In the bicycle as transportation world a major goal, and for many the primary goal, is people commuting to work by bicycle. A lot of focus is put on routes from outlying suburbs to the major employment centers of cities and getting employers to install showers and lockers so that bike commuters can shower when they get to work.
I am very much a proponent of bicycle commuting. Most of us waste around an hour each day sitting in our car getting fat, frustrated, and poor. That’s not good for us. Not to mention the pollution and other problems from cars.
Even so, I’m not sure that bicycle commuting is a very good goal, at least in the next decade or so.
Most people in the U.S. today live a considerable distance from where they work, about 16 miles on average. Much to Katherine Kersten’s chagrin, we likely need to change that, but it won’t happen very fast. And, given a choice between a 25-minute commute in a climate controlled car or an hour commute on a bicycle dodging cars, few will choose a bicycle, myself included on many days.
There’s also a perception problem. Have you noticed what the average long-distance bicycle commuter looks like? Good luck convincing your neighbors that what they want to do is invest thousands of dollars in special clothing, spend time every morning putting those things on, and then, GO OUT IN PUBLIC.
Leggings look quite fashionable on some women, not so fashionable on the rest of us. And clickety-clacking through the office (or local cafe) with a bit of commute odor for accompaniment doesn’t work for most of us.
A key to success in any endeavor is to focus on goals that are realistically attainable, in a reasonable time-frame, and that will provide a worthwhile return on investment, ROI.
Today, about 2% of folks in the Twin Cities commute to work by bicycle. We’ll see more do so, but I think we’re approaching a hard upper limit due to the length of most people’s commutes. A three to five mile commute is quite doable for almost everyone, but beyond that the number of people willing to ride a bicycle drops off sharply.
With commuting we’re trying to get a lot of people to do something that they really don’t want to do instead of getting people to do something that they will want to do.
What then are some realistic, attainable, and worthwhile goals? How about 70% of students walking or bicycling to school? Or 20% of grocery shopping and other local errands being done by bicycle? Almost all of us should be able to ride to a local cafe or ice cream place at least one out of ten times.
These shorter trips don’t require significant physical effort or that people ‘be in shape’. The time difference between riding and driving is minimal and will often favor riding. They’re not so long that they require a fast bike or any special clothing and on all but the most frightful days (bad year to be writing this?) they’re short enough to not be uncomfortable from a weather standpoint.
Better, these are proven winnable goals. These are the kind of trips that people in The Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, and elsewhere do. Countries with very high modal shares of bicycling don’t have lots of people riding 10 miles each way to work. Someone in Amsterdam with a 16 mile commute ahead of them will likely not ride their bike. They’ll take a train or tram, take their bike on the train, or drive their car—just like sensible Minnesotans.
What these countries do have is nearly everyone walking or riding bicycles for 1 or 2 or 3 mile journeys; to school, the grocery or hardware, train or bus station, and yes, even to work if it’s close enough.
Best of all, a lot of people in the Twin Cities, maybe 10%, can begin doing this today. Shoreview, for example, has a great network of quite pleasant segregated paths throughout most of the community. Probably half of Shoreview residents have at least one, if not two or three, grocery stores within easy and safe bicycling distance. Same for schools, restaurants, and other routine destinations.
There is considerable room for improvement, but it’s not at all unworkable today. The biggest issue in Shoreview seems to be mindshare—people don’t think of their bicycle as a mode of transportation. They’ve been getting in their cars for the half mile trip to Paninos for too long. Fortunately this is changing.
Most people though, will need some better infrastructure. They don’t have the option of a route to school, a grocery, local train or bus station, or a local cafe that feels and is safe. Just because you build it doesn’t mean they’ll come, but if you don’t build it they certainly won’t.
We should be looking at our schools, and building out from each. Every school should have a spiderweb of safe pedestrian and bicycle paths reaching out in to every neighborhood that they serve. Maybe just a mile in every direction by 2015 (very sad that this is even a need), but stretching 1.5 miles by 2017 and 2 miles by 2019.
We should do the same for local retail centers. Every one should itself be an inviting and safe place for people and people on bikes and each should have a spiderweb of safe paths reaching out towards their customers.
All of these little webs of paths will be immediately useful to a lot of people. Because they go somewhere that people want to go and a reasonable distance that they can go.
What’s more, as we begin doing this and getting this local infrastructure in place, we can link them together. If Shoreview and Roseville both build good local infrastructure throughout their communities then we’ll be able to ride safely from Shoreview to Roseville for dinner or shopping.
We should continue to promote longer distance commuting by bicycle for those interested, but we should, in my opinion, focus most of our efforts and resources on our local communities. On getting safe routes to every school. On safe routes to local shopping and other amenities. These are where I think we’ll see the biggest payoffs because these are where everyone can ride, instead of just a very few, and where it will be appealing for them to do so.
 I’m not at all opposed to full-kit lycra and cleated shoes. I don them myself a few times a year for fitness rides. But many people, likely the vast majority, don’t want to buy this stuff or wear it. And there’s no need for them to do so.
 Interestingly, these 2% likely ride their bicycles for transportation each day farther than the average person in The Netherlands—the bicycle capital of the world and a population much healthier than ours.
 However, on a nice day and if they have the time, many will ride their bicycle for longer distance errands and they have the safe infrastructure to do it.
 Many also have two bikes, one at home and one that they keep at the train station near where they work for getting from the train to their work and for getting around during the work day.
 In most cases, safe, segregated paths are built as part of larger road reconstruction projects or as part of new roads. We need to push for EVERY one of these to be done appropriately. However, there are opportunities to add paths to existing roads outside of major reconstruction projects and opportunities to push reconstruction projects up in order to get safe pedestrian and bicycle facilities.
The school and university idea is an interesting point. The good news is the number of student bike commuters at the U has become astounding. The problem is I’m afraid it won’t stick after they gradaute. Maybe it’s something about the rusty old mountain bikes with deflated tires, but they just don’t seem to be very serious; they still view their bike as a child’s toy that will get them from their dorm to class until they can graduate and buy a house and car. I wonder what can be done to turn these students into life long commuters, especially since they’re in a good position to make decisions on where they live and work.
