Bikes are on the rise. The trend is global with no end in sight. Bike sales are up, and bike-
friendly infrastructure supported by legislation is being introduced- from Melbourne to
Philadelphia. Cycle hiring docking stations and brightly painted bike lanes are common sights in major cities worldwide. New words like sharrows, greenways, super bikeways, and cycle chic are being coined to captured different facets of this new, emerging bike culture.
In biking-friendly Copenhagen, Denmark, where the bicycles outnumber the population, 36
percent of all commuting is by bike, with municipal policy targeting a 50 percent share. Bikes are admitted on water buses and local trains in specially designed carriages enabling mixed-mode commuting. And taxis are legally obliged to carry a bike rack for passenger use.
In the Netherlands, the first country to adopt an official national bicycle policy, major cities have a similar ratio of bike commutes. In Amsterdam, averaging a bike per inhabitant, there are 250 miles of cycle paths marked with brickwork and red asphalt.
London has also begun prioritizing its cycling network in recent years. Although less than 3
percent of Londoners commute to work by bike, the British capital has seen the number of daily bike trips double since the 1990s. Folding bikes are permitted on the subway, commuter trains, and river services. But mixing with the double-deckers and black cabs are not for the faint-hearted. Accidents, sometimes with a deadly outcome, are not uncommon. Despite risk-reducing measures like speed restrictions, removal of guardrails lining streets, installments of traffic enforcement cameras, and segregated bike paths, safety is a major concern in the heavily congested metropolis.
The fact that most American cities have been built with the car in mind is reflected in the
statistics. In 2001, only 1 percent of all trips in the United States was conducted by bike,
compared with 84 percent by car. The corresponding numbers in the Netherlands were 30/45 and in Denmark 20/42. But also on this side of the pond, the biking trend is making headway. Between 2000 and 2014, the share of Americans who commute by bike increased by 62 percent. In New York City the number of bike rides has more than doubled in the last decade – from 180,000 to 450,000 per day. In Washington, D.C. the biker commute grew from 1990 to 2013 with 498 percent, with a commuter share now of 4.5 percent. In Portland, Oregon, where the share was up 408 percent in the same period, bike rides now constitute 7 percent of the total commute. Other relatively bike-friendly cities are Minneapolis, San Francisco, and Seattle. At the bottom of the list, we find Oklahoma City, Memphis and El Paso with a bike commuter share of 0.1 percent and negative trends. Paradoxically, in America as well as in Europe cycling seems to be a Northern, cold-weather thing. However, this biking trend is not uncontroversial.
As one of the holy grails of American society, the car is surrounded by a powerful mystique. In our collective imagination, we easily conjure up images of sunset drives along scenic roads and dreams of freedom along Route 66. But in this case, as so often, the myth is one thing and the reality often another. In our car-dependent everyday reality, we struggle with crawling commutes on congested freeways, the endless search for inner city parking, and ham-fisted valet handling. If we want to stay car-centered, this is what we are opting for. In reality, there are few arguments against biking that stand scrutiny. Biking offers a healthier lifestyle, is environmentally friendly and cheaper. If we are to believe
David Spiegelhalter, the Winton Professor of Risk at Cambridge University, every hour we
spend biking prolongs our lives for an hour. This means that a middle-aged person who cycles regularly has a two years longer life expectancy than the non-biker. Recent economic impact studies have knocked down the notion that bike lanes and bike-friendly
infrastructure is costly and bad for business. The money we save on vehicles and fuel allows us to spend more freely on restaurants, entertainment, retail, and other services, which benefits local businesses and commercial downtown areas.
What we are witnessing is a gigantic rethinking of public space and infrastructure. This change will not come easily. It requires public expenditures and a change of mindset. Above all, it calls for a more holistic, integrated view of urban planning, centered around the bike, not the car. Bike lanes cannot be introduced randomly and in isolation. They need to be seen as an integral part of an overall strategy that comprises public transport, transport hubs, ridesharing, interconnected neighborhoods, redesigned intersections, a building of bicycle and pedestrian-only bridges, and expanding pedestrian areas. It requires a vision of a less polluted and more livable future, where cars and bikes coexist, with the former being transformed into the mean and symbol of freedom we always wanted it to be.