(Image from Canal Houses of Amsterdam)
The Wash Cycle, a blog about cycling in Washington, DC, has an interesting interview with Randal O'Toole from the Cato Institute - a conservative think tank - about the futility of encouraging bicycle commuting. He said,"I don't think encouraging cycling is going to reduce congestion or significantly change the transportation makeup of our cities." O'Toole is a bicycle commuter.
"There really is very little evidence that any of (these efforts) are reducing the amount of driving. They're just making it more annoying to drivers....While I think some cycling and bus projects might be cost effective, I don't expect anything but road improvements (and road pricing) will make a significant dent in congestion."
Regarding Copenhagen and Amsterdam and their high bicycle usage rates above 30%, O'Toole said, "The high rates reported for those cities only apply to the very dense central cities. The suburbs of those cities tend to be low in density (one urban planning historian wrote that they were "indistinguishable" from American suburbs, which isn't really true, but functionally it is true) and have high rates of auto usage."
I'm wary of people who tout Copenhagen as a kind of cycling nirvana, and by extension, seem to think that we can do the same. There are huge differences between those cities and any American city. First, outside of a few of our oldest city cores that were constructed on a pedestrian scale, low density building is the norm. Greater commuting distances require motor vehicles or mass transit to get people between their homes and their jobs. The anti-sprawl zealots would gladly combine the two in one neighborhood, but it seems most American people don't want mixed use development. We're happy to keep zoning laws that separate homes and industry. And come to think of it, since much of Europe has been high-density for a millennium or so, maybe those people who left to settle here did so for a reason. High density is just a more polite term for over crowding.
Another contributing factor to high bicycle use is simple economics. Gasoline is far more expensive in Europe than it is here. If I recall right, a gallon of gas sells for the equivalent of $8. I can't speak for everyone, but I know that in our house, if it cost nearly $100 to fill the tank of the family sedan, I'd bike more and drive less.
Finally, I want to point out that for some of those who label themselves as bicycling advocates, their motives have more to do with hating and fearing motor vehicles. It's true. As O'Toole said, some efforts are aimed at making driving more annoying, and as I see it, much of the anti-sprawl advocacy has this at its heart. Being pro-cycling is not the same as being anti-car.