Even though more people are starting to commute by bike, few cities match up to ultra-bike-friendly Copenhagen, where around half of the population cycles to work. In the U.S., Portland leads the list of larger cities, but even there, only 6% of commuters bike. What does it take to get more bikes on the road?
The obvious answer is better infrastructure like decent bike lanes. But a new program in Sweden is taking a different approach, based on the theory that one reason many people don’t ride is that haven’t really tried it. In Gothenburg—a city with bike commuter rates on par with Portland—the government is giving some people the chance to try a bike for six months in exchange for the promise that they will ditch their cars at least three times a week.
"We think biking has the potential to fulfill most transport needs for most groups," says Rickard Waern, a project manager for the Energy Agency of West Sweden. "This is especially true in light of all of the new types of bikes that have appeared on the market in recent years."
The three dozen "test cyclists" chosen by the agency range from students to commuters to parents of young children.
"Showing good examples is a powerful way to reach out," Waern says. "Through the project, we’re trying to create those good examples—people from many different groups in the population, with a large variety of transportation needs, who all can solve their daily transports with bikes."
Sweden faces some of the same infrastructure problems as the U.S. Most cities have been planned with cars in mind, so cycling to Ikea to run an errand might not seem easy.
"In some cases, it can be challenging to use a bike to, for example, do your shopping, or take your children to preschool and then get to your workplace in the morning," Waern says. "And while this is absolutely true in some cases, the fact of the matter is that this can be more a mental barrier than an actual one. Most people can, with the right bike and a bit of planning, manage to do all these things and more."
The project hopes to start to break down those mental barriers by sticking with each participant for six months.
"While we can’t claim to have investigated how long it actually takes for a person to break old habits and establish new ones, six months was pretty much the minimum amount of time we expected could give lasting impact, as well as generate enough useful experiences, good examples, and data for us to evaluate and spread," Waern says.
At the end of the experiment, each rider will have the chance to buy the bike at a discount. So far, all of the cyclists have been fans of their new rides, using cargo bikes to pick up kids from school or bring groceries home, and electric and folding bikes for commutes. One commuter even took a folding bike on a business trip.
"Since I got my new trike, I do all my errands around town with it," says one of the test riders. "The car gets to stay in the garage."