How Bike-Friendly Streets Help Denmark Combat Inequality

danish bike use by income 570
Source: Transportvaneundersøgelsen, DTU Transport. 2011. Currency conversion: 7.69 DKK/USD via OECD PPP charts, 2011.

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Michael Andersen blogs for The Green Lane Project, a PeopleForBikes program that helps U.S. cities build better bike lanes to create low-stress streets.

We don’t have to dream of a country where protected bike lanes and other quality bike infrastructure have dramatically improved life for poor people. We can visit it.

It’s called Denmark, and it’s arguably the most egalitarian country in the world.

Data published online for the first time suggests that bicycle transportation has been part of that triumph.

After embracing cars in the 1950s and 60s, Denmark took a U-turn around 1970 and began using protected bike lanes and low-speed side streets to make bicycle transportation an efficient, comfortable option. Today, this small, prosperous peninsula (whose capital, Copenhagen, is about the size of Columbus, Ohio) has the second-highest biking rates in the developed world after the Netherlands.

Ask Danes what sort of Danish people bike and they will probably say: “everyone.” In a sense, that’s true. But it also obscures something you’ll almost never hear a Dane mention: the massive benefit biking provides to the country’s poorest.

As you can see in the top chart, people of all incomes bike in Denmark at some of the highest rates in the world, but biking is most common among the poorest Danes.

Who are these very low-income Danes? Some are students living on state grants of about $11,000 a year. Others are recent immigrants and the long-term unemployed, who don’t fully qualify for the cash payments Denmark offers to people between jobs. Because bikes are everywhere in modern Denmark, these poor people can remain mobile in Danish cities without facing pressure to devote a huge share of their money to cars if they don’t want to.

Adding protected lanes to major streets made bike trips as safe and comfortable as car trips

Nørrebrogade, Copenhagen. Photo: John Greenfield

Here’s the complete breakdown (previously unavailable online) of how Danes of different incomes get around:

danish mobility 570
Source: Transportvaneundersøgelsen, DTU Transport

And here’s the same breakdown in the United States:

usa mobility 570
Source: National Household Travel Survey, 2009.

For the poorest Danes, car transportation is expensive. But it isn’t impossible. It’s not even rare.

It’s simply optional.

Only 41 percent of the poorest Danes’ trips happen in cars, compared to 72 percent of trips by the poorest Americans. More than anything else, this difference is because of bicycles: quick, cheap, direct and easily combined with good public transit.

Though Danes bike more, they don’t walk less or ride transit less. Danes at almost every income level do both of those things more than their American peers. Essentially all of Denmark’s additional biking is due to one thing: less reliance on cars.

Denmark has made it dramatically easier for poor people to escape poverty

Source: Markus et al, 2006

In most of the United States, not owning a reliable car can turn poverty into an inescapable trap.

For someone without a working car, a huge share of jobs essentially drop out of reach. For 73 percent of Americans, the typical job would take more than 90 minutes to reach by public transit. Living carless in most American cities can mean being cut off from many of the family and friends who help people find work, feel happy, care for children, or recover from emotional or economic bad fortune. This problem shackles both the poorest American adults and their kids.

It’s part of the reason that only a third of children born into the poorest American families ever make it to the economic middle or above. Four in ten spend their lives in the lowest fifth.

In Denmark, things are different. As the chart above shows, three-quarters of Denmark’s poorest improve their situation by middle age. About one in seven of Denmark’s poorest children lands among the country’s richest adults, almost twice the rate in the United States.

Denmark is different from the United States in many ways; biking is just one. Bicycling is certainly less important to Danish equality than tax and social security policy.

Moreover, Denmark has not eliminated poverty.

But it’s done the next best thing: it’s made poverty much easier to escape. And one of its tools in that fight has been making it normal and comfortable to do the daily business of one’s life on a bicycle.

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  • Joe R.

    Car dependency in the US also hinders upward mobility among the lower middle and middle classes. The money spent on a car due to lack of availability of less expensive transportation options could instead be spent on better housing, education, better food, or even put into a savings account for either earlier retirement, or to give your children a nestegg. Of course, this is the way the powers that be want it. They want working people to spend every dime they make on consumer crap like cars/gas/iThingys, then leave nothing to their children. Their children start out at the bottom, with little hope of escape. End result of this policy is multigeneration indentured servitude where the lower classes are providing the labor for the rich to get richer.

    Just a simple thing like cheap mobility can go a long way towards breaking this cycle of perpetual poverty.

  • Komanoff

    Interesting data. But I wonder if low HH income is serving as a proxy for millenials who cycle more for youth-related reasons. Can the author look into this?

