All fixed set patterns are incapable of adaptability or pliability. The truth is outside of all fixed patterns. – Bruce Lee
If you want to get inside the European cycling mindset, a good place to start is this short “documentary” about urban cycling in Copenhagen (Warning: HD vid takes time to load. Start play, then pause. Go make breakfast, then resume.). I use the term documentary loosely, as this is more accurately an advocacy piece. Nonetheless, it captures the spirit and spectacle of urban biking at it’s European best.
The contrast between urban cycling here in Europe and American cities is striking. Urban cycling in America accounts for 1-3% of trips. In cities like Copenhagen and Amsterdam, it accounts for 25-35% of trips. Why is this? What is about the culture of countries like Denmark, The Netherlands, and Belgium that contributes to the vast differences with American cycling? From what I can determine, there appear to be six factors that influence this disparity:
- Geography – This region of Europe is relatively flat, so pedaling is not as strenuous as it would be in towns like Seattle or San Fransisco. Moreover, towns are rarely more than two miles apart. Cycling is more attractive if you don’t arrive pitted out.
- Relative prosperity – High income taxes, costly goods (19% VAT, $7 a gal. gasoline), and relatively low wages leave most Europeans with less disposable income than Americans. As a result, people naturally down-size to bicycles, scooters, and mass transit.
- Self image – People here are less concerned about how they appear while on a bicycle. Americans have shiny bike they ride occasionally, Europeans have beater bikes they ride all the time. Americans look askance at a fat cyclist, Euros don’t care. Americans ride for sport and exercise. Euros ride to the store, the bakery, to work, to play.
- Government – There is a large political momentum for creating cycle/pedestrian friendly cities in these countries. People genuinely believe that this direction will be better for traffic, for health, and for the world. It was not always this way. Political battles raged in the 70’s and 80’s to change the road design, expand infrastructure, and move away from car-centric transportation system.
- Traffic design – I’m not sure if it is by law or regulation, but space is set aside for motorized and non-motorized vehicles on all major streets and highways. Town streets either have marked bike lanes or extended curbs. Highways have paved bike paths, often on both sides of the highway and physically separated from the motor vehicles. Cities often have cycletracks with dedicated traffic signals for motor vehicles, bicycles, and pedestrians.
- Accident liability – In The Netherlands (I’m not sure about Denmark), motor vehicle operators are generally held liable for collisions with bicycles and pedestrians. Doesn’t matter who hit who or why; the motorist is at fault.
If we look at these factors in the context of the American experience, we can draw the following conclusions:
- Geography is relatively fixed. Environmental law all but precludes leveling hills and filling in valleys. Growth management may bring towns closer together, eventually. For now, urban cycling in America will be confined within existing towns and cities.
- Americans will not willingly embrace a lower standard of living. Economic trends may bring about a reduction in standard of living, or not.
- Political support for non-motorized transportation is changing, but slowly. Americans have a love affair with automobiles and have for generations.
- Public support for segregated roadways remains low. This is slowly changing, but don’t expect much more than painted bike lanes in the near future.
- Changing collision liability law would be the quickest, surest way to change the transportation dynamic in America.
Looking at the Copenhagen video, on glaring omission is their silence on the issue of collision liability. Over here, you drive a car or truck and collide with a cyclist, boom, you are at fault. In the states, the assumption is that the cyclist or pedestrian is at fault and should have known better than get in the way of the car. Make car drivers responsible for collisions with non-motorized vehicles and pedestrians (in crosswalks) and you will see immediate changes:
- Less aggressive driving, more courtesy towards bikes and walkers.
- Less fear on the part of cyclists to use streets, sharrows, and bike lanes, knowing that their rights are codified.
- A demand from the motor public to separate cyclist with more cycletracks and bikepaths to reduce their exposure to potential liability.
- Some communities might attempt to ban cycling altogether, but this would jeopardize federal and state funding of transportation projects.
Of all the factors that contribute to enhancing non-motorized transportation modes, changes to liability law would have the most immediate and positive effect. Though liability law cannot erase geography, it can help make streets safer for cyclists and address the implicit inferiority of cycling and cyclists. This can lead in turn to improved image, political stature, and the public funds that come with it.
Without this change to accident liability law, I believe urban bicycling in America will remain a risky activity for the fringe few, with a corresponding degree of respect and funding.