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Why use sustainable transportation? It's the convenience, stupid.

Last night's keynote speaker at the National Bike Summit was Andreas Rhl, Bicycle Program Manager for the City of Copenhagen. The Danish capital has established itself as one of the world's leading cycling cities, with bicycling registering a 36 percent mode share for commuters and 60 percent of Copenhagen residents claiming the bicycle as their primary mode of transportation. Last night, Rhl gave a slightly longer version of a presentation he gave on Tuesday night, a full summary of which can be found at BikePortland.

Photo by 1541.

One of Rhl's many interesting statistics came from a biennial survey of Copenhagen cyclists. When asked for the primary reason why they bicycle, a combined 61 percent of respondents said it was either because cycling was easy and fast or because it was the most convenient mode of transportation. 19 percent cited exercise, 6 percent pointed to financial reasons and a paltry 1 percent were motivated by environmental concerns.

Rhl's conclusion was that, in order for cycling to become a mainstream transportation option, it has to be promoted and planned for based primarily on its convenience. In large, congested cities such as Washington, this is an entirely real possibility. While it's easy to say that Copenhagen's experience can't possibly translate to the United States, there is already an American precedent for promoting sustainable transportation on the merits of its convenience, and DDOT's new director has first-hand experience with it. The example, of course, is Zipcar.

A recent New York Times Magazine article delved into the history of carsharing and the explosive growth of industry giant Zipcar. While other car-sharing services are primarily non-profit and focused on the environmental benefits of reduced driving, Zipcar makes no apologies for its use of capitalistic methods in pursuit of eco-friendly goals and, of course, profit:

[Zipcar founder Robin Chase] had no desire to create the car-sharing equivalent of a community garden; she wanted to build the Whole Foods of the industry...Chase, who had little patience for the earnestness of environmentalists with whom she was otherwise philosophically in step, sold her product on the basis of convenience, savings and lifestyle.
Current Zipcar CEO Scott Griffith goes further:
Ninety-five percent of people living in the 15 largest cities don't need to own cars. If we were to sign up just 5 percent of them, that gets us to a million members and a billion dollars... We're much more mainstream now than we used to be... I like to say we're in the freedom business: you can do your thing without the cost and hassle of ownership. You don't have to be a tree hugger to get that.
New DDOT Director Gabe Klein previously served as Zipcar's regional vice president in DC. He must be intimately familiar with techniques that build a mass market for sustainable transportation, and early indications from his first few weeks have been encouraging. The lessons of Copenhagen, it seems, are also the lessons of Zipcar. Will DDOT learn these lessons under the leadership of Gabe Klein?
Stephen Miller lived in the District from 2008 to 2011 and is now a student at Pratt Institute's city and regional planning masters program. 


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stephen - thanks so much for attending and posting on the summit's keynote. i wanted to go last night but wasn't able to - was actually hoping to maybe run into you there :)

by jaime on Mar 12, 2009 4:25 pm • linkreport

I looked into SmartBike at one point, but I noticed all the depots are at Metro stops. To me, this makes the program useless. If I wanted to go between Metro stops, I'd take the Metro. If I wanted to go somewhere close by, I'd use my feet.

I live in Glover Park, so having one of these that I could ride up to Tenleytown, to Dupont, or to Foggy Bottom would be wonderful, esp. given how infrequently busses come...

Great idea, but poorly executed.

I live in the city but keep a car because getting to Reston each day would be both more expensive and much, much more time consuming using public transit (my commute is approx. 30 minutes, which I don't feel is too bad, at all).

by justin on Mar 12, 2009 4:48 pm • linkreport

One of the factors that makes biking in Copenhagen so easy is the weather. It gets neither freezing cold or scorching hot. You do have to deal with dreary drizzly days in the fall & winter, but no big deal. If I wasn't such a sweathog, I'd definitely bike more places than I do, but Washington weather makes it difficult.

by spookiness on Mar 12, 2009 5:33 pm • linkreport

One of the factors that makes biking in Copenhagen so easy is the weather. It gets neither freezing cold...

someone might want to alert all the people that actually live in Copenhagen. i've been reading about and watching bitterly cold, rainy, and windy copenhagen winter for months. they still ride.

by Peter on Mar 12, 2009 6:08 pm • linkreport

Stephen M, thanks for this succinct synopsis. Interesting survey results from Copenhagan and parrallel w/ the zip-car model.

