Presented at the VeloCity Conference, Montreal, 1992

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Many people believe that the United States lags behind the rest of the world, particularly Europe, in bicycle transportation. Therefore, these people feel that in order to catch up the U.S. should learn from European bicycle programs. This simple conclusion is based on several dubious assumptions. One is that European bicycle transportation has been produced by European bicycle programs. Another is that this is a transfer of knowledge from well-informed Europeans to less-informed Americans. A third is the complex assumption that the physical, social, historical and psychological situations are so similar that such a transfer of knowledge will produce the same effect in the US as in Europe. As I said, these are very dubious assumptions.


Those Americans who are interested in copying European bicycle programs appear to be most interested in those of Holland, Denmark, parts of Germany, and parts of Switzerland. They hardly ever mention the cycling programs of Britain, France and Italy. In those nations they favor, they see a lot of cycling transportation in combination with bikeways and conclude that since the facilities produced the cycling, America needs programs to produce such facilities. They hardly ever mention the cycling policies of Britain, France and Italy because those nations produce far fewer bikeways and because they appear to have less cycling transportation.


The history of modern American cities and transportation is enormously different from the European. In the course of the 20th century America became the world's pre-eminent industrial power while Europe, partly because of two world wars that weakened Europe while strengthening America, progressed more slowly. Even in 1900 the areas differed. Both had extensive railroad transportation facilities that served their cities that had originally been walking cities. However, while Europe had a great deal of bicycle transportation, American bicycle transportation had already peaked and was dying. While European cities grew slowly as mass-transit cities that were also served by bicycles and comparatively few cars, American cities grew rapidly as automobile cities. By the 1930s most American rail transit systems, except those in a few East Coast cities, Chicago and San Francisco, were being abandoned for lack of patronage. Few people used them because cars were more convenient and were easily obtained. America never had a cycling transportation system, either independent or as a feeder to mass transit. Europe didn't have the money to make this transition and it didn't have the rapid growth that produced it. As a result, European cities increased their use of bicycle transportation, both independent and as feeders to mass transit.

The result of these historical differences is that European cities are much less suited to motoring and much more suited to short-distance bicycle transportation than are American cities. Much of the area of American cities was designed for motor transportation and requires longer travel distances. Motoring has done more than allowing greater travel distances because of increased travel speed. It has dispersed the centers of employment, housing, commerce, and culture into a multi-centered grid pattern that is not dependent upon, and cannot be served by, mass transit. Furthermore, because motor travel enables the carrying of large quantities of personal goods at one time it has decreased the frequency of shopping and increased the size of the shopping district. This increases the distance to the shops while reducing the cost of goods and increasing the choice of goods available at each of fewer shopping centers.


The different physical and economic histories produced the expected social attitudes. In America, since cars were obviously the most convenient means of transportation, the person who did not drive was considered a failure unable to afford a car. Americans did not possess the European tradition of genteel poverty. In American eyes, those who cycled were economic and social failures. While there was considerable class-consciousness about European cycling, as about all European social life, cycling still had sufficient utility in the cities and the country towns that cyclists were not automatically rejected by society, at least until recent decades.


The result of these different histories puts entirely different demands upon cycling programs. European bicycle programs had the task of retarding the natural reduction of cycling transportation that was being produced by urban and economic changes. On the other hand, American cycling programs have the entirely different task of creating cycling transportation in cities and in a society that have never had it, and where all facilities and attitudes have been produced for motoring for almost a century.


The nations whose bicycle programs are favored by American bike planners are those with the higher population densities, both as nations and as metropolises. This is because centers of high population density show more bicycle transportation than other places. However, bicycle transportation exists in those places, and has always existed since the invention of the bicycle, because their urban form renders bicycle transportation a very convenient option and renders motor transportation a very inconvenient option. Certainly, as motoring became accessible to more than a few rich people bicycle transportation dropped, but since these cities can support only a rather small proportion of motor transportation the increasing inconvenience of motoring then returned cycling to a more competitive position. Because cars required far more space than the modes that they displaced, in an environment that hadn't been designed for either cars or bicycles, the competition between motoring, bicycling and walking in an overcrowded space produced the rationing of space between the modes. Hence bikeways were produced to protect both motorists' space from cyclists and cyclists' space from motorists. The rationing of space was an adjustment to insufficient space for all the traffic that wanted to use it, a means of reducing great inconvenience, because of the insufficient space, rather than a means of promoting any one mode. Hence the combination of bikeways and bicycle traffic that leads naive observers to conclude that the bikeways produced the traffic, rather than the traffic problem producing the bikeways.


Those nations most favorably viewed by American bicycle program specialists are also those with the slowest speed of bicycle travel. The maximum safe speed for Dutch voonerven has been given as 8 mph. Average travel speeds on Dutch urban bikepaths are universally described as very slow, probably below 10 mph. On the other hand, speeds of American bicycle commuters, now easily measured with electronic speedometers, typically are in the 16-22 mph range. Dutch cyclists tolerate their low speeds for two reasons: travel times are not great because they travel short distances and motoring is so inconvenient that it would probably take longer. American cyclists would not tolerate Dutch speeds because of the longer distances they must travel. The facilities, traffic rules and speed-controlling attitudes that are acceptable to one nation are obviously unacceptable to another.


