Why do some people pedal more than others? Why are some cities synonymous with "bike lanes" when others rhyme with "traffic jams"? Is there a bicycle "culture"? Let's zoom in on our relationship with cycling.
In Amsterdam, for example, 32% of citizens travel by bicycle on a daily basis, compared to 4% in Paris. France painfully climbs to 19th place in the ranking, out of 28!The underperformer in Europe? Not so simple. Even within France, there are significant disparities. In Strasbourg, for example, 10% of trips are made by bicycle, which is more than double that of Paris.
For political scientist Nicolas Louvet, the explanation is rather elementary: "In Strasbourg, public policies have been pushing for cycling since the 1980s, so the inhabitants are used to it. But in Paris it only dates back to the 2000s, hence our delay."
And indeed. The numbers prove that cycling has come back to the forefront in recent months across the country, especially since the end of lockdown. But the nationwide push towards all-bike use is only very recent after all, whereas in Strasbourg it has existed for decades.
However, although public policies can influence our cycling behaviour, they are not the only ones responsible for the existence, or lack, of cycling "culture" in a given place.
The evidence. It seems that men and women, for example, are not equal when it comes to cycling. Today in France, 60% of cyclists are men while they represent only 47% of the population.
These figures come from a study conducted by geographer Yves Raibaud for Bordeaux Metropole on the gendered practice of cycling. The results of his research show that women are generally less inclined to get on a bicycle than men for safety reasons (fear of accidents and incivilities) but also because of their load (shopping, children) and are more often obliged to make one trip after another, whereas more men use their bicycles at times corresponding to leisure (evenings, Sundays).
Behind this set of reasons that would annoy feminists, there is indeed a reality of division of labor that has not yet evolved much. For Nicolas Louvet, "it's not a question of the relationship with the bike but of the relationship with society, which is still macho".
But there is a counter example. And not the least: in Japan, it is the women who pedal the most! Yet the country is not known for its particularly progressive division of labor in the home or very advanced gender equality (Japan is ranked 121st out of 153 countries, according to the World Economic Forum's 2019 Gender Parity Report).
The country is known, however, for its affection for two-wheelers. And the answer is there: as soon as cycling is important and widespread, it is automatically more accessible to everyone.
In the Netherlands too, women pedal much more than in France. But we're talking about a country that has gone so far as to create a bicycle embassy to export its two-wheeled expertise abroad. We are even talking about the country where the bicycle nickname "petite reine" ("little queen") was born. The expression dates back to the 19th century, when Queen Wilhelmina succeeded to the throne at the age of ten and travelled exclusively... by bicycle.
There would thus be a kind of ripple effect, a "culture" of cycling that is more deeply rooted in some places than in others. But Nicolas Louvet prefers to qualify and speak of habit, rather than culture.
"If you tell your child to behave well at the table, one day he will end up behaving well, it will become a habit. But we're not necessarily talking about a culture of table manners. It's the same with cycling".