When I regularly travelled between Shaw/Georgetown/Foggy Bottom biking was indeed the most convenient mode of transport all year 'round! Yes it does get sweaty in summer but most places are overly air-conditioned. For this reason it's important to have a warm layer for inside. In winter it's really only cold for a few seconds then you get heated up from the ride. But it's painful if you lose a glove.

by Bianchi on Mar 12, 2009 7:40 pm • linkreport


Been there and done that and I am among those who have actually lived and biked in Copenhagen. It might be "freezing cold" or "bitter" by Washington DC standards, but by Nordic standards (and mine), Copenhagen does not get that cold. Does it have winter? Yes. Is it like winter in, say Moscow, or farther north in parts of Sweden? or maybe even Chicago? No.

When I was there it was not much colder than Washington, but like here, you have good years and bad years. Winter is a bit longer, and the season is more defined.

Summer is the bigger difference.

by spookiness on Mar 12, 2009 9:29 pm • linkreport

As anyone who commutes across town can tell you, one major difference between DC and paradise (copenhagen and its little bro amsterdam) is that paradise is completely flat. There's nothing like the morning commute eastbound up independence ave during rush hour in a light rain to make you think twice about upgrading your car to a bike. Those of us with the calf muscles to show for it likely agree that DC and its bike advocates would be wise to send a bunch of these bad boys to residents.

I put in to test one of them. I'll let everyone know how it works out, if interested.

by JTS on Mar 12, 2009 9:48 pm • linkreport

Does [Copenhagen] have winter? Yes. Is it like winter in, say Moscow, or farther north in parts of Sweden? or maybe even Chicago? No.

I just looked at the wiki pages for both Copenhagen and Chicago -- here is what I found:

____Chicago-- High Avg: 58 Low Avg: 39

Copenhagen-- High Avg: 53 Low Avg: 37

According to this, Copenhagen is actually colder than Chicago. Lived in Chicago and visited Copenhagen, and read a bunch about biking in both places -- the numbers would seem to generally agree with my perception of the climate of both places.

This link shows how much more north of the equator Copenhagen is than Chicago -- which would seem to be consistent with the climate differences.

For my part, I think infrastructure has everything to do with it -- which is why Copenhagen and Holland are successful. It's not brave souls or bike sharing or anything else -- it's just allowing people to ride a bike if they wanted to. Right now, it's just not possible in most of America.

As for Zipcar, I've been trying to convince them (as have many others, as I understand it) and City Carshare and other car sharing services to offer bike sharing. They have the expertise, capital, know-how, etc. And the bonus is that they're not directly PR or advertising companies. Maybe Zipcar will eventually feel enough heat from Hertz/etc. to listen to the people who know best what they should do -- the people.


by Peter on Mar 12, 2009 10:19 pm • linkreport

JTS brings up a good point about topography.

From what I recall of both Amsterdam and Copenhagen (I've made port visits to both), about the only time you really run into a hill in either is when you're heading down into a tunnel or up onto a bridge.

Can't even come close to saying the same thing here.

by Froggie on Mar 12, 2009 10:20 pm • linkreport

Elevation of the north sea region .

Washington DC Area

Full disclosure: I am really not trying to exaggerate here. If you google map it, both European cities are in the negative elevation range, and everything outside of the national mall is all uphill. It's too late to dig the interwebs looking for good Copenhagen/Amsterdam elevation maps. I'm sure Froggie can attest to the ridiculous flatness of both areas. When a Danish Child's grandparent was his age, he had to walk 10 miles to school, and it was flat. both ways! I'm a dork, but trust me.