The European problem is that its urban transportation changed rapidly in a way that greatly increased the demand for space. European traffic changed from rail, bus, walking and cycling to motoring, thus greatly overloading streets that had never been designed for it but had been able to reasonably handle the former traffic mix. The U.S. problem is different. The change that is desired for U.S. traffic is one that will decrease the demand for space. Cycling requires only about 1/3 the roadspace hours that motoring does. Therefore the European problem of rationing space when demand outstripped supply does not apply to American conditions, where the desired change will decrease the demand for a supply that is not seriously overloaded now.


The bikeways of industrialized nations have always been promoted as facilities to reduce accidents to cyclists. No industrialized nation has succeeded in saying openly that its government is kicking cyclists off the roads because it doesn't like them delaying motor traffic. Those nations that have come closest to this are probably Germany, with its tendency to hierarchy and obedience to raw power, and the U.S., with its absence of cycling tradition. In all industrialized nations that have restricted the rights of cyclists to use the roads, the intent has been camouflaged by saying that special bicycle facilities are being provided for the safety and convenience of cyclists.

In several of the nations that have bikeway programs, some cyclists have reacted against the official policy by observing that bikeways delay and inconvenience cyclists and concluding that bikeways are intended for the convenience of motorists. This position is forcefully argued in the U.S., and it appears even in the presentations of Dutch cyclists to previous VeloCity conferences. In the U.S., it is proven fact that American bikeways are devised and promoted by the motoring establishment for the convenience of motorists [2, and in greater detail in 3]. In Holland the evidence available to me at the distance of 8,000 miles leads to much the same conclusion but with less certainty. The Dutch practice of prohibiting cyclists from the top three classes of road is very convincing evidence of their intent. British cyclists have not reacted in this way because British policy says that cyclists are entitled to the use of the roads regardless of the presence of bikeways.

Environmental groups have two views about bikeways, depending on which nation has the bikeways. They approve of bikeways in industrialized nations, seeing them as a means of favoring cyclists over motorists, thus increasing cycling transportation at the expense of motoring transportation. In the U.S., they maintain this position regardless of the increased danger to cyclists. However, they reverse their position when considering bikeways in developing nations. Here they oppose bikeways, claiming that these bikeways are intended to clear the roads for motor transportation for the convenience of the motoring elite. It is quite clear that environmental groups are not motivated by the welfare of cyclists but by opposition to motoring. Because they oppose motoring they use the bikeway issue in any way that allows them to berate motorists and reduce motoring.


Consider the quality of knowledge about cycling transportation that is exhibited in the two areas. Mike Hudson's Bicycle Planning Policies and Programs [3] represents a compendium of European knowledge that has been highly praised and has not, so far as I am aware, been adversely criticized in Europe. My Bicycle Transportation [1] covers the subject with emphasis upon American conditions. I analyze the operation of cyclists in traffic according to recognized principles of traffic engineering and according to the best car-bike collision statistics that we possess, to determine the best way for cyclists to operate, considering both accident rate and travel time. On the other hand, while Hudson frequently uses the word safety as if his use of the word had meaning, he has no idea of how cyclists should operate in traffic, what accidents occur to cyclists or how to reduce them. He dismisses accident statistics with the comment that detractors will use them against bicycle programs, and he never writes at all about reducing delays and increasing travel speed to reduce travel times.

I work according to the standard scientific and engineering procedures to achieve a particular result, the welfare of cyclists. Hudson prefers an unscientific approach that is based on superstition and therefore has no objectively discernible goal. These differences in approach produce opposite programs. I recommend that since cyclists fare best when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles, our bicycle programs should operate accordingly. This recommendation agrees with known traffic-engineering knowledge and with actual cycling experience; it works and has been proved to work by extensive experience. Hudson's recommendations, on the other hand, contradict accepted traffic-engineering knowledge, thus endangering and delaying cyclists, both in theory and in actual practice.

The conclusion is inescapable: Europeans do not have special knowledge about cycling transportation that is not possessed by Americans. On the contrary, Europeans would benefit greatly by learning American knowledge of cycling transportation.


While bikeways been promoted as making cycling safer, that argument has been questioned in at least two nations: Britain and the U.S. British cyclists fought that battle with little data in the 1930s and won. The British government won't force cyclists to use paths, and produces few paths. American cyclists started their battle in the 1970s and won the technical battle but still have the war to win. Data collected by American cyclists [6] and by the American government [5] show that there is no possibility that bikeways could significantly reduce accidents to cyclists, that bikeways make cycling more difficult and dangerous, and in all probability bikeways increase the accident rate. The data also show that bike paths are the most dangerous type of facility we know, 2 times more dangerous than roads. The American highway establishment still promotes bikeways but it no longer officially uses the safety argument.

