By Anum Yoon
Though cycling to work has the potential to reduce your carbon footprint and improve your overall health, you’re probably not doing it. In many communities, bike lanes simply don’t exist, making it difficult or downright dangerous to battle automobile traffic to bike to work.
Cities like Washington, D.C., and New York have installed bike paths for commuters, and the investment has paid off. In D.C., bike commuting has increased by 120 percent, and in New York ridership has doubled, all thanks to offering cyclists appropriate infrastructure. While it’s certainly good news, the sad fact remains that the U.S. still lags far behind European nations when it comes to bicycle commuting.
A tale of two continents
Cities like Copenhagen, Barcelona, Paris and Rome all have major cycling infrastructure, and their ridership figures have increased accordingly. About 40 percent of Germans and Swedes bike to work at least once a week, almost four times the amount of Americans who do so. As of 2013, just 1.21 percent of New Yorkers commuted to work by bicycle, despite the creation of new bike paths.
Why are Americans so slow to adopt bicycle commuting, even when investments are made in bike lanes? Infrastructure is only part of the story.
A culture of commuting
In Europe, there has been a seismic shift in how people view the act of riding a bicycle. Residents of bike-friendly cities like Copenhagen and Barcelona see a bicycle not only as an instrument for recreation, but also – and crucially, more commonly – as a valid form of transportation. It’s not at all unusual to see businessmen in three-piece suits and women in skirts and ballet flats riding their bikes to work. They arrive looking presentable because they pedal at a reasonable pace and ride bikes designed for comfort rather than racing.
In contrast, most Americans see cycling as a purely recreational activity, a sport taken up by weekend warriors and triathletes looking for a new fitness goal. Even in locations where cycling is common, riders tend to be students, and the image of cycling in these locations is dominated by photos of racing bikes carrying surfboards and backpacks full of sporting gear.
Because most Americans view cycling as recreation rather than as an appropriate mode of transit, there has also been a backlash against building new bike lines in some large cities. New Yorkers complain about lost parking spaces and reduced lanes for cars, while Chicagoans feel that pedestrians are put at risk by speeding cyclists.
What the U.S. can learn about bike commuting
In addition to the need for many more bike lanes to encourage commuters to give up their cars and use two wheels instead, the U.S. still has a lot of work to do on promoting a culture of commuting that recognizes bicycles as vehicles rather than toys. To cut down on speeding bicycle messengers and those who would put pedestrians at risk, bike lanes can include traffic lights timed to cyclists’ average safe speed. This works well in Copenhagen, where cyclists are as regulated as motorists.
It’s also important to recognize that bike lanes aren’t the only infrastructure required to make commuting doable for many people. Businesses and communities need to invest in places to store bicycles safely and conveniently, too. After all, if there’s no place to park your bike, you’re never going to ride to work.
In the end, these changes will only happen if people demand them. If you want to ride to work but are missing the tools and support you need to feel safe doing it, start advocating for change through your local political process. Get involved, and you can make a difference in your community that everyone can benefit from.