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Building a Bike-Friendly America — Lessons from Copenhagen

Anyone who’s ever been to Copenhagen in the depths of winter knows two things: 1) it’s unspeakably cold. And 2) there is no temperature so inhuman that it will stop the Danes getting on their bikes.

Cycling has been an integral part of life in Copenhagen for decades. Public demand for cycling infrastructure has led to huge amounts of money being poured into the city’s distinctive network of wide, raised bike lanes and other cyclist-friendly urban design features, particularly over recent years as concerns about climate change have brought renewed efforts by the city authorities to encourage residents to get out of their cars and onto their bikes. By July 2019, there were five times as many bikes as cars in Copenhagen, and a full 62% of the city’s residents were travelling to work or school by bike — up from 52% in 2015 and 36% in 2012.

Copenhagen may be in a league of its own when it comes to cycling culture and bike-friendly streets, but a historical sensitivity to non-auto modes of transport in European urban planning in general has ensured a level of connectivity in many European cities that was deliberately absent in post-war development in the United States, where half a century of transport and land use policy has encouraged low-density sprawl that incentivises automobile dependency. The result is that in much of the U.S. there are simply no options for most travel other than cars, and even in areas served by transit, travel times by public transport are often significantly greater than by car. 

What if there were such options? Would it make a difference? 

The availability and visibility of cycling infrastructure is itself motivation to ditch the car, but these measures are unlikely to achieve what they set out to achieve if not accompanied by a more fundamental transformation in the role of the automobile in the American psyche. More than just a way of getting around, the car has historically been a marker of identity and social status: a symbol of success in a consumer society, the American Dream, freedom, self-determination and independence, and ultimately it’s only by breaking out of this way of thinking that people are going to get out of their cars and onto bikes (or transit, or their own two feet). 

Unlikely as it may seem, such a transformation may already be underway. The first decade of this century saw a marked cultural shift away from America’s historical infatuation with the automobile, in particular among the younger generation, for whom getting a driver’s license is no longer the rite of passage it once was. Whereas in 1983 more than 87 percent of 19-year-olds had driver’s licenses, in 2011 that figure had dropped to 69 percent. At the same time, as a recent Smart Growth America study found, walkable neighborhoods and compact city centers are seeing significant increases in demand, as people begin to recognize the quality-of-life benefits to be gained from living in places where you don’t need a car to get to where you need to be.

Does this mean ten years from now we’ll be seeing Copenhagen-style public demand for bike-friendly streets in U.S. cities? It seems unlikely – but it’s not impossible. With a generation increasingly looking for alternatives to cars, cities should prioritize funding for cycling infrastructure, as many across the country have already been doing. But it’s going to take more than that for cycling to take root in American cities. Build it and they will come – for sure. But not all of them – at least not immediately. For that, a broader cultural shift is needed, and it’s time to think seriously about policies that will accelerate the one that’s already begun.

Image: Tony Webster via Wikimedia (CC BY 2.0)