Columnist Johanna Neumann: Where bicycling is the new norm

  • The author's son. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Published: 11/21/2019 10:55:45 AM
Modified: 11/21/2019 10:55:35 AM

My family and I are spending some time in Germany, and I love taking note of what is normal here compared with the U.S. One big difference I’ve noticed: bicycling is the go-to mode for running many everyday errands here.

In Munich, nearly 20 percent of travel is accomplished by bike and 80 percent of Germans own a bicycle. In Copenhagen, which is widely recognized as the city with the best bicycle infrastructure in the world, 49 percent of commutes happen on bicycle.

By contrast, in the United States, bike commuting is still so marginal that cycling didn’t even get its own pie chart wedge in the Census Bureau’s report on how people get to work. This same report revealed that 76 percent of Americans commute to work in a car, alone. That’s our normal.

But the landscape is changing. In 1983, 50 percent of American 16-year-olds had their driver’s license. In 2017, only a quarter did. This shift is taking place because cars are pricey, but also because ride-sharing apps, transit, walking and bicycling have become more appealing.

So how do we spur on the change from a normal, where three-quarters of Americans drive to work solo, to one that is better for our planet and our bodies?

Infrastructure is critical. In Munich, most major streets and many minor ones are flanked by protected bike paths. I recently met a friend at her house for a coworking date and biking was the fastest option. I rode on dedicated protected bike paths for five miles nearly all the way to her doorstep. If a high-quality network of well-maintained bike paths allowed you to ride away from cars in your community, you would likely ride more, right?

The fact that infrastructure matters isn’t lost on communities that are trying to act on climate and become more appealing places to live. Cities like Los Angeles and Washington are expanding their bike networks, and New York City just committed a whopping $1.7 billion to build 250 miles of protected bike paths. Here in Massachusetts, Cambridge just set rules this year to add protected lanes on all rebuilt roads.

Equipment matters, too. Our family has been struck by the diversity of bicycles on Munich’s streets. Commuter bikes with built-in front and rear lights powered by the motion of the wheels are standard, but we often also see electric-assist cargo bikes with bins on the front and back that allow parents to haul kids and groceries: they are bike versions of minivans.

We’ve seen step-through tricycles, whose stability allows seniors to ride well into their 80s. In Germany, one out of every four bicycles sold in 2018 was an electric assist-bike, a technology that expands the range of cycling trips and the demographic of those riding. The explosion of innovative bicycle designs has made it possible for consumers to find the right bike for their place in life.

Finally, there are cultural signals that normalize bicycling. One great example is the rite of passage that every fourth grader goes through: an in-school bicycle safety course. For eight weeks, two police officers came to my son’s school to teach the kids about bicycling. Oscar developed understanding of traffic signs, the eight steps involved in properly completing a left-hand turn, and learned the 10 elements of a traffic-safe bike.

Once Oscar passed a written exam, he advanced to a practicum and was invited to have his bicycle inspected by the police officers. After successfully completing his practicum and inspection, Oscar proudly filled out his “biking license” and applied his inspection sticker to his bike: he was now authorized to ride to and from school on his own.

This bicycling curriculum arms kids with the knowledge and confidence to safely start moving about their lives on bike, a habit they can carry into old age. But this education is effective only because it’s nested within a sound infrastructure and a culture where bike-riding is already normalized.

I don’t know what we’ll do when we return to Amherst. Oscar really wants to bike to school, and although our house is less than a mile from Fort River Elementary School, there is no bike infrastructure in place. Drivers leaving the entrance to the Cumby’s at the intersection of Route 9 and Southeast Street at 8:40 a.m. definitely aren’t expecting to see elementary schoolers on bikes. It just isn’t normal yet, not in Amherst — nor in most communities in the U.S.

Johanna Neumann, of Amherst, has spent the past two decades working to protect our air, water and open spaces, defend consumers in the marketplace and advance a more sustainable economy and democratic society. She can be reached at

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