Cycling in Three World Cities: How Do They Compare?

Bogota routinely shuts down its streets for pedestrians and cyclists only, in a community event known as Ciclovia. Photo by Cidades para Pessoas.

What urban characteristics create successful bicycle programs and how can cities with low cycling rates learn from these? This blog post aims to provide answers to these questions, based on a research project, “Case Studies in Urban Mobility: The Role of Bicycling,” conducted in the fall of 2011 at American University in Washington, D.C.

Three world cities were examined: a European city (Berlin, Germany), a “developing world” city (Bogota, Colombia) and a U.S. city (Houston, Tex.) to discover why some cities have higher rates of cycling and what they can teach other cities about appropriate bicycling policy, incentives and infrastructure. Through document analysis, this study explored the physical and human characteristics, the current transportation infrastructure, and the role of government in the planning and implementation of bicycle projects in the three cities to evaluate what leads to successful bicycling programs.

A bicycling lane in Berlin. Photo by Hannu Makarainen.

While Bogota and Houston are about the same size in area, they have vastly different population sizes. Bogota is the largest city in Colombia, with a population of 6.7 million, with 12,000 people per square kilometer. Berlin has 3.4 million people, with a density of 3,901 people per square kilometer. Berlin also has about 1.2 million automobiles in the city, which translates to slightly less than one car for every three people. Houston is the United States’ fourth largest city, with a population of 2.1 million, nearly one-third of the population of Bogota. It has a low population density of 1,505 people per square kilometer. It is interesting that Bogota is noted as one of the densest cities in the Western Hemisphere, while Houston is only one-eighth as dense.

This study found that although Houston has made valiant efforts towards establishing a great bikeway program, it lacks the complete dedication of cities like Bogota and Berlin. In the end, it is not whether the city is in a developing or developed country, a rich or poor country, or a country with low or high car ownership. The more successful bike programs of Bogota and Berlin were determined to be a result of a strong political will to invest in and promote strong systems that make the lives of citizens better.

Houston riders gather for Critical Mass, a group cycle ride. Photo by HoustonFixedGear.


The cities’ bicycle mode shares most accurately measure the strength of their respective programs. Berlin has the highest rate of bicycle mode shares at 10 percent, followed by Bogota at 4.4 percent, and Houston at 0.8 percent.

The quantity and extent of bike facilities is not as good a measure: Houston has twice as many bike lanes and paths as Bogota (574.5 kilometers compared to 300 kilometers), but is used much less frequently.C

Car ownership does not always correlate to driving frequency. While Germans have one of the world’s largest car ownership rates, the use rate is less than half that of the United States for short trips: Only 27 percent of trips of less than 1.6 kilometers are made by car in Germany, compared to 67 percent in the U.S.

Low density can translate into higher reliance on cars. Bogota has extremely high population density, Berlin a third as much, and Houston an eighth as much. Houston’s relatively low density coupled with its low walkability scores mean that residents are far more likely to drive their car in order to access the same services available by walking or biking in Bogota or Berlin.

Both Bogota and Berlin have benefited from strong public leadership to establish and fund extensive bicycle networks and promote their use to their citizens through public safety and awareness campaigns. While Houston citizens saw some of this push by their government, the city’s program does not seem to have the same level of commitment.

Funding: Berlin has a dedicated annual funding source for biking infrastructure that increases each year, while Bogota spent US$180 million on bikeways in 3 years  (between 1999-2002). It is unclear where the majority of funding for Houston’s Bikeways program comes from and whether any of it is at the local level, although the city did receive $6 million in federal funds in 2010 for four bike and pedestrian projects.

Public campaigns: Berlin has a mandatory bicycle training course for all primary school students and created a bicycle council in 2000 (FahrRat) to advise the city on bicycle policies. Bogota has several public awareness campaigns including Cicloviá (a closing of selected roads on Sundays and holidays), annual car-free days and a ban on 40 percent of vehicles in downtown areas during peak hours. Houston does have optional online training for bicycle safety but no mandatory programs and lacks public promotion of its bikeways.

In order for Houston to increase usage of its current bicycle system, it needs to follow the lead of Berlin and Bogota. This will involve incorporating cycling as a central tenet in its transportation strategy. Since it already has a strong network of bicycle lanes, it should gear investments towards promotion of the paths, as well as public education programs on safety. Allowing for and promoting mixed use development and better linking bicycle infrastructure with mass public transport services would also make bicycling more attractive and useful.

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