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Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 73 · No. 4 > Handy Lessons From Overseas on Walking and Bicycling

Jan/Feb 2010
Vol. 73 · No. 4

Publication Number: FHWA-HRT-10-002

Handy Lessons From Overseas on Walking and Bicycling

by Gabe Rousseau

Tag along on a scan tour of Europe to pick up new insights on how to develop livable communities by making them friendlier to nonmotorized traffic.

Tag along on a scan tour of Europe to pick up new insights on how to develop livable communities by making them friendlier to nonmotorized traffic.

What comes to mind when you picture a livable community? Many people probably imagine scenes of bicyclists riding the streets, children walking to school, perhaps riders hopping on streetcars to go to work or run errands, friends meeting in front of storefronts, or diners sitting at outdoor cafés. Roadway congestion and lengthy distances to destinations probably do not spring to mind.

The concept of walkable, bicycle-friendly, and transit-oriented communities received considerable attention when U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray H. LaHood launched a "livable initiative" shortly after being confirmed. "One of my highest priorities is to help promote more livable communities through sustainable surface transportation programs," he added in a March 2009 appearance before the U.S. House of Representatives. Livability has been offered by Secretary LaHood and others as a way to positively affect transportation emissions, climate change, housing affordability, and public health.

In addition to the need to improve livability and mobility, the United States has room for improvement on safety for nonmotorized traffic. According to the most recent U.S. National Household Travel Survey (2001), about 1 percent of all travel trips are by bicycle, with around 9 percent on foot. And yet in 2008 more than 5,000 pedestrians and bicyclists were killed on U.S. roadways. Thus, walking and bicycling account for about 14 percent of roadway fatalities, despite being only 10 percent of all trips.

The United States is not alone in having congested roadways and communities where travelers have few options other than driving. To address this problem, some countries have increased the number of trips made by walking and bicycling, in the process improving the livability of their communities.

In addition, over the past decade, several European countries have achieved much larger declines in nonmotorist fatalities than the United States has during the same period. For example, in an analysis of 14 European Union countries, pedestrian fatalities declined by more than 36 percent and bicyclist fatalities by 34 percent between 1997 and 2006. The United States has evidenced declines, too, for nonmotorist fatalities. However, these declines have been about 13 to 14 percent for both pedestrians and bicyclists between 1997 and 2007.  

One way to find out how the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) can help communities achieve the vision of greater livability with safer nonmotorized options is to learn what other countries have done to reshape their communities with an eye toward livability and safety. In May 2009, a team of 12 transportation professionals selected by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) conducted an international scan focused on bicyclist and pedestrian mobility and safety.

The team included Federal, State, and local members as well as participants from the Association of Pedestrian and Bicycle Professionals. Over a 2-week period, the scan team met with transportation officials in Denmark, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom to learn how they have made these travel modes safer and more attractive. The team visited Copenhagen and Nakskov in Denmark, Berlin and Potsdam in Germany, Lund and Malmö in Sweden, Bern and Winterthur in Switzerland, and London and Bristol in the United Kingdom.

The scan was conducted under the auspices of the International Technology Scanning Program, which helps U.S. transportation professionals learn about innovations in other countries and work on implementing those innovations in the United States. The program is carried out by FHWA in cooperation with AASHTO and the National Cooperative Highway Research Program.

According to Gloria Shepherd, associate administrator for FHWA's Office of Planning, Environment, & Realty, "This international scan provided an opportunity for the United States to capitalize on the work done in other countries and provided us with the opportunity to share information on what we have done here. We can learn from their efforts to help us identify, prioritize, and implement best practices for walking and bicycling."

Join us on this journey to see what other countries are doing to integrate these travel modes into their transportation systems to make their communities more livable and safer for foot and bicycle traffic.

Sharing Best Practices

Some communities in these countries have increased bicycling rates to impressive levels. For example, in Denmark, 36 percent of commuters in Copenhagen bicycle to work, and residents cycle about 0.7 million miles (1.2 million kilometers) every day. Despite these gains, Copenhagen transportation officials are encouraging even greater use of bicycles and are implementing ways to make it even safer.

