Why Social Democracies Are Great Places to Ride a Bike

A raised bike lane in Nørrebrogade, a famous cycling street in Copenhagen, Denmark. Photo: John Greenfield
A raised bike lane in Nørrebrogade, a famous cycling street in Copenhagen, Denmark. Photo: John Greenfield

I wrote this post as response to a comment from a right-wing troll on my writeup of last week’s Mayor’s Bicycle Advisory Council meeting on the Chicago Reader website, but I thought it might be of interest to Streetsblog readers as well. 

Ignoring the offensive aspects of your comment [among other things, the commenter invited cyclists to “fight for your right to die in the road like squirrels,”] there’s one kernel of truth. You wrote, “Safe cycling and socialism seem to exist in the same plane.” Indeed, many of the safest countries for cycling, with the highest bike mode shares, are social democracies like the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, France, and Germany.

In these places people have a sensible view of the role of government in maintaining a decent standard of living for all residents. They’re willing to pay relatively high taxes in order to maintain first-class infrastructure and make sure everyone gets decent housing, healthcare, and education, which is why these nations score high on happiness indices.

These countries take a similarly pragmatic and humanistic view of transportation. They’re investing in high-quality transit, walking, and biking facilities. Bikeways are often built so that cyclists never have to share the road with high-speed traffic. In general, street designs and traffic policies are created with public safety and mobility for all in mind, rather than prioritizing moving motor vehicles through cities as quickly as possible, as we tend to do in the U.S.

For example, in the Netherlands, if a driver strikes a pedestrian or bicyclist, the motorist is always held liable, unless it can be proven that the vulnerable road user caused the crash. As a result, everyone drives much more carefully than in places like the U.S., where if a driver kills a person on foot or on bike, and it isn’t a DUI or a hit-and-run, there’s usually little or no penalty.

Thanks to these progressive practices, these social democracies have high rates of biking, walking, and transit use (more than a third of all trips in Amsterdam and Copenhagen are made by bike) and low traffic crash, injury, and fatality rates (although bike helmet use is rare compared to the U.S.) People are able to get around efficiently, and traffic-related pollution is less of a problem. Everyone wins.

Streetsblog Chicago will be off on Wednesday, September 19, and resume publication on Thursday.

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  • Jeremy

    “They’re willing to pay relatively high taxes”

    As Michael Moore says in his movie Where To Invade Next, we pay high taxes in the U.S., we just don’t call them taxes. We call them health insurance premiums, tuition, and user fees.

  • Justin

    Only a simpleton would condemn the entire American culture as having “a dumb view of the role of government” and “non-pragmatic and anti-human” views simply because it hasn’t invested as much in cycling infrastructure. There are plenty of explanations for the state of european cycling culture that aren’t nearly as progressive and are actually symptomatic of their social FAILINGS as compared to America. For example, European towns and cities are denser than American ones, not out of an instinct for environmental protection that might exist today, but historically only because their aristocrats owned 95% of their land and everyone else was ghettoed into small neighborhoods, unlike America where even the average man was able to afford a slice of land and his own “castle”. As another example, only relatively recently were working class Europeans widely able to afford private car ownership, whereas the American working class was wealthier, more politically empowered, and was able to afford cars decades before people of similar social status in Europe.

    It’s time for you to ask, are you intelligent enough to write social commentary without baselessly slandering fellow Americans that might have slightly different views from you? If not, is this really the right job for you?

    For a lot of Americans, biking is worthless to them. They live in suburban or rural areas and they can’t comprehend the utility. I think that they are ignorant and could stand to learn more about how cycling is so valuable for denser communities, but I would never accuse them of having moral failings. They simply have a gap in their knowledge, just as many urban people are ignorant about hunting, farming, or whatever other more pastoral activities.

  • crosspalms

    Much as I enjoy baseless slander, I fail to find any in John’s post. I also fail to find the views you ascribe to him by putting them in quotes: “A dumb view of the role of government” does not appear, nor does he call anyone “non-pragmatic and anti-human.” You might want to re-read the piece.

  • USbike

    Not only that, but the whole “higher taxes” discussion is so generalized and oversimplified that you really don’t get much perspective out of it anymore. For one thing, there are considerable differences even within European countries in the tax rates and brackets. The taxes I pay now (working in the Netherlands) is actually about the same as what I was paying before, working for the state of Florida, and lower than what my parents’ had to pay in taxes.

    And despite the taxes being so incredibly high in “Europe” somehow food is a lot cheaper here than in the US. This is another common misconception, that everything in Europe is more expensive.

  • Kevin M

    I agree with crosspalms that John didn’t write “a dumb view…”, so putting that in quotes is misleading.

    I do think America takes a non-pragmatic approach to transportation. First, it was the private railroads who over-built in a flair of crush-the-competition-at-all-costs flair of Western capitalism that still prevails today, sadly. Then, as the Fed. and State governments moved in to transportation building and management, they catered to the oil lobby which resulted in over-built car networks at the cost of public transit.

    And lastly, I agree with Justin in his telling of how European cities established their density (though, in addition to the the aristocrats, I’d argue that old European cities also needed to develop in a dense, walkable-scale because, well, the masses mostly walked to and fro).

    I also agree that it isn’t a moral failing that causes rural and suburban dwellers to live carbon-heavy, pollution-heavy lifestyles. Corporate interests depend on these mainstream consumers to continue living like its 1950 forever.

    Rural and suburban Americans are ignorant of and hostile towards city Americans because that keeps the masses in a constant state of cultural civil war–which is exactly what the contemporary autocracy needs in order to maintain control and power. When you and I fight over the crumbs and stand on on our egos and try to look down upon one another, a much more powerful class laughs from another echelon.

  • Bernard Finucane

    German cities are compact because city governments see it in their interest to maximize viable land use instead of tearing down cities for worthless parking lots. If you pseudo-historical theory about aristocracy were true, then communist countries would be sprawled, but that didn’t happen.

    It doesn’t take much to see that American city planning is dumb. There is really no excuse for the terrible street planning that you see everywhere in the country.

  • Bernard Finucane

    It’s interesting that left wing city governments in Latin America promote walkability, bicycles and public transportation to be more respectful of the poor but ended up being a lot more efficient as well.