Why Building a Bike-Safe City is Key to a Clean Energy Future

Congress couldn’t get it together to vote even on the smallest of possible energy bills — the renewable energy standard — before the October recess. That doesn’t change the reality that our energy dependent society needs to find alternatives quickly. Changing up our approach to transportation, one of the biggest sources of energy consumption, is a good place to start.

If more Americans used bicycles as a primary mode of transportation, the country would be closer to getting its energy use under control. So how can we make biking safer, easier, more mainstream? Infrastructure, safety, and education are key. It also helps to replicate model behaviors.

“Last spring, public officials from Madison, Wisconsin, returned home from a tour of the Netherlands, and within three weeks were implementing what they learned there about promoting bicycling on the streets of their own city,” reports Jay Walljasper for Yes! Magazine.

Cities like Portland, Madison, and San Francisco are trying to make cycling a way of life. But for the best answers, American leaders must look abroad, to cities like Copenhagen in Denmark, Utrecht and The Hague in the Netherlands, and Malmo in Sweden.

Safe riding

Improving safety is the first order of business to encouraging cycling, and that means investing in infrastructure specifically for bike use. As Change.org’s Jess Leber writes, “Every time there is a senseless death, there are going to be a group of residents who decide biking is too risky for their tastes.”

Many regular bikers admit that it’s frightening to ride down a street with a gigantic, roaring beast of car quickly approaching. “When I lived in New York City, I myself was too frightened to use my bike in many parts of the city,” Leber admits.

What kind of infrastructure do we need? Designated bike lanes indicate what sort of space bikes need on the road. But bike lanes should also be physically separated from cars. In Copenhagen, for instance, “the busy roadways are lined with cycle tracks (elevated bike paths painted bright blue for distinction),” writes Campus Progress’ Jessica Newman.

In the Hague, bike paths are separate from cars and trucks, Some streets are designated as “bike boulevards,” where bikes take precedence over cars, reports Walljasper in Yes! Magazine.

Ease of use

But safe infrastructure is a waste of money if no one uses it. While cities are out building better bike lanes, they should consider adding other features that will make it as convenient to bike as it is to drive or walk. In Malmo, bike riders stopped at red lights can grab onto railings to keep their balance — “a surprisingly popular feature,” reports Grist’s Sarah Goodyear.

Another Dutch project is to improve the process of parking. “Access to safe, convenient bike storage has a big impact on whether people bike,” as Walljasper reports in Yes! Magazine.

“The car is parked right out in front of the house on the street, while the bike is stuffed away out back in a shed or has to be carried up and down the stairs in their buildings. So people choose the car because it is easier,” one Dutch policy officer told Walljasper.

More mainstream

In both Utrecht and Copenhagen, one strategy for integrating cycling into its citizens’ behavior is to teach the young. In Copenhagen,  “Instead of driver’s education classes, children attend biker’s ed in the third and ninths grades, where they learn traffic laws, proper bike etiquette and general agility,” according to Campus Progress’ Newman.

Going back to Yes!, in Utrecht, cycling is also built into the curriculum:

A municipal program sends special teachers into schools to conduct bike classes, and students go to Trafficgarden, a miniature city complete with roads, sidewalks, and busy intersections where students hone their pedestrian, biking, and driving skills (in non-motorized pedal cars). At age 11, most kids in town are tested on their cycling skills on a course through the city, winning a certificate of accomplishment that ends up framed on many bedroom walls.

“To make safer roads, we focus on the children,” [city planner Ronald] Tamse explained. “It not only helps them bike and walk more safely, but it helps them to become safer drivers who will look out for pedestrians and bicyclists in the future.”

Envisioning the future

What does a city with these sorts of programs in place look like? In Copenhagen, you see “streets crowded with bikes, with riders ranging from wealthy, middle-aged businessmen to mothers in tow of three or more kids to poor college students,” Newman reports. Thirty-three percent of Copenhagen’s citizens commute by bike; in Portland, by contrast, it’s just 5.81%.

Yes! Magazine points to another way to understand the difference between biking in an American city, unfriendly to bikers, and in a European city that embraces them. In Riding Bikes with the Dutch, Michal W. Bauch compares transportation culture in Los Angeles and Amsterdam:

Increasing reliance on cycling is not impossible. The tools are already there. American cities just need to use them, and quickly.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the environment by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Mulch for a complete list of articles on environmental issues, or follow us on Twitter

photo credit: thanks to richardmasoner via flickr
by Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium blogger


Duane B.
.5 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Joel Uichico
Joel Uichico6 years ago

We wish to do the same in the Philippines.

Sonny Honrado
Sonny Honrado6 years ago

Thank you!

Faith Billingham
Faith Billingham6 years ago

thank you for the article

Mary M.
Mary M6 years ago

In European cities, especially in the Scandinavian countries, there are special bike paths, bus lanes, and one for cars. In Sweden I noticed this right away. Even though the line was longer for the cars and the bus lanes, no one decided to just go into the bike lane and get into a nearby park. It was amazing. Bike safety should be taught as well as motorists should know the biking rules/lane markers. Even pedestrians should be aware of the markings as happens in Long Beach, L.I. NY - their boardwalk is mapped in the center for cyclists, and at times you will find people strolling in the middle - pictures of bikes are marked there every few 200 feet or so. There is no reason why people can't use the right or left of the boardwalk for walking. They have more space widthwise than the bikers. Biking is good exercise, would cut down on traffic and certainly would get you to your destination must faste than walking. If we all did more walking/biking we would no have need for special gyms to take off calories and our stress.

kris y.
kris y6 years ago

I've been a bike commuter for most of the past 7 years, and I will admit that my largest fear is getting hit by a car, but we have to realize this really is a chicken and egg paradox. If no one is willing to ride a bike for fear of being hit by a car, the result is a lot more cars on the road that can hit me!

It also seems odd that people don't have the same fear of car accident. Im a massage therapist, and the majority of the major injuries I've seen involve cars. Cars hitting bikers, cars hitting pedestrians, and cars hitting cars... it seems the common danger is the car.

Grace Adams
Grace Adams6 years ago

Better sidewalks might be able to pay for themselves in two or three years--if school systems would use them to hire people to herd school children to school on foot instead of carrying them on buses--high price of gas you know. The herded walk to and from school might even be able to replace physical education and recess.

Patti V.

that is interesting to hear what other countries are doing to make their cities more bike friendly and what we can do too

Klaus P.
Klaus Peters7 years ago

Unless you have the infrastructure to allow safe cycling it could turn out te be a killer. I travelled Germany, Belgium, Holland and Northern France on a bike, but that was 1957, not that many cars around and a lot of roads had bicycle tracks to seperate them from traffic. But now I would be too scared to ride a bike. What made it worse I nearly hit a rider who felt he had the right to pedal through a red light and tried to blame me for it. I think bikes should have number plates like cars to make them responsible for their actions. All the same it is very dangerous to have bikes mixing in traffic, you just can't see them.

Patricia M.
Patricia M.7 years ago

The best part about Portland's bike friendliness are the huge green boxes painted on the road which clearly show where bikes and cars are supposed to be at signals. It makes it a better, safer place for both bicyclists and drivers.