The aim of the scan was to identify best practices in countries that have been leaders in making walking and bicycling safe, convenient, and popular transportation modes. Prior to the trip, the team conducted a desk study to identify the most appropriate and promising locations to visit abroad. This study included examining walking and bicycling safety trends and the number of trips made using those travel modes. The team also tried to identify cities within the selected countries that vary in population to ensure that the findings would be applicable to various sized communities in the United States. The desk study list then was pared down to a manageable number of destinations for the trip. Making this selection was not easy. Other cities and countries excel at providing nonmotorized transportation facilities, but visiting more than a handful was impossible on this trip, given the time and resources allotted for this endeavor.

This automated bicycle counter in Copenhagen tallies daily and annual bicycle use.

This automated bicycle counter in Copenhagen tallies daily and annual bicycle use.

Now, after completing the scan, the FHWA-AASHTO team is reaching out to stakeholders in the United States to share the lessons learned from the host countries. The team identified best practices under six headings. The first is policy, followed by the five E's: encouragement, engineering, evaluation, enforcement, and education.

Now let us head out on the tour and share with you some of the concepts we learned--from encouraging more people to get out of their cars when the distance is short, to improving signing and marking techniques, ensuring inclusion of walking and bicycling improvements in transportation projects, and initiating innovative safety education campaigns for children.

Policy Changes

If it were possible to sum up the lessons from the scan study in one sentence, it would be this: To increase safety and mobility for walkers and bicyclists, a country must embrace foot and bicycle traffic as transportation modes and consider them as a means to attaining livability and sustainability goals.

In all the countries the scan team visited, parking lots for bicycles are common and sometimes large, as in this lot at a transit station in Lund, Sweden.

In all the countries the scan team visited, parking lots for bicycles are common and sometimes large, as in this lot at a transit station in Lund, Sweden.

Variations on this concept played out in each country the scan team visited. In Switzerland, transportation policy puts human-powered mobility on a par with motor vehicles and transit. In Germany, bicycles are permitted on transit with no exceptions--that is, on all trains. In contrast, many transit systems in the United States prohibit bicycles on board trains at rush hour. Many of the countries invest significant funds in bicycling facilities. They set ambitious targets for mode shifts at both the national and local levels, even for communities that already have substantial bicycling rates:

  • Potsdam, Germany, aims to increase bicycle use from 20 percent to 27 percent by 2012.
  • Berlin, Germany, plans to increase bicycle mode share from the current level of 12 percent to 15 percent by 2015.
  • Copenhagen, Denmark, aims for 50 percent of work and education trips to be made on bicycles by 2015.
  • Bristol, United Kingdom, seeks to double the number of cycling trips by 2011.

The countries and communities visited during the scan have additional policy goals beyond mode share. They set targets for rider comfort, funding increases, safety, and even cycling speeds. Copenhagen plans to make bicycling trips faster by 10 percent by adjusting signal timing for bicyclists. Despite the prevalence of bicycling in Copenhagen, the city still aims to improve safety perception, having set a goal of 80 percent of bicyclists feeling safe in traffic.

Walking and bicycling have been incorporated in climate change and sustainability plans as well. Lund, Sweden, developed a strategy called LundaMaTs II that sets sustainable transportation targets to be achieved by 2030. The initiative seeks to reduce motor vehicle trips and improve the environment and public health, prioritizing walking and bicycling as ways to reach these sustainability targets. Officials have set near-term and long-term targets, striving to increase bicycling trips by 5 percent by 2013 and 10 percent by 2030. They also aim to increase the lengths of dedicated walkway and bicycling paths by 10 percent by 2013 and 30 percent by 2030.

Linking bicycles to transit is another prominent theme. To a U.S. observer, the quality and amount of bicycle parking at transit stations is astonishing. Thousands of people cycle daily to stations in Denmark, Sweden, and Switzerland. Parking options include bicycle stations offering bike maintenance and massive quantities of outdoor parking. Despite the significant numbers of bicycle racks, many of the communities, including Bern and Winterthur in Switzerland, have expanded or plan to expand their bicycle stations because of demand.

The countries visited permit bicycles on transit in order to extend the distance a cyclist can travel without needing a car at either end of a trip. Germany, for example, allows bicycles on all trains and is planning a new bicycle sharing program near stations to extend the range of the transit system.