A note on shiny neon Lycra: there’s been a lot of improvement lately in technical but normal-looking clothes. Indeed there’s no need for people to wear “sporty” bike clothes, but given that our weather is gnarly and our commutes are a little longer, it will be a while before we can all commute in our suits and ties and skirts like in Denmark. It’s good for people to learn you find clothes that can be comfortable in various sorts of weather and not make you look like you’re the the Tour De France.
Jeff, you’ve hit on a key point, people own recreational bikes, not transportation bikes. We have a variety of bikes in our house and from a comfort and convenience standpoint there is a vast difference in a Dutch style city bike and any of the bikes, including most looks-like-a-dutch-bike bikes available at most bike shops. And best of all, we can easily ride our city bikes in ANY clothes and shoes we happen to have on.
I agree with your basic point: that there’s more to measure when it comes to increasing cycling than simply those who cycle to work. However, I think infrastructure may be playing more of a role than you think, even in distances well beyond 3-5 miles.
I live in Richfield but work in western Savage. It’s about 14 miles by way of freeways. By bike? The shortest lawful ride is 17 miles each way. And that’s not some detour I’ve designed for myself for a more pleasurable route; that’s basically the most direct route, including riding on Penn Avenue and Old Shakopee Road for a number of miles. Both carry a lot of motorized traffic, with no dedicated space for bikes — OSR in particular. Of particular insult is, after crossing the river, you have a full one-mile detour just to get around the interchange of the Shakopee Bypass, Bloomington Ferry Bridge, and Old 101. The result? I’ve biked to work exactly twice in the four months I’ve worked there. I don’t even really have the choice to bike now, since the trail bridge is not cleared of snow. (And I may not immediately in the spring either, since the trail bridge, 100-or-so feet below the Bloomington Ferry freeway bridge, is in the floodplain.)
Time is not really the issue; it can take up to 45 minutes to drive a car during rush hour, and even with the added miles, it’s about an hour each way to bike. While that’s somewhat more, it’s still far less time than I spend going to the gym to supplement my lack of activity for transportation. I genuinely believe that if we had infrastructure for bikes that was as safe, direct, and dignified as freeways are for cars, a lot more folks would be willing to bike to work. Even well beyond five miles.
Sean, I hope I didn’t leave the impression that I don’t think infrastructure is important. I think it is the critical foundation necessary if we are to increase bicycling for transportation—local or long-distance. Otherwise, well said.
Keep in mind that your 18 mph average to bicycle to work is well above average. Most people will average about 13 mph and with stops will be somewhat lower. I’d think that the vast majority of people would be looking at something closer to 2 hrs each way for your commute (unless there are few stops?). I very much agree that better infrastructure will get more people doing the longer commutes, but I think that even with full on Dutch infrastructure across the entire metro we’d only see maybe 5% at best, particularly during inclimate weather.
The folks in that photo commuting to work by bicycle don’t look funny. Its a funny situation where early adopters might not share the mindset of the masses we’d like to get to follow them, but there is zero reason you need spandex and clip on shoes in order to bike an hour or less to work.
Adam, Yes! It’s interesting when I go to meetings about local infrastructure how often they’re packed with the vehicular cycling 2% fighting against any segregated infrastructure and few if any to represent the other 98% of the population. Fortunately this is slowly changing.
For sooooo long, transportation planners have been fixated on commutes to work. (Undoubtedly because of the intractable congestion paradox.) It’s hard for people to think outside the rush hour, but you’re exactly right. Everyday trips are just as important. And what’s more, promoting this kind of cycling can be the gateway to commuting to work later (somehow, given the right work/home relationship).
Another hurdle is that the ACS data (our best bicycling dataset) only asks about commutes, not any other kind of bicycling.
Thanks Bill! I think you’re absolutely right that getting people to do local trips by bicycle will encourage some to also do longer commutes. There’s this kind of brick wall mindshare barrier that we need to break through with folks. Just getting people to think about a bicycle as an alternative to their car will be huge and getting some decent bikes in their hands that are comfortable, convenient, and easy to ride without changing clothes will help as well.
Data aside. What’s gotten me to ride in the Twin Cities, which is already like a ski resort for bikes w/ all the trails and bikeways, is education, recognition and admiration.
Someone had to teach me how a bike worked again. I road a lot as a teen in the burbs but didn’t know how presta valves worked when I got a new road bike. Then there are the brakes, shifting, etc. It’s not nearly as DIY for new riders. This is the main point, every burgeoning biker needs a mentor to show them the best routes and how to maintain their bike cheaply. Regulars need to meet a would-be at their house and ride them to work. THIS needs to be a thing. Not Bike to Work Day but Bike Someone to Work Day!
Then you need recognition at your place of employment or business you’re shopping at. This might be showers, a good safe bike rack, a small rebate for not parking, a pat on the back from your company somehow. Something.
Then you need admiration and that’s a cultural thing. Some cities have that vibe and some don’t but when I see a biker riding in the winter in MN I think ‘look at that ninja warrior! She’s cool.’ The twin cities have that but there needs to be more of it.
Just my thoughts…
Ron, I agree and disagree. I think a big part of the problem is that we make bicycling too complicated. You shouldn’t need someone to show you anything about a bike other than “turn this to shift”. The bikes sold in most bike shops are indeed too complicated and often too unreliable. We need shops to start selling good city bikes that are easy to operate and require minimal maintenance.
LIkewise, it shouldn’t be complicated to ride to any destination. People should not need someone to show them how or to mentor them! We need infrastructure that doesn’t require this.
I’m not a big fan of recognition. Nice when it comes perhaps, but I don’t see the necessity. If we wait around for it, we’ll never do anything. More so, I think most people ride for their own selves—because they enjoy it, like being more enviro-friendly, like saving money, etc.
HOWEVER, we’re not there yet. We don’t yet have the proper shops and bikes available nor the infrastructure. Until we change that you are absolutely on target with mentoring people and your Bike Someone To Work Day (or Bike Someone To Dinner Day or Bike Someone To The Grocery Day…)
To belabor my point :)…. There is so much more to learn than turning the pedals no-matter the bike. What to have in your tool kit and how to use it all. Where to put a tail-light on your frame so that it’s not blocked from view. If you observe college age students riding at the U many of these newer riders are invisible at night and making dangerous decisions. There are “rules to the road” that you have to hear from someone that’s been there.
