The Problem with Biking in America

Having seen the light while studying abroad in Amsterdam, Nick Martens contrasts that bicycle Nirvana with the American cycling cesspool.

I left Amsterdam fitter than I’d been in seven years. I didn’t change my eating habits much there, and I didn’t walk all around a different European city every weekend. I was in shape because for four months, wherever I went in Amsterdam, I biked. Sometimes I biked when I had nowhere to go.

I felt great. I thought I’d found a healthy new habit I actually enjoyed. I’d take biking back with me to America to fill the fitness hole in my life, left when I stopped playing sports.

But that didn’t happen. In six weeks in the States, I went from my lightest weight since adolescence to the heaviest of my life. Whenever I tried to reignite my interest in biking, some new obstacle blocked my way.

What I didn’t recognize was that I slid so easily into a biking lifestyle in Amsterdam because the city is designed to accommodate it. It’s a bicycle paradise. The American cyclist faces impediments, inconveniences, and dangers that don’t exist over there. To my mind, there is one crucial differnce between the bicycle cultures of America and Amsterdam, and I have one simple way to narrow the gap.

Of the many complaints an American cyclist can make, a concern over his or her safety is the most serious. It’s also the best reason to stick with a car.

Safety equipment is not the answer to this problem; it’s a symptom of it. No one in Amsterdam wears a helmet because biking there feels much safer than that it does here. (The actual safety statistics are irrelevant. If people feel safer, they’ll bike more.) There are tangible reasons why Amsterdam feels safer, but the broader sense of security comes from knowing that drivers are aware of cyclists.

Take the small example of one American cycling problem: dooring. A driver parked against the curb opens his door right in front of a passing cyclist who doesn’t have time to stop or dodge. The crash can be pretty bad. While staying in Amsterdam, a dense city full of traffic and bikes, this never happened to me and I never saw it happen. I never even saw a close call. Because bikes are ubiquitous, an Amsterdam driver knows to check the mirror before opening the door.

Contrast that with the first time I took my bike for a spin around the suburbs of Tacoma, Washington. It was a quiet, trafficless evening, but an old man still popped his door in my face. I steered around it, but if I was going faster I could’ve crashed. Cyclists are so rare that an American driver would never think to check for one, yet a cyclist passes so many parked cars that a door’s bound to pounce eventually. And there are many other dangers American cyclists face because drivers aren’t aware of them.

Awareness of cyclists also exists on a larger scale. Amsterdam’s planners, for instance, know that cyclists need space. Bike lanes and bike-only paths pervade the city, and extend even to the countryside.

That’s the ideal, though it won’t happen here any time soon. But there are other ways free up space for bikes. Manhattan plans to close two lanes of Broadway to create a pedestrian area and new bike lanes. Aspen, Colorado already closes many streets to non-residential car traffic, letting cyclists use the mostly empty roads. These steps are important not just because they make cyclists feel safe, but also because they show that biking is supported by the community. They demonstrate the awareness a bicycle culture needs to grow.

Now, of course, we hit the paradox. Unless a community makes its streets better for bikes, cycling will remain a niche. But if there are no cyclists, why should everyone else accommodate them? Sure, there are a thousand pragmatic reasons why a community should embrace biking, but they don’t matter if no one’s there to voice them.

So, more people need to be brought into the fold of biking. I have one suggestion how.

When I bike around Tacoma, I stand out. People either react angrily, yelling from their pick-ups, or skittishly, swerving wide while passing me. Either way, I’m an outsider. This goes back to awareness; cyclists are uncommon, so people treat them strangely.

Nothing can change peoples’ reactions, but we can change what they’re reacting to. I know that hostility towards bicycling is irrational, but towards cyclists it’s more understandable. Cycling is a purposefully esoteric subculture, populated by rich, fit white people who wear tight, expensive regalia, and feel morally superior. What could be more hateable?

In Amsterdam, bikes are cheap, ridden by all classes and races, and require no outfit. And, since everybody rides one, nobody gets to feel smug.

Basically, to become mainstream in America, biking needs to be normal. The easiest step to take is if cyclists realize that biking doesn’t make them special. They’re not better than drivers.

And, furthermore, the pitch for biking is all wrong. Saving the environment, easing traffic, and getting in shape are all beside the point. People should bike because it’s the most efficient form of transportation: one person, using one person’s power, to get wherever he or she wants to be.

I didn’t fall in love with biking in Amsterdam because I was part of some movement or cause. I, and everyone I studied with, biked because it was safe, normal, and the best way to get around.

Nick Martens is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. You can email him, if you like.