Oh lordy, have I grown tired of stupid arguments. I’m not just talking about those two guys on TV tonight, but about the arguments that make up much of the conversation in biking communities.
I just read this article in The Atlantic, and commented on it. What I didn’t say, though I know I’ve said it here before, was that the whole premise of about 90% of the argument around getting more women on bikes, or getting more Americans on bikes, is dumb. Let me explain.
The argument seems to go like this: people in Europe do X on bikes (ride without helmets, wear dresses, ride to work, bike with their children, wear skinny jeans, eat bagels…), so if we just got more people to try biking like Europeans do, we’d have a great bike culture too!
Some of the things people say would magically transform us into those uber-stylish Dutch cycling people:
- More bike lanes
- No helmets
- Better bike shops
- More upright bikes
- More women on bikes
- Higher gas prices
- Higher car prices
- Higher bike prices
- Lower bike prices
- More “girly” bikes
- Fewer “girly” bikes
- More bike laws
- Fewer bike laws
- Better driver education
- More tulips (okay, that’s just me)
And yes, all of that would help (especially the tulips). But here’s the thing: America is large, and it’s not flat. Amsterdam is small, and it is flat. So is Copenhagen. I am leaving out the mega-cities of Europe, like Paris and London, because while they have successful bike-share programs and other signs of progress, they aren’t being hailed as biking meccas in arguments they way Amsterdam and Copenhagen are. Put it this way: about as many people bike to work in London as do in Portland or Seattle, so London isn’t hugely relevant. When people talk about “bike culture,” they mean Amsterdam and Copenhagen, and for good reason: about 35% of people there bike to work frequently (as opposed to 5% or less in most other cities).
But here’s the thing: the average commute in Amsterdam is under 8 miles, on totally flat terrain. I can do 8 miles on my Dutch bike on totally flat terrain in about 40 minutes without even breaking a sweat.
But in Seattle? Well, the average American commutes 16 miles each way to work. Assuming we’re pretty average (and that certainly would be true of my old job, which was about 12 miles from my house), that’s nearly double the distance of the Dutch commute.
For another way of looking at this, think about square mileage and population (all these are rough round-offs from Wikipedia):
Amsterdam: 84 square miles and 820,000 people
Austin: 296 square miles and 820,000 people
Indianapolis: 372 square miles and 820,000 people
San Francisco: 231 square miles and 810,000 people
Copenhagen: 34 square miles and 550,000 people
Boston: 89 square miles and 600,000 people
Baltimore: 92 square miles and 620,000 people
Seattle: 145 square miles and 600,000 people
We are a spread-out country, and I don’t see that changing any time soon. Suggesting that people in the US can just chuck their cars and bike to work like people in Europe is not really acknowledging the reality of the distance involved in US cities. We can argue for hours about how this could be changed through better city planning, but I’m talking about the reality of cities as they already exist. The US has enormous cities! It just does. Putting in more bike lanes or chucking helmet laws or selling more/fewer pink bikes or whatever will not change the fact that we got ourselves a big honkin’ chunk of land here, and we intend to use it!
Also, the last time I checked, most of the big cities in the US are not flat as a pancake or built on reclaimed flood land below sea level (you know who you are, New Orleans). That difference in topography is a big deal, if you also add in longer commutes: now the folks cycling to work in the US are all sweaty, requiring changes of clothing and showers and other stuff we hate, while those Dutch folks are skimming by in skinny suits and heels (and no helmet hair). Nor are those heavy Dutch bikes, which are ostensibly safer and more commuter-friendly, as applicable to the US geography.
So though the city planners in Seattle’s history lowered some of our hills, we still have some whoppers to contend with. Not to mention San Francisco’s hills! You people have see this, right?
Unless we also change the geography of American cities, and the nature of how we build those cities, we can’t bike like the Dutch. It can’t happen. We need to stop basing arguments around this, and talk about how to help Americans bike in the world as it already exists. We are not going to magically turn into Europe.
My thoughts on what WOULD help Americans ride more will come later.
There. I feel so much better for having said this.