Never pass a vehicle on the right for example. I’ll often ride up to an intersection with 2 other riders and all 3 of us will go to a different place waiting for the light to change, (and these are 3 ppl who are riding already so they know a lot more than someone who’s never ridden in the city). I’ll get behind a car and wait in line, another will pass all the cars on the right and wait next to the lead car, a third will ride onto the sidewalk and wait there. It’s really only through riding with experienced people that you learn the safest way to do this and what can happen if you do it wrong. There are so many little examples like this that ppl who have been doing it for years know or at least have an opinion on. Another example is Google Maps Bicycling. This tool is amazing at showing people the most used routes to ride, but how are people going to hear about this if not from someone that’s seen it before.
I think the lowest hanging fruit to having more people riding safely is getting the knowledge out. Anyway I love the discussion and I really agree with your points as well.
I’ll once again agree and disagree 🙂
People should NOT have to carry a toolkit. People should NOT have to put a tail-lite on. People should NOT have any confusion over what to do at intersections. The first two are a symptom of our selling people the wrong bikes. If someone is racing or mtn biking they may need a road or mtn bike, but if they’re primary use is transportation then our shops should be selling them bikes that, similar to cars, don’t require toolkits and have appropriate lites already on them. EG, http://localmile.org/?page_id=75
Similarly, if our bicycle network were designed correctly, there would be little need for instruction on how to use it. Some, but not much. If you ride around Amsterdam you get the idea very quickly. Nobody has to show you anything. Our bicycle infrastructure should be just as good as theirs.
You drive a car without a jack, lug wrench, and spare tire in the rear?
Since you raise the comparison – automobile technology has gotten so reliable that a ridiculously small number of drivers would even attempt to change a tire, many people are even blissfully unaware that those items are even in the vehicle. Auto enthusiasts might do it, or people with some mechanical ability. Most people just call a service. Heck, new Mercedes don’t even provide a dipstick any more.
I would never bike without basic tools,or a pump and spare, I am an enthusiast, and wrench all my own machines, but I am atypical. One of the latest occurrences is for cities or businesses to provide public workstations with a pump and simple tools specifically so people don’t have to carry that stuff. The average person who we are trying to get to use a bike for basic utility has no interest in learning to change a tube, beyond adding some air, or adjusting derailleurs or brakes. The key to getting more people on bikes is EASE. So yes, based on your comparison, I think Walker’s statement absolutely stands.
And of course it shouldn’t be this difficult! but it always will be in some parts of the city that one needs to ride so have the knowledge about best riding practices needs to get out there either way.
I really like the idea of “bike someone to work day”. in Portland, they have a program where people will volunteer to accompany new or interested riders on their commute, like a guide. Do you know of anyone who does that here?
I’m not aware of such a program, yet!
As an anecdote I recently played golf with a coworker from India and it was his first time playing on a course. We got there at 6:45AM and teed off the back nine so we’d not hold anybody up. Every hole I had a little something new to tell him, not too much so it wouldn’t be overwhelming.
It was a blast for both of us. It’s not often that you have someone hanging on your every word about a topic that you love to blab about:)
I think showing someone how to ride in the city would be a similarly enjoyable to me. I’ll start looking into it.
As a disclaimer I personally don’t use a bicycle for utility transportation-I telecommute and the only stores I go to in my neighborhood are the fast foods, and then I normally don’t have an hour to bike their and back, and I don’t think I could use a bicycle in the drive-through anyway. But I have to agree with the other commentators: Bicycling has gotten just too complicated here. When I was a kid we’d just hop on our department store bikes to go down to the neighbors house to play; but now the perception is you need gloves, helmet, spandex, special shoes, and a $600.00 bicycle. I even had one of these types tell me my $100.00 bicycle was lousy and I needed a better one. You look at the Netherlands, and they just hop on a city bike in whatever they happen to be wearing.
Unless you spent $100 on a good used bike for an adult, yeah it probably was a lousy bike. Buying Magnas and Huffys for kids is not a big deal, they’ll grow out of them before they fall apart. $600 is pretty reasonable for an adult bike whether it be a road bike or city bike, especially when you consider people spend $20,000 to $30,000 for automobile.
I wish there wasn’t that perception of having to look like Lance Armstrong when you hop on a bike. I’m personally working in that with my winter riding getup – winter boots, jeans, chopper mittens, a couple of old wool sweaters from Savers and a light jacket.
I actually do own a $600.00 bike now (a Trek road bike), and found the cost reasonable. My points were 1) You don’t actually need to spend that much for a good city bike, I have a $300 Trek hybrid that is good for tooling around town, and 2) Telling someone they have a lousy bike is a bit elitist, even if they do.
Monte, I agrée 100%. Nicer bikes are certainly worth the money if you ride a lot, but not even remotely necessary. It will be good when we get a market of used good quality city bikes. If you want a Dutch style bike today I think about your only option is to order a new one which is quite expensive.
Scott, you get my fashionable rider vote! 🙂 I’m always in hiking boots, jeans, t-neck, sweater, jacket, and gloves or mitts.
I’d like to know why it’s so important to focus on what people are wearing. Don’t judge me because I decided to wear bike tights in the winter cold and rain, so that I can change into clean street clothes at work. It’s what I’m comfortable in. I happen to like my technical gear. I am mostly uncomfortable riding in jeans and non-stretchy fabrics. I’m not trying to look like anything, I’m just wearing what I find most comfortable, so knock it off.
Unfortunately, Ann S., the “kit” seems to be the thing that most non-cyclists seem to fixate on, in my experience. When I tell people that I bike to work (Pittsburgh here, 10 mi. each way), the first question out of their mouths is invariably “Oh, do you wear those funny shorts and crazy shirts?”. When I ride to work, I wear golf pants, that look like dress pants but have as much lycra and stretch as any tights, and golf shirts that wick and dry quickly. I would not hesitate to ride a century in my “normal” commuting wear. I own Lycra too, but that’s for day rides or touring and bike specific days. I would never judge someone for wearing the best technical gear, but I think that acknowledgement of the fact that the kit causes non-riders to perceive riders as some kind of strange “others”, and affects acceptance, is a valid thing to address.
No judgement at all. As I said in the footnote, I wear cycling specific clothing sometimes as well. My point, as Bill well pointed out, is that it is not necessary for most people and most rides.
