Of ghost bikes and bike lanes.
I grew up on a bicycle. At least once I learned to ride. Somehow or other I didn’t manage to do that until the age of ten. But starting then, the bicycle became the ticket to freedom and independence, as well as another way to appreciate the natural world and get a lot of exercise.
For many people who grew up in suburbs similar to the one I grew up in, what I’m describing will be familiar. Looking at it from this distant vantage point, and back at the time, the reason is and was obvious. It was all about infrastructure. Walking from my suburban home to the town center took an hour or more. I only did that when there was too much snow on the roads for anything with wheels to function. Biking it took a fraction of that time. The nearest video arcade was several miles beyond the town center. Walking there and back would have been a day-long event, but by bike it was just a good little workout.
All of this will be familiar to many. And then what happened next will be, too. At the age of sixteen I got a driver’s license and inherited an ancient Volvo from my parents, which they were passing on to me both out of love and kindness but also because the car was deemed to be no longer reliable enough to use for their interminably long commute from Connecticut to Long Island, which they both had to do multiple times a week. From the time I got that driver’s license and car, I rarely rode a bike.
There are so many forces in the society I grew up in, suburban America, that pushed me and most other teenagers and adults in that direction. With a car it becomes easier to go still further than you could easily do with a bike, and so you do, for lots of very good reasons having to do with important things like getting an education and making money. And there’s the question of your dating prospects and all those other social pressures.
But fundamentally, it comes down to infrastructure. Young teenagers in the suburbs of America often become serious bicycling enthusiasts because the distances they’d need to go by walking are impossible, there’s no mass transit to speak of, and nobody wants to ask their parents for rides all the time if they can help it, for a whole variety of different reasons. Once they’re driving cars, however, the whole equation changes. Now they can really participate in the society, as it has been designed to function — by car.
And it’s not just the distances people often need to go that is the main problem here with infrastructure. It’s not just “how it is” in a sparsely-populated place like so much of the US is. The spreading out of the population, in the way it spread out, were choices made by people and urban planners, governments and corporations.
Still we are fed on a steady diet of the mantra that we are personally responsible for the climate crisis and we have to do things like eat less meat and ride bicycles more. We are told this in so many ways, from early childhood. But despite all the propaganda, in the most bicycling cities in the US, the percentage of people commuting to work by bike on a regular basis is in the low single digits. Contrast that with cities like Copenhagen or Amsterdam, where it’s the majority who is getting around by bicycle or mass transit.
Is it something peculiar to the Danish or Dutch psyche that makes their entire societies as bicycle-obsessed as your average suburban American teenager? Or is there something else at work here? Obviously, it’s once again about infrastructure, laws, what’s easy, what’s possible. Denmark and the Netherlands being flat countries of course is hugely influential in this, let’s not minimize that. But there are many other flat parts of the world that do not have a dominant bicycle culture going on, such as most of the American midwest. In Denmark, on the other hand, it’s prohibitively expensive to own a car or fill its tank with gas, while bike lanes are everywhere, and they’re all full of people of all ages riding in them.
You’re also not risking your life by taking a bike ride. Here in Portland I see new ghost bikes cropping up everywhere — white-painted bicycles that friends of those killed while riding a bicycle often put up in their memory, and to serve as a statement. The statement can be many things to many people — it can focus on the individual responsibility of the drivers not to text and drive, not to drink and drive, etc., and/or it can put the spotlight on the need for better, safer infrastructure, like real bike lanes, tunnels, and bridges.
Meanwhile there are cities in Scandinavia that have achieved zero annual traffic fatalities of any kind. They have done this not by relying on humans not to make human errors, but by creating infrastructure that makes a fatal accident very difficult to have. In Copenhagen, for a driver to hit a bicyclist, they generally first have to drive through a line of parked cars that separate the car lane from the bicycle lane. It is not a matter of crossing an imaginary line represented by some faded paint job they’re calling a bike lane, such as at least 99% of the so-called bike lanes in the United States, in my conservative estimate.
The UK, incidentally, is just as bad for bicycling as the US, with no real attention having been paid to this form of transit in the development of the infrastructure of the country. So the idea of Extinction Rebellion activists being slandered by the mayor of London and most of the British media for tying up not only car traffic but mass transit as well, on the basis that if they really cared about the environment they wouldn’t cause problems for commuters on the Underground, is a lot like someone saying because 2+2=4 and using the Underground saves petrol, using the Underground is the solution to the climate crisis. It’s very elementary school logic that falls apart immediately upon inspection, but it is totally mainstream logic, from Saddiq Khan to the BBC, and it is pernicious.
London and other British cities are ecological disasters with industrial-era infrastructure that is crying out for radical transformation of the sort that only massive government re-prioritization of values and massive infrastructure investments can hope to deal with — as is very much the case in the cities of the US and many other countries. Only after spending so much time in Denmark did I come to realize to what a tremendous extent it is all about infrastructure, and the priorities of a democratically-run society. Danish democracy has been controlled by active bicycle-riders for a long time, with bicycle infrastructure spending being a significant part of the national budget every year since around the time I was born, and what has been achieved is obvious.
Telling people to ride their bikes more often in places like London, Glasgow, New York City or Chicago is like inviting people to die early deaths from either getting hit by a car or breathing the air made so foul by the dominance of the private car for the functioning of these societies as they are. Telling people to ride their bikes more often in Denmark, well, it’s not necessary. It would seem like a very strange thing to do. How else are you going to get around?
To the stooges of the real estate speculators pretending to be viable political leaders who like to preach about mass transit and social inclusion while they reign over societies where rampant speculation on the real estate market means people are forced to live in further and further suburbs with less and less infrastructure and more and more dependency on the private automobile for their increasingly difficult prospects for survival, we must say no, this stops now, the solution is not your band-aids – it is a total transformation of the physical infrastructure of the society, and serious, effective government regulation of the housing market.
With all respect to those many good friends of mine who are actively striving to make Denmark an even better, more ecological and more inclusive society, it is already an entirely different reality from what we know in places like the UK or the US — including in the supposedly progressive hot spots like Brighton or Seattle or wherever. In fundamental ways, it bears no resemblance.
In Denmark, the question is almost never “shall we ride or drive?” It’s almost always the former. Yes, there are fewer bus routes than there used to be, and this is not the right direction to be going in, but the point is, it’s still nothing like anywhere you’ve probably been, unless you’ve spent time in the Netherlands. These are the societies you get when you create the infrastructure for it. If you don’t create that infrastructure, you don’t get that society. We can do it, too — but first we have to stop deluding ourselves that the way forward involves anything other than society-wide collective action, of the sort that brought Denmark its bike lanes.