Saturday, June 23, 2007

The European Model

Frankly, I'm tired of the stories about Amsterdam and other European cities as bicycling models we should emulate. They're comparing apples and oranges.

European cities predate the automobile. They were built to pedestrian scale with narrow streets, and as we all know, motorists do not like narrow streets. Convenient parking is difficult or non-existent. Gasoline is far more expensive than Americans would tolerate, and VAT taxes increase the price of motor vehicles as well.

In short, owning a car and driving it in a European city is a PITA. Is it any wonder people use bicycles for short trips? It simply costs less and it's less hassle.

Modern American cities are built around the idea of private motor vehicle use. Some bicycling advocates hate the resulting sprawl and the wide-spread nature of our towns because it increases cycling distances and encourages greater use of motor vehicles. They hold up those European cities as ideal examples of a cycling utopia, yet they ignore the factors that produced them.

Every time we see gasoline prices spike, we see more bicycle riders on the streets. They're responding to an economic stimulus just as the Europeans have done. When fuel prices decline, they climb back into their cars. Absent those economic conditions, we are not going to see a large modal shift in transportation choices, despite the presence or absence of bicycle facilities.

According to the census, about 0.4% of all commuters are cyclists. That's 4 people out of 1000, folks, and it hasn't changed since 1990 despite all the money we've thrown into bicycle facilities. Emulating the Euro-cycling model would require far more money, but if we're not seeing results from a ten-fold increase in expenditures, why should we continue on this course? Don't misunderstand me, I'm in favor of building linear parks and bicycle recreational facilities, but I'm under no illusions that they'll lure motorists out from behind the wheel and onto their bikes for daily transportation. And it's disingenuous of so-called bicycle advocates when they insist otherwise.

If we want to decrease the number of motor vehicles on our roads and make a truly meaningful change in the number of traffic fatalities, reduce air pollution and congestion, and make our cities less stressful places to live, we need a better approach than simply copying the Europeans.

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3 Comments:

Blogger Fritz said...

I try to make the same points whenever people say we should emulate the Netherlands. Even heavily urban locations like NYC or San Francisco have a large number of people who commute in to work from long distances.

4:29 PM  
Blogger Paul Tay said...

Yep. America should copy Dubyai. They have a really kewl fully climate-controlled, enclosed bike path snaking through the desert.

10:35 AM  
Blogger STAG said...

I have always felt that the problem was created by the "Leave it to Beaver" lifestyle we all fell for after WWII. The fact is, that lifestyle is not, and never has been a tenable model. Donald Trump (whatever else you might think of him) has made his fortune in urban settings by getting people moving back into high density down town apartments without turning them into "projects". When people live near to their work, there is less hassle and less need for the automobile. More thought must be given over to this paradigm.
I was just in Holland. For some reason, bicycles are very popular there, yet not nearly as popular only ten miles away in Belgium. This (in my opinion) goes to show the value of peer pressure in the selection of transportation mode because the towns, and roads are virtually identical.

9:03 PM  

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