I’d like to offer a defense for spandex-wearing cyclists everywhere. I think it’s at least worth acknowledging that most cyclist apparel serves an important function, not just looking good. (As has been noted, many folks look less good in it.) While I’ve barely biked at all to my current work, I used to bike almost every day to downtown from Richfield (about 8 miles). I did ride in regular clothes a number of times, but in general, comfortable cycle clothing made it a lot easier to do that commute every day.
I would in say in particular cycling shorts and gloves are important. Cycling shorts avoid chafing, wick sweat, and provide more comfort in the saddle. I used to eschew gloves, until I started getting hand pain from road vibrations. The fact that I was riding a road bike, rather than a commuter bike, meant I could comfortably get downtown in 35 minutes, even with stop lights.
Likewise, if I gain some dedication for the spring, I have no doubt that the 17 miles through Bloomington and Savage will make shorts and gloves a nonnegotiable. I might even through in a jersey from time to time…
“I might even throw in a jersey from time to time…” A Streets.MN jersey of course. Oh wait… 😉
Cycling in Tokyo enjoys a 16% modal share yet bicycle commuters make up a very tiny fraction of that number. In Tokyo the average length of bicycle trips is under 2km which reflects the fact that bicycles are being used for short trips around the local neighborhood, grocery shopping, ferrying children to school and a multitude of other short trips.
It is important not to fall into thinking that high bicycle commuter numbers equals a healthy cycling culture. Bicycle commuting represents only one way in which the bicycle can be used for transport in every day life, and is a very male specific activity, and therefore not representative of cycling as a whole.
Byron, Yes! (and great website)
Half of all car trips in the US are 3 miles or less! I completely agree with the author – THIS is the low-hanging fruit advocates should be focusing on – trips to school, the supermarket, downtown to a restaurant, the movie theatre, etc. Cargo bikes like Long-Johns and Bakfiets make excellent car replacement`s for these type of trips but, yeah, there is a crying need for some inexpensive, simple, strong Dutch, or Japanese style (Mama-chari) utility bikes in the US market.
I use a bike to commute to work in London (England) and at weekends to visit the shops in my local home town, Haslemere, which is an hour’s train ride from London. I think in many ways the environment for and culture of cycling in the UK is very similar to yours, and certainly entirely different from our virtual next-door neighbours across the North Sea in the Netherlands.
Like probably about 3% or so of the people who commute daily from my town to London, I “multimode” – I cycle down to the station to catch the train, fold my Brompton and take it with me to the London terminus where I unfold it and complete my journey by bike. I would say I am probably one of 20 or 30 who do the same. Then there are about 50-60 people who ride a non-folding bike to the station, lock it up in the cycle racks, and at the other end they either take a bus or metro, they use one of the “Boris Bikes” (hire bikes) or in some cases collect a second bike of their own which they keep in similar cycle parking at the terminus station. We are clearly on a very different level from that in the Netherlands, where a suburban rail station could have bike parking for 2-3,000 bikes, but the concept is the same.
Of course, we also have those who take pride in the length of their cycle commute – typically living in the mid to outer suburbs of the London metropolitan area, and riding 10-15 miles. They almost compete with each other to say how long their ride is, and they are kitted out in stretch lycra, helmets, and high-end road bikes. They are not representative, although they do form a subset of the UK cycle culture, and you are right to say that our Dutch neighbours wouldn’t do this.
Looking at the issue of motor traffic in terms of congestion and pollution, lack of exercise etc, it is much the same here is it is no doubt for you – half of all car journeys are under 2 miles, two thirds are under 3 miles in a city. In rural/suburban areas, that is half under 3 miles and two thirds under 5 miles. That must surely be the area to address. Take a significant proportion of those trips out of cars and into buses or on bikes, and significant gains are achieved in all areas – less congestion, less pollution, better health and fitness. People could be left to make their longer journeys by car with far less adverse consequences. Certainly this is what happens in the Netherlands, where car ownership is just as high as it is in the UK – about 420 cars per 1,000 population. They just use their cars differently.
Why do people commute by bike, but don’t make short trips to the shops etc? Infrastructure is certainly a key factor – commuters tend to be early middle-aged males, say 25-45, fit, and bold enough to tolerate the road conditions and sprint where necessary to get out of trouble. Shopping or school trips are a different demographic.
Also, to be fair, commuting tends to be at the worst times for driving, due to congestion – everyone is moving at the same time. There is more to be gained by cycling as it avoids very slow average speed driving. That is probably also true of the school run (except of course that involves children, whom their parents are fearful of sending out onto the roads alone) but other journeys like shopping or leisure trips can generally avoid this time of day and so the time penalty in the car is much less. The reason I cycle for such trips is that the distances are quite short – 1.5-2 miles – and in fact a bicycle is actually quicker over those distances, even in clear roads, once you have factored in the hunt for a parking space, then a walk from car to car park ticket machine, back to car with ticket etc. I also enjoy the feeling that I have cheated my local council out of the parking fee, which works out at about $1.20 per hour.
“Commuters tend to be early middle-aged males, say 25-45 … Shopping or school trips are a different demographic.”
Exactly. Shopping and school trips are usually the responsibility of the women of the house, especially when the men of the house have long commutes. That’s exactly why we need to change our promotional tactics if we want to get more people riding bikes.
By changing the “style” of cycling from long commutes on bent-over road bikes in cycling-specific lycra to shorter errands on more upright bikes in ordinary clothes we can gain more interest from women (as well as plenty of men who wouldn’t ride a skinny tire bike).
I’m so glad you wrote this. I’ve been beating this same drum for years. It’s silly that we focus on bike commuting to work when for most people, it’s the longest trip they do all week.
It’s a lot easier for most people to ride the 1-3 miles to the grocery store, pharmacy, post office, etc. Another issue we have in the US is that the bikes aren’t designed for carrying things. You have to buy accessories like racks after market (assuming they fit).
The person who commented about how we track bike mode share is spot on. They only count work trips, which excludes so many people from retired people to students to stay-at-home moms. Plus, people like me who spend 30 minutes on the bike and 15 minute on a train get counted as transit users, not bike commuters, since they use distance, not time, for multi-modal commutes. It’s irritating.
Sorry, Walker, this is a popular myth, but you couldn’t have got this more wrong.
Actually, Dutch commutes are on average the longest in Europe. What’s more, Dutch cyclists make longer journeys by bike more frequently than American cyclists make short journeys by bike.
