There are more bicycles in my family than people: five people, seven bikes, and no car. That’s not the usual Cascadian ratio. In the greater Seattle area, for example, the typical household has 2.4 people, 1.4 bikes, and 1.9 motor vehicles. More than 40 percent of Seattle-area households don’t have even one bicycle, much less one bike per person, according to survey research by the Puget Sound Regional Council (big pdf). Worse, even bike owners aren’t necessarily bike riders: four-fifths of the residents of Washington state don’t get on a bike at all in a typical year. There’s a lot of Bicycle Neglect going on.

But there are also signs of bicycle growth in Cascadia—signs that Car-head is receding here. If this trend accelerates, many good things could follow, as they have in the European cities that have replaced Bicycle Neglect with Bicycle Respect.

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  • Cascadia is the North American leader in cycling. British Columbia has the highest bike commuting rates in Canada; Oregon has the highest in the United States. Every other Northwest state is above the national average. When the League of American Bicyclists scanned the United States in 2006 for bicycle friendly communities, it found just eleven that met its standards. Four of them were in the Northwest: Corvallis, Eugene, and Portland, Oregon; and Olympia, Washington. Northwest cities also stood out in a similar 2004 study by the Thunderhead Alliance (pdf), a bike advocacy group.

    Within Cascadia, the stand-out cities are the Westside university towns: Corvallis, where more than 8 percent of commute trips are by bike; Eugene, where more than 6 percent of commute trips are by bike; and Victoria, where almost 5 percent of commute trips are by bike. Olympia and Bellingham are also in the running.

    Cascadia’s big metro areas do respectably, too. Greater Vancouver leads with 1.9 percent of commute trips by bike (and 3 percent inside the city of Vancouver—twice the ratio of one decade ago), according to Translink’s 2007 Transportation Plan (pdf) and the Vancouver Neighborhood Transportation office. Greater Portland comes next at 0.8 percent (and 2.6 percent in the city of Portland—almost twice the proportion of a decade ago); followed by greater Seattle at 0.7 percent.

    Cycling is not evenly distributed across metro areas, of course. It’s heavily concentrated in complete, compact neighborhoods that are close to the urban core. Small, campus-dominated cities like Eugene and Corvallis are therefore naturals for cycling. So are the historic, street-car neighborhoods that anchor the Northwest’s big cities: draw a circle with a four-mile radius around the downtown of any Cascadian city and you’ll usually capture not only its most compact neighborhoods but also a large share of its bike commuters. In Portland, for example, more than 60 percent of regular cycle commuters live in such neighborhoods, and those neighborhoods have also accounted for most of the growth in biking over the last decade, as this City of Portland map of bike commuting by neighborhood shows (Courtesy of the Portland Office of Transportation [pdf]). The darker a census bloc, the more residents bike to work. (The map also shows the city’s expanding bikeway network—the topic of my next Bicycle Neglect post.)Portland bike animated 350w

    Overall, Cascadia’s cyclists make up slightly more than 1 percent of all commuters; perhaps 2 percent of all trips in the metropolitan areas of the region are taken by bike. That figure puts Cascadia at three times the US average and on a par with Canada overall.

    But it’s still only 2 percent of trips. (And, because bicycle trips are typically short, biking accounts for an even smaller share of all distance traveled in the region: probably only 1 percent.) For comparison, at last tally, Germans made 12 percent of trips by bike; Danes, 20 percent; and the Dutch, 38 percent—according to data gathered by researchers John Pucher and Lewis Dijkstra (pdf).

    In the bicycling meccas of Europe, human-powered trips actually outnumber trips by car, according to this data from the Victoria Transport Research Institute.  In Amsterdam and Copenhagen, for example, almost half of all trips are made under human power. In Copenhagen, some 85 percent of residents own a bike according to Brian Hansen, the city’s senior advisor on cycling (big pdf). (Say, that’s almost like the people-to-bikes ratio in my family!) And 60 percent of Copenhageners—all people, including the old, young, disabled, and infirm—ride a bike on any given day. (Even my car-less family doesn’t ride that much!) Cycling is even more prevalent in Amsterdam.

