Monday 18 August 2008

Pit Canaries

Seen many cyclists recently ? There is a huge difference between the rates of cycling in different countries.

The graph on the left shows the rate of cycling as a percentage of all journeys made in sixteen different countries. This is also known as a modal share or modal split. Australia, the USA and the UK are at the left with 1% of all journeys by bike, while Finland, Denmark and the Netherlands are on the right with 11%, 18% and 27% of journeys by bike respectively.

There is a huge difference between the numbers of cyclists you see in different countries. There is also a huge difference between their behaviours.

So, back to the question. How many cyclists do you see when you go out, and how many of them are dressed in a way that indicates that they feel they have to worry about their safety on the roads ?

Are your cyclists a small part of traffic, wearing helmets, dressed in fluorescent jackets and predominantly young and/or "sporty" ? Do your cyclists cycle "vehicularly" and identify themselves as "cyclists"? Or do you live in a location where cyclists are of all ages, both sexes, and generally ride in normal clothes with no worries about visibility ?

Cyclists are the pit-canaries of the roads. If they're numerous, dressed in ordinary clothing and wide-ranging in age you can tell that you are in a location where cycling is "normal" in society and where it is safe enough, and feels subjectively safe enough, that everyone cycles. If people feel they have to dress to be safe then this is a sign that they do not have adequate subjective safety.

It goes further. Do you see women routinely cycling alone at night ? Do children cycle long distances alone, day and night ? Do most children go to school by bike ? Do parents consider it to be safe for their children to do this ? Do those parents who do let their children cycle make them wear helmets and fluorescent clothing ? These are indicators of how subjectively and socially safe people feel and are a determinant of health of cycling in an area.

Make cycling a truly attractive thing to do and more people will do it. Here in Assen, children are regularly seen riding great distances with groups of friends. Some cycle 20 km to school in the morning and 20 km back again each evening. Take a look at a video of how children get to primary school here.

As mentioned a few days ago in "Reclaiming the streets", cyclists are also the pit-canaries of society. Societal problems can also lead to low rates of cycling. If there is a significant risk of mugging (or worse) in your area, you will see fewer cyclists. This is a problem for social safety. It is surely no co-incidence that the three countries with the highest cycling rates also have progressive social policies. You will find a very similar ranking of countries in the results of a UNICEF report summarized by the BBC with the title of "Why are Dutch children so happy ?".

Dutch infrastructure works so well to convince people to cycle that recent immigrants to this country cycle on average about as much as people who live in Finland.

The graph at the top is from John Pucher and Ralph Buehler's article "How Cycling was made Irresistible" - one of many articles referenced on our cycling articles webpage. The Dutch really have made cycling into an irresistible thing to do. Everyone cycles for at least some of their journeys.

We run cycling study tours here in the Netherlands on which we demonstrate the how it is that the Dutch have achieved their amazing high cycling modal share. We also run cycling holidays in this location, which we believe is the most pleasant in the world for cycling.

Sadly, since this blog post was originally written, the cycling rate in Denmark appears to have dropped quite sharply.


Colville-Andersen said...

wonderful post, david. so pleased to discover that you have a blog, too!

twodeadpoets said...

Great bit on information here, thanks! So what's the solution?

David Hembrow said...

Cycling has to be made easier for people to start doing.

It's very fragile. First, note that there is a big difference between the Netherlands in first place and Denmark in second. These two countries are easily the leaders in cycling, but this is still a big enough difference that as has been noted on Copenhagenize, the Danes suffer bigger problems with such things as helmet promotion.

By the time you reach third place in the list there is not much more than a third of the cycling that you get in the Netherlands.

The thing to do is to look at those countries which have been most successful in encouraging cycling, and copy what is done there. That means NL and DK. It should be obvious, but there is really no point in copying from countries which have not achieved mass cycling. They're not doing the right thing.

It is important to elevate subjective safety, so that you make sure that people find cycling to be a pleasure. This is how you ensure that they want to take part. There is more on a similar subject on my latest blog.

twodeadpoets said...

I agree that in the countries which placed last something is very wrong in how cycling is promoted but could geography have anything to do with it as well?

I see from the chart that countries such as Australia, the US, and Canada rate very low. These are countries that are spread out over thousands of kms and in which the majority of people live outside cities. Geographically speaking distance doesn't explain the trouble with the UK but here too a lot of the population does live outside cities.

In the US Dutch like cycling values would be difficult. Where I live it just would not be very feasible to cycle most of the time. I would love cycling to be a way of life but at this time it would be impossible and therefore it remains as a hobby. That said I am jealous of countries such as Denmark and the Netherlands but it almost seems unrealistic to expect that cycling will ever become mainstream outside the larger cities in the US, Canada, and Australia (though I hope I'm wrong).

David Hembrow said...

I agree that it's unlikely that people living on remote farms in large countries are going to start cycling for their journeys any time soon.

I read somewhere (I forget where) that in the US it is as true as in Europe that a large proportion of journeys are under 5 miles in length.

The UK does indeed have unusually low cycling levels for a Northern European country. However, I think this is because the UK has so often followed US policies, ignoring what's going on in the rest of Europe.

For instance, supermarkets in the UK tend to be built on out of town shopping centres which are unpleasant to reach by bike. Here in the Netherlands there are no out of town supermarkets (or at least none that I've ever come across). The supermarkets are all in the city, including this one, the biggest in Assen, where I took a short video of the bikes parked right inside the centre.

Design of towns here is such that there are always all facilities within a short distance that you can walk or cycle to. That reduces the average journey distance and encourages more cycling. That's the subject of a future blog.

Andrew J. Besold said...

I'm a student of John Pucher and he always comments that he finds it very interesting that the lowest cycling rates are always in English speaking countries. Same goes for obesity rates too. He wasn't so sure why that is but it definately seems to be due to some sort of common cultural link either tied by the language itself, our common lineage back to our days as English Colonies and the culture that was imported at that time or (and more likely) some combination of both.

MattP said...

While I feel that English speaking countries are a factor, I also believe that those countries that have an unhealthy litigation culture coupled to a Health & Safety régime run riot are the major factors, and ones which compound the class system, legal system, and investment priorities.

Without a doubt, cycling is a Litmus test of social quality.

Erik Sandblom said...

These are countries that are spread out over thousands of kms and in which the majority of people live outside cities.

No. In the USA, 50% of the working population commutes five miles or less to work.

il padrone said...

In Australia well over 80% of the population lives in large towns or cities. Most urban journeys are less than 5 kms - a lot of them being the drive to drop kid at school.

We just maintain this myth of the 'great brown land downunder' for our tourist industry.