Click here to find all figures summarized with sources:
David, thanks very much for the link. I agree with all that you’ve said, but I’m a bit confused. When you say that I couldn’t have gotten this more wrong, were you referring to my comment that the 2% of bicycle commuters in the U.S. likely ride farther than the average Dutch? I’m comparing a small subset of the longest distance bicyclists in the U.S. to the entirety of the Dutch population.
Walker, t’s a misconception that the Dutch make shorter journeys by bike than people of other nations. Actually, that’s almost certainly completely wrong.
It is true that in this nation, just as every other, there are more short journeys than long. Median trip lengths, regardless of mode, always seem to be shorter than most people think. For instance, 40% of urban journeys in the USA are under two miles in length. That’s not just cycle journeys, but all journeys regardless of purpose or mode.
The difference between the USA and the Netherlands is how people make those journeys. The Dutch cycle for the same journeys as Americans drive. Why ? Because they have the opportunity to do so. Cycling here is safe and convenient. This is so because of a very tight network of very high quality cycle-provision. Note that this network has been shown not to have an effect unless it is both of very high quality so that cyclist journey times are short, it is extremely dense, and that it goes everywhere. By dense, note that from our entirely average home we have to cycle for less than 30 seconds on an 18 mph limit non-through residential street to reach either of two different four metre wide cycle-paths which enable us to make efficient journeys by bike to any possible destination in the entire country.
The infrastructure which best enables short journeys by bike necessarily also best enables long journeys. Islands of infrastructure don’t work because they provide for only a small subset of total journeys. Dutch infrastructure has enabled not only lots of short journeys to be made by bike (remember that most journeys in every country, regardless of mode, are short, so of course there are more short journeys by bike than long journeys) but also lots of longer journeys by bike.
These figures are much the same everywhere. For instance, Londoners drive for almost exactly the same distances and purposes as Dutch people cycle.
In the Netherlands, everyone cycles. This means there are plenty of people who ride short distances every day and who profess little enthusiasm for cycling at all, let alone covering long distances. But talk even to some of those who profess not to be enthusiastic about cycling and it’s interesting what picture emerges. The Dutch cycle what would be considered to be long distances elsewhere with remarkable ease. It starts in childhood. There are teenagers in this area who ride 12 miles to get to school in the city each morning and the same again to get home in the evening. This isn’t something that a minority do, but is normal. They have to do this, because there are no secondary (12-18 year old) schools in the villages and no school buses. Instead of providing school buses, cycle-paths have been built to link villages to cities and cities to other cities and these cycle-paths are used heavily.
The result is that distances which would perhaps be considered to be remarkable elsewhere are rather unexceptional here. Bikes are used remarkably intensively in the Netherlands. A premium price is paid for reliable bikes (the average Dutch bicycle costs 3x as much as the average American bicycle) and every moving part becomes worn out. Tyres bought for their durability are worn thin even by people who you might think wouldn’t ride very much. This happens because the distances these people cover add up! While the Netherlands has just 16 million people, between them they ride their bikes a longer distance each year than everyone living in all the English speaking countries added together.
Those people who make up the 2% in the USA exist here too, but here they are more numerous and their enthusiasm is greater.
In every country, there are more short journeys by bike than long journeys. However, the infrastructure of the Netherlands enables a greater percentage of journeys over 10 miles to be made by bike by the Dutch than Americans, British, Australians and other nations manage to make even of their very shortest journeys. The Netherlands is the only country building networks of long distance cycle-paths running inter-city distances not as a way of providing recreation (we have those too) but specifically to enable more people to make long commutes by bike. These are needed, but they’re not the whole story. The same infrastructure works best to encourage both for short and long journeys. The only difference between long and short journeys is how much of it you use and the most important features of it are that it goes everywhere and is very high quality.
This is why I said you’d got it wrong. Your article gives the impression that Dutch cyclists cover shorter distances than cyclists elsewhere, but this is absolutely not true. Whether you look at short, medium (in the Netherlands, the 3-5 mile distance you refer to is ridden by or long journeys, at journeys for commuting, shopping, going to school or for any other purpose, you’ll find that the Dutch make more of those journeys by bike than the people of any other nation.
Sport cycling is also amazingly popular. Go for a ride on Sunday morning and the cycle-paths and lanes are full of people dressed in the strip of their favourite team (or a local club) and riding expensive carbon fibre machines. Facilities for all types of sport cycling are remarkably common. Even small towns have cycle racing circuits, cross country and MTB tracks, bicycle trials courses, serious BMX facilities etc.
Moving to the Netherlands from an English speaking country gave me much the feeling of being a “big fish in a small pond” who had moved to the ocean. In Britain, I was a relatively “fast” cyclist who actually came first in races from time to time. Here, though, I’m average at best. I was second to last in the first race I entered after moving here and despite radical upgrades to equipment and better fitness due to cycling much more than even I, as a “keen cyclist” ever did in the UK, entering the top third of results has proven to be impossible.
When I lived in the UK and my commute was 12 miles each way by bike, I knew no-one else who did the same thing and met no-one else making the same journey at the same time as I did. On the other hand, an 18 mile each way commute here in the Netherlands was not so exceptional. I found that I was just one of several people making the same journey – some slower, many faster. I’d see the same faces each day.
Much the same thing happens on recreational rides. In Britain, people would be surprised if I rode 10 miles to the start of a recreational ride. Two weekends ago I took part in a 65 km (40 miles) ride which started 40 km (25 miles) North of my home in the Netherlands (i.e. 145 km, 90 miles, in total). The distance that I’d ridden to reach the start was not exceptional at all and no-one would ever comment about it. Many participants had come this far, some from more than twice as far away as I had. This is not a unique experience, it’s proven to be true at almost every event that I’ve been to.
David, great info! Thank you. I had not intended to give the impression that Dutch cyclists cover shorter distances than cyclists elsewhere. I know that to certainly not be true.
I did though want to convey that I think that trying to get very many Americans, and Minnesotan’s in particular, to ride their bicycles to work every day is likely not going to happen. Far better to start off with the shorter trips of less than 5 miles.
Everything I have ever read on the topic indicates that U.S. cities are considerably less dense and more spread out than European and that commute distances in the U.S. are generally much greater. I think that is particularly true here in the Twin Cities.
At one local and quite large employer only a small fraction of employees live within 5 miles and over half live greater than 18 miles away. I don’t think we’ll see a very high overall percentage of commuters given those distances.
