Friday 24 October 2008

Clif Bar 2 mile challenge

People often make statements which suggest that the Dutch cycle because their journeys are short. However, it's not actually true that Dutch journeys are significantly different in length from those in other countries, and even in those countries with the longest average journey length, there are plenty of short journeys made which could be by bike. Read on...

Yes, 40% of US urban travel distances are < 2 miles. Just like elsewhere, most trips are short.
I first heard of the Clif Bar 2 mile challenge some time ago. My first reaction was that it was quite ludicrous. 2 miles (3.2 km) is such a very short distance to travel on a bike, yet here's a website showing you how to do it, what equipment to buy (there seems to be an awful lot of it) etc. Surely no encouragement should be needed to get people to make such short journeys by bike ? And why the involvement of an energy bar manufacturer ? Surely no extra energy is needed after that short distance.

However, let's look at it in its context. They claim that 40% of all urban journeys made in the US are 2 miles and under, and that 90% of those trips are by car. I dare say that these figures are correct.

Average journey distances are much the same in any country, the US and the UK having similar figures to the Netherlands. However, choices of travel mode in the Netherlands are a bit different. In this country, 35% of journeys up to five miles (7.5 km) are by bike, 26% by foot and 23% as a car driver. That's for the entire country including rural areas. You get more cycle usage (and walking) in urban areas and over shorter distances. The Dutch also make 15% of their 7.5 km - 15 km journeys by bike and 3% of their over 15 km journeys. i.e. The Dutch make at least three times as many over 15 km journeys by bike as Americans manage over any distance including the shortest. Clif Bar are right to think there is some room for improvement in the USA and it would be a good thing if they could manage to get people to change their habits, even just once a week.

A year or so ago, Kelloggs set a similar challenge in the UK. In their case it is a ten mile challenge (16 kilometres). That's the distance that your family is challenged to jointly ride their bikes in a week. Families which manage this awesome feat can win a new bike (though dare I say it's unlikely they've worn out their old ones...).

Again, it seems absurd when viewed from a country where every man, woman and child cycles an average of 2.5 km per day every day of their lives. Kelloggs had an offer with the same cycle computers in the Netherlands, but they wisely didn't bother with asking people to cycle 16 kilometres.

It would be easy to be cynical about the reasons why both these companies are involved, but I believe both are genuine attempts to raise awareness.

These two challenges are far from alone. There have been many such initiatives in the US and UK, but none of them achieve anything much by way of changing the appallingly low rate of cycle use in those countries. Perhaps this is because none of them actually address the issues which stop people cycling in the first place. A "challenge" is not what's required. What is required is conditions for cyclists which make cycling an attractive thing to do.

If cycling was less pleasant in the Netherlands, then fewer people would cycle here too. However, cycling is both safe and convenient here and the public has responded by cycling more than in any other country. With good enough conditions, cycling largely promotes itself. The same thing could be achieved anywhere, but it takes a similar dedication to building a truly excellent environment for cycling that the Dutch have demonstrated for the last few decades.

If you want to see what it's like over here yourself, we can show you.


Anonymous said...

David... Yes, it's a cultural difference. To your average American, two miles by any conveyance other than a car sounds like an impossible distance to cover. My commute is 2.25 miles on flat city streets. I share the road with mostly respectful drivers. Easy. Yet people I work with think I'm just nutty for riding that distance instead of driving. I tell them it's easy. They cannot hear; the driving culture will not allow them to hear.

E said...

That was very much true not that long ago, and among many circles, it still is true. But I think that with the way things are changing, there are quite a few more people who would not think of the world like that.

Part of the reason that you may get those results is because Americans are used to thinking of distance in subjective terms, and generally think more objectively about travel time than travel distance. My experience is that if you ask an American whether or not they think the distance between two points is too extreme by bicycle, the answers are a bit different than what one comes back with if one asks in terms of a known quantifiable distance. "To the pharmacy and back" is much less intimidating than "2.5 miles each way." That is critical, because the former is far more in line with how people actually make their decisions.

It is not true of everyone, and I also live in the American South, where the attitude towards life is different. I have not had much ability to try this experiment on very many other Americans, and most of the ones that I have done that with are from the Northeast, where conditions are often especially hostile once one leaves the infrastructure (which is growing but still has many holes in it). That would tend to skew my results in a different way. I have also mainly asked young people, which might influence this tendency as well. Whatever the case, it is definitely a real phenomena that many Americans find hard figures far more intimidating than subjectively visualizing that same distance, at least if there are not too many fast roads without cycling infrastructure (then almost all distances seem unreasonable to most Americans, like people almost everywhere else in the world).

The only problem with this is that if Americans, in trying to navigate the missing links using Google Maps Cycling directions (which in the US is still stuck in beta) then these figures are immediately presented, which could prove daunting...