Cascadia is North America's bicycle-commuting capital, but look at Europe

The Netherlands, Denmark, and Germany all put us to shame. Fortunately, it's not a race.
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The author commuting in Seattle.

The Netherlands, Denmark, and Germany all put us to shame. Fortunately, it's not a race.

Editor's note: This article is one of a series called Bicycle Neglect, posted on the Web site of Sightline, a Seattle-based think tank that advocates sustainability. There are more bicycles in my family than people: five people, seven bikes, and no car. That's not the usual Cascadian ratio. In the greater Seattle area, for example, the typical household has 2.4 people, 1.4 bikes, and 1.9 motor vehicles. More than 40 percent of Seattle-area households don't have even one bicycle, much less one bike per person, according to survey research by the Puget Sound Regional Council (1.8 MB PDF). Worse, even bike owners aren't necessarily bike riders: Four-fifths of the residents of Washington don't get on a bike at all in a typical year. There's a lot of Bicycle Neglect going on. But there are also signs of bicycle growth in Cascadia – signs that "car-head" is receding here. If this trend accelerates, many good things could follow, as they have in the European cities that have replaced Bicycle Neglect with Bicycle Respect. Cascadia is the North American leader in cycling. British Columbia has the highest bike commuting rates in Canada; Oregon has the highest in the United States. Every other Northwest state is above the national average. When the League of American Bicyclists scanned the United States in 2006 for bicycle-friendly communities, it found just 11 that met its standards. Four of them were in the Northwest: Corvallis, Eugene, and Portland, Ore., and Olympia, Wash. Northwest cities also stood out in a similar 2004 study by the Thunderhead Alliance (170K PDF), a bike advocacy group. Within Cascadia, the stand-out cities are the west-of-the-Cascades university towns: Corvallis, where more than 8 percent of commute trips are by bike; Eugene, where more than 6 percent of commute trips are by bike; and Victoria, B.C., where almost 5 percent of commute trips are by bike. Olympia and Bellingham, Wash., are also in the running. Cascadia's big metro areas do respectably, too. Greater Vancouver leads with 1.9 percent of commute trips by bike (and 3 percent inside the city – twice the ratio of one decade ago), according to Translink's 2007 Transportation Plan (3.0 MB PDF) and the Vancouver Neighborhood Transportation office. Greater Portland comes next at 0.8 percent (and 2.6 percent in the city – almost twice the proportion of a decade ago); followed by greater Seattle at 0.7 percent. Cycling is not evenly distributed across metro areas, of course. It's heavily concentrated in complete, compact neighborhoods that are close to the urban core. Small, campus-dominated cities like Eugene and Corvallis are therefore naturals for cycling. So are the historic street-car neighborhoods that anchor the Northwest's big cities: draw a circle with a four-mile radius around the downtown of any Cascadia city and you'll usually capture not only its most compact neighborhoods but also a large share of its bike commuters. In Portland, for example, more than 60 percent of regular cycle commuters live in such neighborhoods, and those neighborhoods have also accounted for most of the growth in biking over the past decade, as this City of Portland map of bike commuting by neighborhood (912K PDF) shows. The darker a census bloc, the more residents bike to work. Overall, Cascadia's cyclists make up slightly more than 1 percent of all commuters; perhaps 2 percent of all trips in the metropolitan areas of the region are taken by bike. That figure puts Cascadia at three times the U.S. average and on a par with Canada overall. But it's still only 2 percent of trips. (And because bicycle trips are typically short, biking accounts for an even smaller share of all distance traveled in the region: probably only 1 percent.) For comparison, at last tally, Germans made 12 percent of trips by bike; Danes 20 percent; and the Dutch 38 percent – according to data gathered by researchers John Pucher and Lewis Dijkstra (80K PDF). In the bicycling meccas of Europe, human-powered trips actually outnumber trips by car, according to this data from the Victoria Transport Research Institute. In Amsterdam and Copenhagen, for example, almost half of all trips are made under human power. In Copenhagen, some 85 percent of residents own a bike according to Brian Hansen, the city's senior advisor on cycling (7.8 MB PDF). (Say, that's almost like the people-to-bikes ratio in my family!) And 60 percent of Copenhageners – all people, including the old, young, disabled, and infirm – ride a bike on any given day. (Even my car-less family doesn't ride that much!) Cycling is even more prevalent in Amsterdam. Northern Europe's cyclomania is staggering. Consider this: Cycling is concentrated among the young in Cascadia, as most places; it peaks between ages 16 and 24 at levels around 4 percent. Even among these most two-wheeled of all Northwesterners, however, bike use is a fraction of levels in northern Europe. In fact, young Cascadians don't even match the bicycling levels of Germans over the age of 75. That's right: Germans in their late 70s and 80s bike more – on 7 percent of all trips – than Cascadia teens and twentysomethings. And the Dutch? Dutch seniors (again, over age 75) take fully a quarter of their trips by bike. They walk for another quarter. What's more, in the Netherlands, Germany, and Denmark, cycling has been growing more rapidly as a share of all transportation than has cycling in Cascadia. In Amsterdam, cycling has risen from 30 percent to 40 percent of trips since 1990. In Copenhagen, bikes have now overtaken motor vehicles for commuting into downtown. What explains the vast disparities in cycling rates? Car-head. Yes, but how? Well, most importantly, it's compact communities: northern European cities are far more densely built than Cascadia cities, which makes them naturals for cycling. Urban trips in northern Europe are half as long, on average, which makes them more bikable. It's also traffic laws and enforcement, good bicycling bridges, the extent and quality of bicycling facilities and infrastructure, and the northern European approach to safety and driver's education. There may be a cultural cause, too: Paris is as densely settled as Amsterdam, and Parisians drive almost as little as northern Europeans. But Parisians don't bike much; they mostly walk and ride transit. (In my car-less family, the males ride their bikes while the females prefer their feet and the bus. So I say, "Men are from Amsterdam; women are from Paris." Cringe. Sorry.) In bicycle road racing, you don't win unless you stay up with the pack - the peloton - because of the aerodynamic advantage of tight formations. If you fall behind, you'll probably never catch up. What's Cascadia's standing in the race for bicycle-friendly urban transportation – transportation that's affordable, equitable, energy efficient, and climate safe? Well, the region is the North American leader in bicycling; we set the pace for the peloton. Bicycling has never been more prevalent in Cascadia than it is today, and it's steadily gaining in many Northwest cities. But pull the camera back until you can see the whole race route. You'll see that the peloton we're pacing in North America is not the main one. The real contenders are in northern Europe, and they're pulling away from us. We're the leaders of the laggards. Fortunately, building complete, compact communities isn't a winner-take-all sport. Leading the trailers is still good. It means that Cascadia is seizing more of the rewards of cycle-friendly communities – from lively streets to energy independence, from narrowed waistlines to widened access to affordable transportation. The expanding lead of the European peloton is, however, a bracing reminder to do more, to speed ahead toward the end of Bicycle Neglect. Research assistance: Deric Gruen. Copyright © 2007 by Sightline. Reposted with permission.


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