    Also, Denmark’s high cycling rates shouldn’t be attributed solely to “protected bike lanes and low-speed side streets.” Here’s a fuller and arguably more interesting explanation, from my chapter, “Bicycling,” in The Encyclopedia of Energy (2013):

    “Robust bicycling levels in Northern Europe are … an outcome of deliberate policies undertaken since the 1970s to reduce oil dependence and to help cities avoid the damages of pervasive automobile use. Not only are auto tolls, taxes and fees many times higher than in the U.S., but generously funded public transit systems reduce the need for cars, increasing the tendency to make short utilitarian trips by bicycle. [C]omprehensive cycle-route systems link traffic-calmed neighborhoods in which cycling alongside cars is safe and pleasant. [T]hese policies engendered increases in per capita cycling from the late 1970s to 2005 of 6570% in Germany, 2025% in Denmark and 4550% in the Netherlands. Indeed, the same kind of feedback loops that have held back cycling in the United States nurture it in Northern Europe. Both density and bicycling are encouraged by policies ranging from provision of transit and cycle infrastructures to social pricing of driving; and Northern European states refrain from subsidizing sprawl development. Not only do a majority of Europeans live in cities as a result, but population densities in urban areas are triple those in the U.S.; correspondingly, average trip distances are only half as great, a further inducement to cycle.”

  • Joseph E

    Komanoff, note that on the chart, walking is only moderately less common in the USA, and transit use is similar between the US and Denmark. Cycling makes up most of the difference.
    If the cost of gas or car taxes were the main reason for lower car use, then why would only bike use be so much higher, compared to walking and transit trips?
    Population density is important for walking trips and many other reasons, but it does not correlate well with bike usage. Infrastructure, culture and enforcement are important. See this graph of density vs bike trip rates; http://www.aviewfromthecyclepath.com/2011/02/population-density-vs-cycling-rate-for.html

  • Joseph E

    I would like to see a chart like this for the Netherlands, which has an even high rate of bike useage, as well as higher walking mode share, despite no higher use of transit: http://www.fietsersbond.nl/de-feiten/fietsen-cijfers
    25% of trips by bike, 19% walking, 3% transit, 33% driving, 15% carpool/passenger.
    A plurality of 40% of trips are made by bike, from 1/2 mile to 2 miles in distance.
    Bikes are second place to cars from 2 miles to 9 miles; at distance of 9 to 12 miles 5% of trips are still made by bike!

  • barfred

    I totally disagree with the conclusion. The reason low-income is overrepresented, is that students ride bikes a lot, and student scholarships (awarded for up to 3+5 years, to all who apply) are about 25-30% of minimum wage.

  • Kevin Love

    Huh? What you appear to be writing is: “Low income is overrepresented because many low income people are students and they cycle a lot.”

    To me it makes no difference why someone is low income. The article’s conclusion is that cycling infrastructure is an effective anti-poverty measure because it provides low income people a cheap and easy means of mobility.

    That conclusion seems just as valid for a student who does not want to graduate with a crushing student loan debt that keeps him poor as it does for any other low-income person.

  • Justin

    Cool and interesting article!

  • User_1

    Clearly I’m not one that follows the latest on the blogosphere! Since when did the scale go to increments of 7? I grew up from the old world where we used 5. Or is this a euro translation?

    Anyway it’s kinda funny how they’re up in the better part of 10% and we’re struggling in the 1-2% range of ridership! Man do we have a long ways to go!

  • I haven’t found Danish mode data by age, Charles, but that’s a good question.

    On Denmark’s success being not just about infrastructure: totally agreed. As you say, mode choice is the result of a feedback loop. In my opinion, infrastructure is usually necessary to create that loop but insufficient on its own.

  • Barfred, you’re right: I was calculating the student stipends, worth about $11,000 a year, as being worth more than they are. Students who live on their own but choose not to take out additional state-issued loans would fall into the lowest income category here. I’ll change the text to reflect this. Thanks.

    As for the larger question about whether students are “real” poor people, I’d echo Kevin Love’s response but add that you are probably right that not-actually-poor students skew these numbers somewhat.

  • Student debt isn’t as much of an issue in Denmark as among middle-class Americans because university is free to EU citizens, though some do take out loans for living expenses: $960 a month, the state student grant, won’t get you very far in Copenhagen unless you use money-saving measures like biking.

    I would say that people who are poor mostly because they’re students are similar in some ways and different in others from people who are poor for other reasons.

  • jason nunya

    My God, I couldn’t begin to imagine living in a society where so long as I work hard enough to deserve to get into college (I most certainly did), my college is not only paid for, but I would get a STIPEND of nearly $1000 a month to help with living expenses while I study???

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