Around the World by Bicycle

November 27, 2012 Which city is the “Amsterdam” of the US? Is it possible for a country's economy to rely on the automobile industry, but its citizens to prefer travelling by bicycle? Why do Canadians cycle more than Americans, and the Japanese cycle more than Canadians? Do citizens of Copenhagen use their bikes to have fun or to conduct business? Does cold weather prevent us from riding a bike? What is the relationship between the bicycle, obesity and diabetes?

These were some of the questions that J. Pucher, Professor in the School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University in New Jersey, focused on during his very interesting talk earlier this month at the Institute for Urban Research and Development at UC Berkeley. Actually, the discussion had already begun some hours earlier, when I had the chance along with several other researchers from UC Berkeley to have a brown bag lunch with Professor J. Pucher (many thanks to Dan Chatman, Assistant Professor of City & Regional Planning at UC Berkeley, who organized it!). Within almost an hour we managed to “travel” around the world discussing about recent trends in cycling research. Starting from Berkeley (where about an impressing for the US 8% of commuting trips are made by bike), we continued to Downtown LA, New York (where a new bike share program is about to start – Citi Bike), Amsterdam, Berlin, Copenhagen (where, contrary to the US, there is no gender imbalance in cycle use) and then Beijing, Sydney and Tokyo (where almost 18% of trips are made by bike although cycle infrastructures lag behind those of western Europe).

The discussion continued with a much wider audience at Prof. Pucher’s afternoon lecture “Promoting Cycling and Walking for Sustainable Cities: Lessons from Europe and North America”. He argued in his passionate talk that cycling and walking are the most environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable of all transport modes, and also a clever way to maintain high levels of public health. Technologically advanced countries with high per capita income and high levels of car ownership like the USA, Canada and Australia could have higher levels of walking and cycling and much lower levels of car use just for a simple reason: a large share of trips today (41% in the US) are shorter than 2 miles. Northern European cities are great examples of cycle integration, but as Prof. Pucher noted “citizens of Amsterdam and Copenhagen were not born on bicycles, as many believe”. These cities heavily invested in cycle and pedestrian infrastructures and discouraged car use before seeing significant increases in walking and cycling trips during the last 30 years. A smooth integration of bicycle with transit, education and enforcement are also important for enhancing cycle use. Prof. Pucher enriched his presentation with very interesting photos from cities around the world (especially North European), which have already promoted policies and programs to make cycling and walking safe and convenient for daily travel. He also included highlights from his new book (along with Ralph Buehler, and “a galaxy of international authors” as Prof. D. Banister has written about the book) "City Cycling" with MIT Press, which provides an overview of cycling trends and policies in cities across the globe.

My conclusion: When you build it, discourage car use and promote cycle culture, they will come. It doesn’t matter what comes first, but it is sure that all together can create a success cycle story.

Quiz answers:

1. Portland, 2. Yes, Germany, 3. Japan cities are more compact than Canadian and much more than US cities, 4. Business (90%), 5. No, residents of Northern European countries cycle much more thantheir neighbors in Southern European countries, and Canada more than the US, 6.  Really bad…

by Dimitris Milakis, Marie Curie Research Fellow at the Institute for Urban and Regional Development at the University of California, Berkeley