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.