On Biking, Why Can’t the U.S. Learn Lessons from Europe?

Building bike paths alone will not get people out of their cars in the U.S. and onto bicycles. To create a thriving bike culture in America’s cities, people must begin to view bicycling as Europeans do — not just as a way of exercising, but as a serious form of urban mass transportation.

Elisabeth Rosenthal, in a Yale360 re-post

This spring, curiosity propelled me onto a New York City subway bound for Prospect Park West in Brooklyn, where a new bike path along the edge of Brooklyn’s largest park had angry residents worked up into a lather.

For those not familiar with the territory, Park Slope is one of New York City’s most prosperous and progressive neighborhoods, home to the famed Park Slope Food Cooperative and liberal U.S. Senator Charles Schumer. And yet… the creation of a simple green bike path — the kind that edges dozens of streets in Barcelona or Paris or Copenhagen — at the expense of one lane of car traffic and a few parking spaces evinced the kind of venom normally reserved here for The Tea Party.

I expected to find a diversity of opinion about the bike path, which was created last year by Mayor Michael Bloomberg. I did not. Almost everyone I interviewed began with the following introduction: “Don’t get me wrong I love bikes, I ride all the time…” and then segued into a barrage of objections: The path was a hazard for old people and mothers with baby strollers crossing to enter the park. Riders pedaled too fast. They should just ride inside the park. The loss of a lane made parking worse and traffic slower. It made it harder to stop to drop kids at school. It was unsightly.


I had spent much time over the last five years in Europe, where cyclists and bike lanes have become part of nearly every urban streetscape. If you are a European mayor, running a good bike-sharing program seems as much a barometer of success as having a good school system.

In Copenhagen, 37 percent of commuters now use bikes to get to school or work — a number that dips only slightly in the dead of winter. Sure, cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen have something of a bicycling tradition — certainly far more of one than in car-centric U.S. cities. But Europe’s bicycling enthusiasm extends to cities like Barcelona and Paris, with no cycling history. Even Rome has a bike-sharing program, though that city is supremely unsuited to travel on two wheels: Its roads are too narrow, its drivers mad, and its streets are paved with a kind of cobblestone that makes every meter a jarring experience.

In comparison to these cities, major United States metropolises are bicycle deserts. When we talk about “bike friendly” cities in the United States, most are mere college towns and none boast more than 6 per cent bike commuters. According to the United States Census Bureau’s 2009 community survey, 76 percent of Americans drive to work alone in their cars each day, while only 0.6 percent arrive by bicycle.

What’s going on here? One key component that has enabled Europe’s successful bike revolution, I think, is not infrastructure, but sociology: While Americans still view bicycling as a form of exercise or recreation, a tectonic shift in attitudes has taken place in many parts of Europe, where people now regard bicycling as a serious form of urban mass transportation.

Last month, The Atlantic did an interesting survey of the top bike commuting towns in the U.S. They are Eugene, Oregon (5.6 percent of people commute by bike), Fort Collins, Colorado (5.2 percent), Missoula, Montana (4.8 percent), Boulder, Colorado (4.77 percent), and Santa Barbara, California (3.74 percent). The pictures that accompanied the survey were telling: bike riders with surfboards, riders with backpacks, and even riders traversing an empty forest. Students. Students. Students. A good portion of the bikes have drop handlebars, and many of the riders are wearing racing gear.

Now look at photos of bike riders in Paris or Copenhagen or Barcelona or Marseilles. They are men and women of all ages, in suits and dresses, fur coats and heels. They are riding sensible bikes. These are not sporting  types, but a typical cross section of Europe’s working population, people going to the office on the vehicle that works well in their city.

There is more to making a city bike friendly than creating pathways, and part of that is changing attitudes: “In New York, there are lots of bike lanes, but not too many people on bicycles, so cars still think they own the road,” said Peder Jensen, head of the transport section at the European Environment Agency.

For the last several years, sociologists at Lancaster University have been studying the factors that keep people off two wheels in Britain, where biking has been relatively slow to catch on compared to other European countries, despite large government investment.  Their diagnosis is similar: “Many people barely recognize the bicycle as a legitimate mode of transport; it is either a toy for children or a vehicle fit only for the poor and/or strange,” wrote Dave Horton, lead researcher of the Understanding Walking and Cycling study.

That also helps explain why bicycle commuting is expanding only slowly in U.S. cities — 3.0 percent of commuters in San Francisco and 2.2 percent in Philadelphia and Washington D.C, according to United States Census Bureau 2009 data.

In New York it remains at 0.6 percent. Mayor Bloomberg has built us New Yorkers some really nice state-of-the art bike paths, but rank-and-file commuters aren’t much using them. Even at rush hour, the new bike path on Columbus Avenue near my home is a sparsely populated chute predominantly used by 20-somethings, bike messengers, and restaurant deliverymen.

Until we start thinking of bikes as essential transportation and not just a hobby, all the small changes that will allow working people to commute along those beautiful bike paths won’t happen.