Providing bicycle and pedestrian facilities, however, is seen as necessary but not sufficient to increase nonmotorized transportation. The Swiss require that pedestrian facilities should be safe, interconnected, accessible for all users, and attractive.

"It is important to ensure that pedestrian facilities are free of nuisances, have as little slope as possible, and provide a comfortable and high-quality environment," says Niklaus Schranz, deputy head of the Swiss Human Powered Mobility team at the Federal Roads Office. "What is the use of a safe facility if it is uncomfortable and unattractive and people do not want to use it?"

The last policy step is to ensure that adequate funding is available to support these transportation modes. In the United States, according to FHWA statistics, the Federal Government spent about $541 million specifically on walking and bicycling in fiscal year 2008. According to the census, the U.S. population in 2000 was about 304 million people, so the spending amounted to $1.78 per person.

Officials in Bristol, UK, which has a program to increase cycling significantly, estimate that the top European cities for walking and bicycling have invested the equivalent of 20 British pounds per citizen (roughly US$33) annually over the past three decades. Both Berlin and Potsdam target spending 5 euros (US$7) per person on such facilities annually. In general, spending on bicyclist and pedestrian facilities in the United Kingdom has totaled around 1 pound (roughly US$1.65) per person annually, less than the U.S. figure for 2000. Bristol is trying to increase this to about 16 pounds (US$26) per citizen annually to increase walking and bicycling facilities dramatically.

Encouragement

All the countries visited by the scan team have campaigns to promote walking and bicycling. Perhaps the catchiest is that of Malmö, Sweden, which is called "No More Ridiculous Car Trips." This multifaceted campaign aims to influence how people choose to travel for short vehicle trips. According to official statistics, half of all car trips within the city of Malmö are shorter than 3 miles (5 kilometers), and about one-third are shorter than 1.9 miles (3 kilometers), distances that can be covered easily on a bike.

To promote the campaign, Malmö offers bicycle maps, brochures, and competitions to select the most ridiculous car trip (the winner receives a free bicycle), and posts decorative banners around town. The city also holds staged events such as having a group of cyclists ride the streets at rush hour and provide car drivers stuck in traffic with information about bicycling. Malmö also is trying to reduce the number of motor vehicle trips the city staff makes. On the day the scan team visited, the city launched a bicycle sharing program for municipal employees to use during the workday. Malmö staff took the scan team members on a bicycle tour of the city's innovative facilities.

Malmö has other similar programs to encourage walking and bicycling for short trips, including a school initiative called the Friendly Way to School Program targeted at getting more children to walk to school. According to Lotta Cederfeldt, who oversees the school program, "By encouraging children to walk to school and encouraging them to chart their accomplishments, we have significantly reduced the number of children who are driven [to and] from school. For example, at one of our schools, we had a 24 percent reduction in the number of children who were driven to school."

Engineering

The host countries clearly excel at policy to facilitate walking and bicycling. They also stand out at developing innovative engineering solutions. Because bicycling in particular is prioritized as a transportation mode, the signs, markings, and signals integrate bikes into the roadway system more fully than is typical in the United States. In Denmark, Sweden, and Switzerland, for example, bike-specific traffic signals coordinate movements among vehicles, bicycles, and pedestrians.

This sign marks a shared-space zone and warns drivers that they are entering an area with a speed limit of 12 miles (20 kilometers) perhour.

This sign marks a shared-space zone and warns drivers that they are entering an area with a speed limit of 12 miles (20 kilometers) perhour.

The scan team members and hosts in Bristol, UK, examine a Home Zone shared space where a sign and change in pavement texture alert drivers to slow down and watch for children playing.

The scan team members and hosts in Bristol, UK, examine a Home Zone shared space where a sign and change in pavement texture alert drivers to slow down and watch for children playing.

These bicycles are lined up awaiting city employees in Malmö, Sweden, to use at work as part of a bicycle sharing program.

These bicycles are lined up awaiting city employees in Malmö, Sweden, to use at work as part of a bicycle sharing program.

