Looking at Europe…

Bicycle Facilities advocates love to invoke the name of Northern European cycling. Whole websites are dedicated to notion that we should recreate Amsterdam in America. The City of Portland has explicitly claimed that its goal is to become more like Amsterdam. But they’re, like, so ten years ago!

Just as the separatist ideologues try to shoehorn more segregated facilities into American cities, they are falling out of fashion in Europe. And for the reasons Cyclist advocates have been stating all along.

From Principles of Cycle Planning by John Franklin:

At the international Velo City conference in Munich this year, a Swiss delegate described how there has been a major shift in his country from accommodating cyclists separately to mixing cyclists with traffic, with changes to the road environment as necessary. This has led to big increases in cycling. The mayors of Munich, Brussels, Copenhagen and Paris each explicitly stated how they wanted cycling back on their streets. And even a speaker from the Netherlands defined ‘cycle-friendly cities’ as those with as few special facilities for cyclists as possible.

The factors that are driving these trends include recognition that the quality of separate infrastructure is rarely good enough to satisfy a wide range of cyclists; that the capacity of such infrastructure is too limited for potential cycling growth; and intractable problems of safety.

This paper is a worthy read. It contains an excellent explanation of road profiles (on page 4) that shows why many vehicular cyclists prefer a clearly narrow lane (tight profile) to a marginally wide lane (critical profile). There’s good overview stuff in there about crash statistics, education, the problems of mixing cyclists with pedestrians, etc. He also targets one of my (many) traffic-calming peeves — the pinch point (page 8). (Remember to mirror right and left, Franklin is British)

In conclusion, he debunks the mythologies perpetrated by facilities advocates:

Finally, I return to the important issue of people’s perceptions of risk and how to encourage more people to cycle. I’ve stressed how important I believe it to be not to make reality worse just to meet inaccurate perceptions. I also believe that the way that cycling has been accommodated in recent years has often fueled rather than reduced people’s fears about cycling.

A recent study from Copenhagen – where they know better than most about cycle facility design–suggests that cycle lanes have very little benefit in terms of encouraging people to cycle while increasing risk. Segregated cycle tracks can lead to more cycling but also lead to more casualties and the space requirements will not be found in many British cities [or American ones!], except on separate alignments such as disused railway lines. <snip>

To directly address people’s fears about cycling, modern cycle training is proving very effective. But if this is to achieve its full potential, then planning for cycling needs to be consistent with best cycling practice, not at odds with it.

Meanwhile. I noticed there is yet another sidepath being contructed through a heavily-commercial area on US 17-92. We’re moving farther and farther away from where we need to be. Removing cyclists to the margins, where they are less safe, serves only to reinforce irrational fear and the belief that we don’t belong on the road.

9 replies
  1. amsterdamize
    amsterdamize says:

    Keri, although I concur that building or aiming for only/mainly segregated cycling infrastructure is not necessary (with Amsterdam actually as a prime example of that, we’re so hip, we figured that one out ages ago…so does that mean that I have to return to the future after finishing this comment? :-p), I’m very interested in the research you mentioned.

    I follow just about anything that’s being published (internationally) and I haven’t come across that at all. You mention a Copenhagen study and you relate a lot of authority to that, but I happen to know that there’s a real battle going over there right now, between, for instance, pro- and anti-helmet advocates, officials and politicians.

    This part raises a lot of red flags for me: “…suggests that cycle lanes have very little benefit in terms of encouraging people to cycle while increasing risk.”

    I can provide miles of independent and corroborated studies that prove otherwise. Again, not saying it’s the only answer, but this suggestion is absolutely nonsense. If only from the Dutch experience: cycling as a mode of transportation in the late 60’s practically died off and if it wasn’t for public (grass roots) and policy support after a number of terrible accidents, we wouldn’t be were we are today. Still, reinventing and improving where we can, where we must. Visit my blog for more on that.

    There will always be different forces trying to influence the debate or outcome thereof, but I’ve seen too many (debunked) studies, that were proven to be initiated and directed by certain market forces.

    One last point: you have to understand that a profound cycling culture (we don’t use that word, it’s just there. It isn’t formed only by infrastructure. It’s a whole range of measures and implementations; policy (infra, segregated regulations), law (traffic, liability) and education (parental & elementary cycle schooling, integral part of getting a driving license). In case of the Dutch, we are basically born on a bike and certainly the last 2 generations have never experienced a moment feeling they can’t ride anymore. Cycling is seen as a serious form of transportation across the entire policy and societal spectrum, these days even more so than the automobile.
    Another major difference in regard to implementation of different types of infrastructure, aka what is actually needed: there is no blueprint. Let me clarify: the Netherlands have 16.5 million people and they own 18-20 million bikes. Combined with our cycling history, it means that all call car drivers are also cyclists. This helps policy decisions, cycling accessibility for all, bicycle-conscious drivers and more safety from the start.

    You could apply the same sort of argument/background for public transportation (also as viable part of a mixed transport mode, bicycles are integral in that).