Take me as an example: On paper, I should be riding to work. I live just blocks from a bike path along the Hudson River which would let me off at West 42nd Street, just blocks from my office.

But my apartment building sequesters bikes on high wall hooks in a basement storage room. That may be fine for a weekend ride in Central Park, but not readily accessible for daily use in work dress. On the bike path, many riders travel hunched over handlebars at death defying speeds. Could I ride here to the office — upright, slowly, and sweat-less? And then where would I park my “vehicle” once I got to work?  There is nowhere convenient. So instead I take the subway.

The 2010 interim report of the Understanding Walking and Cycling study noted that “Walking and cycling are often thought of as simple forms of travel which require little equipment or planning. In fact this is not the case.” In truly bike friendly cities, the needs of bicycle commuters are taken seriously: The terminal stations in Bogota’s bus rapid transit lines have plentiful indoor bicycle parking. In Copenhagen, the European Environment Agency has 150 parking spots for bikes.

Bogota’s former mayor, Enrique Penalosa, once told me that when he unveiled that city’s new Bus Rapid Transit System one of the biggest challenges was to “rebrand” bus travel so that upper middle class people would use it. When Zurich wanted to encourage more people to ride bikes to work, its ad campaign pictured a banker in a 3-piece suit with a bicycle clip affixed to his trouser leg.

But to follow this model, bike paths must be tailored to suit commuters, not hot shots. On Copenhagen’s bike highways into the city, lights are synchronized at about 12 miles per hour. On Beijing’s bike lanes the hordes of bike riders travel — fender to fender — at an even slower pace. If bicycling was rebranded and refocused as essential mass transportation, I think some of the objections I heard from the residents of Park Slope this spring would disappear as well. They wanted bicyclists to ride inside the park because they viewed them as sportsman who want to ride fast.  Middle-aged professionals on clunky bikes don’t mow down the elderly or babies in strollers.

Elisabeth Rosenthal, in a Yale360 re-post.  Elisabeth Rosenthal has covered international environmental issues for the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune.


Below are earlier comments from the Facebook commenting system:

Joan Savage

This is right on. Road rules and appropriate bike parking are really needed.
I’d also like something like the grab bars or foot supports that make it possible to come to a full stop at an intersection, without having to dismount each time at a stop sign or red light.
In my case, the full stop involves a wobbly re-mount and slow acceleration. As a driver I hate it immensely when a cyclist scoots through a red light in front of me as I start to proceed on green, the cyclist not ‘bothering’ with the rules of the road, particularly the full stop.

July 16 at 9:40am

John McCormick

Europeans are less lazy and less obese.

July 16 at 9:43am

Regina Bode

I am morbidly obese (I prefer fat) and European – I also lived in Amsterdam for some time and commuted 16 K roundtrip every day back then and I don’t own a car right now which means walking and cycling are still my main means of transportation. It is kind of ironic to use “lazy” stereotypes when criticising other people as lazy.

July 17 at 10:23am

Paul Magnus

Bikes should make more attractive to Americans.

July 16 at 10:16am

Paul Magnus

The should read ebikes…

July 16 at 10:16am

James Hwang

The problem? An entire cultural shift is even harder than a giant piece of legislation. It took a century after the end of slavery for racism to even start going away. At the rate of societal change, bike adoption will take decades if it happens at all in the US.

July 16 at 12:11pm

Romaine Ahlstrom

I am in Amsterdam at this moment, and the bike culture here is amazing. Bikers old and young, parents and children, little ones in carts attached to the bikes; wide lanes between the sidewalk and the tram lines…you as a walker will get run down if you don’t pay attention! Tucson, where I live, prides itself on being bike-friendly, but the bike lanes are so narrow that I as a car driver worry that I will hit one of the bikers. We in the states have a long way to go to make our streets bike friendly.

July 16 at 12:31pm

Peter S. Mizla

The USA lives in a car centered society- instead of looking for the practical vehicle, Americans look for something ti impress their neighbors or others on the Freeway or BLVD strip.

July 16 at 12:37pm

Bob Mills

just to clarify a point: “150 parking spots” in Copenhagen does not mean spots for just 150 bikes; each spot holds hundreds, even Thousands, of bikes, and I do not exaggerate.

July 16 at 1:05pm

Maryn McKenna

One of my favorite spots in Amsterdam is the bike “parking deck” outside Central Station. Must hold 1,000. Always full.

July 16 at 1:33pm

David Hembrow

Actually, that particular park in Amsterdam has an official capacity is 2500, but there are usually far more than that (​m/2009/02/parking-thousand​ s-of-bicycles.html ). This is small for the Netherlands. Other cities have more cycle parking and higher rates of cycling. For instance, Groningen has space for 10000 bikes, Utrecht for 20000:​m/search/label/groningen_n​s​m/search/label/utrecht_ns

What amuses me is that I see referenced to “state of the art lanes” in the US which are absolutely nothing of the sort. You need a better standard of provision to make cycling more attractive:​m/search/label/usa

July 17 at 7:57am

Lila Gold

In Budapest, woe betide the pedestrian who stands or walks in the dedicated bike lane. Don’t even think about roller-blading there. It’s not recreation, it’s transportation – and rightly so.

