I will be speaking all next week as part of the “Going Green” school/education outreach project in Germany organized by the U.S. Embassy in Berlin (locations for the talks include Berlin, Chemnitz, Nuernberg, and Munich). A central purpose is for participants to better understand the U.S. and its efforts to combat climate change via local and state level efforts, urban planning, and city development. I will be using transportation planning—with a focus on cycling—as a window through to understand American philosophies, changing currents, and future challenges. The below is an overview of some key points. Given the cross-cultural nature of this event, I recruited brilliant thinking from my colleague and German-native, Ralph Buehler of Virginia Tech. Ralph willingly agreed to be a partner-in-crime to co-author this post.
The path of US land use-transport to present day makes sustainable transport difficult
Understanding history and context are critical in order to properly position sustainable transport in the US, and in particular, heightened levels of bicycling. Globally speaking, cycling’s historic “heyday” was arguably most prominent in the U.S. in the early 1900’s. However, its trajectory in the U.S. has been largely downhill over the past 100 years. Only recently (the past ~15 years or so) is there a a resurgence; some cities in the U.S. are starting to take cycling seriously.
The cumulative result of almost 70 years of land-use transport policies, plans, programs in the U.S. places cycling at an extreme disadvantage. The list of transport-specific phenomena is well-documented, and includes the usual suspects such as: (1) early mass motorization (Henry Ford and his assembly line), (2) road standards that discourage cycling, (3) vehicle taxes (gas taxes in the U.S. care comparatively low and the revenue is often earmarked for roadway construction), (4) interstate system (severing neighborhoods, penetrating cities with auto-only infrastructure, and also trumping more local planning efforts/ideals), (5) government subsidies for driving, including the mandated supply of ample free parking at most trip destinations, (6) technological attempts to make transport more sustainable (i.e., cleaner fuels will make driving ok) .
One more point needs to be underscored: the importance of the American single family home. Low energy prices and huge subsidies for home mortgages have combined with a culture of “go west young man” (to wide open spaces) to form a residential landscape like no other, globally speaking. And, all over the U.S., residential, single family zoning is aggressively employed to support the primary investment of Americans. Tony Downs has elaborated a bit more, suggesting five key tenets that most Americans hold dear to their heart: (1) owning a detached single-family home on a spacious lot; (2) relying on private automobiles for movement; (3) working in attractively landscaped low-rise places; (4) residing in small communities with responsive and localized government; and (5) living free from the signs of poverty. Local governments in the U.S. are keen to protect these interests and they do it well (i.e., the Tiebout hypothesis).
The above factors have produced some critical “context-defining conditions” for sustainable transport:
- travel distances are relatively longer than in Europe (space consumed by single family homes makes origins and destinations further apart),
- abundant and free car parking makes driving really easy,
- an aversion to behavior oriented pricing (perceived ‘free’ energy and ‘free’ roads are ingrained in American mindsets),
- relatively high car traffic volumes with high speeds (cyclists are afraid of fast moving cars), and
- funding that cannot be easily flexed for more sustainable purposes.
But that’s not all. The land use-transport system in the U.S. represents an extremely mature system. Changing mature systems is difficult because innovations have limited effect. The type of sustainable transport infrastructure that many talk about—new rail line, a bike path, a major new development—are relatively modest interventions. They represent marginal changes within extensive, mature, and complex transportation systems in which travelers have multiple options with respect to mode and route choice. Moreover, auto dependence for most Americans makes policies that increase the cost and time of driving or reduce its convenience very unpopular.
Things are changing
The good news is that in the U.S. there is emerging evidence to suggest things are changing in these respects, ever so slightly.
- The demand for driving is leveling off. Results from recent travel surveys suggest that American’s appetite for driving might be full and factors are behind this; at least two trends stand out: (1) young adults and retiring baby boomers are moving ‘back to the city’ to enjoy a less car dependent lifestyle (after decades of shrinkage many urban areas are growing), (2) young adults between 20 and 30 seem to be less car oriented than previous generations (lower car ownership rates, a lower share of licensed drivers, and less driving overall).
- Multimodality. Using more than one mode of transportation during a trip, day or week, is receiving lots of attention. Even though 85 percent of trips are still by car, the share of Americans who also use other modes of transport is increasing. This means that Americans still drive a lot, but they also walk, cycle or ride public transport for some trips.
- Pricing schemes are trickling into U.S. culture. Inner cities are increasing the cost of car parking and decreasing its supply. New highway capacity is built using toll roads. Congestion pricing is being employed in many cities.
