The number of people who cycle on a regular basis in Canada and the United States has increased steadily for the past two decades. According to a study published in 2011-which looked at data from national surveys conducted by the U.S. Department of Transportation-the number of e bike damen trips taken each year tripled between 1977 and 2009. The paper, which cites the rise of a “cycling renaissance,” also reports the number of people who bike to work doubled between 2000 and 2009-accounting for 0.6 percent, or about 766,000 Americans, of the working population. This number increased to 865,000 American commuters by 2012 (although, with the increasing workforce, this proportion remained at 0.6 percent).
These numbers represent national averages but are much higher in cities that invest significantly in cycling infrastructure. Portland, often recognized as America’s greatest biking city, increased the number of bike trips per year by almost six-fold between 1990 and 2009, accounting for almost 6 percent of overall transportation. For work-specific travel, bike-use peaked at 18 percent of all commutes in 2008.
Generally, biking is more popular in western communities-especially in dense urban areas, gentrified neighborhoods and university/college locales. However, cities such as Chicago, Minneapolis and New York City have also seen huge growth in cycling populations, suggesting weather and climate are not the only factors influencing bike use.
It’s worth noting that income can have an impact on why people cycle. More affluent populations are more likely to cycle for leisure, while low-income populations are more likely to cycle for utilitarian purposes-i.e. commuting to work or school. In other words, cycling may be more of a fun pastime than a desirable mode of transportation. The majority of people who cycle regularly may only do so because they can’t afford to drive.
While Americans can take pride in their growing bike culture, cycling has been ubiquitous in European communities for decades. In Denmark, 16 percent of all trips are made by bike-and 25 percent of trips less than 3 miles. As in North America, urban areas see more cycling than rural, and it’s estimated that 50 percent of Copenhagen residents bike to work or school. Bike ownership is another big indicator; 90 percent of Denmark’s population own a bike while only 56 percent own a car.
The situation is similar in the Netherlands. In Amsterdam, which has a population of 779,808, there are 800,000 bikes and only 263,000 cars-that’s more bikes than people! Ridership is also high, with about 63 percent of Danish people riding their bikes daily-and making up about 48 percent of all city traffic (compared to only 22 percent for vehicles).
In North America, depending on where you live, bike culture may seem more like a sub-, or even counter-, culture-popular among groups that differentiate themselves from the mainstream by touting “healthier” or “more sustainable” lifestyles. (Depending on your view of cycling, you might even call these people “wackos” or some other derivative.) In Europe, the culture is much different, as cycling is more pervasive-maybe even indistinguishable-from the norm. Greg Hascom wrote a series of articles for Grist a while back. He documents his experience in the bike-haven of Copenhagen-where, he notes people are “as comfortable on their bikes as we [North Americans] are in our cars.”
Denmark and the Netherlands are home to some of the most recognized bicycle communities in the world-and they aren’t limited to 20-somethings biking between classes on campus. Cycling is common across all Dutch demographics-men and women, old and young-who commute regularly by bike all-year round. They cycle to work, school, daycare, grocery stores, events-you name it and biking is the way to go.
Far from the tricked-out performance bikes you see in many American cities, most people in Copenhagen ride heavy cruiser bikes with wide fenders, large baskets on the front and/or racks on the back. Bikes are a means to getting from one place to another-and little more. There is little room or interest for bikes to take on status symbols, and many suffer from the neglect and disrepair typical of work/utility vehicles.
Riding attire takes a similar “function over fashion” aesthetic. Instead of form-fitting, performance-oriented Lycra or Spandex synthetic fabrics, Copenhageners ride in their standard jeans, skirts or other business attire. Pick up any American cycling magazine, and you’ll see page after page of designer gear and accessory equipment championed by sponsored athletes. As BBC Magazine notes about Amsterdam riders, however, “The bike is an integral part of everyday life rather than a specialist’s accessory or a symbol of a minority lifestyle, so Dutch people don’t concern themselves with having the very latest model of bike or hi-tech gadgets.”