Monday, September 14, 2009

MFM Day 16: One World, One Speed

September 14th, 2009, Motor Free Month Day 16

M.I.A., World Town

There are some cities that are associated in my mind with massive amounts of bicycle usage. Beijing and Amsterdam come to mind most immediately. I remember visiting Amsterdam about 10 years ago and I was struck then by the enormous amount of cycling going on. And most people are aware that Beijing is absolutely flooded with bicycles. Why those two towns? It's probably a combination of a few factors. For starters, the cities are located on flat terrain. This aids tremendously in enabling bicycle travel. Second, The cities are densely populated. This has two side-effects: It makes owning and parking a car relatively more expensive and difficult, since space is at a premium, and the roads are likely clogged with traffic, making auto travel somewhat less faster than bicycle travel. Third, in Beijing's case, the population lacked (until recently...) the economic means to purchase autos. I'm reasonably sure the citizens of Beijing would buy autos if they could; and indications are now that they are starting to retire their bikes for autos! Now Amsterdam is likely a more prosperous city than Beijing, at least historically speaking. Therefore the other two factors (terrain and density) must either completely overwhelm their desire to own cars, or perhaps there is another cultural reason that encourages the Dutch to travel by bike.

How to those factors translate to the USA? Clearly the USA is not on par with Beijing and Amsterdam in terms of bike usage and commuting. Although it feels like at least in Fort Collins there is some movement in that direction. But that's the subject of another post, probably later this week. Let's break down the bike-friendly-factors listed above.

Urban Density:

In the most densely populated cities in the USA one might expect to see more bike travel than normal. According to the last USA census, the 5 most densely populated cities with populations over 500,000 are (in order of most to least dense): New York City, San Fransisco, Chicago, Boston, and Philadelphia.

Flat cities:

of the 5 cities listed, 4 of them are relatively flat, and San Fransisco is quite hilly.


All 5 cities are wealthy on the whole, although all 5 have areas where there is extremem (by USA standards) poverty.

I've been to all 5 of these cities, and other than San Fransisco I don't recall seeing a tremendous amount of bicycle use in those cities. Perhaps I wasn't looking hard enough, but it seems like people prefer to travel by foot or public motorized transport (subway, bus), or taxi when automobile travel is not an option.

What are the reasons for this? It's probably a variety of factors:
  • Cycling in poor weather is not fun.
  • There are probably not very many places to safely and securely store bicycles in the city.
  • Cycling is dangerous with the streets clogged with autos and taxis.
  • Cycling is not a pleasant experience on poor urban roads.
  • The bus and subway systems are efficient and relatively inexpensive.
  • People look silly biking to work in a suit and tie.

I wish I could write more on this subject but duty calls!

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