- Sustainable modes have higher profile. In many cities, it is now standard practice to appropriate funds for sustainable transport in city budgets. Bicycle paths receive snowplowing treatments, zoning codes require office buildings to have bike parking or even showers for cyclists). Many cities are pursuing ‘complete street’ projects.
It is conceivable that even Americans are wondering what a future looks like with end of fossil fuels (notwithstanding new hype about gas and fracking). Outstanding questions and challenges now revolve around how to change transport and land-use systems in the U.S. to become more cycling friendly.
Future steps toward cycling’s redemption
With all of this as a backdrop, paving cycling’s path is difficult (the same applies to most other forms of sustainable transport such as walking or public transport). Here is a five point plan to help redeem cycling’s path with regard to the land use-transport system in American cities.
- Get the land uses right. American cities need to make standard travel distances for everyday travel (origins and destinations) shorter. Yes, roughly one-third of all U.S. trips are less than two kilometers, but more can be made of this.
- Change the nature of roads. Roads—more specifically, the space in the right of way–will be need to adapted to better support cycling. The “green lane project is a good testament to this, but taking space from cars takes political fortitude.
- Build more bicycle facilities. All types of bicycle facilities would be welcome and needed, particularly physically separated paths (e.g., see greenlane project).
- Share space better. Making central cities similar to one-grand shared space is concept that is largely unheard of in the U.S. Space is not shared and drivers are immune to wanting to share unmarked space.
- Keep speeds down. Not only are traffic volumes high—speeds are too—making it more difficult to attract cyclists. Traffic calming neighborhoods, city centers, and other areas (together with stricter attention to speed limits) makes these areas safer and more livable.
 History of cycling in the U.S., see: http://vehicleforasmallplanet.com/tracings-bicyclings-resurgence-in-the-u-s-almost-a-century-later/
 For a succinct description of 9 factors for why the U.S. is so auto-dependent, see: http://www.theatlanticcities.com/commute/2014/02/9-reasons-us-ended-so-much-more-car-dependent-europe/8226/
 Germany less than half of the all Germans live in single-family homes, and less than a third live in detached single-family dwellings, while this percentage is double in the U.S.
 A key cultural difference stems from the general attitude toward building anything. In the US, the principle is that you are allowed to build something. Zoning can influence what can be built, but if it reduces the value of the land, the land owner is entitled to compensation. This is generally the opposite in Europe. One is not allowed to build anything, unless it is explicitly allowed. This tilts the European playing field in favor of less sprawl and less greenfield development, as most of the land is zoned as agricultural or natural uses only. Any change takes a long and unpredictable process with coordination with higher levels of government. Lack of planning and coordination still exists in most European countries—producing sprawl and greenfield development—but to a lesser extent.
 Hirt, Sonia. “Home, Sweet Home American Residential Zoning in Comparative Perspective.” Journal of Planning Education and Research 33, no. 3 (2013): 292-309.
 Downs, Anthony (1994). New Visions for Metropolitan America. Brookings.
 Another big difference stems from the general attitude toward building anything. In the US, the principle is that you are allowed to build something. Zoning can influence what can be built, but if it reduces the value of the land, the land owner is entitled to compensation. In Europe, the principle is generally the opposite. You are not allowed to build anything, unless it is explicitly allowed. This tilts the European playing field in favor of less sprawl and less greenfield development, as most of the land is zoned as agricultural or natural uses only. Any change in that takes a long and unpredictable process with coordination with higher levels of government. Of course, there is still a lack of planning and coordination in most European countries and sprawl and greenfield development do happen in Europe as well; however, the scale is different.
 Tobias Kuhnimhof, Ralph Buehler, Matthias Wirtz, and Dominika Kalinowska (2012). Travel trends among young adults in Germany: increasing multimodality and declining car use for men. Journal of Transport Geography 24 (2012) 443–450.
 Slotterback, C.S., and C. Zerger. 2013. Complete Streets from Policy to Project: The Planning and Implementation of Complete Streets at Multiple Scales. Minneapolis, MN: Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota.
 Greenlane project, see: http://www.peopleforbikes.org/green-lane-project
 Concept of space, See John Grisham’s, The Broker (2005) where Luigi explains to Marco some of the peculiarities of Italian culture: “…the concept of space in Europe…differs significantly from that in the States. Space is shared in Europe, not protected. Tables are shared, the air evidently is shared because smoking bothers no one. Cars, houses, buses, apartments, cafes—so many important aspects of life are smaller, thus more cramped, thus more willingly shared. It’s not offensive to go nose to nose with an acquaintance during routine conversation because no space is being violated. Talk with your hand, hug, embrace, even kiss at times. Even for a friendly people, such familiarity was difficult for Americans to understand.”