Why Europe Cycles (and we don’t)

Fifty two percent of Copenhageners use a bicycle to get to and from work on a regular basis.  In other European cities such as  Amsterdam, Barcelona, Berlin, and even Paris the numbers are nearly as significant.  This is not the case in the US.  Our best places (exclusive of Davis, California, a smallish college town that is often held out as the best city for cyclists in the US), hover in the mid-to-high single digits.

Cyclists have priority in Holland. Photo Handige Harrie

Cyclists have priority in Holland. Photo Handige Harrie

Lots of reasons have been put forth for why this is, but they don’t fully explain it.  Yes, European cities generally have higher population densities than American cities, but not that much higher.  Not everyone in Europe lives on the village square.  I remember being at IKEA on the edge of Malmö Sweden and marveling at how much it looked like the edge of Minneapolis or Chicago.  Europe has plenty of suburban development and sprawl, just like us.

Haarlem, aka suburban Amsterdam. This could be any American suburb anywhere.

Haarlem, aka suburban Amsterdam. This could be any American suburb anywhere.  Google Maps.

So that’s not it.  Nor is it the widespread American belief that Europeans have always cycled.  They haven’t.  In fact, the birth of modern European cycling can be traced back to a grassroots movement in the Netherlands, Stop de Kindermoord.  The year was 1973.  Prior to SdK, Holland was heading the same direction as the United States, which is to say, all cars all the time.

So what changed?  Why do Europeans cycle in large number while Americans don’t?  Here are my theories.  Take them for what they’re worth.

The Pervasiveness of Car Culture in North America

American automobile manufacturers employ the best marketing minds on the planet.  They have created a tremendous want for what they sell in spite of the fact that it’s very expensive, requires ongoing maintenance, harms the environment, routinely kills people and generally exposes the owner to extensive liability.  If cars were merely a device that allowed us to get from here to there, we would have abandoned them long ago because the math just doesn’t work.  To the average American, they are something more.   We’re not thinking clearly about this, mostly because the marketing is so good.

Ralph's not all that, but Dodge convinced him he could be...  1970 Dodge Charger ad.

Ralph’s not all that, but Dodge convinced him he could be…

A Collective Discontent With the Way Things Are

Over my life, I’ve observed that people generally don’t seek solutions if they don’t think they have problems.  Most of us are resistant to change and only accept it grudgingly and with a lot of fuss.  The exception is if something dramatic happens that causes us to see things differently.  The more dramatic it happens to be, the better.

US motorists line up for gasoline, 1979,

US motorists line up for gasoline, 1979,

Stop de Kindermoord didn’t happen in a vacuum.  In fact, it coincided with the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973.  Those of us who are old enough to have been around back then will never forget the gas lines and spot shortages that occurred in the US.  They were much worse in Europe.  Countries like Holland, Denmark and Sweden have no domestic petroleum industry and as a result many people in these countries turned away from the car.

We didn’t.  Change was less dramatic here and so instead of abandoning the car, we retooled and bought smaller, more fuel efficient cars from Japan.  When the crisis passed, we slowly returned to our old ways.  By the mid 1980s, Europe had changed dramatically.  Us?  Not so much.

Consistent Leadership Commitment Over Long Periods of Time

Cities often rise and fall on lists of bicycle friendliness due to the ongoing commitment of their leaders to active transportation concerns.  This is true of the best cycling cities in the world and it’s also true of where you and I live.  It’s simply not enough to put a cyclepath here or there or to use bicycle friendliness as a marketing tool to attract tech companies or millennials to your city.  It cuts much deeper than that, and the best places for cyclists all share visionary leadership with a long term commitment to positive change.

My Conclusion

Some readers might be inclined to throw their hands up in despair, but I think that would be a mistake.  If I’m even partially right about this I think it is very good news.  It means that the kind of change that most of us want is attainable.  Success is closer than we realize.

We can’t redesign our cities overnight, but we don’t have to!  Europe doesn’t cycle because they have cyclepaths. They have cyclepaths because they cycle. We will too.  In the meantime, all we have to do is recognize that there are significant events that have occurred in the past and will occur again in the future.  When they do, we can effect positive change if we are ready to capitalize on those events and have a coherent message that resonates with those who might otherwise be inclined to ignore us.

Bicycling matters.  It improves places.  It improves people.  We have validation from Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Malmö and even Minneapolis.  I intend to keep sharing that with people who haven’t been on a bicycle in years.  I hope you do, too.

Keep riding.



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