What is the status of bicycle use in the United States, compared to other parts of the world

What is the status of bicycle use in the United States, compared to other parts of the world like, say, China or Europe?

—Monica Schmid, Seattle, WA

Given different types of weather and terrain—as well as historical economic and developmental trends—comparing bicycle usage in different parts of the world is tricky. What is clear, however, is that China dominates the world bike scene: A whopping 60 percent of the world’s 1.6 billion bicycles are used daily by some 500 million riders in China, who choose bikes over other modes of transport over half the time.

Meanwhile, in Europe’s hotbed of commuter bicycling, Amsterdam, residents choose their bikes 28 percent of the time, according to the International Bicycle Fund (IBF). In other European cities, the stats are also impressive: Commuters choose bikes 20 percent of the time in Denmark, 10 percent in Germany, eight percent in the United Kingdom, and five percent in both France and Italy. In stark contrast, the IBF reports that American city dwellers choose bikes less than one percent of the time. Meanwhile, estimates of the number of American adults who commute by bicycle regularly range from a low of 400,000 (based on U.S. Census data) to a high of five million (according to the Bicycle Institute of America).

Unlike their American counterparts, Europe’s urban planners are working to increase bicycle ridership, according to Janet Larsen of the Earth Policy Institute, an environmental think tank. Copenhagen, for example, has 3,000 bicycles in the city, available for short-term use for a small fee. Amsterdam provides covered bike parking at bus stops, encouraging both bike riding and mass transit at the same time.

In Muenster, Germany, bus lanes can be used by bikes but not by cars. Special lanes near intersections feed cyclists to a stop area ahead of cars, and an advance green light for cyclists ensures that they get through the intersection before cars behind them begin to move. Thanks to government programs to ease traffic congestion in Germany, bicycle use has increased by 50 percent over the past 20 years. Meanwhile, the United Kingdom has developed a plan to quadruple bicycle use by the year 2012. And in the European Union, bicycles have been included for the first time in the comprehensive transportation plan.

“European cities are much less suited to motoring and much more suited to short-distance bicycle transportation than are American cities,” says transportation analyst John Forester. He cites historical reasons, including that European capitals were designed as walking cities served by rail, while America instead embraced cars.

Unfortunately for the world’s air quality, a similar trend is developing in China, where people are ever more turning to cars and abandoning their bikes. Beijing, for instance, has been converting hundreds of bike lanes into car lanes and parking areas, as a recent influx of motor vehicles is maxing out existing roads. And with increased car traffic and fewer bike lanes, bicycle riding is getting more hazardous. “Nowadays there are just too many accidents, with a lot of cyclists getting hurt,” says Zhang Lihua of the China Cycling Association. “Riding bicycles is becoming too inconvenient and too dangerous,” he adds.

CONTACTS: International Bicycle Fund, www.ibike.org , Earth Policy Institute, www.earth-policy.org.