Bicycling Gains Could Eventually Put U.S. Cities on Par with Copenhagen

The mainstreaming of bicycling is nothing short of a comeback story in the United States.

Bicycle ridership generally is up, and so is bike commuting, particularly in some key urban markets. In automobile-congested but bicycle-friendly regions such as New York, San Francisco, and Washington D.C., the ability of bikes to outmaneuver automobiles and avoid headache-inducing traffic is envied and admired.

Bike commuting is still a small number of trips overall, but has increased in mode share in recent years. The increase in people biking to work nationwide has been “small but steady,” according to the Alliance for Biking and Walking.

This gain has been more dramatic in some influential urban markets. In so-called bicycle-friendly communities, a term coined by the League of American Bicyclists, the number of bicycle commuters has increased at roughly twice the rate as in the country overall.

Commuting via bicycle increased an impressive 445 percent in Washington D.C. between 1990 and 2012, bolstered by the number of bicycle-infrastructure improvements and pro-biking policies (for example, adoption of a Complete Streets policy) that were created in the city in recent years. Equally important has been the implementation of arguably the most successful bikeshare system in the United States, Capital Bikeshare, and engagement of the public at a grass-roots level through the programs of BikeArlington.

For localities wishing to encourage biking, the League has enumerated the following qualities that create a bicycle-friendly community. Called the 5 E’s, these are good places to start for communities that want to encourage more bicycling:

  • Engineering and construction of safe and convenient bicycle lanes and trails, and quality parking facilities
  • Education regarding safe bicycling
  • Encouragement of cycling through creation of a strong bike culture
  • Enforcement of laws to ensure safe roadways, and
  • Evaluation and planning for bicycling as part of a multimodal transportation strategy.

One additional way cities can encourage biking, as mentioned previously, is by implementation of a bicycle sharing program. The growth of bikeshare systems has been explosive in recent years. Today, more than 600 cities around the globe have bikeshares. The systems were virtually nonexistent in the U.S. five years ago. Of the 25 top American cities for bicycle commuting identified by the League, Mobility Lab found that 40 percent of them have a bikeshare system in place, and an additional 28 percent have systems in the planning stages.


Bikeshare systems, which tend to focus on bicycle transit over bicycle recreation, don’t just encourage bike commuting itself, but encourage other modes such as rail and bus. Bikeshare systems are fulfilling their promise of providing an effective connection between home and work and other modes of transit (the “last-mile/first-mile problem”). Also important to note is that bikeshare makes one-way trips possible. As Chris Eatough, program manager for BikeArlington and Capital Bikeshare states, “Bikeshare fits with a dynamic lifestyle and a daily schedule that is more varied that just going from home to work and back again using the same mode.”

Furthermore, these systems encourage “the rest of us” to bike, not just avid bicyclists. Eatough has spoken of the ability of bikeshares to mainstream or normalize cycling: “Capital Bikeshare is very visible, and the essence of that visual is that biking is normal. This helps more people realize that getting around by bike for short trips is something they themselves can do.”

Regarding America’s rates of biking and bike commuting, there is still a long way to go. Portland, Oregon, with the highest bike commuting levels of U.S. large cities (at 6.1 percent in 2012), lags far behind Copenhagen (50 percent currently, according to the official website of Denmark).

If current trends persist, however – and they should, especially in communities that include biking as part of a multimodal transportation strategy – then perhaps some American cities will be competing on Copenhagen’s level in the coming years.

Splash photo by Kristoffer Trolle on Flickr. Story photo by Alper Cugun on Flickr.

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