Biking to work: lessons from Canada

Despite their country’s colder climate, Canadians are three times as likely as Americans to hop on a bicycle to go to work. Even in the frigid Yukon Territory, more than twice the percentage of the population can be seen biking to work as in California. The Yukon surpasses Florida in biking to work by more than three to one.

An in-depth study by John Pucher and Ralph Buehler attributes the greater use of bicycles in Canada to the higher urban densities and greater frequency of mixed-use development in that country and to several other factors, such as lower incomes; higher costs of owning, driving, and parking a car in Canada; safer cycling conditions; more plentiful bike facilities; and more extensive training.

Approximately 1.2 percent of Canadians bike to work, compared to 0.4 percent of Americans, Pucher and Buehler write in “Why Canadians Cycle More than Americans,” published in May in Volume 13 of the journal Transport Policy. Unlike US cities, “most Canadian cities make a concerted effort to provide safe and convenient bike parking,” say Pucher, a professor at Rutgers University’s Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, and Buehler, a Rutgers doctoral candidate. Many Canadian cities’ zoning and building codes require that businesses supply parking for bicycles. Cities also “make provision of bike parking on sidewalks and transit stops a top priority.” Daniel Egan, manager of Toronto’s Pedestrian and Cycling Infrastructure program, told New Urban News his city has 16,000 “post-and-ring” bike racks on the sidewalks and installs another 1,500 each year.

Compact land-use patterns a factor
Land-use laws are stricter in Canada. “The denser, mixed-use development in Canadian cities leads to average trip distances only half as long” as in the US, making biking a practical form of transportation in many Canadian communities, according to Pucher and Buehler. The more compact, diverse character of Canadian development also helps explain why Canadians make more than double the percentage of work trips on foot or by public transit when compared to the US.

Federal transportation laws in the US have required states to consider the needs of pedestrians and cyclists for the past 15 years, yet the results have been less than impressive, the researchers say; in 2004 the states spent more than $49 billion on highways but only $125 million on pedestrian and bicycling projects. However, Elizabeth Preston at the League of American Bicyclists, says the most recent federal transportation legislation, SAFETEA-LU, signed by President Bush last August, provides “approximately $1 billion per year (over five years) for bicycle  and pedestrian projects — a huge increase,” though still less than 2 percent of the total appropriation.

“Traffic calming appears to be much more extensive in Canadian cities than in American cities,” Pucher and Buehler add. “For example, Vancouver, Toronto, and Calgary rely heavily on traffic-calmed neighborhood streets as essential components in their overall cycling network.” This helps protect cyclists from motor vehicles. Cycling fatalities have fallen 45 percent in Canada since 1988, versus a 25 percent reduction in the US.

The US fatality rate far exceeds those of many western European countries, which “dramatically shifted their urban transport policies in the 1970s to curb car travel and promote transit, walking, and cycling,” the authors say. “In Germany, the Netherlands, and Denmark all school children benefit from mandatory training in safe cycling by the third or fourth grade. Indeed, they must pass a police-administered test to show that they can cycle safely, since most children cycle or walk to school.”

Most factors that make biking in Canada more prevalent than in the US spring from transportation and land-use policies, “not from intrinsic differences in history, culture or resource availability,” Pucher and Buehler observe. “That is good news, since it suggests the possibility of significantly increasing cycling levels in the US by adopting some of the Canadian policies.” The report is posted on the Victoria Transport Policy Institute’s website:

To encourage cycling, storage facilities or parking devices such as bike racks are needed. A good bike rack is designed to hold the bicycle’s frame, not just its wheel, and “it can be used with a U-lock,” the Institute’s Online TDM Encyclopedia states. The Institute advises against what it calls “wheelbender” racks — those that hold only the bike’s wheel. For more information, see the encyclopedia’s Bike Parking chapter: Detailed recommendations are also available at