Cycle tracks, which basically create separate facilities for bicyclists so they are not sharing space with motorists or pedestrians, are a common feature in cities like Copenhagen. The host countries provide numerous other examples of novel designs and countermeasures. The scan team observed three main types of engineering and operational countermeasures: (1) delineating space for cyclists, (2) reducing conflicts between bicyclists and other road users, and (3) reducing vehicle speeds.

One example of an innovative use of pavement markings addresses the problem of "dooring." The bane of urban bicyclists around the world, dooring occurs when a driver opens a car door and a cyclist rides into it. Berlin uses a simple pavement marking to guide cyclists away from parked cars to decrease the likelihood of being doored.

Berlin transportation professionals also use pavement markings in an innovative way. One of the more common types of vehicle-bicycle crashes are "right hooks," which occur when a driver is turning right at an intersection and turns into a cyclist who is trying to proceed straight through it. The bicycle symbol is used on bike lanes as in the United States, but the symbol is rotated so that drivers see it oriented to them at conflict points where they might turn through the bike lane. This measure encourages drivers to look in appropriate directions for cyclists before crossing the bike lane.

Switzerland employs convex mirrors that are positioned to help drivers see their blind spots when turning. The mirrors are heated to ensure that they are useful even in cold weather. Subsequent to installation of the mirrors, significant safety improvements have occurred, and other countries are starting to adopt them. The town of Winterthur had three bicycle fatalities in right-hook crashes between 1993 and 1997 but has not had a fatality since installing convex mirrors at 38 intersections about a decade ago.

Finally, all the countries visited employ variations on a speed reduction technique called shared space. The basic concept is applied, where appropriate, to residential streets and town centers. Oddly enough, shared space is de-engineering in a sense. All road users are permitted to share the same road space, with minimal markings and signs. Limiting traffic signs and markings is based on the principle that the placement of such treatments leads to less attentive driving (and walking) and provides road users with a false sense of security. Their removal places the burden back on the road user to actively watch out for others, including other travel modes.

In this bicycle lane in Berlin, Germany, the bicyclist is entering an intersection (not visible in this photograph). The bicycle symbols are oriented toward drivers who might make a left or right turn, thus encouraging them to watch for cyclists.

In this bicycle lane in Berlin, Germany, the bicyclist is entering an intersection (not visible in this photograph). The bicycle symbols are oriented toward drivers who might make a left or right turn, thus encouraging them to watch for cyclists.

In areas treated as shared spaces, pedestrians and bicyclists are free to use the entire road, and cars are permitted as well, although speed is typically limited to 12 miles per hour, mi/h (20 kilometers per hour, km/h). In essence, this means that to use the space, cars and bicyclists must travel at speeds that are more comparable to those of pedestrians when they are present--thus, shared spaces are intended for low-speed roads with high numbers of nonmotorists and not for areas where few people walk or bike. Numerous communities in the host countries, from Bristol in the United Kingdom to Malmö in Sweden, to Bern and Winterthur in Switzerland, and many others use this technique. When applied properly, it can transform a town center into an engaging hub for commerce and activity. When applied in residential areas, it fosters a sense of place and community.

Evaluation

How do you know how many people are using transportation facilities and what people think of them? The seemingly simple answer is to conduct behavior and attitude surveys, plus regular bicyclist and pedestrian traffic counts. The United States has much to learn about such data collection efforts. The best resource for U.S. trip data is the National Household Travel Survey, which is collected roughly every 5-7 years. Bicycling and walking are only a small part of this survey.

In contrast, some European countries conduct surveys every year and also regular bike counts. Every 2 years, Copenhagen publishes a "Bicycle Account" that includes the distance traveled by bicyclists, estimates for carbon emissions reduced, and health benefits. Copenhagen officials have used the survey data to forecast how much they can save on health care costs and workplace absenteeism due to illness by increasing bicycling by 10 percent. In short, the city's transportation officials recognize the benefits of increased walking and bicycling for other aspects of community well-being and livability in addition to just getting from point A to point B. Because of those added benefits, transportation officials are motivated to document nonmotorized trips.

The scan team identified other data sources used by these countries. For example, Sweden has combined police and hospital reports into a single database called Swedish TRaffic Accident Data Acquisition (STRADA). This combined system enables safety analysts to conduct more thorough analyses and obtain more accurate numbers for injuries and for crashes that do not involve motor vehicles than is possible in the United States.

