Promoting biking requires ending the big, hidden subsidies to car ownership and use

It easy to be in love with cycling in Copenhagen.  Bikes are the mode of transport most favored for trips to work and school by local residents.  American’s traveling to the Danish capital are always blown away by how well the system works, and how many people of all ages and demographic groups cycle daily.

The latest journalist smitten by Copenhagen’s two-wheel miracle is the The New York Times’ Peter Goodman, whose article is entitled “The City That Cycles With the Young, the Old, the Busy and the Dead–Nearly half of all journeys to school and work in Copenhagen take place on bicycles. And people like it that way.”  Goodman relates stories of typical Copenhageners, from mothers with young children, to professionals, to the elderly and small business people, who routinely use the city’s network of bike lanes as their preferred mode of transportation. Touristic observation suggests a simple “build bike lanes and they will cycle” theory of change.

But there’s more to the story than that. Bike lanes–and a culture of acceptance and encouragement for cycling–are vital, but there are a whole range of other policies, especially the way car ownership and use are priced, that support cycling.  Copenhagen is a paragon and a parable of how to build a cycling city, but the narrative that talks only about bike lanes, and doesn’t talk about taxing cars and fuel, pricing parking, and building dense multi-family housing, is leaving out some essential parts of the story.

She's in the majority. (Flickr: Colville-Anderson)
Tax policy is tipped in favor of this mode of transport. (Flickr: Colville-Andersen)

Like other journalists, Goodman credits Copenhagen’s success to a the construction of separated bike lanes.  He writes:

The city focused on making biking safe and comfortable, setting lanes apart from cars on every street. As biking captured mass interest, improving the infrastructure became good politics. When it snows in Copenhagen, bike lanes are typically plowed first.

To be sure, the city’s infrastructure is impressive: Copenhagen has on-street bike lanes, dedicated bike boulevards, and even bike- and pedestrian-only bridges.  Cycling has achieved social and cultural critical mass.  People of all ages, different genders and social stations ride their bikes: cycling is not the exclusive province of the athletic, the young and the spandex-clad. And most everyone rides some variant of the simple, upright single-speed black city-bike.  As an occasional visitor to the city, its a joy to rent a bicycle and use it as your primary means of transportation.

Goodman reports:

Copenhagen’s legendary bicycle setup has been propelled by all of these aspirations, but the critical element is the simplest: People here eagerly use their bicycles — in any weather, carrying the young, the infirm, the elderly and the dead — because it is typically the easiest way to get around.

For those who have made the pilgrimage to Copenhagen, and come away with a romantic vision of re-making their auto-dominated city into a more bike-friendly place, there’s a lot than can be learned.  While leadership and infrastructure are certainly keys to building a bike-friendly city, Goodman’s article–and too many re-tellings of Copenhagen’s success–leave out some of the most important ingredients.  Critical among these are the taxation and pricing of cars and motor vehicles, and the density and ownership of housing.

The reason that cycling is “more convenient” and is the easiest way to get around is that Copenhagen has done away with the subsidies to cars that pervade U.S. cities.  It heavily taxes vehicle purchases and also taxes gasoline.  Parking is scarce and expensive, and the city is even now raising the price of parking to further discourage car use.  It’s surprising that Goodman–the Times’ former national economic correspondent, leaves out the most pertinent economic details that tip the balance in favor of cycling.

Like most Western European nations, Denmark imposes heavy taxes on gasoline.  The typical price of a liter of gas in Denmark today is about 11.11 Danish Kronor (DKK), which works out to almost $6 per gallon .  Because of higher taxes, gasoline costs roughly twice as much in Denmark as it does in the US. Cheap gasoline is a strong inducement to own and drive cars.  Expensive gasoline prompts people to make very different choices, both about where to live and how to travel. (Plus the tax revenue is a vital source of funding for bike infrastructure, transit, and a range of public services).

Also, Denmark imposes a 150 percent excise tax on most new vehicle purchases.  So a basic economy car which would have a retail price of say $20,000 in the US would cost upwards of $50,000 in Denmark.  (The tax has been reduced from a previous level of 180 percent).  Unsurprisingly, only about 29 percent of Copenhagen households own cars.  Making cars and driving more expensive creates powerful incentives for people to live in places where there are good alternatives to car travel (including transit, walking and cycling), and to utilize these modes regularly.

Finally, its worth noting that the density and ownership of housing in Copenhagen is very different than in US cities.  Copenhagen is relatively dense.  Nearly 60 percent of households live in multi-family housing.  Also, Denmark has a system of tenant-governed social housing.  About 20 percent of the nation’s population lives in social housing that is constructed and governed by tenant cooperatives.  Cycling is more convenient in higher density communities, because so many more destinations are close-by within cycling distance. Charging the right price for cars, fuel and parking helps encourage more compact patterns of development that are essential to assuring that cycling is a preferable option to driving.

There’s a lot we can learn from the design and operation of bike lanes in Copenhagen, and the lessons about leadership and the need to make investment are real.  But that’s only part of the story.  Public policies that ask car owners to take greater responsibility for the cost of roads and emissions, and the conscious decision to build housing at much higher densities make cycling more attractive and feasible than car travel for many trips.  As we always stress at City Observatory, the dysfunction in our transportation system stems fundamentally from charging the wrong price for roads. Stories, like this one from the Guardian, extolling the Copenhagen cycling success story shouldn’t leave out the essential role of correctly pricing cars and fuel and building dense housing.