    Take all of this into account (as in, what kind of comprehensive approach cycling needed to get where it is today) and you know it’s not as clear cut as you perhaps like it to be.

    Anyhoo, I hope you can provide me with that information (links), so we can figure this out and debate it.

    Cheers, Marc

  2. Mighk
    Mighk says:

    Marc said Dutch cycling “practically died off” as a transport mode in the ’60s. I have a chart from the Dutch Cycling Directorate showing cycling mode share for most of the 20th Century. In most of the country cycling never dropped below 15 percent mode share. Compare that to about 0.5 percent in the US.

    It dropped not due to a lack of facilities, but due to programs to encourage auto use; particularly highways and parking lots/garages.

    The author of their own national bicycle plan said doubling the kilometers of bikeways had virtually no effect on bicycle usage. Instead, they credit increases to reducing supply of and increasing the cost of auto parking, and by providing better transit systems (a large portion of Dutch cycling is to train stations; many of those cycling trips would be too long to be feasible without trains).

  3. amsterdamize
    amsterdamize says:

    It certainly didn’t die. But you’ll also find a very sharp decline nation wide since WW2, while there wasn’t even an infrastructure as we know today, mostly shared roads, as that was still possible through the 50’s. I should have said “was dying off”.

    But yes, due to the rise of the automobile and facilitating that, neglecting that people needed more safety for cycling (the Cyclist Union was founded after much public outcry over a range of terrible fatal accidents, eventually leading to the National Bicycle Plan).

    Just like with any particular need for change of public perception, cycling was still considered quite risky through the seventies. You don’t eradicate this public notion the very next day.

    There was a very good reason why it became law or policy in the late 70’s for far reaching implementation of cycling infrastructure as a center piece for suburban development (so-called ‘grow villages’ – groeidorpen), to accommodate more and more people moving out of the city (centers), having the effect that even less was done to accommodate urban cyclists. This was a major shift in mobility, actually increasing car use, but, to point it out again, at the same time creating alternatives in suburbia (actual ‘green zones’ for pedestrians and cyclists).

    My point is: there was never a linear line of events that enables us to say that each policy decision and its development were a logical cause and effect. One policy followed the other, one would support an earlier one, etc. Pilot programs came and went, or executed to undo wrongs. Demographics changed rapidly, so did the need for livable streets, policy makers quickly discovered in the 80’s.

    One thing that did stand out, thus agreeing with you, Mighk, is that the ‘carrot-and-stick’ method worked over time, through trial and error. It took persistence and long term political dedication to stick to this pragmatic approach, not at all popular. Like I mentioned in my first comment, it was more than that. Increasing safety and awareness for cyclists by enabling more facilities (lanes, parking, and other accommodations), laws and policies (liability for car driver, driving instructions also embracing bicycles as part of the road), by education (elementary, continuous public promotion, etc).

    Demographic changes (suburbia, see above), needs for higher living standards, increasing wealth gradually shifted into yet another gear in the 80’s: businesses and industry moving out or to the edge of the cities, slowly but steadily inviting people back in, but at the same time creating a new kind of suburban sprawl, this time predominantly commuting from the city to the outskirts or ‘periferie’.

    “A large portion of Dutch cycling is to train stations; many of those cycling trips would be too long to be feasible without trains”.

    Partly true, I think. It’s not as large as you make it out to be (could be a slight unsolicited generalization on your part, of course). The Central Bureau of Statistics doesn’t include that combined factor in their annual report on Dutch national mobility which (I posted about, and it got me and a visitor wondering about that too, so I called them.

    They keep it separated. So when somebody cycles to the train station and commutes to his/her destination, a representative said, both the bike distance and the train distance are recorded seperately. I think that’s not entirely fair and you’re right, it is integral for its purpose. However, apparently the portion of people traveling by public transport, so bus, tram or otherwise to the station is actually larger than the bike equivalent.

    There is no perfect history of how this all came about, and what outcome was forced by which, did we actually create a targeted causality with most of these policies or less than we think.
    My opinion in general is that the entire spectrum of policies, demographics, public changing perception, culture, economics, etc, all had their share. I’ve worked at the Ministry for Spatial Planning, Housing and the Environment for quite some time, and even there my understanding of things was constantly undermined by events, dynamics or other aspects that couldn’t really be controlled or reasonably predicted. Policy makers / planners were struggling with the same, and weren’t always happy with compromises.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Mighk, I hope we can discover/learn more, open to critical thinking and curiosity.

    Cheers, Marc

  4. Keri
    Keri says:


    Thank you for posting your comments and insights.

    It was Franklin who mentioned the research. I’m guessing he was referring to this:

    As to your other points. I think we agree on a lot. There are many policies operating together in creating cycling-friendly culture. In most cases cycling either exists already in the culture, or a combination of sociopolitical, geographical, environmental elements exist to make it possible.

