Tag Archives: Amsterdam

Why women don’t bike more in the US

The following is a response-gone-wild to my fellow Reed anthro alum and bike critic counterpart Elly Blue in Portland, Oregon. She just wrote a nice piece on gender equity and cycling, arguing that economic inequities between men and women play a large role in why women don’t bike more

Great post, Elly. Thanks for shining some more critical light on this important issue. I’m happy to hear some new thinking beyond the fashion and safety issues. Here are some thoughts I have on the issue of why more women don’t bike in the US.

In the Netherlands, male cycling rates drop around the time people get families but female rates increase. Overall rates are about 45% men and 55% women. Here in Denmark, cycling rates decrease for men and women around child raising time. Rates here are 45% women and 55% men. This leads me to suspect that Denmark actually has better gender parity despite fewer women biking. This is based on a hypothesis that men may do more of the heavy lifting in Denmark when it comes to picking up and dropping off kids than do their Dutch counterparts.

Also, the distance to grocery stores may vary.  In Copenhagen, there are usually about 5-10 grocery stores within easy walking distance of any apartment. The daycare (or bus pick up) is usually within a km or two of home. Plus, we have a wide variety of cargo bicycles for kids and bigger loads. When I lived in Amsterdam it was similar at least on the grocery front. Not sure about daycares and schools.

Another key point that needs to be mentioned in this is that in Copenhagen, the vast majority of cyclists are only traveling 2-5 km (1-3 miles). Commute distances over 5 km are less common here and few make it much over 10 km. You hardly break a sweat in a 10-20 minute bike ride. Plus, few people wear a helmet (compared to the US, not historical rates in Copenhagen), which makes things like Copenhagen Cycle Chic much more plausible.

On the economy point, I suspect it’s not the cost of the bicycle. A used bike in the US is easily 2-3 times cheaper ($1-200) than a lower quality used bike in Denmark ($300+). If pretty much every American can afford a car- even a beater- they can certainly afford a fancy bike and all the expensive (and unnecessary) ‘lifestyle’ goodies that they think they need to ride it.

In most US cities it’s the rich, yuppies living in the urban centers riding bikes. But in most of the world’s developing countries, it’s the rural poor who can’t afford anything else who bike. How can we then say that biking is somehow inherently an affordability issue for the rich or the poor? Local context and culture plays a huge role here.

Economy plays a big role in cycling, but I’m not sure it’s the reason women in particular don’t cycle. If it did, I don’t understand the logic that they can’t afford a $100-1000 bicycle but aren’t too poor to afford the average $8,500/year for a car.

I think it’s more likely that what people can’t afford is not the bike, but an apartment in the city center to live within short range cycling distance of all the things they need to accomplish all of these activities. This is particularly true once they have kids and are trying to fulfill the suburban family dream.

Now, fulfilling the strong social narrative of ‘being a good mother’ and whether you can do that on a bike or while living in the city is a different matter worth unpacking. Even here in Copenhagen, many of the people I have interviewed suggest that to be a ‘good parent’ you have to get a car, and you should move to the suburbs. That’s in Copenhagen. Cycle capital of the world and all whatnot.

There are those here too bucking the trend, which is easier to do, but they are still bucking the trend and have to jump through some hoops- most notably the high cost of finding an apartment that is ‘big enough’ for kids. Most of them just hold off for a few years until the kids get older and then have to eventually move out anyway. The cargo bike may just delay the seemingly inevitable.

I suspect there are also a lot more social pressures that poor people in the US face to get a car to demonstrate that they have been “successful” to their peers, whereas the educated elite more likely show off their status by being “smart/eco-friendly/health conscious enough” to choose to ride a bicycle.

Here in Copenhagen, which values modesty and social equity, standing out and thinking you are above others is a no-no. People prefer to be seen as ‘the kind of person who would ride a bicycle’. The kind of person who doesn’t think of themselves as being too big and above everyone else. Driving a hummer or big SUV in Copenhagen would likely raise scorn and eyebrows, which explains why I don’t think I’ve seen either in the past 3 years here. Even the crown prince and prime minister both prefer to be seen on bikes.

I think it’s pretty unlikely we can change American culture to be more modest, pragmatic and equal. But perhaps we can leverage the tropes we have like freedom, independence, and self-reliance to push bicycling further in the US. And in both cases, we will have to figure out how to make affordable, family friendly cities and reframe ‘the good parent’ and the ‘successful adult’ into one who rides a bike.