Based on the types of data available, the countries visited have been able to demonstrate a safety-in-numbers effect for bicycling: As bicycling rates increase, the number of crashes actually decreases. A common concern in the United States is that if the number of bicyclists increases, then the number of cyclist fatalities also will increase. This outcome, however, has not been the case overseas. Some recent analyses here in the United States, such as in New York City and Portland, OR, suggest the same thing.

Enforcement and Education

In several of the countries, law enforcement is involved in safety education campaigns related to walking and bicycling. In Switzerland, Winterthur maintains a "Traffic Garden" where police officers teach children about roadway safety. Conducted on a miniature roadway course, the Traffic Garden offers most of the features of an actual roadway, including traffic signals, pavement markings, bicycle facilities, crosswalks, and even roundabouts. The police officers work with the same children over the course of several years and develop a rapport with them. Kindergarteners start off learning about pedestrian safety; elementary schoolchildren continue to learn about pedestrian safety but also begin to learn about bicycling and even take a bicycle riding test.

In Sweden the majority of children participate in a "Children's Traffic Club," a program started about 40 years ago. Similar programs have developed in Denmark and the United Kingdom. The program targets children of preschool age and provides parents with materials to teach their children about roadway safety. Measuring the specific impacts of such programs is difficult, but it is hard to argue with the general safety trends that Sweden and Denmark have experienced over the past decades. For example, between 1998 and 2006, Copenhagen reduced the number of people killed or seriously injured in all roadway crashes from 569 to fewer than 250. This reduction has led to the establishment of new safety goals because the goal for 2012 is already met.

In this bicycle lane in Berlin, Germany, the bicyclist is entering an intersection (not visible in this photograph). The bicycle symbols are oriented toward drivers who might make a left or right turn, thus encouraging them to watch for cyclists.

At the Winterthur, Switzerland, Traffic Garden, scan team member Charlie Zegeer examines a demonstration intersection that is used to teach children about safe bicycling.

In the United Kingdom, Bristol has a program called Bikeability, which provides safety instruction to children of various ages. Children between the ages of 7 and 9 learn basic bicycling skills on the playground. Those between the ages of 9 and 11 receive training on quieter roads, and children older than 11 receive advanced training for all road conditions.

In many of the countries visited by the scan team, indoor bicycle parking stations are connected to transit stations and can accommodate well over 1,000 bikes. This one in Bern, Switzerland, accommodates bicycles via a lifting system that stacks bicycles three levels high.

In many of the countries visited by the scan team, indoor bicycle parking stations are connected to transit stations and can accommodate well over 1,000 bikes. This one in Bern, Switzerland, accommodates bicycles via a lifting system that stacks bicycles three levels high.

It Can Happen Here, Too

One of the common misperceptions about European cities is that they have always been friendly for bicycling and walking. To the contrary, after World War II, many of these communities emphasized moving cars as opposed to moving people. With the various economic and industrial crises of the 1970s and 1980s, these countries embraced the benefits offered by nonmotorized transportation.

"There are pockets of similar communities in the United States, but with the current new wave of environmental concern and economic challenges, more U.S. communities want to and need to promote livability," says Shawn Turner, senior research engineer with the Texas Transportation Institute and the scan's report facilitator. "The countries we visited demonstrated that such transitions are possible, and we can speed up transformations in the United States by attending to what those countries have learned about livability."

Gabe Rousseau, Ph.D., is the bicycle and pedestrian program manager for USDOT and for FHWA in the Office of Natural and Human Environment. Rousseau cochaired the international scan on bicycle and pedestrian safety and mobility. He holds a Ph.D. in cognitive/experimental psychology from the University of Georgia.

For more information, contact Gabe Rousseau at 202-366-8044 or gabe.rousseau@dot.gov.

Correction: Public Roads originally added helmets to two of the photographs in this article, “Handy Lessons From Overseas on Walking and Bicycling,” (pages 29 and 32 on the printed version) to conform with U.S. bicycle safety practices. However, European practice is to focus on increasing safety by encouraging greater numbers of bicyclists through bicycle-friendly policies rather than focusing on helmet use. Public Roads regrets the photo alterations and has restored the original photos to this online version of the article.

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