John Pucher – the Bicycle Scholar

Pucher provides … a blueprint for the creation of urban spaces where cycling is a viable and valuable form of transportation.

By Bonnie Fenton

There is no doubt that Professor John Pucher takes his role as a bicycle scholar seriously. In his emails and on his office voicemail at Rutgers university in New Brunswick, New Jersey, he identifies himself as “Car-Free John”

Pucher (pronounced Pooker) has been researching and writing about cycling as a form of urban transportation for more than a decade, looking at places where it works (many northern European cities) and where it doesn’t (much of North America), and teasing out what it is that makes a successful cycling city.

When asked about his “car-free” moniker and his transportation habits, he offers the guilty confession that he owned a car for three years in the early 1970s, but is quick to add that he soon found driving more stressful than it was worth.

Pucher did not start out studying cycling. His doctoral dissertation was on equity in public transit. It wasn’t until he spent two years in Muenster, Germany in the mid-1980s – where 40% of all trips are made by bike – that he got a vision of the possibilities of bicycles, both for the world at large and for his own academic career. That first stay in Muenster made such an impression on him that he went back 10 years later to study bicycle culture up close.

Through his academic research, Pucher provides a description of what has been done in the most advanced European cycling cities – in effect, producing a blueprint for the creation of urban spaces where cycling is a viable and valuable form of transportation.

In a recent academic article entitled Making Cycling Irresistible: Lessons from the Netherlands, Denmark, and Germany, Pucher notes that both the European Union and the US have officially recognized the importance of cycling as a practical mode of urban transportation and both support the objectives of increasing cycling levels and improving safety. The major difference is in the degree to which these objectives have been met: the Netherlands, Denmark, and Germany are at the forefront, with policies that make cycling safe, convenient, and attractive, while the UK and the US have fallen short.

According to Pucher, “differences between [the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, the US, and the UK] in cycling levels are enlightening because all five of them are democratic, capitalist, affluent societies with nearly universal car ownership. The success of cycling does not depend on poverty, dictatorial regimes, or the lack of motorized transport options to force people onto bikes.” The Netherlands, Denmark, and Germany have made cycling a popular way for mainstream society to get around cities.

The key policies and innovations used in Dutch, Danish, and German cities to promote safe and convenient cycling focus on:

* Extensive networks of separated cycling facilities

* Intersection modifications and priority traffic signals

* Traffic calming

* Traffic education and training

* Bike parking

* Co-ordination with public transport

* Traffic laws

Together with these explicitly pro-bike initiatives, Pucher notes that land-use policies encourage compact cities that generate shorter, more bikeable trips, and where car use is made expensive, less convenient, and less necessary through taxes and restrictions on ownership, use, and parking.

One striking difference Pucher notes between North America and the European cities he studies are the people on the bikes. In Europe, the split is roughly 50-50 between men and women, with all age groups represented, whereas in North America, the majority are young, sporty men.

The reason seems to be related to risk aversion. Women – particularly those with children – and the elderly have a much higher aversion to risk than healthy young men.

The lesson, according to Pucher, is that we need to create cycling facilities separated from motor vehicle traffic so as to attract those who don’t care to be scared on their way to work or to the grocery store. When we’ve created something that women will want to cycle on, then we’ll really have something.

So why not just copy these successful practices in North America? According to Pucher, any “stick” measures – such as increasing gas prices or creating car-free zones – would be too unpalatable for North American decision makers. Pucher states flatly, “Anything to make driving less convenient is a non-starter.”

But he believes that many of the “carrot” measures could be successfully transferred to North America, and indeed some are already in use. These include the Safe Routes to Schools program (which receives federal funding in the US under the Safe Transportation Act), and traffic calming on residential streets, which increases safety for all citizens, not just those on bikes.

And if North American cities implement those “carrots” and if we can resign ourselves to the fact that the sticks are too unpalatable for our decision-makers to implement, Pucher believes the percentage of trips made by bike in the United States can be brought up to… three percent.

Three percent? “Maybe four or five if we’re lucky,” he concedes. The formula, according to Professor Pucher, is:

“carrots” + health concerns + safe routes + education/training + rising gas prices = 5% mode share for cycling in North America.

“A ten percent mode share is beyond us because we won’t implement sticks.”

So while Pucher is an effusive and ebullient champion for car-free living, he clearly doesn’t hold out much hope of seeing a significant number of his fellow North Americans on bikes.

But with a kick-start from global warming fears, the blueprint that Pucher provides for successful cycling cities may be pulled off the shelf sooner rather than later.

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