Should we be Copenhagenizing Cape Town?

I just got back from a week in Seville, Spain at the Velo-City global bicycling conference. Velo-City began as a european bicycling conference in 1980 and was held bi-annually since 1987. As of last year, it became an annual event and opened its doors to presenters from around the world.

This is great progress. However, to what extent are issues in Africa relevant to those in Europe? Can Cape Town learn from Amsterdam or Dallas learn from Copenhagen? How much is “knowledge sharing” between such radically different contexts valuable?

At this year’s event, I spent a lot of time hanging out with the few folks who had made the trip up from the lovely “country” of Africa since it is a part of the world which is still a bit of fuzzy territory for me. Most of these people were from English speaking countries in southern Africa, and many of them were ex-pats themselves working on various bicycle related projects.

It became rapidly clear, perhaps unsurprisingly, that the issues people are addressing in Africa are in a completely different universe from those in Europe.

In the global north, cycling is seen as a means of urban transport which is promoted mainly by city planners as a means to reduce motorized transportation for health, “liveability”, and environmental sustainability. Most of those of us involved in this movement are well educated and generally reasonably well off as are most of those actually cycling. Most people have access to other means of transport such as busses or cars and are choosing the bicycle, perhaps in addition to other modes.

By stark contrast, African projects were dealing with people (often women) who were typically rural, poor, and do not have access to other means of transportation. The goal of many of these projects is to give people greater mobility, thereby decreasing the amount of time necessary to access basic needs like jobs, water, food, etc. Most people working in this sector come from international development, not urban planning.

This contrast was perhaps starkest in the fourth plenary session with Kayemba Patrick from ITDP in Uganda and Joaquin Nieto from the International Labour Foundation for Sustainable Development discussing economic benefits of cycling.

Nieto spoke about how European bikeshare programs create jobs for cities (largely through what I would consider to be high degrees of inefficiencies in redistribution and maintenance). Patrick spoke about how getting access to a bike reduces the amount of time women in rural Uganda have to spend getting water and access to economic opportunities. They were then engaged in a discussion afterwards where it was clear that neither one of them really had any idea how to find any sort of common ground.

Another strange pairing was between Marie Kåstrup from Copenhagen and Gail Jennings from Cape Town speaking about women and bicycling. Kåstrup spoke about the “cycling girl” narrative in Denmark where woman and cycling are portrayed as soul mates, which logically and intuitively serve as icons for the national past time of cycling. In Denmark, almost as many women bike as men. Jennings talked about how woman are sexualized in their portrayal next to bicycles, with images of women in tight mini-skirts sexually pumping air into tires. In Cape Town, most cyclists are riding for sport- not transport- and about 75% of cyclists are men. Very few women ride bicycles and to do so is to ask for censure at every turn.

The point here is not to get into discussions about the specifics of these issues (I refer you to the people mentioned for those details). My point is more to question what we hope to gain by bringing people together from different contexts and what can be learned from “European best practices” from Copenhagen, Amsterdam or anywhere else.

There is a growing cadre of professionals who would like you to believe that a bicycling culture is something that can be readily “transferred”. It’s easy. Simply find somewhere that lots of people ride bicycles, copy the infrastructure and policy that “worked” there in your home town and then stand back and wait for people to start riding.

But guess what? What works in Copenhagen may not work in Cape Town.

What I heard from many people coming from the global south in particular was that they didn’t really care much about what was going on in Europe. What they wanted was to share knowledge between cities in the global south. South African cities probably have more to learn from cities (and rural areas) in India than from Europe.

The same is likely true in the global north. Gas guzzling Dallas came to Velo-City to learn how car-centric Seville has seen increases in bicycling from 0.5% to 6.6% in the past three years. Dallas planners won’t be making any trips to Copenhagen, even though Danes bike 37% here in the capital city.

A Velo-City global venue may still be useful but we still need to do some thinking around how, exactly, it is useful. In the meantime, we need to be facilitating venues for the sharing of knowledge between similar cities and working to develop context specific solutions from a deep understanding of local needs, not trying to make Cape Town into the next Amsterdam.

What is the role of bike paths?