    Northern Europe’s cyclomania is staggering. Consider this: Cycling is concentrated among the young in Cascadia, as most places; it peaks between 16 and 24 years of age at levels around 4 percent. Even among these most two-wheeled of all northwesterners, however, bike use is a fraction of levels in northern Europe. In fact, young Cascadians don’t even match the bicycling levels of Germans over the age of 75. That’s right: Germans in their late seventies and eighties bike more—on 7 percent of all trips—than Cascadian teens and twenty-somethings. And the Dutch? Dutch seniors (again, over age 75) take fully a quarter of their trips by bike. (They walk for another quarter.) (I found European cycling, by age, here [pdf].)

    What’s more, in the Netherlands, Germany, and Denmark, cycling has been growing more rapidly as a share of all transport than has cycling in Cascadia. In Amsterdam, cycling has risen from 30 percent to 40 percent of trips since 1990. In Copenhagen, bikes have now overtaken motor vehicles for commuting into downtown, as this chart shows (courtesy of Brian Hansen of the City of Copenhagen).

    Copenhagen bike commute graph 350w

    What explains the vast disparities in cycling rates? Car-head.

    Yes, but how?

    Well, most importantly, it’s compact communities: northern European cities are far more densely built than Cascadian cities, which makes them naturals for cycling. Urban trips in northern Europe are half as long, on average, which makes them more bikable.

    It’s also traffic laws and enforcement, as I argued here, and good bicycling bridges, as I argued here. It’s also the extent and quality of bicycling facilities and infrastructure, which I’ll write about another day, and the northern European approach to safety and driver’s education, another topic for a future post. There may be a cultural cause, too: Paris is as densely settled as Amsterdam and Parisians drive almost as little as northern Europeans. But Parisians don’t bike much; they mostly walk and ride transit. (In my car-less family, the males ride their bikes while the females prefer their feet and the bus. So I say, “Men are from Amsterdam; women are from Paris.” Cringe. Sorry.)

    The roots of Europe’s cycling rates are important, because they reveal the routes to Cascadia’s future. So I’ll return another day to unearthing them. For now, let me just say: it’s certainly not the weather. Cascadia, especially its populous heartland stretching from the Willamette Valley through Puget Sound to the lower Fraser Valley, has a superb climate for cycling. There are neither icy roads in winter nor swampish humidity in summer. The famous rain is more often a drippy ambience than measurable precipitation. Northern Europe’s climate is worse for cycling than ours: it snows. Besides, the nights are much longer in winter there.

    Even if northern Europe’s climate were better for bikers, climate is not destiny where cycling is concerned: The frigid Yukon is tied with temperate British Columbia for the highest cycling rate among Canadian provinces, and Alaskans bicycle two to five times as much as do residents of the balmy southern states that once formed the Confederacy, according to research by analysts John Pucher and Ralph Buehler (pdf).

    In bicycle road racing, you don’t win unless you stay up with the pack—the peloton—because of the aerodynamic advantage of tight formations. If you fall behind, you’ll probably never catch up.

    What’s Cascadia’s standing, in the race for bicycle-friendly urban transportation—transportation that’s affordable, equitable, energy efficient, and climate safe? Well, the region is the North American leader in bicycling; we set the pace for the peloton. Bicycling has never been more prevalent in Cascadia than it is today, and it’s steadily gaining in many Northwest cities.

    But pull the camera back until you can see the whole race route. You’ll see that the peloton we’re pacing in North America is not the main one. The real contenders are in northern Europe, and they’re pulling away from us. We’re the leaders of the laggards.

    Fortunately, building complete, compact communities isn’t a winner-take-all sport. Leading the trailers is still good. It means that Cascadia is seizing more of the rewards of cycle-friendly communities—from lively streets to energy independence, from narrowed waistlines to widened access to affordable transportation. The expanding lead of the European peloton is, however, a bracing reminder to do more, to speed ahead toward the end of Bicycle Neglect.

    (Research for this series conducted by intern Deric Gruen.)