However, as you pointed out, a large number of trips in the U.S., 40%, are quite short. And that is my overriding point—lets focus on those. And not waste our time on 16 or 10 or even 7 mile commutes that not many are likely to do. Everything I’ve seen, including your numbers, indicate that people will ride shorter distances but not so much beyond 4 miles and then it really drops off beyond 5 miles, including among the Dutch.
I think that we are in complete agreement. I owe you a pint this spring.
Walker, I’ve always seen commuting only as a bad goal, but that’s because focussing on commuters means focussing on one of the easiest demographics to attract to cycling. i.e. people who are too old to be children, too young to be retired, still (even these days) more male than female, and more able bodied than disabled. By talking only about commuters it gives an opportunity to miss the big picture (the potential for cycling is greater for other purposes and other demographics than for commuting).
It’s not about distances. People are no more willing to commute long distances than they are to ride long distances for other reasons.
Exactly the same infrastructure is required to support short distances as to support long distances. It’s not different in any way. Whether you’re riding a short distance slowly or a long distance quickly, you need both safety and efficiency. No-one should be forced to make a choice between safety and efficiency, and if the infrastructure built “for” short journeys doesn’t work for long distance confident cyclists then it’s not good enough for those making shorter journeys either. Don’t build a double network.
There’s no correlation between population density and peoples’ desire to cycle. Dutch cities are not particularly dense. Actually, for a small country, the Netherlands is remarkably spread out. This is especially true in the least dense parts, such as here in Drenthe where the population density is lower than five US states (New Jersey, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Maine) yet our cycling modal share is remarkably higher, both in the towns and also in the countryside. Even within the Netherlands there’s no correlation between density and cycling modal share: the three least dense Dutch provinces have a higher cycling modal share between them than the rest of the country.
You can even consider the whole of the Netherlands as one city. This country’s population is only 2/3rds that of Metropolitan New York, and by comparison with New Yorkers we’ve plenty of elbow room. This, of course, means our journeys will on average (mean, not the less varying median) be longer.
But in which place is it that people cycle more ? The Netherlands, despite its much lower density than metropolitan New York has 27% of all journeys by bike while just 0.6% of commutes in NYC.
Why ? Because none of this has anything at all to do with journey lengths or population density. People cycle when cycling is an efficient and safe means of transport. That is what cycling has been made to be in the Netherlands, with the same infrastructure serving equally well for short as for long journeys and for commuters vs. shoppers, school children or recreational riders.
It’s dangerous to try to target one group above others. This is equally true if you try to target those who are not commuters as it is if you try to target just commuters. Everyone is served by good infrastructure – the flip side of this being that if the infrastructure doesn’t serve everyone equally well then it’s not good. You need to criticisms of long distance commuters to make sure that what you’re building to serve everyone genuinely does serve everyone.
You need to look at average commute distances before dismissing the “shorter distances in Netherlands” as a myth.
The average commute in the US is 25 km (each way!). The average commute in the Netherlands is 2.5 km (round trip?)
Nailed it. As we get more people in the U.S. to begin riding the U.S. average will drop like a rock. Given how much more spread out our suburbs are I wonder if it will ever get to 2.5km.
Another thing, where did your figure for “16 miles on average” for an American commute come from ? There’s no source given for this. I’ve had people say the same thing for other nations in the past and they’ve usually turned out to be wrong. For instance, Canadians tend to think their commutes are long as well, but in Canada the average is actually only 7.2 km, which is 4.5 miles.
The thing is, I agree that commuters are not the only people who matter. This has been a theme of my writing for more than a decade. There is a far higher potential for cycling to be used for other journeys, as is abundantly demonstrated by Dutch cycling demographics.
In the US now, only 2% of journeys under 2.5 km (1.5 miles) are made by bike, 1% of those between 2.5 km and 4.5 km (3 miles) and 0.4% of those between 4.5 km and 6.5 km (4 miles). It’s downhill all the way even from the very shortest distances, so it’s a myth that American cycle journeys are longer.
On the other hand, the Dutch cycle for 15% of their journeys between 7.5 km and 15 km (9 miles) and 2% of their journeys over 15 km (i.e. of all the longer journeys). That may sound much, but it is an equivalent percentage of the number of journeys under 1.5 miles cycled in the US, and more than four times higher than the percentage of journeys over the much shorter distances between 3 and 4 miles in the US.
How is this achieved ? Good infrastructure _everywhere_. That’s enables cycling in the Netherlands. Unpleasant surprises are reduced and cycling is made more convenient by an unsurpassed network of high quality cycle routes which have a very high density over the whole country. This is what it takes.
I would agree completely that infrastructure is the key to improving cycling rates in the U.S. Multi-modal Infrastructure doesn’t just favor commuters, but makes cycling more comfortable and, even preferable, when infrastructure stops favoring cars over all other modes of transport.
Parking is subsidized by taxpayers through free space on roadways that could be better allocated to cycle tracks and wide pedestrian walkways. Meanwhile cyclists are pushed out into traffic, with nary a white painted line of separation, with automobiles, delivery trucks and heavy tractor trailers often travelling at speeds in excess of 40 mph, which, for pedestrians and cyclists struck at that speed, is fatal over 50% of the time.
Incentivizing multimodal transportation–cycling and walking–by creating better infrastructure that makes it easier and more convenient must be paired with disincentivizing personal car use by eliminating free on-street parking, repealing zoning laws that require private parking for businesses, and creating car-free zones in central business districts. This is what the best cycling cities in the Netherlands has done.
David, I believe the 16 mile figure came from the American Community Survey and from an ABC News poll. FHWA has quoted both 12 miles and 16 miles as average commute distances. I’m not sure how much the specific number matters though. The point is that a lot of people have a very long commute (particularly on the many mornings like today when it’s -13f (-25c). I think that it’s a waste of time and resources to focus on trying to get them to ride their bicycles—they’re not going to do it. They will ride a short distance to a cafe though—if, as you so well point out, they have a safe place to do so.
I agree completely (as usual with you). I fear I must have worded something poorly.
I’ve since seen the 16 miles elsewhere, in a document about US census figures (sorry, I don’t have the link now). Unfortunately, this appears to be a mean distance, which is unfortunate as that means its skewed upwards quite sharply by those with far from normal commutes. I suspect that median commute distance would be far lower in the USA, just as it is in other countries. This median is likely to be far more amenable to cycling.