There is a lot of discussion about segregated cycle paths, with most on the one hand suggesting they are a critical and necessary element of creating bike friendly cities but then a few more radical John Forrester anti-bike lane advocates who suggest that we should all ride together with car traffic. I’d like to suggest that bike lanes are an important component of what makes a bikeable city, but may not always be the most critical factor. Bike lanes may also increase cycling in cities that are starting to see the cracks in a car-based life style (e.g., Europe), but may have minimal if any impact on cities where people are just getting their first car (e.g., India). Finally, if you create compact cities with severe restrictions on car usage and easy integration with a strong transit system, you may still be able to get good cycling rates even without any lanes (e.g., Japan).

See this video of the history of Dutch bike lanes, which is similar to Denmark (thanks to worldstreets for the tip).

First, while there is a lot of evidence to suggest that places with high cycling rates (mainly Holland, Germany, and Denmark) also have a lot of segregated bikeways, I haven’t read any reports yet that prove demonstrably that this correlation is causative. I found the video above interesting but found it to be lacking in serious discussion about why bike lanes were built at different times or the effect they had on ridership during different eras.

An alternative reading of the history of the bike lane could be that the initial cycle tracks were designed for cyclist comfort (let’s say roughly 1890-1950).  There already where a ton of cyclist on the road (somewhere around 70-80% mode share in many Dutch cities around the 1930s, 50% in Copenhagen), so this was mainly just for their benefit not to attract more riders.

When the car entered the scene around the middle of the 20th century, there was a push by modern planners to clear the roads to make way for them to increase the flow of traffic. At this point, most European cities had their cycling rates drop by 50% or more- including cities in Holland and Denmark- despite having bicycle lanes. In Copenhagen at this point, some lanes were even reduced.

Around the mid to late 1970s, after the oil crisis, the more progressive European cities began advocating to get lanes and infrastructure back and most experienced increased rates of cycling, particularly in cities where they also employed a cocktail of other pro-cycling measures (not just bike paths) combined with restrictions on car ownership and use. It wasn’t really until the 1990s, I would argue, that bike lane construction really started being advocated as a way to increase bike ridership. Rates in Dutch and Danish cities have since gone back up but only to half or less of their original rates from the early part of the 20th century (about 40-50% modal split in Amsterdam and 25-40% in Copenhagen, depending which data and who you ask).

Quite possibly, it is not until people have become sufficiently tired of cars and traffic and they start looking for alternatives that bicycle infrastructure can truly have an impact. There are several stories I have heard and seen of bicycle paths being constructed in Delhi and Pune in India and Cape Town in South Africa where there are probably twice as many bicyclists as in Denmark or Holland but the bike paths are not being used or being misused. This is a question worth exploring. Are they not designed properly? Do motorists, law enforcement agents and cyclists just need time to learn about them?

My hypothesis would be that these places are more comparable to where Holland and Denmark were in the 1950s and 60s, with their first intoxicating taste of cars. Here, most people are “captive users” biking because they have no choice. The second they get money, they buy a scooter or car. Even if you build bike lanes in this context, you will likely still see declines in cycling rates. However, it may lay the groundwork for subsequent increases when they come down from their “car high” in a generation or so.

Finally, cities in Japan have pulled off cycling rates that most would dream of without hardly any bicycle paths of any sort. Tokyo has rates of 20% and Osaka has rates of 25%. Compare this to US cities that typically have 1% or less aside from a few places like Portland, Oregon that get 8% share on the nicest day in July. Japan’s secret is probably its huge density, a solid train system with good bike parking and making car driving almost impossibly difficult and expensive in the city. Therefore, people live far from their jobs but ride their bike to the nearest train station which they take into work. No bike lanes. At least, not yet. Cyclists do cause conflict with pedestrians on sidewalks, so there has been some discussion about putting them in but it’s unclear where it is all heading.

Bike lanes are an important element of a mix of strategies, but we should not become overly convinced of their silver bullet power. Building a cycling city takes a lot of time and patience and requires a large variety of supportive bicycle infrastructure and policy combined with restrictive policies toward cars and integrative strategies with transit. Furthermore, different strategies are required for cities with different relationships with car ownership.

