Urban Cycling: A Tale of Two Cities

Picture yourself walking in a city where the predominant sounds are the rotational clink of chains and the whir of spokes punctuated occasionally by bells ringing or warning calls when you’ve drifted into a bicycle lane. You can hear the sounds of conversation down the block, of doors onto the street opening and closing, of footsteps. Now imagine standing on a street where horns are blowing, brakes squealing, and revving engines set off car alarms. As a pedestrian, you are forced to shout over this sonic hurricane, to have your movements dictated by the rhythms and noise of automobile traffic.

The first city I described does exist, as my recent trips to Copenhagen and Amsterdam proved. These locales are well-known for their transportation policies that encourage bicycle ridership. The second city also exists; it might be the town where you live, although I was thinking specifically of my home, New York. After all, although it is rife with non-vehicular traffic (pedestrians crowd the sidewalks and subways run 24 hours a day), cars still dominate its streets.

Yet this monopoly on New York’s blacktop may be changing. There are signs that city officials are encouraging bicycle travel in the five boroughs, and, officially or not, looking to European models for ways to cultivate a cyclist-friendly atmosphere.

In Copenhagen and Amsterdam, the preference for bikes as means of transportation could be easy to dismiss, as both are flat, manageably scaled cities whose streets weren’t developed around cars. But that would be glossing over the fact that Copenhagen and Amsterdam have strategically adopted bicycle initiatives as part of their transportation planning and traffic engineering, actively trying to reduce the number of cars on the roads to reduce pollution and improve the public’s quality of life and health. The Dutch Ministry of Transport adopted a Bicycle Master Plan in 1990, and the City of Copenhagen—which has been implementing measures to promote city cycling since the 1980s—adopted an official Bicycle Policy in 2002.

In 1968, Amsterdam became the first city to establish a free city bike program, making bicycles a form of public transportation; in 1995, Copenhagen launched City Bikes, an improved version of the program that also discourages theft. The latter’s success (ridership in Copenhagen increased 50 percent in the five years after bike lanes were installed, and trips made on bike in both cities are up to about 40 percent of all travel) is the result of substantial efforts to make bicycling appealing. These efforts include creating dedicated bike lanes and traffic signals, and prioritizing bikes over cars where the two must cross paths.

Also, as both these cities have shown, bicycling is also often the fastest possible way to get around an urban environment, especially as most city journeys—by car or bike—are less than two miles. It is what happens on the ride in between Points A and B that determines whether or not residents will choose to bike.

As for New York, the city adopted a Bicycle Master Plan in 1997, and there have great improvements to the city’s cycling infrastructure since then. “In the last three years, all of the East River Bridge paths have opened, which is the first time that all of them have been open at the same time in more than 50 years,” says John Kaehny, executive director of the bicycling advocacy group Transportation Alternatives.

“The Hudson River Greenway has been completed between the Battery and 200th Street (also known as Dyckman Street), which is north of the George Washington Bridge. That means that the U.S. zip codes with the densest population are now connected with the densest employment center in the U.S.—midtown Manhattan. [The Greenway] is a tremendous, auto-free route for bicyclists, and already it’s one of the busiest.”

In the same period, ridership over the East River bridges (i.e., the Brooklyn, Williamsburg, Manhattan, and Queensboro bridges) has gone up 62 percent—from 2,410 to 3,875 per day—during commuter hours (7 a.m.-7 p.m.).

Yet to decrease the number of cars on its roads (a stated goal of the Bicycle Master Plan) and make for a healthier urban environment, the City will have to deliberately displace vehicles by taking away car lanes and parking spaces. Whether that will happen is to be seen, but at least, by adopting the Bicycle Master Plan and creating auto-free routes, New York is inching down the path to change.

Categories: Cities