BERLIN — In the cold of winter — on a day when sunrise and sunset were separated only by 71⁄2 hours of cloudy daylight in Berlin — Marion Giesske rode her bike to work.
This wasn’t a remarkable occurrence in her life; she also rides in the warmth of summer, when Berlin’s daylight lasts for almost 17 hours, and on most days in between. But it does make her a success story in a grand design in Berlin and cities throughout northern Europe to wean commuters off car travel and onto bikes. From her perspective, riding a bike is an easy choice.
“Every day is a good day when it starts with a sunrise you see from your bike,” the 55-year-old explained. “To come home on the bike is to relax, and to see everyone else looking very stressed in their cars. The trains are packed. The bike is perfect.”
Berlin’s goal is to have 1 of every 5 trips within the city to be made by bike before 2025. To help in this effort, city law offers a tax break that’s equivalent to 53 U.S. cents for every mile a cyclist commutes. Last year, the city invested $16 million in bike infrastructure.
By U.S. standards, its efforts represent both heavy investment and high goals. By Northern European standards these days, however, Berlin is a poseur in the push to encourage cycling. Copenhagen, where 36 percent of commuters road bikes in 2012, completed 2015 with that number surpassing 50 percent.
In Norway’s capital, Oslo, a city just about as far north as Anchorage and where the sun these days is rising after 9 a.m. and setting just after 3 p.m., the City Council has been talking about banning cars from downtown. The idea is that even in a country that relies on oil revenue for wealth and has a surplus of electrical power, the bike should be the default mode of transport.
It’s not just a whim, either. The council, which is proposing to spend $450 million during the next decade on bike infrastructure, was elected in September on a bikes-first platform. The goal: By 2019, reduce car traffic citywide by 20 percent. By 2030, reduce car traffic by a third. To get there, the council is considering increasing the daily fee that gas-using cars pay to enter the city. The payoff: reducing the nation’s carbon footprint by 40 percent.
“Oslo wants to become an example for the world,” Ola Elvestuen, a member of the Norwegian Parliament’s Committee on Energy and the Environment, said last year at a green transportation conference in Portland.
Doing so means surpassing places such as Amsterdam or the large number of cities in northern Europe that are bike friendly, where bridges, traffic signals and multistory parking garages have been built with cyclists in mind. Networks of bike paths and protected lanes often make a cycling commute faster than one by car.
Stefan Goessling is a professor of service management at Sweden’s Lund University and a co-author of perhaps the most comprehensive study of the costs of travel by cycling versus automobiles. His recent study, “Transport Transitions in Copenhagen: Comparing the Cost of Cars and Bicycles,” determined that “when all aspects are included,” the cost of a mile cycled is 14 cents, while a mile by car is 88 cents.
Goessling argues that the social benefits of cycling amount to 28 cents a mile in savings on health care and other services, while each car mile costs society 27 cents in road deterioration, energy and the lost time of commuters.
In an email response to questions from McClatchy, Goessling noted that one point of the study of Copenhagen was “to determine whether it is economically justifiable to build more infrastructure for cycles.” He added that beyond the study, “it is obvious that the cost of cycle infrastructure is far lower than the infrastructure needed for cars.”
He said the study looked only at Copenhagen, but he thinks the results would apply to many cities.
“There is such a huge difference between bicycles and cars that it is unlikely results would be any different in other contexts,” he wrote.
He even thinks the United States could benefit from a similar approach, though the commuting distances for many would be substantial.
“It will be a huge gain to build infrastructure for cyclists, from a national economics viewpoint,” he said. “I could even imagine that health benefits in the U.S. could be greater than in Copenhagen, as you have a population that arguably in parts could do with more exercise.”