents and discourages potential cyclists. Reassurance about clarity includes separate traffic signals for cyclists and obvious signs signaling where bikes may go and where they should not.

The broad popularity of biking in Continental cities at peak user periods has resulted from the infrastructure investments that have produced a comfort level almost unimaginable in the United States. If there were a comfort scale reflecting concerns regarding possible injuries, high scores would go to cities where both sexes, all age groups, commuters, and shoppers bike regularly: where use of child carriers is common, few wear helmets, and use of mobile phones in traffic are indicators of biker comfort. Biking conditions in northern Europe would generally rate an eight or nine out of a possible 10. Typical U.S. conditions would rate a two, evidenced by how few wear helmets and how many ride on pavements. Cyclists in the United States feel most comfortable when breaking the rules, especially biking on sidewalks.

Prospects for American Conversion

Martens notes the political impasse associated with encouraging public investment to produce bike-friendly cities when so little daily biking is actually occurring; there are so few commuting bikers that they do not represent a sufficient pressure group to influence capital improvement, a situation resulting from not having bike-friendly conditions. American bikers are predominantly young, male, and urban—not a powerful constituency. Most Americans are car owning, happy with that condition, and sometimes antagonistic to bikers.

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

The successful 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 produce bike-friendly transportation routes. Cheap won’t do it. An inexpensive stripe next to the 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. local governments following a commitment to two or three decades of block-by-block reconstruction and continued bike-oriented education and enforcement of rules. How often would one hear the threat of litigation raised at hearings when officials propose to move car parking toward the center of the street and to install special traffic controls and curbs designed to protect bicyclists?

And, of course, other competitors for America’s infrastructure funding are stronger and more influential. The highway lobby has a notorious 50-year lock on gasoline tax revenues. Other claimants—subways, buses, and commuter rail—may receive a larger share of these funds as the United States for the first time gets serious about reducing its petroleum dependency. Then there is 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 imitate the system used for appropriating monies 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 a few streets to favor biking. Philadelphia and other local governments might start in such limited areas as university neighborhoods where substantial use can be expected. Requiring bike storage facilities and fewer car parking spaces in residential projects would help. Five-dollar-a-gallon gasoline would boost bike usage but do little for cyclists’ comfort level in peak hour traffic.

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

Lawrence Houstoun is a redevelopment, public spaces, and improvement district consultant, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He prepped for this article by biking in European cities.

So effective has been the reconstruction of Dutch streets that bikers report high levels of comfort in rush hour traffic and few obey the laws requiring helmets and barring use of phones.

Separate traffic controls reduce car-bike accidents and raise comfort level in European cities.

Carefully separated bicycle and auto lanes creates the comfortable conditions that make biking to work the preferred mode in Copenhagen.

European cities design streets so as to keep bikes and motor vehicles physically separated

The curb shown in the lower left side illustrates the protective divider between bike and auto street segments.

Amsterdam began is campaign to reduce auto use decades ago, producing the needed infrastructure to make biking comfortable for commuters. This multi-story garage at the Central Stationne transit and bike trips.

Where streets provide obvious safety, Europeans of all ages bike to work.

Rules are enforced by police, themselves on bikes in European cities

Safe streets make biking safer than in US. Bike commuters are so comfortable in rush hour that they chat on phones, listen to music, and go without helmets.

While bikes occupy only a fraction of the space required for cars, in a city with a serious policy of replacing auto use, serious storage arrangements are required.

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