Remember that 40% of all urban journeys for all purposes in the USA are over a distance of 2 miles or less.
I think you’re spot on regarding mean vs median. There are a number of folks here who drive 50 miles or more, each way, to work every day and that is certain to skew the mean.
That 40%, plus a bit in the 2 to 5 mile range, is what I think we need to be targeting.
I was disappointed when surveyed by Stats Canada and asked how many hours per week do I bike (a) to commute to work or school, (b) for recreation. I work from home and only occasionally take a leisurely weekend ride. So as far as the statistics are aware, I rarely bike. Yet I regularly bike 30-60 min/day running errands and otherwise getting around town.
While I agree that encouraging bicycling more overall and by starting with shorter distances is a great idea, I think you’re portrayal of long distance commuters is rather narrow. I ride 15 miles one way to work. I do it on the bike I already owned – a heavy, clunky 15 year old cruiser. I wear comfortable clothes but nothing specialized. It’s the same clothes I wear to yoga or to clean the house (just more of them as it gets colder). I wear primarily skirts and dresses to work. I just make wardrobe choices that are easy to pack. I clean up in the bathroom at work and haven’t had a complaint yet that I smell.
In no way do I resemble what you describe as a bike commuter. I feel as though the beginning of your article just perpetuates the negative sterotypes and will do more to discourage people to bike than it will to encourage them.
“Thousands of dollars in special clothing” ?
Clearly, the author does not know how to shop!
For just under $250, one can have an all weather jacket, rain pants, Gore-tex hiking boots (great for the cold season), a helmet rain cover, and a couple pairs of thermals for the winter.
It’s called looking for a deal. The cost of such accessories is easily recouped in fuel savings, not to mention reduced healthcare costs.
$ is not a barrier for this author, but rather an excuse, and a poor one at that.
I’m writing from Oregon, where we have a lot less snow than MN. I quite agree that encouraging short trips is the best way to promote biking. But – I’m one of the (maybe here) 2% who ride a fairly-long commute practically every workday: it’s 15 miles each way, mainly over country roads. I don’t have equipment costing K$, but what I have is 100% practical and carefully chosen over the years, including mirrors, good lights, rain gear, panniers, etc. Yes, I average about 13 mph. The main downside is one section of road with narrow shoulders and fast (but generally considerate) traffic, which requires extra concentration on my part; I wish it were more “friendly” for beginning bikers (I have 63 years’ experience). Nonetheless, my commute is the best part of my day (or night) in any season, and I miss it on holidays (like today); I guess I’m addicted! Cheers.
Elizabeth said it well. As I started reading this article I saw it perpetuating the same old assumptions about what it takes to ride a bike for transportation–assumptions that serve as barriers to people choosing to bike for utility purposes (regardless of destination), especially when they’re repeated by people who ride.
You then switched gears to a theme I agree with and talk about a lot in my work in bike advocacy–the opportunities in short trips for various purposes other than commuting–but that argument didn’t need the beginning to be valid.
Perpetuating the stereotypes about bike gear and clothing doesn’t invite new people to try it. My commute is around 10 miles one way and I ride in regular clothing, including skirts and dresses. The one exception is that I bought Outlier’s daily riding pants for women because they’re far more comfortable than pants that aren’t designed to be bike-specific and they’re made of that great Swiss fabric that’s water-resistant. But they look like regular clothes–nothing about them says I RIDE A BIKE.
On your policy points–
The problem with using averages is that you aren’t capturing people’s reality, just a mathematical construct. No one person is an average anything, so an average commute distance isn’t a convincing argument against the potential for bike commuting. 29% of Americans have a commute distance of 1-5 miles, which is eminently bikable, and another 22% have a commute of 6-10 miles so there’s at least some potential in that pool as well (ACS data: http://www.statisticbrain.com/commute-statistics/).
I’d venture a guess that what you describe as bike facilities linking suburbs to cities are (at least in some cases) trails built on the grounds of recreational use, not commuting. There’s a false divide between types of bicycling and I don’t want to perpetuate that by describing such trails this way–they definitely serve transportation purposes as well. But often there’s money available in a different funding bucket for a recreational trail, or there’s a rails-to-trails opportunity or local “Friends of This Great Trail” fundraising effort.
A trail feels like a project that can be completed and celebrated with a ribbon-cutting. A complete network of safe routes to more places is a much bigger thing to get your head around, to design, and to fund. That’s no reason not to work toward the network since it’s precisely what we need–it’s just part of the explanation for the popularity of trails.
Investment in trails isn’t a conscious choice by policy makers to try to shift longer commutes to bicycling, and promotion of longer commutes is NOT where bike advocacy organizations typically start in trying to sell bicycling either to people who could consider riding or to transportation funding sources.
Speaking of buckets of money–One of the reasons the work commute is emphasized is the way transportation policy and budgets are created. Especially in metropolitan regions, congestion relief and traffic demand management are priorities for transportation planners because that’s when people experience constraints on the overall system and ask for more lanes to be built (which won’t solve the problem, as we all know). The ACS is incredibly incomplete as a data source, as several people noted, and we have a critical need for more and better descriptions of how often, where, and why people ride.
In my work in bike advocacy I talk about these easy trips you describe that have fewer time constraints–the trip to the grocery store, coffee date with a friend–as the best way to shift some trips from car to bike. Once people have become comfortable with the bike and with riding around traffic, it’s easier to take the next step and consider riding to work if that’s feasible. Starting with the work commute means starting with the most time-pressured transportation in the day, during peak traffic.
That said, I started riding my bike to work because the city built a bike lane in front of my house, and organized Bike to Work Week events in Spokane, WA for several years. It was truly a celebration, it motivated people to try it because coworkers were doing it, and it provided a way for bicyclists to stand up and be counted and visible for decision makers. Those registration lists served as a way to reach people who could show up and testify in support of the bike master plan, a Complete Streets ordinance, and other important steps toward making the city more bicycle-friendly for all kinds of riding.
We also counted miles for any purpose, not just work, as long as it represented vehicle miles avoided–trips you would otherwise have taken by car. More and more of these challenges are going to this kind of approach–for example, the National Bike Challenge (http://nationalbikechallenge.org/). Bike riding for transportation is so often a solitary experience that anything that lets us come together, celebrate, and support each other is a good thing.
