Colin Fiske, CRTP Executive Director
Bicycling advocates in car-dominated U.S. communities often look for inspiration to European cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen, where bikes play a much bigger role in the transportation system. There is a lot to learn from the infrastructure and policies that support bicycle transportation in cities like these. But perhaps just as interesting and important is the history of how these places became the leading bike cities that they are today—and how other cities, not yet as well known, are building their own world-class bike transportation systems for the future.
This article presents brief case studies of a few important bike cities, and examines how they got that way. There are important lessons to be learned, even for those of us living in small towns on the North Coast of California. For much more detailed accounts of these and other bike-related topics from around the world, check out the book Cycling for Sustainable Cities, edited by Ralph Buehler and John Pucher.
Copenhagen stands out among cities globally for the depth of its history as a bike city. City officials began building separated bikeways in the early 1900s, and by mid-century there was an extensive bikeway network and a strong biking culture. This meant that when the city followed international trends and shifted its priority to cars in the 1960s, taking away bikeway space and giving it to motor vehicles, there was a strong and widespread backlash. Big protests led by the Danish Cyclist Federation eventually shifted the political priority back to bikes, and the protected bikeway network began to expand again. Today, nearly 30 percent of trips in Copenhagen are taken by bike, which is far higher than in any U.S. city. However, in recent years the Danish government dramatically lowered taxes on new cars, levels of car ownership and driving have increased, and the bike mode share has started to slip. Outside of the capitol city, Denmark has a much less bike-centric political climate, and this seems to be reflected in recent policy decisions. This experience demonstrates that even with a long history of prioritizing bikes, both infrastructure and policy support must be maintained over the long term to remain a leading bike city.
Today, Amsterdam supports an even higher level of biking than Copenhagen, with over 35 percent of trips taken by bike. But this wasn’t always the case. And interestingly, Amsterdam’s evolution into a bike city came about largely as a result of other social and political pressures, rather than an explicit historical focus on bike planning. Just like in Copenhagen, city officials in Amsterdam began prioritizing car travel in the mid-twentieth century, both by building big new roads and highways and by attempting to redesign the historically dense, mixed-use city into blocks of single uses (housing, shops, industry, etc.) in a way that would be familiar to any American today. The combination of increasingly high levels of dangerous car traffic with the demolition of historic neighborhoods prompted a huge backlash, but of a different sort than in Copenhagen.
Opposition to the car-centric plans emerged from a variety of civic groups, including street safety advocates angered by the rise in traffic fatalities, but also affordable housing activists and historic preservationists, among others. From this broad base of opposition arose massive protests and riots (at one point the military was sent into the city), leading to a significant change in the political environment. Biking as a mode of transportation was never an explicit aim of the protests. But the demands for safety and quality of life led to the preservation of compact neighborhoods, traffic calming and traffic diversion around neighborhoods, and the construction of some bike infrastructure—all of which led naturally to the rise of biking as a safe and convenient way to get around. It wasn’t until the 1990s that official plans were adopted to promote biking. Amsterdam thus offers a case study both in the power of coalitions in political activism and the natural role of the bike in a humane and livable city.
Seville is not known internationally as a bike city, but its recent history offers an example of how quickly dedicated city leadership can improve a city’s bike system when the political will is present. In the late twentieth century, Seville developed in a sprawling, car-centric style, with the suburban population skyrocketing while the city’s population stagnated. In 2003, however, a coalition of left-wing parties was voted into office in Seville, bringing with them into city government a strong contingent of environmentalists and bike advocates. In just a few years, the protected bike network grew tenfold (from 12 km to 120 km), a big bike-sharing system was installed, and significant restrictions were placed on cars in the city center. As a result, the percent of trips taken by bike in the city doubled from 3 to 6 percent in only four years. While this level of biking is still far lower than in Amsterdam or Copenhagen, it is a remarkable achievement in a short period of time, and rivals the top bike cities in North America. However, in Spain in 2011, a recession led to major gains for the Conservative Party nationwide, and a Conservative administration was voted into office in Seville. The new administration undid many of the previous pro-bike policies, and biking levels stagnated.
Similar to Seville (and most American cities), Portland was basically a car city until the 1990s. At that point, however, the city’s growing environmental consciousness combined with its unique organizational structure to create the conditions for change. The Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) is not an administrative department as in most American cities, but rather a semi-independent agency led by an elected city commissioner. Starting in the late 1980s, PBOT was led by a series of elected officials who prioritized biking for its environmental and economic benefits, and who began building safe bike infrastructure along with a progressive planning culture within the Bureau itself. From 1990 to 2014, the percent of trips taken by bike in Portland rose from 1 to 7 percent, among the highest in the country. Since 2014, however, the bike mode share has started to drop as the population of suburban car commuters continues to rise. Portland is one of the leading bike cities in the U.S., but it is not immune to the influence of our national car-centric culture and politics.
The experiences of cities promoting biking around the world are varied and unique, but they include some commonalities. In order to make biking an important mode of transportation, you need good bike infrastructure and a relatively dense mix of land uses, two things most American communities currently lack. But the good news is that, as these case studies show, it doesn’t have to take very long to change things when there’s the political will to do so. In fact, the greatest commonality among leading bike cities seems to be a strong political mandate, both at the grassroots level and among city leaders. That’s a lesson anyone who cares about healthy, safe, sustainable transportation can take to heart, no matter where we live.