    To digress to Europe for a moment, I’ve cycled in downtown Rome on 2 occasions. No bike lanes or cycle tracks, but a culture where the motorist is not the entitled road user. There is clearly an attentiveness to the shared space with pedestrians, bicyclists, scooter-drivers, etc. Even though Rome’s traffic appears chaotic, it works, and I didn’t get the sense of territorialism I see in American drivers.

    I would define a bike culture as one in which cycling is seen as a serious and normal form of transportation. I would define a cyclist-friendly community as one in which bicyclists are accepted and respected as a normal part of the traffic mix. I would like to live in a culture like that. I’m not sure if full-fledged cycling culture is possible in Orlando (many of the aforementioned elements do not exist here), but I would like to achieve the closest possible thing to it. Where I differer from facilities advocates is that I believe fulfilling a city’s capacity for mode share is possible without complicating the roadways or compromising bicyclist speed, safety or access to the road. I think advocates put too much weight on travel facilities like bike lanes and trails because it’s the mindlessly-accepted paradigm and not because it’s the only, or best, way.

    I believe in assessing all the factors (many of which you listed) and determining which ones can be accomplished without creating a spiral of unintended consequences.

    As I’ve spelled out on the advocacy page, there are priorities greater than infrastructure. You can’t change social attitudes with physical structures. Adding separated facilities to a culture of incompetent cycling and inattentive, hyper-selfish motoring (adding segregation to territorialism) is like putting a bandage on a festering wound. No good will come of it.

    We have huge deficits of driver and bicyclist education, public awareness, traffic enforcement/justice… heck, secure bike parking… We’re seeing fuel prices push people onto bikes, and those people are doing crazy things. I’m seeing a huge increase in wrong-way riders (one was killed 2 days ago), beyond just the usual Edgewater Drive bike lane (which seems to breed them). We don’t need to promote cycling, we need to educate cyclists.

    We desperately need to overcome the belief that cycling is dangerous — and the way to do that is not to create an illusion of safety with separation, but to actually debunk the mythology that integrated cycling is dangerous. It simply isn’t. And that is proven out in all the crash studies—including the one Mighk did for Orlando: here

  5. pmsummer
    pmsummer says:

    It’s my understanding that the photograph you are showing is actually a test-ground prototype of a new cycle facility that the City of Portland is developing.

    Studies have shown that one of the major causes of bicyclists’ injuries is contact with hard pavement when they fall from/with their bicycles. The photo illustrates a test that proved this theory. Cylists who fell to the left of the bike lane, onto the paving stones, were 1000 times more likely to suffer head injuries, broken bones, and skin lacerations than were the cyclists who fell to the right, into the canal.

    Portland, with the aid of Halt-a-Design, is proposing to build canals parallel to all bike lanes to protect cyclists from impact with dangerous pavement surfaces.

    While preliminary data indicates a slight rise in cyclist drownings, a new mandatory cyclist flotation vest law should address that concern.

    You may now return to serious discussion.

  6. fred_dot_u
    fred_dot_u says:

    In the paraphrased words of Arlo Guthrie: Lucky for me, I didn’t hit the mountain….. I went off the cliff!

    pmsummer, your description is just too close to reality in my observation of government activities.

  7. andrewp
    andrewp says:

    I am pro-facilities — at least maybe more that some. I agree with most that simply painting lines on a street and calling it a bike lane does not help anyone. But certain kinds of facility changes would be helpful. Bike racks at business locations. Abilty to have cyclists (think kids going to school) be able to navigate through neighborhoods without getting shunted onto busy arterial roads. But I also agree that it has to be a comprehensive approach as Keri and others have outlined.

    Marc, we don’t have a transportation-oriented bike culture here yet (I think that most think of bike culture as almost exclusively recreational). You make it sound like it was always there in the Netherlands. so the question really is: How do we develop it here?

  8. Eric
    Eric says:

    I think I need to point out the pre-war and post-war generations in Europe. Those people (now old and grey) grew up when everyone knew the value of a Guilder! They moved to be close to work and they cycled to get there. They worked right through the ’80’s until they retired. So those people were still cycling when the children of the ’50’s decided to use a car. They were the core of cyclists that were later built upon. No one had to build facilities for them.

    Then there is the price of petrol. It is now up to about 1.69 Euros per liter in The Netherlands, I think. It is, in fact, high petrol prices that spur higher bicycle usage both in the US AND in The Netherlands.
    titled “High petrol prices see bikes gain ground in the Netherlands”

    So if you want to see a cycling culture in the US, the answer is simple, stop subsidizing oil. No more tax breaks for oil companies. Stop sending Navy ships to the Persian Gulf at a cost of a million dollars a day each, or at least tax what they are protecting appropriately.

  9. Ryan Conrad
    Ryan Conrad says:

    Shhhhhh! We’re still trying to get our RTE approved by FHWA for Cycle Canals. They’re replacing the on-street parking on Broadway with canals, 1,000,000,000%+ decline in dooring accidents are predicted.

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