League of American Bicyclists interview: American Bicycling Culture

Published by Lyn on 27 November 2013

The development of American bicycling culture – an interview with Andy Clarke, President of the League of American Bicyclists. By Lynette Eyb.

Photo: League of American Bicyclists

The challenge is to get more of these babies on to American roads.
Photo: League of American Bicyclists

I recently wrote this article on European bike culture for the GlobalPost news website in the States. The editors had asked me for an exploration of European bike culture, and to consider the sorts of ideas that the US could adopt from Europe in an effort to further encourage cycling.

However I only had space for a fraction of my inteview with Andy Clarke, President of the League of American Bicyclists. I've decided to post a longer version here in case it's of interest to anyone out there.

You can also read my interview with Kevin Mayne, Director of Development at the European Cyclists' Federation (ECF) here. He gave me his perspective on the growth of European bike culture.

FWF: In what ways is the continued and often innovative development of bike culture in Europe influencing or inspiring US bicycle advocacy and culture?

AC: You know, there have always been people travelling from the US to the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany etc and getting all excited by the infrastructure and safety programs they saw there. The big difference now is that the groups include elected officials and decision makers who actually implement things upon their return. And now there is a growing realisation that what makes European bike culture different is that it's not about clothing or speed or even the bike – it’s about function. 

FWF: What are some of the biggest challenges facing America as it works towards improved bicycle usage and making bikes an everyday means of transport?

AC: There are two big challenges. First we have awful drivers and a dreadful driving culture that basically lets 200 million people operate 2-ton vehicles on the public right of way with little to no training, accountability or control. Our cars and roads are built to enable people to survive crashes and minimise the impact of crashes, not prevent crashes from happening in the first place. If you are inside a car, that's fine. If you happen to be outside a car - on foot or on bike - the system looks and feels dangerous, so people don't do it. 

Second, we still haven't reached the point where we are willing to make the hard choices to slow traffic, reduce parking, increase the cost of motoring, take away spce for the car and re-allocate it to the bike or pedestrians or transit. So, we've seen great progress in a lot of cities by virtue of doing some really simple and easy things - the "low hanging fruit" - like striping a bike lane on a four, five or six lane highway. But we're still shy about reducing those roads to two or three lanes, or to eliminate parking or charge for parking. The Washington Post's Dr Gridlock said the other day that "the car may not be king anymore, but he's still standing pretty close to the throne."

Portland by Donkeycart

Bikes are familiar on the streets of Portland, where bicycle culture is thriving. Photo: donkeycart

FWF: Some cities in the US - Portland is a classic example – are as bike-savvy as many leading cycling cites in Europe. What needs to be done to ensure more cities and towns develop a bicycle culture more in line with Portland's? 

AC: Many of our leading cities for bicycling have a very active and participatory culture. People show up to meetings, they get involved in the planning process, they organise themselves and speak up - and it's been our experience that when you actually ask people on the ground, locally, what transportation or community improvements they want to see, it invariably coalesces around walkability, bikeability, livability. Rarely do you see local planning and community outreach generating calls for more, bigger and faster roadways. The more we can devolve transportation decisions to a local level, the more success we will have.

As an aside, I believe you can trace the start of French cities' dramatic shift towards traffic calming, bike and pedestrian planning etc to the devolution of traffic safety and local transport to the cities and departments in the early 1990s.

FWF: How important is proving and promoting the link between cycling and local economies – i.e. the economic impact of cycling? 

AC: Right now, making the link between cycling and local economics and the business community is essential. We are obsessed with creating jobs, supporting the local economy, economic development etc, and bicycling has the opportunity to compete very well in that arena. Our challenge comes from a lack of really compelling and consistent data to prove the connections, and from a lingering - but strong - belief that people really won't ride their bikes that much; they won't change behaviour. We have to tell that story better.

Washington DC's hugely popular Capital bike share scheme. Photo: Leage of American Bicyclists

Washington DC's hugely popular Capital bike share scheme.
Photo: League of American Bicyclists

FWF: How important will the development of bike sharing programs be to the spread of bicycle usage in the United States? We now have a high profile bike share program in New York. How considerable is this achievement?

AC: There is no question that bike-sharing programs are total gamechangers. The Capital Bikeshare program in DC has totally changed the perception of bicycling and bicyclists - bikes are now seen as a bona fide means of transport that can get you from point A to point B, and they are very visibly doing that in DC. The numbers are amazing - and both NYC and Chicago are threatening to blow the DC system out of the water. As we see in European cities like Seville, that had virtually no cycling at all, if you give people a place they feel safe riding and put a bunch bikes out in front of them to use, they will use them. In large numbers. 

Cycling in America. Photo: sciencesque

Cycling in America: New bike sales already outstrip new car sales.
Photo: sciencesque

FWF: Bikes are now outselling new cars in Europe – most Americans are heavily dependent on cars. How closely linked are cars and cycling, and how important is it to move away from a reliance on the car in order to develop an enduring bicycle culture?

AC: You may be surprised to know that new bikes outsell new cars in the US also! (New cars; new bikes). Obviously in the USA cars are going to remain the predominant means of travel for people in most parts of the country for the forseeable future. That won't change overnight. And I don't think we will make much progress as a movement if we try to "take on" the car and say it's an either/or proposition.

In the US at the moment, we make the most compelling arguments when we talk about choice. People want choices and options - they don't want to HAVE to use the car for everything as it doesn't make sense. People living in the suburbs can save a huge amount of money and afford a larger house or better location if they only have ONE car instead of two. That may not be a great argument for the Danish Cyclists Federation or for FUB in France, but in the US context that's real progress.

So the car is here to stay [for a while] and we have to work with that reality. Biking, walking and transit - especially with bikesharing in the mix - offer a real alternative for more and more people in more and more communities; we have to take the opportunity in those places and make it work. As it is, there is a growing bike culture that is coexistent with the car. And that's OK. In fact it's pretty exciting. 

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