So far as I know, the safety argument has not been questioned in other nations, even though their traffic operations appear to produce similar accident patterns. The key difference between those nations that have questioned the safety argument and those that have extensive bikeway systems but no safety controversy is that in the nations that question the safety argument cyclists are considered drivers of vehicles and have the right to use the roads. In those nations the cyclists have a standard against which to measure operations on bikeways and their safety. The evidence is that cyclists fare best when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles. Cyclists in nations without that policy don't have that standard and therefore accept unequal treatment and the accidents that go with it as the norm. When they complain, it is at the additional delays caused by bikeways; they don't recognize that the delays are essential to alleviate the additional dangers that bikeways create.


While those Americans who are interested in increasing bicycle transportation regard Holland, Denmark and some parts of Germany most favorably, for reasons discussed above, those Americans who like to cycle regard Britain, France and Italy most favorably. These cyclists return with glowing accounts of their travels. Despite lots of fast traffic and substandard roads, they say, everybody treats you like you belong, like you are one of them. Nobody tries to throw you off the roads, nobody sneers at you in pubs, you can go where you like at the speed you like and everything's OK. Those same cyclists who report so glowingly of cycling in Britain, France and Italy give highly critical reports of cycling in urban Holland and Germany. They talk of being restricted to fourth class roads, being stuck on bikepaths so overcrowded that overtaking is impossible and speeds are 6-8 mph, circuitous routes, and being looked upon as second-class people.

The difference in experiences is caused only partly by the facilities but more by the national attitudes that have also produced the facilities. Cyclists prefer cycling in those nations that have a national tradition and policy of equal treatment of cyclists and, therefore, of cycling on the road. With such a tradition motorists and cyclists cooperate and the facilities and conveniences that are available to motorists, except for the very high-speed motorways, are available to cyclists on equal terms. In nations that have given up such a tradition of equality, cyclists suffer discrimination.

The result of the propaganda which causes cyclists to submit to losing their equality is a change in national attitude towards cyclists and in cyclists. When the people believe that cyclists cannot cycle safely in traffic they believe that cyclists aren't as good as normal people are. The actual practice of cycling on bikeways degrades cycling skill, because the only way to cycle on urban bikeways is contrary to normal traffic driving skills. This degradation of skills then strengthens that discrimination because cyclists become demonstrably inferior. The result of this discrimination is a cycling population that so believes itself to be inferior that it praises government for protecting it against dangers that are barely significant, while ignoring the dangers and delays that government has imposed on them.


This discussion has raised three questions of intent. First is the intent that I have and I hope that all will see as the proper intent. That is the intent to do good for cyclists, to improve their cycling by making it faster and safer by using recognized traffic-engineering principles and well-accepted statistics. The second intent is that of the bicycle program specialists who admire Dutch practices. They want to increase the amount of bicycle transportation by means of programs and policies that do harm to cyclists. They believe in their methods because they have swallowed whole the bikeway propaganda that bikeways make cycling safe and convenient and they have not realized that policies and programs that are tolerable in nations where considerable bicycle transportation naturally occurs and would be hard to exterminate are intolerable and harmful in other nations that do not have a natural or historical amount of cycling transportation. Thirdly, there is the intent of the original bikeway advocates of the industrialized world. They have tried to camouflage their intent to kick cyclists off the roads for the convenience of motorists behind a smokescreen of claims of bicycle safety, but that has been exposed by both historical fact and engineering results.


The proper U.S. cycling policy should promote safe and rapid movement over considerable distances between dispersed locations. No typical European cycling program or policy is based on those concerns. The European policies and programs exist to allocate the space of overcrowded streets in cities that were never designed for motoring but have short travel distances and considerable mass transit available for longer travel. European practices produce designs that ration very overloaded space at the cost of endangering and delaying cyclists, a consideration that need not seriously concern America and would be exactly contrary to the desired practices.

The nearest European policy to those suitable for the U.S. is the British one that cyclists are drivers of vehicles with full rights to use the roads. This policy is rather invisible because it doesn't produce many bicycle facilities; by its very nature it needs very few and the roads are normally adequate.

The only policy that meets U.S. needs for cycling transportation is the vehicular cycling policy that cyclists fare best when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles. That provides, as does no other policy, for the needs of U.S. cyclists as stated in the first sentence of this section.


1. FORESTER, John (1983). Bicycle Transportation; The MIT Press, Cambridge Mass. 394 p

2. FORESTER, John (1984). Effective Cycling 5 ed. Chapter 44; The MIT Press, Cambridge Mass. 344 p

3. FORESTER, John, (1992) Effective Cycling 6th Ed., Chapters 45-46; in Press, The MIT Press, Cambridge Mass.

4. HUDSON, Mike (1982). Bicycle Planning Policies and Programs; Architectural Press, London, Nichols Publishing, New York.

5. Cross, Kenneth D., and Fisher, Gary (1977). A Study of Bicycle/Motor Vehicle Accidents: Identification of Problem Types and Countermeasure Approaches; National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Washington, D.C.

6. Kaplan, Jerrold A. Characteristics of the Regular Adult Bicycle User; (1976) Masters thesis University of Maryland; National Technical Information Service, Springfield VA 22151.

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