Urban Sustainability and the Simple Bicycle

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This post is also available in: Chinese (Traditional)

As Americans grapple with a wide range of societal problems like obesity and other health issues, traffic gridlock and reduced family time, and socially isolated city-centers, we might stop to ask how we got this way and how we can change.  Having lived in Europe for three months last summer, I can speak for other Americans who have traveled to other locales and marveled at the high quality of living in those places – especially compared to the automobile-dependant, lifeless cities of the U.S.  How we got to be a largely car-dependant, unhealthy society has to do with the early surrender of our cities to cars without the balancing mechanism of maintaining our streetcar and bicycle modes, which had been prominent in nearly all American towns of more than 10,000 people up until the 1930’s.  Today, several European cities, most notably Amsterdam and Copenhagen, have become models in the utilization of the simple bicycle as a major tool in the restoring of transportation balance and sustainability to their urban fabrics.

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Economic Impact of the Bike and Health Benefits

In Denmark, tax-payer funded universal health care has spurred promotion and investment in bike usage, since the health benefits of bike usage are well known and accepted.  One study found a 30% reduction in mortality among adults who commute to work by bicycle.  The city of Copenhagen estimates that $100 million is saved annually through health care savings, which doesn’t even take into account societal gains from increased productivity from a healthier work force, with additional savings from less road maintenance and congestion.  In Copenhagen, the cost of building grade-separated bikeways is about $2 million per mile per side, which is fully paid for in five years:  the city’s economic impact study estimates that every mile cycled yields a net gain for society of 21 cents, compared to a net loss of 12 cents per mile driven by car.  These figures include both savings in the public sector and the rise in private sector economic activity.

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Bicycle Commuting and Urban Sustainability

Today, more people bike to work in greater Copenhagen than in the whole of the United States, with commuters riding an average of 3 ½ miles each way.  Over the past 30 years, the city of Copenhagen has gradually removed car-parking and road space, effectively clearing the way for bike infrastructure.   In the Netherlands, where the culture of the bicycle is perhaps the most inclusive of any country in the world, there is a public-private organization called the Dutch Cycling Embassy that capitalizes on the acclaimed Dutch model of urban transportation.  It promotes urban mobility to business and government leaders from around the world, who are concerned because of urbanization and the need to revitalize cities, and the necessity of sustainability in transit solutions. The Dutch have first-hand experience of the bikes’ direct contribution to better health and urban livability, road safety, cleaner air, improved traffic flow, decreased social isolation, and an improved economy.

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Marketing the Bicycle as a Viable Form of Transit

Here in America, making the bike a viable form of transit by building infrastructure conforming to code involves recasting bicycle users as regular citizens, as opposed to “cyclists’, who are seen as composing a sub-culture.  The Danish consulting firm Copenhagenize advises cities on how to bring about positive imaging of bikes and urban mobility through behavior and marketing campaigns, and their very name stands for the concept of making cities more livable through the development of “complete streets” – which happens to be the name of an American non-profit organization and movement – itself responsible for some gains in U.S. cities.

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Improving the Urban Fabric and Restoring Downtown Vitality

As our cities struggle with declining state and federal funds, empty sidewalks, and questions of how and where to best accommodate new growth, leaders are beginning to look for models for sustainable development.  For value-driven solutions, they need look no further than the popular tourist centers of Amsterdam and Copenhagen.  Like many U.S. cities, these cities have a limited land mass in which they can effectively grow.  And while numerous cities here in the U.S. have large areas in which to accommodate future growth, in reality they can only achieve long-term vitality by centering development within existing, built-up areas.  Today’s singles and young families desire meaningful town life that allows them to walk or bike on safe paths through downtowns stocked with shops, entertainment, and urban amenities.  As the Dutch and Danish urban models have demonstrated, substantial numbers of people would ride bikes routinely if proper and extensive tracks were incorporated into our cities.  The simple bike can unlock the door to smart-growth in America, without compromising our love affair with cars.

This post originally appeared in Planning Photography, and was written by Christopher Breggren, who is a Urban Photographer, Blogger, and Photo Assistant. Christopher lives in New York City. All images by Christopher Breggren.

  • Jim Moore

    A 30% reduction in mortality?! But who wants to live forever? ;-)

  • Jim Moore

    On a serious note, not a bad article but a few things:
    Amsterdam is quite a bit better than Copenhagen;
    Amsterdam is good for cycling but not the best in the Netherlands;
    the work/education commute is only about one-fifth of all trips made;
    Fietsersbond is a better source of info than the DCE.

  • tome

    …..but we “damn cyclists act like we own the road.”

    • tome

      ^^^….sarcasm.

  • Rebecca Airmet

    Re “recasting bicycle users as regular citizens, as opposed to ‘cyclists’”. According to data cited in new legislation introduced on capitol hill, in 2009, 28% of all bicycle trips were made by someone earning less than $30,000/year.

    Hopefully we can start to change the impression that a “cyclist” is someone in a goofy Lycra outfit who pisses off motorists by not stopping at red lights!

  • noname

    UN agenda 21 buzzwords in the article. Look up “UN Agenda 21″ The UN has a large 351 page pdf document called agenda 21 I suggest some here read it, if its so hard to believe.

  • noname

    These articles are a perfect point that bicyclists are self entitled, I know you all want vehicles off the roads in america, whats sad is that you talk out of both sides of your mouths and can’t share the roads, you want everything your way, and when someone disagrees with you, you twist and turn things around. You bicyclists are your own enemy, clean up your attitudes.