It's just a matter of introducing the appropriate equipment to DC though. Any major upgrade of the bikeshare program needs to make sure all bikes have variable gears (as the current ones do) and handbrakes. A fixed gear bikeshare is unfair to inexperienced riders because of the hilliness of DC. The most common bikes you see in denmark/holland are fixed gear, pedal brake bikes. great for urban, flat terrain at lower speeds. not so good for higher speeds (keeping pace with 15-20 mph city traffic, where gradual braking is essential) or hills when you may inadvertently back pedal while fatigued. I nearly killed myself in amsterdam when I forgot that the pedals functioned as brakes, too. Certainly drew a lot of stares after the fact.

by JTS on Mar 12, 2009 10:57 pm • linkreport

DC Map (sorry)

by JTS on Mar 12, 2009 11:03 pm • linkreport

@JTS: Were these bikes real "fixed-gear", or merely single speed? (was it possible to coast?)

by Michael Perkins on Mar 13, 2009 6:01 am • linkreport

You could definitely coast. At least with the three or so I used. So, no, not true fixed gear. You can't go in reverse or anything like that.

by JTS on Mar 13, 2009 8:07 am • linkreport

The one time I rode a fixed gear, I thought it was pretty fun but not for me. I would miss being lazy and coasting.

by Michael Perkins on Mar 13, 2009 8:39 am • linkreport

Same here, Michael...

by Froggie on Mar 13, 2009 8:58 am • linkreport

Yes, in the Netherlands, we call dikes "hills", but let's be honest, DC does not have really unbikable hills, except for 35th St from Key Bridge to Prospect St and a few roads in and out of Rock Creek Park.

The article is right for the most part. Biking needs to be made safe, easy and convenient. At the same time, there needs to be a cultural change, and no excuses for people opposing biking.

A couple of examples. In my neighborhood, there is a nice bike path along one of the roads towards 123 and 7100. Wonderful. Except that there are about 3-4 houses that apparently had ground before the bike path was made, and didn't sell their ground interrupting the path. This makes the path useless. You can't expect bikers to bike happily, get of their bike, walk through a ditch, walk up a 35mph road (remember the slope), scramble through the ditch again, and continue biking, only to have to do the same again a few minutes later. Good idea, zero results, and an argument for anti-bikers for saying a lot of money was used without any result.

Another example. Alexandria is making a bike path along Eisenhower Ave. This is wonderful. Biking on the road there was somewhat dangerous at rush hour, because cars do not really have the space to get around bikers. Furthermore, everybody drives 45 in stead of 35. However, at one point there is - for no apparent reason - a 90 degree zigzag in the path. I can guarantee you that the grass they are trying to seed around the path will never grow because everybody will cut the corners there.

Another thing that could be a massive financial incentive for counties is to start building bike-safe roads near school, so they can get rid of the school buses. Back home, I live about 5km/3miles from high school. In 6 years, I never did anything else than bike to school. Ever. Rain, shine, rain, wind, more rain, snow, storm, whatever, I biked to school. And didn't even mind that much. Good way to wake up. A main part of the route was through a industrial area without bike paths. My parents simply refused to bring me to school. I had a buddy that would bike 18 km (11 miles) up and down every day.

Did it scar me? Yes, literally. I fell of once, and scraped my knee pretty bad. However, the cost of me going to school for 6 years was 1 bike, some sandwiches, a pair of pants and some bandages. And no extra weight. You actually see that now parents are bringing their kids more to school, child obesity rates are way up.

Now, it's true that building bike safe routes will cost money, but really, it is that hard in our suburban areas to create some safe bike paths? And can't we really pay that from killing those loud, stinking polluting school buses?

Can we do this in the entire US? No. In the North, it's probably too cold for a good part of the year to send kids biking. In some "empty" states, the distances are probably too large. But what's holding the rest of the country back? If Lance Armstrong can win the Tour - three weeks of grueling hills in blistering heat, and occasional cold, surely most American kids can bike up to 5 miles to school?

Last, why can employees get pre-tax benefits for parking, metro-fares, but not for a bike?

by Jasper on Mar 13, 2009 9:54 am • linkreport

While Copenhagen and Chicago might have similar average high and low temperatures for the whole year, that is not a good comparison. Chicago has much larger temperature swings than Copenhagen does. A place that has 100 degree highs in July and 20 degree highs in January probably has a similar yearly average high temperature as a place that has average highs of 80 in July and 40 in January. The similar average does not mean their climates are the same.

by rg on Mar 13, 2009 10:03 am • linkreport

@Jasper -

On your last point: As of late 2008 (thank you very much Blumenhauer, as usual) there are pre-tax benefits for bicycling. 240/yr is an unbelievably paltry sum compared to the 230/month you get for commuting by metro, but it's a start. What's that catchphrase, tipping point, or something?

