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Weekly Trend: Bike Advocates Aim to Reinvent the Wheel—Or At Least Our Ideas About It

In urban environments today, transportation is a constant struggle. Cars, buses, trams, mopeds, motorcycles and bikes cover the road and engage in a relatively chaotic dance on a daily basis. Although cars dominate most city roads throughout the United States, bikes are becoming more and more popular. As people consider cost and the environmental impact when choosing their method of transportation, biking increasingly provides an appealing alternative.

The District of Columbia is one of many cities increasing its bike friendliness with miles of bike paths, bike lanes and the Capital Bikeshare program, which features over 300 stations in the D.C. area. The District Department of Transportation is in the process of creating a plan to expand the current 60 miles of bike lanes to 136 miles and to increase protected bike lanes (or cycle tracks) and trails to 72 miles and 135 miles, respectively, over the next 25 years.

D.C. is not alone, as other cities in the United States have made significant progress when it comes to increasing bike usage. For example, in Portland, Oregon, 6.1 percent of workers bike to work according to the U.S. Census Bureau; this is significantly higher than the national average of just 0.6 percent.

Why are bikes gaining popularity in Portland? Buffered bike lanes that create a safe and comfortable biking environment and an extensive bikeway network are just two examples of ways in which Portland makes it easier to commute by bike. However, Portland pales in comparison to cities such as Amsterdam and Copenhagen, where 38 percent and 35 percent of commuters respectively bike to work each day.

What makes Amsterdam and Copenhagen, ranked numbers 1 and 2 as the most bicycle-friendly cities, such standouts? They each have distinct, protected lanes for cyclists, traffic lights specifically designed for bikers and bike racks located on trains and throughout the city. As a result of these efforts, both cities are able to sustain an avid biking culture that remains an integral part of each of their societies.

Additionally, biking is often the fastest way to traverse the city, and is cited as one of the top reasons Copenhageners choose to bike. And while efficient infrastructure is vital to the overall popularity of biking, there’s also something to be said for mindset. Biking is a way of life in these European cities. Children ride balance bicycles before they can speak in full sentences, and men and women in business attire bike through wind, rain and snow. When compared to the United States, there is a profound difference in cultural attitudes toward transportation as the Danes and the Dutch are likely to grab keys to a bike lock rather than keys to a car. People from all walks of life often do not think twice about how to get where they are going: They bike.

Can we cultivate this type of culture and mentality in the United States? As noted by Fokko Kuik, Senior Policy Advisor for Amsterdam’s Service Infrastructure Traffic and Transport department, creating a safe and efficient biking infrastructure in an urban environment is “rather difficult.”

Consequently, creating a successful “bike culture” in the United States may provide opportunities for entrepreneurs. How can we shift Americans’ attitudes toward biking? What kind of infrastructure transformations will be needed in order to create and support an influx of cyclists? How will we motivate local governments to allocate the requisite funds to make these infrastructure changes? How can companies continue to improve bike-share programs and bike path networks that already exist? D.C. and other cities may have one or two of the aforementioned biker-friendly initiatives but will that be enough?

Copenhagen and Amsterdam have many small-yet-significant infrastructure designs that create a uniquely safe and positive bike-riding experience. They provide excellent examples for the United States to follow, but simply adopting the methods that work in these European countries may not be enough. Each city features a distinct topography and a unique group of citizens with different values and norms. Taking an infrastructure and culture from one country, or city, and transplanting it in another is not an easy task—it may even be impossible.

How, then, do we integrate bicycles into everyday life all over the United States? Startups have already begun breaking into this unique market by creating solutions to some of these tricky problems. Bike-share programs are starting to pop up all over the United States. Apps such as Nimbler enable bikers to map out ideal routes, taking bike paths and bike-share stations into account, while startups like HelmetHub look to increase bike safety by providing stations to rent helmets as well as bicycles. Meanwhile, other startups are digging even deeper in order to change the way we think about biking.

Cambridge-based startup SuperPedestrian aims to create an “urban revolution” with the Copenhagen Wheel. This bike wheel features a small, battery-operated motor that works with a smartphone to provide assistance when the cyclist begins to exert more force. “Integrating seamlessly with your motion,” this wheel makes hills seem flat and shortens distances. This type of technological innovation makes biking to work a less daunting and more appealing transportation option.

Startups and entrepreneurs are the ones making progress toward changes that will make America a more bike-friendly place. However, the change in bike culture must be significant in order to draw Americans away from the luxury and convenience of motor vehicles. Perhaps government officials will soon be turning down government-provided car services, as the deputy mayor for technical and environmental affairs in Copenhagen, Morten Kabell, recently did, in favor of biking.

Despite the startup community’s continual efforts toward creating solutions to transportation woes, commitment to biking may seem far-fetched. However, as communication and collaboration between these entrepreneurs and local governments improves, the possibility of becoming just a little bit more like Copenhagen or Amsterdam seems within reach.

Carolyn Peyser

Carolyn is a senior at Tufts University majoring in Sociology and minoring in Communications and Media Studies.