Europe’s booming bicycling industry has lessons for US

Old and new: A bicycle passes a Smartcar and an East German Trabant next to a section of the Berlin Wall.
Sean Gallup

BORDEAUX, France — It takes seconds to push my card into the machine and unlock a bicycle. For just a few dollars a day, I have the freedom to cross the city and its sweeping, pedestrianized riverfront, roads and parks. 

US cities are setting up public bicycle schemes, too. But here you can pick and mix your public transport options and trade a bus for a tram or bicycle, depending on your journey or your mood.

Better known for its wine than wheels, this city has one of France’s best-integrated transportation systems. But it’s not just Bordeaux, or even France: right across Europe, bicycling is being integrated into city planning from Brussels to London and Lyon.

The transformation is succeeding partly because it’s generating profits for new businesses, something supporters believe should serve as a lesson for car-centric America.

Nevertheless, experts say there’s still much to be done in Europe.

“Some countries are doing exceptionally well, others not,” says Kevin Mayne of the Brussels-based European Cyclists’ Federation (ECF). “Where things are going well, you see cycle-specific infrastructure, car-free city centers, cyclists and pedestrians prioritized.” 

“But there’s no ‘Europe,’” he adds. “You have to win the political argument in each city, region and country. Our biggest task now is to keep cities and governments focused on the value of cycling investment; we’re focused on economics.”

The numbers are staggering. The ECF estimates the European Union’s cycling industry to be worth almost $300 billion a year, roughly equivalent to Denmark’s GDP.

Some 35 million people use bicycles as their preferred form of transportation every day. Still, that's only 7 percent of the population. The ECF wants to double the figure by 2020, partly by encouraging governments to spend at least 10 percent of their transportation budgets on cycling initiatives.

In countries such as Denmark and Holland, entire road systems are already being designed around cyclists and pedestrians, with cars relegated to the fringes. Public bike-share programs like the one in Bordeaux, meanwhile, operate in dozens of cities across the continent.

Supporters say adopting such schemes is key to revolutionizing bicycle culture elsewhere in the world.

“There’s no question that bike-sharing programs are total game-changers,” says Andy Clarke, president of the League of American Bicyclists. “The Capital Bikeshare program in Washington, 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.”

New York and Chicago are catching up fast. “As we see in European cities like Seville, which had virtually no cycling at all, if you give people a place they feel safe riding and put a bunch of bikes out in front of them to use, they will use them in large numbers,” Clarke says.

Although new bicycles actually outsell new cars in the United States as in many parts of Europe, tackling American dependence on the automobile remains a huge hurdle.

“Cars are going to remain the predominant means of travel for people in most parts of the country for the foreseeable future,” Clarke says. “That won't change overnight.”

Like the ECF’s Maine, Clarke stresses the economics. Suburban residents can save money to, say, afford larger houses or move to better locations if they limit themselves to one car instead of two, he says.

“Making the link between cycling and local economics and the business community is essential,” he says. “We are obsessed with creating jobs, supporting the local economy, and bicycling has the opportunity to compete very well in that arena.”

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Other challenges include instituting proper safety measures to old infrastructure set up for cars.

“We have a dreadful driving culture that basically lets 200 million people operate 2-ton vehicles with little to no training, accountability or control,” Clarke says. “If you happen to be outside a car — on foot or on a bike — the system looks and feels dangerous, so people don't do it.”

Americans have also been slow to adopt the kind of European measures that have slowed traffic — such as decreasing the number of car lanes — increased driving costs and otherwise encouraged people to take up cycling.

As one commentator recently said, the car may not be king anymore, but it's still pretty close to the throne.

Lynette Eyb is editor of the independent English-language cycling website