A great example of this appeared recently in the "bike blog" of The Guardian newspaper in Britain, with the rather hyperbolic headline of "How one New York bike lane could affect the future of cycling worldwide".
Cyclists in the USA, and at this time particularly in New York face many problems. I'd of course like to see them resolved. But my question in this post is about why it is that a British newspaper would make such a remark. Is New York really so significant in cycling terms ?
The last figures I saw for the cycling rate of the city suggest that just 0.6% of commutes in the city are by bike (and that this small number is enough to put it in sixth place amongst larger American cities). Only around one-fifth of all journeys made are for commuting purposes. However, commuting figures are often quoted for cycling because commuters are by definition adults of working age - a relatively easy group to attract to cycling. By concerning ourselves only with commuters we don't have to concern ourselves with the more tricky demographic groups - including children, parents accompanying children and older people. Commuting figures are usually the highest figures for utility cycling that you can quote, and it makes it easier to claim a larger modal share than is real when the entire population and all reasons for journeys are discussed.
In this case let's be generous and assume for the sake of simplicity that 0.6% of all journeys by everyone are by bike in New York. The city has a population of around 8.4 million, and it's normal for people to make an average of around 2.5 journeys per day. Therefore, about 21 million journeys will be made per day in New York. Taking our generous estimate of cycle usage, we can assume that there are around 125000 journeys made per day by bike in the city. If this blog was into baffling with large numbers, I'd perhaps stop there and report the huge number of cyclists. However, that's not really very helpful.
Even compared with London, where The Guardian is based, this isn't actually impressive at all. London's population is a little smaller than New York's, but Londoners reportedly use bikes for roughly 500000 journeys per day (only a small minority of these journeys, around 13000, are made on bikes which are part of the much hyped, incredibly expensive bike share scheme).
In comparison with cities in the Netherlands, the number of trips made by bike in New York is roughly equal to a city with a population of around 150000 people and a merely average cycling rate. Higher cycling rate cities do better, of course. Assen, where we now live, is a tiny place with just 65000 people. However, they make over 70000 cycle journeys each day, which is a remarkably high proportion of our generous estimate for New York. The world's highest cycling rate is in Groningen, where a population of 190000 makes over 300000 journeys per day. Easily more than double the numbers made by New Yorkers.
Other American cities are similar. Even the much lauded Portland has only a 4.7% commuting rate. That's around 1/6th the cycling modal share of an average Dutch city. No place in the Netherlands has such a low modal share as Portland, yet Portland is also frequently an inspiration to some people in the UK.
Cycling infrastructure in the Netherlands is built to cope with far higher levels of usage and by a far wider demographic than many outside observers realise.
But this blog post isn't really about New York or Portland or even about infrastructure. Rather, I'm interested in the British media's obsession with everything from America, and their apparently unquestioning belief of any hype or "cheerleading" which they hear. If you consistently look in the wrong direction, then you consistently end up with the wrong answers. That is, unfortunately, precisely what keeps happening in the UK, where it appears that many people stand with their backs to Europe and gaze longingly across the North Atlantic for inspiration for ways to solve any given problem.
That The Guardian should write about cycling in New York in the article that I linked to is not at all unusual. The Guardian actually writes an awful lot about cycling in New York. In fact, search the newspaper for "New York cycling" and you get 10000 hits. Search for "Copenhagen cycling" (another place known for hype) and you get 2100 hits, "Portland cycling" gets 150 hits (all these numbers were correct at the time of writing this post. Google's indexes and the Guardian's content both change, but when checked a couple of years later the numbers were still similar)
And does the Guardian also write about Groningen, the place which has the highest cycling rate in the world ? Well, search for "Groningen cycling" and you find a mere 29 hits, more than one of which are due to the comments I used to make beneath "bike blog" articles before seeing how utterly pointless it was to bother with them.
There's surely something wrong with this picture. There's a saying about Journalism: "if your mother says she loves you, check it out.". Why is The Guardian, a "quality newspaper" not checking-out the stories that they tell about cycling ? Why are they not more skeptical of their sources, and ensuring sensible coverage of cycling ? The journalism on their "bike blog" often seems to consist of little more than reproducing press releases from whoever shouts loudest about their cycling "successes".
The Netherlands has a smaller population than the Metropolitan area of New York City (16 million vs 22 million) but there are vastly more cycle journeys here. A million cycle journeys per hour, in fact, during much of every week. It may not be easy to see what this compares with, but there's one simple comparison which is startling: The tiny population of this country make more journeys by bike than the whole of the USA, Britain and Australia put together.
When looking for examples of successful policy to copy, does it not make most sense to look where policies genuinely have been successful instead of looking to where proudly claimed successes are actually rather small and only visible relative to even smaller numbers of cyclists previously ?
When Americans visit Dutch cities, there is a reason why they are amazed and inspired. If journalists from the Guardian were to make the same journey, they'd see the same things. I have suggested this to them before, and indeed I also sent invitations to journalists with this and other newspapers in the UK over some years with trying to promote the idea of a Study Tour to them. I'm still waiting for a response.
|Yes, there are just 24000 bike commuters in the whole of New York City. Within the US, Portland leads for overall cycling rate. However, even here the figures are remarkably small in comparison with any Dutch city - including even those which consider themselves to have low rates of cycling. It's great that progress is being made in the USA, but it's very slow progress and other nations would be better off looking to the Netherlands for real examples of what really does work to promote cycling.|
In the last week we've made four different posts which refer to the USA in one way or another. To make it easy to see all "USA" posts, you can select those posts by label.
Please don't get any silly idea that I dislike New York, New Yorkers, or Americans in general. How could I ? New York's and New Yorker's influence on western culture has been huge. I grew up listening to Talking Heads and Suzanne Vega, and watching films by Woody Allen. However, just as it would make no sense at all to ask the Dutch about running a successful mission to the moon, it makes no sense to ask Americans how to make cycling a normal part of everyone's lives. That goes double when you see that enlightened Americans are actually looking to the Netherlands. Once upon a time, America was the leading cycling nation, but at the moment cycling in the USA faces many problems. I'd like to see them resolved.
Do you want to see how different it could be ? Book a study tour and see how Dutch infrastructure has lead to the highest cycling modal share in the world.