More research should be done trying to demonstrate that bike lanes are a cause of ridership (rather than as an effect of it). More research is also needed to show to what extent it is possible to transplant infrastructure designed for northern European cities which have a very particular socio-cultural, historical and urban context. Where does it work? Where does it fail and why? We also need to better understand and advocate on reducing car usage if we want to improve cycling rates. We can’t get there just with pro-bike advocacy alone.

Don’t get me wrong. I love riding on Copenhagen bike paths and now I have been spoiled into not being able to ride on the road together with cars. But I also want an explanation as to why there are also examples (even in Denmark!) of segregated bike paths not being used. Anyone have a good explanation?

Locked tricycle

I got this shot just across the bridge on the canal near my apartment in Amsterdam. I always think it’s amusing to see little kids’ bikes locked up outside.

Fun at De Fietsfabriek!

I went down and visited the folks at the dutch bike company De Fietsfabriek (The Bike Factory). They are all built in a factory in one of the founders’ Turkish home town. I love their mass customization approach where they have several basic models but you can choose from a variety of colors, laser cut anything you want written into the frame or even custom order something unique. Here are some of my favorites.

This is their most popular seller- the 995. I took it for a spin. Quite a nice ride!

This is a grocery delivery bike which was custom made for a 16 year-old entrepreneur. You order online from a local organic grocer and he brings it to you. Apparently he and his friend are quite successful. I took it for a test drive. It was pretty big and heavy and turns were big but otherwise did the job well. I think you could fit an (organic) horse in it.

This is for those who gave up their SUVs to drive their kids but still want to feel like they are driving a car. Or it’s just fun for the kids.

You can rent this for riding through the city after your wedding. Who needs a limo anymore?

When you enter their store, they have all these crazy cool bikes they have collected. Here are some of my favorites- the rocking horse bike and the disco ball bike behind it.

This is another style of box bike they make. This one is in their repair shop which is just next to the sales floor.

Be sure to check out their “Bakfiets to Obama” plan online to ride a bicycle to DC from Turkey via Amsterdam and many other states in the US to raise awareness around the simplest way to reduce car emissions in the US by 30%.

All in all, I loved the place. Great bikes and great people. Check them out at http://www.fietsfabriek.nl/.

Full water protection

I saw this at the Sail Festival in Amsterdam. Seemed a bit extreme for a short term parking solution, but certainly keeps the water off!

Moving from Amsterdam to Copenhagen by train with my bike

So I decided to take the train when I moved back from Amsterdam to Copenhagen so I could take my bicycle (and a bunch of stuff). I bought the ticket through the Deutsche Bahn (German Railway) online site because they are one of the few train companies in Europe that sell international tickets. However, they didn’t include the special additional bicycle ticket.

So I had to go down to Amsterdam Centraal in person and pay an extra 10 euro service fee in addition to the 12 euro bicycle ticket.

I was hoping to get to ride this charming beauty, which one of the founders of De Fietsfabrik was going to lend me for free. But the once-in-5-years Sail festival was going on and the streets were clogged with people and traffic. My (small, Japanese) girlfriend didn’t feel comfortable riding it back from the station alone. It was probably a good decision to skip it though it was a very cool cargo bike.

I had to leave my bike at the station, go to my apartment by light rail, pick up my bags and bring them back to the station by light rail. It took a bit longer than expected and I might have missed my train but the door to one of the Russian trains was delayed and we left 20 minutes late. There was no ramp to get up the steps to the car so it was tough to get it in. It was also tough to lock the frame since the rack was designed just for the wheel. I left some clothes in my saddlebags and hunkered into my seat for the 18 hour ride.

My companions were a Dutch guy in his early 20s who was doing an exchange program in northern Sweden (Umeå). I don’t think he really understood that it was 35 hours of train rides away until he sat down in the car. We were later joined by a Danish woman who had a super cute mixed girl.

I got into Copenhagen only an hour delayed. My friend was supposed to pick me up but we had a problem. Nowhere for him to park his bicycle with an attached trailer and no elevator or ramp on the stairs. I had too much stuff to move and he couldn’t leave his bike. Finally, I put all my stuff balanced on my bike, locked my bike on the platform and then we quickly hauled it up the stairs.

His tire was losing air so we had to keep pumping it up but managed to find my new place a couple km away. It was a bit tricky but felt nice to come home on a bicycle. Special thanks to Tim and Ayako for their help!