Research and reliable data provide bicycle advocates with ammunition when they enter the policy battlefield and try to convince key decision makers that pro-cycling policies are the way to go. John Pucher is a professor in the School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University and has produced many papers on transport policy and cycling, always keeping the ECF staff’s appetites satisfied with all sorts of facts, figures and research. So we decided to delve into a 2010 study by John and co. entitled Infrastructure, programs, and policies to increase bicycling: an international review. In only 5 questions, he gave us some great answers. Enjoy!
Q: Your study opens with the statement, ‘Cycling is healthy’? How healthy is it, and how much attention should policy makers give to cycling?
A: Cycling is very healthy. That is the unanimous conclusion of dozens of scientific studies in the public health and medical literature. The health benefits of cycling far exceed the traffic dangers of cycling, even in countries such as the USA and Australia, where cycling conditions are less safe than in Denmark and the Netherlands. What might surprise some people is that cycling provides significant mental and social health benefits in addition to the physical health benefits. But those physical health benefits have been better documented: improved cardiovascular health, reduced risk of obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and some forms of cancer. The health benefits of cycling also yield economic benefits in terms of reduced health care costs, and several studies show that those reduced costs greatly exceed the costs of building cycling facilities to promote more cycling. In short, the health benefits of cycling offer a very important justification for widespread public support and government financing of cycling infrastructure and programs.
Policy makers are already paying more attention to these enormous health benefits of cycling, but still not nearly enough. Unfortunately, some countries are moving in the wrong direction. Cycling England, for example, was recently abolished by the British Government due to funding cuts. There is also a risk that budgets cuts in the USA might force reductions in cycling programs. But in most countries, there is increasing support for cycling due to the wide range of health benefits, on top of the well known environmental, economic, and social benefits of cycling: reduced traffic congestion, noise, air pollution and energy use, for example, by shifting travel from the unsustainable private car to cycling. Since studies show that cycling promotion costs a fraction of the huge subsidies required for highways and car parking, investing in cycling facilities is the ideal way for governments to save money, especially in a budget crisis.
Q: To get more people on their bikes, what are the ‘must-haves’ in terms of cycling infrastructure?
A: No city in Europe or North America has achieved a high level of cycling without an extensive network of well-integrated bike lanes and paths that provide separation from motor vehicle traffic. Bikeways are the trademark of bike-oriented cities in the Netherlands, Denmark, and Germany. Bike paths and lanes must be combined with intersection modifications such as advance stop lines, special lane markings, extra turning lanes, and advance green lights for cyclists. Physical separation from motor vehicle traffic is crucial for enabling risk-averse and/or vulnerable groups to cycle. Virtually all surveys report that separate cycling facilities are needed to encourage non-cyclists to cycle, especially for women, seniors, and children. Those traffic-sensitive groups have high rates of cycling in countries such as the Netherlands, Denmark, and Germany, with their extensive separate cycling facilities, but low rates in countries where most cycling is on roads with heavy traffic and no separation for cyclists. Separate cycling facilities are a crucial first step toward increasing cycling and making it socially inclusive.
Q: And that tricky question on helmets, what does your study reveal?
A: There has not been nearly enough research on the actual benefits of helmet use, and the evidence is somewhat contradictory. But it is clear that helmet laws are not the answer, since all experience to date shows that they discourage cycling so much that they offset whatever benefits helmets might have in preventing certain kinds of head injuries. Motor vehicles are unquestionably the most important source of traffic danger for cyclists, and the key to improving cycling safety is lowering car speeds, restricting car access to residential neighborhoods, and training drivers to respect the legal rights of cyclists to ride on the roads and to pro-actively drive in a way that avoids endangering cyclists. The much better cycling safety rate in the Netherlands is largely due to much better training and testing of car drivers in that country, leading to Dutch motorists consciously watching out for cyclists. In comparison, most American and Australian motorists seem to object to cyclists being on the road as well, and often endanger them, either deliberately, by trying to intimidate them or force them off the road, or inadvertently, out of ignorance about how to safely share the road with cyclists.
It seems to me that helmet laws are the band-aid solution to the problem of cycling safety. They put the burden on cyclists even though the source of danger is obviously motor vehicles. If policy makers really want to improve cycling safety, they must restrict car use and improve motorist training. Motorists who endanger cyclists should be strictly penalized; they should lose their licenses and be incarcerated when they deliberately force cyclists off the road or intimidate them.
Q: Your study also gives us an insight into the current trend on global cycling? Tell us a bit about recent global trends…
A: Cycling is increasing in almost all cities of Western Europe, North America, and Australia. Some cities have experienced truly dramatic increases. From 1990 to 2008, the bicycle share of trips in Berlin rose from 5% to 13%, while serious cyclist injuries fell by 38%. From 1970 to 2005, the bicycle share of trips in Amsterdam rose from 25% to 37%, while serious bicyclist injuries fell by 40%. From 1975 to 2005, the bicycle share of trips in Copenhagen rose from 22% to 32%, while serious injuries fell by 60%. The bike share of trips roughly doubled in London, Paris, Lyon, Barcelona, and New York over the past decade. Smaller cities also achieved growth in cycling. Freiburg, Germany almost doubled the bicycle share of trips from 15% in 1982 to 27% in 2007. Muenster, Germany raised its already high bike share of trips from 29% in 1982 to 38% in 2007. The bike mode share in Portland (Oregon) rose almost 6-fold between 1990 and 2009 (from 1.1% to 6.0%). Over the same period, the bike mode share roughly tripled in Chicago (0.3% to 1.0%), Minneapolis (1.6% to 4.3%), San Francisco (1.0% to 2.7%), and Washington (0.8% to 2.3%). Over the shorter period from 1996 to 2006, cycling levels more than doubled in the Canadian cities of Vancouver (1.7% to 3.7%), Montreal (1.0% to 2.4%), and Toronto (0.8% to 1.7%). Boulder, Colorado tripled its bike share of work commuters from 3.8% in 1980 to 12.3% in 2009.
In short, cycling is booming in many cities throughout the world, but much still needs to be done, especially in countries like the USA, Canada, and Australia, where not nearly enough is done to restrict car use and reduce speed limits, especially in residential neighborhoods. Traffic calming of residential neighborhoods and car-free zones in the city center should be far more widely implemented in car-oriented countries. And motorist behavior must be improved through better training and enforcement of laws intended to protect cyclists.
Q: What research are you going to treat the bicycle world with in the near future?
A: Together with colleagues from four continents, I am working on a new book about cycling for MIT Press entitled: “Cycling for Sustainable Transport: International Trends and Policies.” It provides an up to date overview of cycling developments around the world, including topics such as bike sharing, bike parking, integration of cycling with public transport, health benefits, cycling safety, cycling infrastructure, cycling and women, cycling and children, and 25 detailed case studies of cycling in cities of all different sizes. We expect it to appear in print sometime in mid 2012, about a year from now.
John Pucher is a professor in the School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University (New Jersey, USA). He has conducted research on a wide range of topics in transport economics and finance, including numerous projects for the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Canadian government, and various European ministries of transport. For over three decades, he has examined differences in travel behavior, transport systems, and transport policies in Europe, Canada, the USA, and Australia. Over the past 15 years, Pucher's research has focused on walking and bicycling, and what North American and Australian cities can learn from European cities to improve the safety, convenience, and feasibility of these non-motorized modes. His research emphasizes walking and cycling for daily travel to increase physical activity and to enhance overall public health.