For those of you that work at government agencies, good luck navigating the bureacracy to make sure it is implemented, but it is most definitely law now, so they have no excuse.

You need to relinquish metro/parking benefits to qualify. 20 bucks a month, employer can deduct from payroll taxes. Should be double, but this is an excellent start. Full Text of Legislation

by JTS on Mar 13, 2009 11:17 am • linkreport

@JTS: I think this shows a little bit of how efficient a mode of transportation cycling is compared to driving or even transit.

If we give people up to $230 per month for driving, they can pay for parking with probably some left over. If we allowed them to buy gas and maintenance with the money, they could probably spend it all every month. If we allowed car purchase too, it would definitely cover the amount. $230 per month is not enough to fully compensate someone for driving, but we don't want to fully subsidize so we don't.

If we give people up to $230 per month for transit, except for people taking commuter rail from very far out, that would cover their cost of transit. If we allowed the money to go for parking at the station, it might cover the whole cost. Even the cheapest transit commute (52 weekly bus passes) costs more than the $240 a year we're allowing for cyclists.

If we gave people up to $230 per month for cycling, you could buy multiple bicycles, lights, locks, tires, all kinds of wet weather gear, bags, racks, almost anything you wanted. Then at the end of the year you could throw all of it in the landfill and do it again for the following year.

Again, my point is not that we should do these things, but that cycling is a really, really inexpensive way to get around compared to driving or even transit.

*I understand I'm not including the cost of government or other party supplied infrastructure. Sorry! Does it help that it's much cheaper for bikes than for cars or transit?

by Michael Perkins on Mar 13, 2009 11:54 am • linkreport

@ MP

Yes. However, this legislation allows the employer to make the decision as to how the pre tax money is allocated. Your office can cut you a monthly 20 dollar check (a la smart benefits), or it can deduct 240/yr per regular rider from its payroll taxes and use that cash to upgrade or install facilities for bikers.

I'm with you 100 percent on a 240/yr cash equivalent payout to a rider, but considering that a decent bike rack costs around 1,000 bucks, and lord knows how much a shower costs, should an employer use that credit to encourage building-wide ridership, 240/yr per rider won't do much, at least in the short term.

I like the freedom of the bill though; my office just cuts me a a 20 subsidy because I am one of four people who regularly ride to work, we're all kind of insane about it, and they'd rather not deal with showers, racks, etc. So they just cut us a check. Other buildings might have a better reason to use the payroll deduction to upgrade facilities (more riders).

The problem is accountability. I liked the one NYT comment: So are bikers supposed to save all their powerbar wrappers in case they get audited?

by JTS on Mar 13, 2009 12:13 pm • linkreport

@JTS: Didn't know employers were allowed to spend the money on infrastructure. That's pretty cool.

by Michael Perkins on Mar 13, 2009 12:41 pm • linkreport

@ JTS: I didn't know that. But if you have to relinquish your other benefits, nobody will take them, because virtually nobody will want to ride every single day of the year. Whomever put that provision in, must have wanted to kill the bill.

It would be fair if the $240 would be deducted from your other benefits.

by Jasper on Mar 13, 2009 1:19 pm • linkreport

Although I am a year-round cyclist, I understand that not everyone chooses (or is able) to do so. This does not, however, mean I bike every day. Really bad weather, meetings, evening commitments, or other factors occasionally prevent me from biking. The presence of passable biking infrastructure nonetheless makes my bike commute feasible the majority of the time. Nasty weather occurs everywhere (yes, even in utopic Copenhagen). And hills, while perhaps not ideal, aren't a reason not to bike - in the US, we only need to look to Portland, OR, or San Francisco. Four years in Portland showed me that, simply, "If you build it, they will come."

by Kartik on Mar 19, 2009 2:22 pm • linkreport

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