Bicycle Research between Bicycle Policies and Bicycle Culture

H. Oosterhuis*

*Corresponding author for this work

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After the Second World War, the bicycle was surpassed by the car as the dominant mode of individual transportation in most Western countries. Since the 1970s, however, bicycle use has again gained some support both from the general public and from governments. In the last two decades national governments and cities throughout the Western world, from Norway to Australia and the Unites States to Germany as well as the European Union, have launched policy statements and programs aimed at promoting cycling. Policy documents show much optimism about the possibilities to increase the bike’s modal share in transport by means of infrastructural and social engineering. These policy plans have enhanced social scientific and traffic engineering research into bicycle use and its facilitation.
In this article I question some of the basic assumptions of current cycling policies and policy-oriented bicycle research. My argument is based on an analysis of more than 200 published research papers and of several national policy documents, mostly published in the last two decades. It is striking that the greater part of bicycle research has been carried out in Anglo-Saxon countries (the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia), where bicycle use is low, but Dutch, German, Belgian, Danish and other Scandinavian scholars also play a prominent role. The main question in this research is why people use or don’t use the bicycle for utilitarian purposes and, consequently, how cycling can be promoted. The last two or three decades have witnessed major increases in bicycle traffic in some Western countries and cities, which provokes the question whether and to what extent policies have caused or contributed to rising cycling levels. The available research, however, does not offer a definite answer to this question. It is not clear to what extent the rising modal split of the bicycle was the result of policies – or, the other way around, bicycle policies were the outcome of a growing number of cyclists. Many research papers suggest that the degree in which bicycle use can be substantially increased through policies largely depends on national – and also local – contexts.
The policy rhetoric and the arguments reinforcing cycling policies are largely similar in most countries: they present the bike as an efficient, inexpensive, clean and convenient solution for traffic congestion, cramped town centers, suburban sprawl, environmental and noise pollution, the spilling of natural energy resources, ill-health and welfare diseases, feelings of insecurity in public spaces, social exclusion and the loss of social cohesion. The implementation of the policy plans and the actual modal share of the bicycle in passenger transport, however, exhibit significant and often persistent differences between countries, regions and cities. Around 2000 the bicycle’s modal split amounted to 27 per cent in the Netherlands and 20 per cent in Denmark. It varied between 7 and 12 per cent in Germany, Belgium, Austria, Switzerland, Sweden and Finland, between 4 and 5 per cent in Italy, France and Norway, and between 2 and 3 per cent in Great-Britain, Canada, Ireland and the Czech Republic. And it stagnated around 1 per cent in the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Spain, Portugal, Greece, and Luxemburg. Data about bicycle ownership, the distance traveled by bike per capita, the frequency of bicycle-use, and the appreciation of the bike as a means of transport also show considerable differences.
My analysis suggests that the success or failure of cycling policies can largely be attributed to differences in bicycle cultures that are rooted in history. These cultures are characterized by the collective meanings that have been attributed to cycling and the related attitudes, experiences and habits. To a large extent such cultural factors have taken shape in long-term historical trajectories and as such they are largely immune to rational considerations and can hardly be influenced through (short-term) social planning. History and culture determine the boundaries of what cycling policies can realize. For bicycle research this implies that both cultural-historical issues and the actual policy making processes regarding cycling deserve closer investigation. I claim that international-comparative and historical research into bicycling is highly relevant for evaluating national bicycle policies and that historical and cultural factors have been neglected in social-scientific and traffic-engineering research. My objective is to bridge the gap between bicycle policies and the associated research on the one hand and cultural and historical research into bicycling on the other.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)20-36
JournalMobility in History
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2014


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