You’re right on with your call for people to understand the value of connections around centers of activity and work for those. That means building such connections into every local transportation project, which means getting decision makers to allocate the funding, which means making a case for it, which may well come back to them asking how many people will use the facilities to–you guessed it–get to work.
Barb, a lot of great points and information. I apologize for not responding sooner, I’ve been dealing with some frozen pipes and a long list of impacts from that so, not getting much sleep this week.
One point you made that’s been rambling around my head (including keeping me from sleeping at 2am this morning) is about the buckets of money. What can be done about this?
I’ve been commuting for over 20 years. Whether it was to/from college in Des Moines. To and from work in Des Moines or where I live and work now, Sioux City, Iowa. I have never considered distance to be an issue for me.
My longest commute was about 20 miles. Granted I only did it once when I worked in Elk Point, SD. The second longest distance I commuted on a regular basis was about 15 miles when I worked for a company in Sgt. Bluff, Iowa. My shortest commute was about 3 to 4 miles when the company I worked for had their office in downtown Sioux City. At my current company the commute is about 8 miles for the short or about 12 miles for the long distance. Again the distance has never been an issue for me. I have always planned enough time to arrive at work, clean up and change so I am ready on time.
Another part of commuting that has never been an issue is the after commute freshen/clean up or changing clothes. I have almost exclusively used a bathroom to do so. At only one company was I able to use a locker room. I have also learned the best way to freshen/clean up. First I always arrive with enough time to cool off for at least 10 to 20 min. One thing I learned is to never try to freshen/clean up right away unless I can take an actual shower. That was only at one company, the same one that had the locker room. After cooling off I use what are called Big Ones Big Wipes. they are antibacterial wipes the size of a wash cloth when unfolded. They are flush-able despite what the package says. It takes anywhere from 10 to 12 for me to make sure i am cleaned up. At about $2.00 to $4.00 for a package of 28 to 35 they are the most economical method I use. There are other product on the market, and I have used several of them. I keep coming back to the Big Ones Big Wipes.
Carrying a change of clothes and everything else I need has never been a problem either. I have carried anything from heavy college text books, before the days of lap tops, to a business suit, complete with silk tie and never got a wrinkle in it and everything in between. I have even carried food items that need to be kept very cold if not frozen and never had an issue with food spoiling.
Since 2001 I have been commuting on a short wheel base recumbent, not a traditional diamond frame bike. You want to talk about a challenge on how to carry items while commuting, the recumbent can provide such a challenge. But with enough bags and bungee cords it is possible.
I have not used my bike just for commuting. I also use it for running errands. I don’t mean just quick jaunts to the grocery store. I mean a list of different places to conduct business during days off work. Thins includes hauling certain things from time to time. For that I have a pair of Wald folding baskets. I’ve carried items such as cans and bottles to the redemption center, a lawn mower blade to the shop that balanced and sharpened it for me. Consumable goods from Wal-Mart/Kmart type stores. I’ve even carried an empty gas can, to the gas station, filled it full, then went and picked up a bag of dog food for my German Shepherd.
Another type of riding I do is to and from historical sites and cultural events. I have been doing this since 2008. To date my ratio of places visited by bicycle to not is about 90% visited to 10% not visited. Of the 10% not visited only one place is not accessible by bicycle, the rest could easily be. I do not consider this recreational riding. I consider it an alternative to using my motor vehicle. i’ll even go as far to say it is an effective substitute to using my motor vehicle.
95% of my miles have been on public roadways. The rest on public trails or multi-use-paths, MUP’s.
It takes a lot of time, skill and out of the box thinking when using a bicycle the way I have mentioned above. But it can be done. There does not need to be any specific or special segregated or separated bicycle facilities to ride upon. The public roadways have always worked well for me. If private companies wish to provide a place to store/lock a bicycle up and locker room/changing room and shower facilities aside from a conventional bathroom that is fine. But I don’t think towns or cities should do so just to get more people to commute. I don’t think that is an effective method to convince people to commute.
People will always have their objections as to why they think they cannot commute or use their bicycle instead of their motor vehicle. For an able bodied person I’ll go out on a limb and say 99% can be overcome with a little bit of intelligent thinking.
Jonathan, my hats off to you. Very cool. And good points.
Most people, and by that I think well over 90% of the population, won’t go to any of that effort. If we want people to walk and ride a bicycle for transportation, and I think that we do, it has to be appealing. I think perhaps it’s not about nay-saying their excuses, but eliminating them. You and I enjoy riding enough and are interested enough in it to go the extra mile. Whether buying special clothes, doing battle with motor vehicles, or buying bikes in Amsterdam when we can’t get what we want here.
To the extent that we can, we have to eliminate these obstacles. Some can be eliminated just by getting the word out—that special clothing (and helmets) aren’t necessary nor even desirable for most bicycling. Some will require better facilities to ride on. Some will require something else, like getting lots more bicycle shops and lots more bicycle shops carrying bicycles that work well for riding in everyday clothes and carrying stuff.
Not sure if the title (and some of the content) of this post constitutes troll bait, but it sure seems that it does!
Bike commuting is not bad. Should we talk more about short trips? Yes. But not by shutting down bike commuting.
And when we do talk about ALL the ways bike travel can help, we shouldn’t rely on myths about biking, we should work to dispel those myths.
Luke, I’m not sure I said that bicycle commuting was bad. I think I only questioned if having it as a significant goal is bad?
Great article, with a lot of interesting points! I would add that getting someone to regularly bike those 1-3 mile trips to the grocery, train station, etc, eventually makes it easier for them to convert longer car trips as well since they then have working equipment, knowledge of their local bike routes, and a greater sense of confidence on the streets. In addition, focusing on infill development within cities as well as better bike/transit connections will increase the number of people with <5 mile bike rides for their commutes.
As other commenters noted, "bicycle commute mode share %" should at least be abandoned as the metric by which we determine ridership and therefore funding priorities, as it is broken on many levels.
Robert, Yes. And thanks. BTW, we have a new big ugly park & ride transit station and parking ramp that just opened in a nearby suburb. Many people who use it appear to come from within a 5 mile radius and a lot from within 3 miles (based on an extremely informal survey I did one morning). Riding a bicycle from home a mile or two away would be terrifying for most people and then there’s a bicycle parking problem once you get there.