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"Bicycling Boom in Germany: A Revival Engineered by Public Policy. A Comment"

Peter Gordon and Harry W. Richardson

Published in Transportation Quarterly, 1998 (Volume 52, Number 1, pages 9-12).

This note is not a critique of John Pucher's interesting article, but rather a skeptical look at his argument that bicycle-promotion policies would work almost anywhere, including the United States. Let us start by saying that we have no objection to such policies under certain conditions:

    i. they take the form of incentives rather than disincentives;

    ii. if they involve capital expenditures, they do not take too many scarce resources from more cost-effective transportation measures;

    iii. they do not significantly reduce highway capacity; and

    iv. they do not have major negative impacts on non-bicyclists.

We have no doubt that pro-bicycling policies can increase ridership. Where we differ with Pucher is that we do not see "much potential" in the United States; rather we would expect that the impact to be marginal, with the benefits perhaps outweighed by the costs.

Let us explain some of the reasons for this view. First, Pucher acknowledges that lower densities in the United States result in longer trips, but then argues that this could not explain the differential in bicycling's modal share (1 percent in the United States vs. a European average of 8 percent). We do not know how anybody can claim how important or unimportant lower densities are because, to our knowledge, there have been no estimates of the elasticity of demand for bicycle travel with respect to trip length. Thus, Pucher's conclusion is an assertion not a research result.

To take commuting as an example, bicycling's share of commuting modes is trivial because there is a disconnect between the bicycle's average commuting length (2.06 miles) and the average commute by all modes (9.55 miles). Looking at the distribution, 85 percent of commutes by bicycle are less than 3 miles, whereas 67 percent of all commutes are more than 3 miles (National Passenger Transportation Study [NPTS] data). This does not augur well for an expansion of commuting by bicycle, despite the fact that many large companies have made appropriate arrangements from bicycle racks to shower facilities and changing rooms, unless one believes that people will change their residential location to be close enough to bicycle to work.

In fact, most bicycle use in the United States is for social and recreational purposes, i.e. for exercise and fun (more than 58 percent of bicycle trips are for either social and recreational purposes or for visiting friends and relatives). Introducing public policies to promote bicycling may result in recreational use without any impact on transportation problems by substituting bicycling for other modes. To the extent that any substitution occurs, it is likely to be at the expense of transit. The typical loaded supermarket cart does not lend itself to bicycling, even with carriers or trailers, so shopping by bicycle is rarely practical. Some communities (e.g. Hermosa Beach in Southern California) have introduced a program of free bicycles (pick it up here, leave it there), an innovative program to be sure; interestingly the program has been compromised by theft. The defenders of the program say this does not matter; the bicycles are being used anyway, if by thieves. As for the assumed complementarity between bicycling and transit use (except when free or highly subsidized transit passes are available), in Southern California there is a stronger complementarity between cycling and auto use; most keen cyclists have bicycle racks on their cars, and many prefer to drive to the beach to make use of the 30-pus mile beach bikeways.

To explore why the bicycle is so little used in the United States it may be useful to look at some intercity differentials rather than focusing on the nationwide 1 percent average. For example, among the CMSAs (the Consolidated Metropolitan Statistical Areas) the outliers are Sacramento-Yolo (1.5 percent of trips), Seattle (1.4 percent) and Denver (1.3 percent) at one extreme and Philadelphia (0.2 percent), Dallas (0.3 percent) and Cincinnati (0.4 percent) at the other (1995 NPTS data). We lack detailed knowledge of all these cases, but a few observations are merited. Sacramento is consistent with Pucher's European data that medium-sized cities are more conducive to bicycling than giant metropolitan areas. Also, the Sacramento rate is heavily weighted by nearby Davis (where a major University of California campus is located) which has a bicycling modal share of 25 percent, according to the city's Web site. The Dallas results are to be expected given its immense size (larger than the country of Wales), although its walking share (about double the CMSA average, at 10.3 percent) is something of a surprise. Seattle presents the most interesting case from the viewpoint of Pucher's argument. With the exception of some of the smaller towns in the metropolitan region, there are few pro-bicycle policies in place (apart from bike racks on the buses). Bicycling is dangerous because of chronic underinvestment in roads, ubiquitous potholes, aggressive drivers and a climate that too often creates visibility problems. This suggests that the relatively high bicycling rates in Seattle reflect personal preferences, perhaps even ideological principles, in this environmentally conscious part of America rather than public policy.

To the extent that bicycling is more common in denser areas such as in central cities, another consideration in the U.S. vs. European comparisons is the higher risk of crime and other safety concerns. Although homicide rates (the most reliable crime indicator for international comparisons) in Germany are the second highest in Western Europe (behind Italy), they are nevertheless only 46 percent of the U.S. rate (3.8 vs. 8.2 per 100,000 population; United Nations data). Public opinion surveys in the United States increasingly confirm that fear of crime remains (despite falling crime rates) a dominant concern affecting social, including travel, behavior.

Finally, we strongly object to the use of disincentives to driving as an inducement to bicycling. For example, an OECD report (OECD, 1995) recommends a quadrupling of fuel prices over two decades. It is bad policy to damage severely the welfare of 99 percent (or even 98 percent, assuming a consequent doubling of bicycling's current modal share) to benefit the 1 percent (or, eventually, 2 percent) who bicycle. There is a big difference between punitive measures ("get people out of their cars" at any cost) and efficient measures, e.g. "value pricing" defined as giving people an opportunity to pay for improved mobility.

OECD (1995), Urban Travel and Sustainable Development. Paris: European Conference of Ministers of Transport, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

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