Bike Culture in Europe and the USA

Cycling in North America

The number of people who cycle on a regular basis in Canada and the United States has increased steadily for the past two decades. According to a study published in 2011-which looked at data from national surveys conducted by the U.S. Department of Transportation-the number of bike trips taken each year tripled between 1977 and 2009. The paper, which cites the rise of a “cycling renaissance,” also reports the number of people who bike to work doubled between 2000 and 2009-accounting for 0.6 percent, or about 766,000 Americans, of the working population. This number increased to 865,000 American commuters by 2012 (although, with the increasing workforce, this proportion remained at 0.6 percent).

These numbers represent national averages but are much higher in cities that invest significantly in cycling infrastructure. Portland, often recognized as America’s greatest biking city, increased the number of bike trips per year by almost six-fold between 1990 and 2009, accounting for almost 6 percent of overall transportation. For work-specific travel, bike-use peaked at 18 percent of all commutes in 2008.

Generally, biking is more popular in western communities-especially in dense urban areas, gentrified neighborhoods and university/college locales. However, cities such as Chicago, Minneapolis and New York City have also seen huge growth in cycling populations, suggesting weather and climate are not the only factors influencing bike use.

It’s worth noting that income can have an impact on why people cycle. More affluent populations are more likely to cycle for leisure, while low-income populations are more likely to cycle for utilitarian purposes-i.e. commuting to work or school. In other words, cycling may be more of a fun pastime than a desirable mode of transportation. The majority of people who cycle regularly may only do so because they can’t afford to drive.

Denmark & the Netherlands: Promised lands

While Americans can take pride in their growing bike culture, cycling has been ubiquitous in European communities for decades. In Denmark, 16 percent of all trips are made by bike-and 25 percent of trips less than 3 miles. As in North America, urban areas see more cycling than rural, and it’s estimated that 50 percent of Copenhagen residents bike to work or school. Bike ownership is another big indicator; 90 percent of Denmark’s population own a bike while only 56 percent own a car.

The situation is similar in the Netherlands. In Amsterdam, which has a population of 779,808, there are 800,000 bikes and only 263,000 cars-that’s more bikes than people! Ridership is also high, with about 63 percent of Danish people riding their bikes daily-and making up about 48 percent of all city traffic (compared to only 22 percent for vehicles).

So why is cycling more common across the Atlantic? It turns out there are a couple of broad distinctions to consider.

Bicycle frame of mind

In North America, depending on where you live, bike culture may seem more like a sub-, or even counter-, culture-popular among groups that differentiate themselves from the mainstream by touting “healthier” or “more sustainable” lifestyles. (Depending on your view of cycling, you might even call these people “wackos” or some other derivative.) In Europe, the culture is much different, as cycling is more pervasive-maybe even indistinguishable-from the norm. Greg Hascom wrote a series of articles for Grist a while back. He documents his experience in the bike-haven of Copenhagen-where, he notes people are “as comfortable on their bikes as we [North Americans] are in our cars.”

Denmark and the Netherlands are home to some of the most recognized bicycle communities in the world-and they aren’t limited to 20-somethings biking between classes on campus. Cycling is common across all Dutch demographics-men and women, old and young-who commute regularly by bike all-year round. They cycle to work, school, daycare, grocery stores, events-you name it and biking is the way to go.

Far from the tricked-out performance bikes you see in many American cities, most people in Copenhagen ride heavy cruiser bikes with wide fenders, large baskets on the front and/or racks on the back. Bikes are a means to getting from one place to another-and little more. There is little room or interest for bikes to take on status symbols, and many suffer from the neglect and disrepair typical of work/utility vehicles.

Riding attire takes a similar “function over fashion” aesthetic. Instead of form-fitting, performance-oriented Lycra or Spandex synthetic fabrics, Copenhageners ride in their standard jeans, skirts or other business attire. Pick up any American cycling magazine, and you’ll see page after page of designer gear and accessory equipment championed by sponsored athletes. As BBC Magazine notes about Amsterdam riders, however, “The bike is an integral part of everyday life rather than a specialist’s accessory or a symbol of a minority lifestyle, so Dutch people don’t concern themselves with having the very latest model of bike or hi-tech gadgets.”