July 17 at 11:06am

Hans Muecke

Well… first the US has to accept that it isn’t a good idea to settle wherever one wants to settle. Since that actually creates the need for driving cars.

July 16 at 1:17pm


big chicken & egg problem here. many communities in america are so car-focused they don’t have consistent sidewalks or crosswalks, and in some ways that makes sense: the distances between residents & basic services are too great to walk, and probably inconvenient even to bike, daily.

the advantage of bikes is that when you begin thinking bigger picture — “we’ve made our city work for cars, now how can we make it comfortable to live here without one” — you get your costs down. bikes are more space efficient, cleaner, safer, and more social. the problem is the demand for those benefits may lag implementation of the facilities, including zoning for walkability, by many years. that’s a tough sell even with high gas prices.

July 16 at 2:19pm

Gary Moss

1. We are the exceptional nation, so we can’t possibly learn anything from other countries.

2. Europe is mired in 1945, didn’t you remember? What could we possibly learn from them?

3. Bicycles and public transportation are socialistic. We must uphold democracy!

4. We are owned by big oil. Not only does this control votes in the Congress, it controls the cultural storyline through public relations and media.

July 16 at 3:59pm

Bc Martin

They also publish textbooks for the next generation.

July 19 at 11:21pm

Rich Schermerhorn

I’m totally for the lanes, but can understand if the locals are complaining about aggressive high speed weekend warriors who think this is their training ground. European biking is more about practical clunkers traveling at speeds that allow cell phone conversation.

July 17 at 12:09am


This is the same Elisabeth Rosenthal who recently wrote a front page article in the NY Times saying:

Across Europe, Irking Drivers Is Urban Policy.
Cities in Europe are taking steps to make car use expensive and just plain miserable enough to tilt drivers toward more environmentally friendly modes of transportation;.​topics/reference/timestopi​cs/people/r/elisabeth_rose​nthal/index.html

This article was much criticized by environmentalists for its claim that sustainable transportation makes people miserable, and I am glad to see that Rosenthal is trying to make amends.

But she is still spreading misinformation and making it harder to keep the PPWs bike lane by saying that almost everyone she interviewed was against the PPW bike lane.

In fact:
A poll found that neighborhood residents support this bike lane by a margin of 3 to 2.​/2011/04/01/jim-brennan-po​ll-finds-3-2-margin-of-sup​port-for-ppw-redesign/

Hundreds of people attended a rally to support the bike lane.​/2010/10/21/hundreds-rally​-in-support-of-prospect-pa​rk-west-bike-lane/

Opponents have had some success not because of their numbers but largely because one of their leaders is Iris Weinshall, who is Sen Schumer’s wife. There is currently a freedom-of-information request to get the emails from Weinshall’s CUNY account to learn more about her political activity on this issue.​/2011/07/11/cuny-refuses-t​o-disclose-weinshall-email​s-about-ppw-bike-lane/

Rosenthal seems to specialize in finding people who are “irked” by sustainable transportation. She obviously did not try very hard to find people who are part of the neighborhood majority who support this bike lane.

July 17 at 12:55am

Richard Brenne

If all the externalities were factored in and there was an appropriate and rising price on carbon, gas prices would soon be $8 a gallon as it is in many European nations and ultimately higher, and that would produce the needed shift to bicycles as transportation more than anything.

Busses, light and heavy rail should allow as many bikes on each as possible, ideally at least the last car of every train has hooks and is the bike car without needing to box up your bike. This is what England did during WWII when citizens had access to very little if any oil. Elderly English friends have told me that was the happiest time of their life, proving that access to oil doesn’t equal happiness, and closer to the opposite is often true.

Choosing to work out of one’s home, telecommute and live near work, school and shopping are also keys. Also more dense living is needed. The idea that everyone is a king who deserves a castle surrounded by unproductive acreage is sillier than Borat, who had such fantasies because his hotel room had a chair.

July 17 at 3:23am


success of things like​q=flightvsbike suggests people are ready for this change IF IT IS FUN.

can it be big fun unless big money gets involved?
which might mean fossil-fuel money (such as the marketing $ from jet blue that the race piggybacked)?
which might mean fun only fossil interests like?
which might mean no change?

July 17 at 4:24am

Philip Peter Watson

Articles like this are realy stoking my interest in urban/environmental planning.

July 18 at 2:27pm

Lauren Cardoni

If only..

July 20 at 3:08pm

Crystal Haswell ·

This article makes VERY valid points. Bike commuter needs should be taken seriously!

July 22 at 1:35pm

Andrew Rector

It’s weird to see the difference between the States and the UK, even if the UK isn’t as bike friendly as the rest of the continent. Lots more bicyclists and bike lanes here, and people seem to treat them with respect.

July 22 at 4:59pm


Comments are closed.