More Than .5 Percent

According to figures from the American Community Survey released by the League of American Bicyclists, .53 percent of America’s commuters ride bicycles to work. Springfield manages 1.2 percent behind Columbia’s Missouri-leading 1.5 percent (based on 2010 data).

Here’s what the League thinks this means:

While this number represents nearly 40 percent growth since 2000, it also shows that we still have a lot of work to do in making our communities truly welcoming to bicyclists.

OK, wait a minute. Springfield is a bronze-level bicycle-friendly community. Is that why we manage numbers nearly twice the national average? And if we are indeed at least minimally bicycle friendly, why is the percentage not larger?

I said it before: There are many reasons why Americans do not ride bicycles to work in numbers as great as we see in, say, Amsterdam. Primary among them, in my opinion, is culture. Riding bicycles to work — despite the crowded and chaotic conditions on the bicycle tracks — is understood to be utterly safe and normal to people in Amsterdam. Riding bicycles to work — despite flat terrain, a grid system, residential streets that lead nearly everywhere, bicycle-friendly status, and Midwestern politeness — is considered utterly crazy and dangerous here.

In my opinion, and as I hope my (soon-to-be-released) documentary film will demonstrate, riding in Amsterdam is far more troublesome — even more dangerous — than riding in Springfield.

So what’s the barrier? Culture.

Build all the infrastructure you want. But it will not raise participation enough to crack the culture barrier. The only way to do that is to change the culture.

That’s what the 1-Mile Solution is all about. Further, it takes the focus off commuting. I think we make a big mistake focusing on commuting because it is fraught with culture barriers. Who wants to be thought crazy by their co-workers?

If we can encourage someone just to ride within a mile of home — a few minutes to a friend’s home or to pick up a gallon of milk just one day per week — we can begin to change the cultural attitude. People will demonstrate to themselves that riding a bicycle is safe and normal. It will take a long time to accomplish.

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Comments 13

  1. Mighk Wilson wrote:

    They use commuting of course because it’s the only bicycle use that’s measured nationwide (via the Census). Only about 20% of car trips are commutes; far lower for bicyclists.

    “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” — sociologist William Bruce Cameron

    Posted 27 Jun 2012 at 11:23 am
  2. acline wrote:

    Mighk … Yes, which means, IMO, that advocates must bring more to the concept than commuting.

    Posted 27 Jun 2012 at 12:04 pm
  3. Khal Spencer wrote:

    “Commuting” falls into advocacy’s social change agenda. Bicycling isn’t about bicycling, but is wrapped around a whole lot of other flags including the environmental movement, new urbanism, etc.

    From your graph, it looks like those 38 cities are doubling the U.S. average. For whatever reasons.

    So did Amsterdam, Copenhagen, etc, sell bicycling by making it sound dangerous? I doubt it.

    Posted 27 Jun 2012 at 5:47 pm
  4. Michael wrote:

    Andy, could Springfield’s higher rate of bike commuting be, at least in part, do to it being a working class place with lower than average incomes?

    Posted 27 Jun 2012 at 6:24 pm
  5. Andy Cline wrote:

    Michael… Yes. My evidence is merely anecdotal, but I see many bicyclists I’d classify as riders-by-necessity rather than riders-by-choice.

    Khal… Amsterdam provides an important bit of evidence for my culture claim. Those people are in objective danger, but they don’t think they are. Something like David Hembrow’s concept of “subjective safety”? But even the danger they have created can’t overcome the inherent safety of bicycling itself. Not perfectly safe, of course, because few activities are.

    Posted 28 Jun 2012 at 9:18 am
  6. Khal Spencer wrote:

    Because bicycling in Amsterdam et al is deeply inculturated, the notion of it being “unsafe” doesn’t occur to anyone, just as motoring being “unsafe” seems lost on Americans even though objectively, it is a major killer of Americans.

    Posted 28 Jun 2012 at 10:19 am
  7. Andy Cline wrote:

    Khal… Excellent point. And more evidence for my argument! ;-)

    Posted 28 Jun 2012 at 10:31 am
  8. Michael wrote:

    So what happens to those “riders-by-necessity” when they get their bills paid off or get a higher paying job? Do they get a car, or do they stay frugal, continue to ride to work, and bank the savings? I think those choices would also fit into a cultural narrative.

    Posted 28 Jun 2012 at 4:31 pm
  9. Robert Hurst wrote:

    I feel like I got tied to the whipping post by ‘advocates’ for daring to make a similar point: that much of the US is already set up pretty well for bicycling, and that pushing for Euro-style facilities would result in unintended consequences.

    Posted 28 Jun 2012 at 8:30 pm
  10. Robert wrote:

    Springfield’s poverty rate is almost exactly the same as the national average…15%.

    Springfield does have a rather vocal homeless advocate who offers places to stay, food and encourages people to travel to Springfield. If it wasn’t for him, the numbers may well be less than the national average.

    I’ve lived in several communities, including Springfield, and hardly think of it as poverty striken.

    One thing I’ve learned in the past 7-years is that you cannot trust data on bicycle commuting rates. Often these surveys have a margin of error of 3-5%, so it’s impossible to measure something that is probably only 1-2% to begin with.

    The data collected in Columbia, as a part of a Federal grant, has been all over the place. Bicycle commuting triples one year and falls the next…makes no sense. The numbers are too small to measure accurately.

    Posted 29 Jun 2012 at 11:31 am
  11. Andy Cline wrote:

    Robert… Good point, re: data. We don’t know with much accuracy. But I think we do know that our levels of participation are much lower than in Amsterdam. And from what I saw/experienced, infrastructure has little to do with it.

    Posted 29 Jun 2012 at 12:48 pm
  12. Kevin Love wrote:

    “Culture” is a testable hypothesis. If it is true, then the cycling rate of Dutch immigrants to the USA should remain the same as in The Netherlands.

    Posted 30 Jun 2012 at 2:58 pm
  13. Kevin Love wrote:

    I am not an expert on Amsterdam, but I can attest that infrastructure has quite a bit to do with the cycling mode share in Toronto.

    A good example is car parking infrastructure. Where I used to live in Toronto had no car parking, but excellent protected indoor cycle parking. Ditto for where I used to work.

    If I wanted to drive a car to work, I would have had to walk 10 minutes to a commercial car parking garage, where I would pay about $250 per month to park my car. I would then spend about 15 minutes driving it to another commercial car parking garage near where I work where I would also pay another $250 per month. Then I would take about a 10 minute walk from the garage to work. Total time, 35 minutes. Total parking fees, $500 per month.

    Or, instead, I could just spend 10 minutes cycling directly from home to work. Total cost, zero.

    Needless to say, very few people drove cars. And the reason why was because of infrastructure.

    Posted 30 Jun 2012 at 3:18 pm