In his visit to Denmark, Hanscom also notes that instead of having expansive parking lots for motor vehicles, spaces are dedicated to stacks of bikes parked in the hundreds. Additionally, bike lanes have a clear presence and are well maintained-and “bicycle superhighways” connect nearby suburbs to main city centers. City investment in infrastructure is another significant indicator for the popularity of bike commuting. In Copenhagen, for example, the vast majority of cyclists identify biking as the quickest and most convenient form of transportation available.

A few years back, Roger Geller published a report for the City of Portland that evaluates enthusiasm and support for cycling in the city. He identified a spectrum of cyclists that included the following classes and their respective proportions among the local population:

  • Strong and fearless (0.5 percent): Cyclists in this category identify with cycling as part of their identity. They cycle no matter the weather or traffic conditions and are proud and enthusiastic. They have no qualms about cycling alongside motor vehicles.
  • Enthused and confident (7 percent): This category includes cyclists who bike often but rely on dedicated infrastructure or stick to side streets. Without city infrastructure, people in this category would not ride as often or at all.
  • Interested but concerned (60 percent): This group makes up the majority of residents, who show an interest in cycling but are deterred by perceived barriers such as safety and access to convenient bike routes.
  • No way no how (33 percent): People in this group are decidedly opposed to riding a bike as a form of transportation, and no circumstances will change this.

While the report takes into account that some people will cycle no matter the conditions-and others will never cycle due to a lack of interest, health or other reasons-it determines perceived risk as the primary determiner that will encourage or discourage potential cyclists.

The uptake of cycling in major urban centers in North America shows it is supported by bike-friendly infrastructure. While it might seem that larger urban centers naturally attract more cyclists, this proves not the case. In many cities-including Dallas, Detroit, Houston, Kansas City and Memphis-less than 0.3 percent of residents cycle to work (less than half the national average). What distinguishes other cities with higher cycling rates-including Chicago (1.2 percent), Toronto (1.7 percent), Washington (2.2 percent), Montreal (2.4 percent), San Francisco (3.0 percent), Vancouver (3.7 percent), Minneapolis (3.9 percent) and Portland (5.5 percent)-is that they feature more city-led investment and support. Successful initiatives typically include:

  • Bike education programs
  • Bike lanes, boulevards and off-street pathways
  • Bike-sharing programs
  • Cost-sharing programs
  • Parking infrastructure
  • Transit integration
  • Well-connected bike networks

Infrastructure or enthusiasm: Which comes first?

While improving city infrastructure and growing a vibrant, mainstream cycling culture may seem unrelated, the two are in fact closely connected. Infrastructure supports cycling by reducing barriers such as inconvenient routes and perceived threats to safety. But without a strong ridership, it can be difficult for municipalities to justify bike-friendly expenditures. As such, it may be difficult to know which should come first, the bike environment or the bikes-and it may be a different case for different communities.

Regardless of which is more effective, both are becoming more prevalent in North America. We mentioned above how North America’s leading bike communities have invested heavily in infrastructure. Education and visibility can also have a huge impact. Critical Mass cycling events can be great means for increasing enthusiasm and encouragement-showing demand for municipal support and increasing awareness and safety among drivers.

There are also signs the next generation of commuters may have their own commuting ambitions. A recent study at the University of Michigan shows that fewer young people are driving than in previous years. In 1983, 87 percent of nineteen year olds had their driver’s license compared to 65 percent in 2008. That said, the demographic with the highest increase in cycling are 40-60 year olds, who between 2001 and 2009 increased their proportion of the cycling population from 10 percent to 21 percent-compared to 16-24 and 25-39 year olds who saw modest increases to 11 percent and 23 percent respectively. Youths younger than 16 were the only group to lose their proportional share of cycling populations.

Supporting developments in culture and infrastructure

As North American urban environments evolve, we’re seeing a shift toward purposeful site design that integrates multiple goals into city landscapes. The spaces we construct make significant statements in terms of how we want to live and the lifestyles we support. As our bike enthusiasm increases, so does the range of design for products and infrastructure. New developments don’t necessarily require major adjustments, but rather, should reinforce seamless integration.

To support the development of integrated site designs, Reliance Foundry’s new R-7972 Bike Bollard features a slim, contemporary design modelled after European aesthetics and integrated bike mentalities. It offers a non-intrusive vertical column, ideal for practical bike storage in dense urban areas, and a modern, attractive design to encourage use by visitors and local community members alike.