Discussion of "Bicycling Boom in Germany: A Revival Engineered by Public Policy" By John Pucher

Written for Transportation Quarterly by

Professor Martin Wachs, Director

University of California Transportation Center
University of California, Berkeley
Berkeley, California 94720-1720
Telephone: 510-643-1083; Fax: 510-643-5456
Email: mwachs@uclink4.berkeley.edu

September 28, 1997

Professor Pucher argues very persuasively that in Germany public policy has been the single most decisive factor leading to dramatic increases in bicycling as a mode of urban transportation. What Germany, Holland, and Denmark have in common is that each of these countries has adopted a complex set of policies to encourage the use of bicycles and discourage reliance on automobiles. In each case citizens have responded rationally by choosing to cycle for far more of their trips than is the case in other countries. This is true for trips having many different purposes, and it is true even where terrain, climate, and tradition would lead one to conclude that cycling would not be a preferred travel mode. In many other countries that have not adopted such policies, including the United States, a large proportion of urban trips are short and could similarly be made by bicycle. Cycling is inexpensive in terms of both public and private costs, produces no air pollution, contributes to the reduction of global warming, conserves fossil fuel reserves, and enhances good health through exercise. Thus, Pucher implies that other countries, including the United States, could and should adopt such policies. In fact we do not have to look as far as Germany to find examples of policies that promote cycling. In Davis, California and a few other communities in the United States, similar - though more limited - policies have produced dramatic increases in the proportion of all trips that is made by bicycle.

Professor Pucher gets no argument from me. His data are accurate and his arguments convincing. If policies similar to those he describes were to be adopted in the United States, surely they would produce results similar to those they produced in Europe. The only question that remains to be answered is not whether this could happen here, but why it has not.

In the United States and most other democracies policies do not simply arise out of technical expertise and sound logic. Saving energy, improving health, reducing traffic congestion, and reducing costs are stated goals of transportation policy makers, but the specific policies by which they attempt to achieve those goals result from political processes that are complex and ongoing. There has to be a strong, lasting, and powerful consensus among many interest groups who actively pursue adoption of their preferred courses of action in the policy arena. In the countries cited by Pucher, he notes that the Social Democrats and the Greens have promoted these policies very actively, and they have achieved success by gaining victories in regional and national elections. Pro-cycling and anti-auto policies have not been adopted in America because that kind of consensus and power-base have not been achieved, and they remain difficult to achieve here. Despite the clarity and the validity of the case made by Pucher and many other advocates of improved conditions for cyclists, there is no groundswell of public support for such policies in America. Many of the most effective advocates of particular programs and policies are those who have the most to gain from their implementation, and often those who have the most to gain are those who use and build or supply the facilities and products that are supported by the policies they advocate. Construction workers, auto workers, automobile clubs, insurance companies, oil companies, and many more people and organizations gain directly from pro-highway policies and advocate very effectively for them. Bicycle friendly programs are at a disadvantage in part because they would save money and that means reducing spending for auto-oriented programs and that spending benefits so many in our society. There is no constituency for these programs precisely because they would reduce the public and private spending that provides the livelihoods of many in an automobile-oriented economy. Existing interest groups will not rally to the cause of cyclists; rather, pro-cycling interests must create and sustain a political movement that counters the entrenched power of the pro-automobile and pro-transit communities.

In San Francisco a group of cycling advocates calling itself "critical mass" attempts to demonstrate that it is sufficiently politically powerful to warrant public expenditures and policies that are friendly to cycling. On the last Friday of each month, thousands of riders take to the streets attempting to disrupt evening rush hour traffic. Once the confrontation between motorists and cyclists reached near riot proportions and about thirty bike riders were arrested by police in riot gear. In addition to militant monthly confrontations, the cycling community is well organized and its representatives appear at every public hearing and before every legislative body that considers transportation funding allocations. Slowly, they are gaining support from environmental organizations and liberal politicians are starting to accept their basic premises. A small group of intelligent and tireless advocates flood the newspapers with pro-cycling letters and jam the switchboards of radio talk shows with pro-cycling calls. Cyclists become increasingly unpopular, as irate citizens repeatedly write editorials about the unfairness of the ways in which a militant minority is taking over transportation decision making, and that is exactly what they are doing. As a result of such relentless pressure from a well-organized constituency, the California Department of Transportation has agreed to include a bike lane on the new bridge that will replace the existing eastern span of the Oakland-San Francisco Bay Bridge. This lane, adding an estimated $147 million dollars to the two billion dollar cost of the span, was included in the final plan for the bridge not because of planning studies or because of demonstrated cost effectiveness, or in response to articles like Pucher's. It was included because a persistent, organized and downright obnoxious group of advocates would not let go of the issue. In my view there are many alternative bicycle programs that could make more cost-effective use of those resources than will the lane on the eastern half of the bridge, but those were not at issue and the bridge lanes have enormous symbolic value.

In a democracy there is simply no reason to adopt major changes in policy as a result of scholarly studies or technical findings. There is every reason, however, to adopt policies that respond to vocal and persistent interest groups that demonstrate they have staying power in the political arena. Whether or not cycling catches on in America will depend upon the success or failure of grassroots movements like the one that is now thriving and growing in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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