24 February 2014

The Hills, The Wind Or The Cold: Why Do (Or Don't) People Ride?

In recent posts, I’ve noted that I’ve seen few—sometimes no—bike riders who weren’t making deliveries.  If you thought it was just a way of saying that I wasn’t riding, I won’t try to dissuade you from such a perception.

For much of the past couple of weeks, conditions on many New York City streets were simply dangerous for any wheeled vehicle.  There was ice everywhere and the effective width of some streets was cut, sometimes in half, by the piled-up snow and ice.

The last couple of weeks is the longest stretch I’ve spent off my bike since I was recovering from surgery four years ago.  A lot of other cyclists can probably make a similar claim.

That got me to thinking about the difference between weather and climate, and about terrain. 

In most places, there is seasonal variation in the number of people who ride bicycles, whether to commute, shop, race or simply for fun.  Put simply, fewer people ride when it’s cold and/or wet.

However, the places where the greatest number of people ride regularly are not necessarily the ones that have the most days of sunshine or the warmest winters every year.  Here in the United States, we see more cycling in New England than in the South, more riders in New York, Boston—or, of course, Portland-- than, say, in Miami, Tampa or Albuquerque.  In Europe, the most cycling-intensive and –friendly cities are found in the north—Amsterdam and Copenhagen immediately come to mind---rather than in Greece or even Italy.  And there are, from what I’ve seen, there are fewer everyday riders in Rome or Madrid than in rainier and cooler London and Paris.

From SFGate

As for terrain:  When I was in Prague, a few locals confirmed my impression that a cycling culture was just beginning there and that, while cyclists in the Czech capital are committed and enthusiastic, it will be a while before they have the kind of infrastructure—in terms of human and informational as well as physical resources—bikers in Berlin (the example they most cited) enjoy.  One reason, according to those Prague pedalers, is that the city is hillier than most others in Europe. 

That reason seems plausible enough:  A lot of people would indeed be deterred from cycling if they have to climb a steep hill to get wherever they’re going.  That would also partly explain the fact that I saw so few cyclists when I was in Istanbul a few years ago.  (In the former Ottoman capital, there are also cultural factors that would discourage cycling.)  On the other hand, San Francisco—one of the most vertical cities in the world-- has had a community and culture of cycling for much longer than most other places in the United States, including such pancake-flat places as Kansas.

(It occurs to me now that San Francisco’s street grid simply makes no sense in such a hilly place, but it would be perfectly suited for most towns in the Great Plains.)

So I wonder:  Why is it that, discounting for seasonal differences, places with less-favorable climates and terrains develop vibrant cycling cultures while seemingly-ideal places don’t?


  1. Just to let you know I enjoy reading your blog.

  2. Anon--Thank you. Whatever else people feel or gain from reading this blog, I hope that pleasure is part of it!