Which Country Is Most Bicycle Friendly? (And What Can Others Do to Improve?)
In July 2015, Wired published a list of "The 20 Most Bike-Friendly Cities on the Planet," as compiled by the Copenhagenize Design Company. Topping the list was Copenhagen, Denmark. The city was praised for investing heavily in the development of new bicycle-friendly infrastructure?from bicycle bridges to elevated bike paths. According to the Wired piece, the investment in creating bike-friendly infrastructure is an especially large trend in both Denmark and the Netherlands. (For the record, three Dutch cities made the top five, including Eindhoven at five, Utrecht at three, and former top-slot holder Amsterdam slipping to the runner-up position.) Both countries, in addition to building protected bike lanes and bike bridges, have worked to slant their traffic laws so that cyclists aren't so at the mercy of drivers. In particular, the Copenhagenize Design Company says that Denmark and the Netherlands have "design[ed] streets to limit the number and speed of cars in city centers," thereby making high-traffic areas safer for cyclists.
The Top Biking Country
If the Copenhagenize Design Company list shows one thing, it's that individual cities tend to develop more of a "bicycle-friendly scene" than countries as a whole. There is a very good reason for this trend. Rural areas aren't always bike-friendly, not necessarily because the streets are unsafe for cyclists, but because there are longer distances between destinations. Cities, by contrast, are much more densely populated and less spread out, making them perfect places to ditch the car and get around by bike?at least theoretically. Cycling offers health benefits, is often faster than cars or public transit in big gridlocked cities, simplifies parking, is better for the environment, and costs less than owning a car, parking a car, and paying for gas.
When cities realize these advantages and build infrastructure to support cyclists, they earn a reputation for being bike-friendly cities. As such, perhaps the best way to choose the world's most bike-friendly country is to determine which country has the most world-renowned cycling cities. In that regard, it's tough to argue for any country other than the Netherlands. Copenhagen might have topped the Copenhagenize Design Company list of the 20 most bicycle-friendly cities in 2015, but Amsterdam had been the winner in virtually all previous years.
In fact, Amsterdam is viewed as the biking city by many cyclists. Famous for its 400 kilometers of bike paths, its plethora of bike racks and bike parking stations, and its impressive number of bicycle-only streets, Amsterdam is and has been a cyclist's destination for many years. Amsterdam's legendary cycling status, combined with high rankings for both Utrecht and Eindhoven, as well as strong bicycling traditions in many smaller Dutch cities, makes the Netherlands the obvious choice for the world's most bike-friendly country.
Assessing the Challengers
Then again, the Netherlands might not always be on top. Copenhagen swinging past Amsterdam on Copenhagenize Design Company's top 20 shows that the Dutch are no longer the automatic, default winners in all conversations about bike-friendly infrastructure. On the contrary, the Wired piece repeatedly criticized the three high-ranking Netherlands cities for resting on what the writer called "the Dutch status quo." The basic idea is that Dutch cities have been considered bicycling meccas for so long that they are now able to make lists of the world's best bike cities on reputation and notability alone.
But while Amsterdam, Utrecht, and Eindhoven do have deep biking traditions, they also have confusing city infrastructures and not-so-bike-friendly elements (like cobblestone roads) that they still aren't perfect for cyclists. More pressingly, Dutch cities aren't innovating with their city planning like Copenhagen is to create bicycle-friendly infrastructure.There have been improvements in these cities, like a "floating roundabout" in Eindhoven and a massive bike parking facility in Utrecht, but the improvements have not matched the pace of those in Copenhagen. The overwhelming feeling from reading through the Copenhagenize Design Company's 2015 list of the 20 best bicycle cities is that the Netherlands has more bike-friendly tradition on its side, but Denmark is more innovative with modern cycling infrastructure.
The bottom line is that both of these countries are great places to live if you prefer to get around via bicycle. Denmark might have the edge in the race for the "world's most bicycle-friendly country" title or, if it doesn't, it will soon, but you really can't go wrong in either country. As for other countries that did well on the 2015 Copenhagenize Design Company list, France had four cities in the top 20 (Strasbourg, Nantes, Bordeaux, and Paris), while Spain and Germany had two each (Seville and Barcelona for Spain, Berlin and Hamburg for Germany). Other cities earning rankings on the list included Malmo (Sweden), Antwerp (Belgium), Ljubljana (Slovenia), Buenos Aires (Argentina), Dublin (Ireland), Vienna (Austria), Minneapolis (USA), and Montreal (Canada).
Countries with Fewer Bicycle-Friendly Traditions and How Those Issues Can Be Addressed
Minneapolis is the first United States city ever to make the list, surpassing the long-time stalwart Montreal as North America's gold standard for a bike-friendly city. It's not entirely the fault of North American metropolises that they are repeatedly ranked lower than their European counterparts in indexes of bike-friendliness. In particular, the heavy winters of Canada and the United States Midwest (where Minneapolis is located) put a major damper on cycling in many of both countries' biggest cities.
But improving bike infrastructure, installing more on-street lanes, and ditching shared-lane markings (popular in both the United States and Canada) in favor of protected bike lanes (already present in Montreal) could establish more prevalent biking traditions in North American cities.Needless to say, the majority of the Copenhagenize Design Company list was dominated by European cities. The United States enjoyed just one entry, as did Canada while England failed to land a single city on the list. Perhaps the worst performers of all were Asian countries, though, as not a single city from the entire continent managed to pierce the top 20. While North America only landed two slots on the list, and near the back of the top 20, at that things are looking up for the continent's urban cycling scene.
Of course, those cities will also need to focus on clearing bike lanes and keeping them safe in the winter. For North American cities, though, the motto should be "if you build it, they will come." If you create the urban cycling infrastructure, more people will begin using bicycles to get around the city during the spring, summer, and fall months. Heavier use, in turn, will heighten demand for clear bike lanes in the winter, which will help to establish year-round bike-friendly policies throughout North America.
In countries like England, Germany (criticized by the Copenhagenize Design Company for resting on its laurels, despite landing two cities in the top 20), and virtually all of Asia, the smartest strategy would be to look at what Denmark and the Netherlands are doing and adapt it. These countries could watch how Copenhagen is innovating with bicycle-friendly infrastructure and adopt those strategies as their own. They could look at the way Amsterdam has long discouraged urban driving while encouraging urban cycling. Build bike bridges and elevated bike paths; build bicycle parking facilities; install more protected bike paths to make getting around the entire city a breeze for cycles; try your own version of Eindhoven's "floating roundabout"; get smart about bike-share programs. All of these strategies could go a long way in helping European and Asian countries catch up to Denmark and the Netherlands as cycling destinations.
Between car payments, gas expenses, insurance, and maintenance, cars can cost you a fortune each year?and that's before you even have to worry about parking. Furthermore, driving your car to work every day yields zero fitness benefits and can actually create an unhealthy amount of stress. Some studies have even suggested that people with long, stressful commutes on gridlocked roads and highways tend to have lower life expectancies than people without commutes. Living and working in a bike-friendly city can eliminate the expense of a car, the unhealthy stress of a commute, and the irritation of having to find parking?all while contributing to your daily exercise. Not everyone can live in Copenhagen or Amsterdam, but virtually every city has the potential to reach similar levels of bike-friendliness. So write to your city planners and managers and push for the development of bike-friendly infrastructure. Who knows? You could be the key to landing your city on next year's Copenhagenize Design Company list!