About eleventy-hundred people have written to draw my attention to an article in the Wall Street Journal about bike living in the Netherlands and Denmark. It’s worthy of the attention — it’s rare to see biking taken so seriously and written about with such an eye for detail and color, at least in a U.S. paper. Hats off to Nancy Keates.

I think WSJ free access ends after a week, so I’ll post a big chunk of good excerpts below the fold.

People bike while pregnant, carrying two cups of coffee, smoking, eating bananas. At the airport, there are parking spaces for bikes. In the emergency room at Frederiksberg Hospital on weekends, half the biking accidents are from people riding drunk. Doctors say the drunk riders tend to run into poles.

Flat, compact and temperate, the Netherlands and Denmark have long been havens for bikers. In Amsterdam, 40% of commuters get to work by bike. In Copenhagen, more than a third of workers pedal to their offices. But as concern about global warming intensifies — the European Union is already under emissions caps and tougher restrictions are expected — the two cities are leading a fresh assault on car culture. A major thrust is a host of aggressive new measures designed to shift bike commuting into higher gear, including increased prison time for bike thieves and the construction of new parking facilities that can hold up to 10,000 bikes.

The rest of Europe is paying close attention. Officials from London, Munich and Zurich (plus a handful from the U.S.) have visited Amsterdam’s transportation department for advice on developing bicycle-friendly infrastructure and policies. Norway aims to raise bicycle traffic to at least 8% of all travel by 2015 — double its current level — while Sweden hopes to move from 12% to 16% by 2010. This summer, Paris will put thousands of low-cost rental bikes throughout the city to cut traffic, reduce pollution and improve parking.

…in the U.S., bike commuters face more challenges, including strong opposition from some small businesses, car owners and parking-garage owners to any proposals to remove parking, shrink driving lanes or reduce speed limits. Some argue that limiting car usage would hurt business.

… People haul groceries in saddle bags or on handlebars and tote their children in multiple bike seats. Companies have indoor bike parking, changing rooms and on-site bikes for employees to take to meetings. Subways have bike cars and ramps next to the stairs.

Riding a bike for some has more cachet than driving a Porsche. Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende sometimes rides to work, as do lawyers, CEOs (Lars Rebien Sorensen, chief executive of Danish pharmaceutical giant Novo Nordisk, is famous for his on-bike persona) and members of parliament, often with empty children’s seats in back. Dutch Prince Maurits van Oranje is often seen riding around town. “It’s a good way to keep in touch with people on the streets,” says Tjeerd Herrema, deputy mayor of Amsterdam. Mr. Herrema’s car and driver still make the trip sometimes — to chauffeur his bag when he has too much work to carry.

Jolanda Engelhamp let her husband keep her car when they split up a few years ago because it was becoming too expensive to park. Now the 47-year-old takes her second-grade son to school on the back of her bike. (It’s a half-hour ride from home.) Outside the school in Amsterdam, harried moms drop off children, checking backpacks and coats; men in suits pull up, with children’s seats in back, steering while talking on their cellphones. It’s a typical drop-off scene, only without cars.

For Khilma van der Klugt, a 38-year-old bookkeeper, biking is more about health and convenience than concern for the environment. Her two older children ride their own bikes on the 25-minute commute to school while she ferries the four-year-old twins in a big box attached to the front of her bike. Biking gives her children exercise and fresh air in the morning, which helps them concentrate, she says. “It gets all their energy out.” She owns a car, but she only uses it when the weather is really bad or she’s feeling especially lazy.

Caroline Vonk, a 38-year-old government official, leaves home by bike at 8 a.m. and drops off her two children at a day-care center. By 8:15, she’s on her way to work, stopping to drop clothes at the dry cleaner or to buy some rolls for lunch. On the way home, she makes a quick stop at a shop, picks up the children and is home by 5:55. “It is a pleasant way to clear my head,” she says.

Amsterdam and Copenhagen are generally safer for bikers than the U.S. because high car taxes and gasoline prices tend to keep sport-utility vehicles off the road. In Denmark, the tax for buying a new car is as high as 180%. Drivers must be over 18 to get a license, and the tests are so hard that most people fail the first few times. Both cities have worked to train truck drivers to look out for bikers when they turn right at intersections, and changed mirrors on vehicles and at traffic corners so they’re positioned for viewing cyclists.

Bike-Friendly Cities in the U.S.

A number of towns have recently focused on making roads more accessible to bicycles. Here are some of the top spots chosen by the Bicycle Friendly Community Campaign from the League of American Bicyclists, an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.

CITY % OF ARTERIAL ROADS WITH BIKE LANES % OF COMMUTERS WHO BIKE COMMENTS
Boulder, Colo. 97% 21% Boulder has spent an average 15% of its transportation budget on building and maintaining bicycle traffic over the past five years. The goal is to create a system that’s "equitable for all users," with no hierarchy among pedestrians, cars and bikes, says Marni Ratzel, who runs the city’s program.
Chicago 11% 1-2% Mayor Richard Michael Daley bikes to work, setting the example for this city, which released an ambitious new bike plan last year. The goal: making all of Chicago’s streets safe and convenient for cycling.
Davis, Calif. 95% 17% Mostly flat and temperate, this town’s logo is a bicycle; it has more bikes than cars and is the only place to earn platinum status on Bicycle Friendly Community’s list of top cities. The city is about to build a $1.7 million bike-only tunnel under a major road.
Madison, Wisc. About 37% 3.2% There are 32 miles of bike lanes, 35 miles of bike paths and more than 100 miles of signed bike routes. On University Avenue, the major street in the downtown and University of Wisconsin campus area, there can be over 10,000 bicyclists a day — plus 30,000 cars.
Palo Alto, Calif. 13% 5.7% Along with the bike lanes on roads, the city also has nine miles of bike paths. In 2004 it spent about $5 million on a rail line under-crossing and $1.5 million on a 0.8-mile bike path.
Portland, Ore. 28% 5.4% Though there are lots of hills and rain, this city has 163 miles of bike lanes. All but two bridges accommodate bicyclists. There’s still a long way to go: The city still has 38 miles of bike lanes left in order to achieve its master plan. But in some neighborhoods bike commuters are as high as 9%.
San Francisco About 4% 2.1% In November 2003, San Francisco voters approved a half-cent sales tax measure, estimated to total $2.6 billion over 30 years. Of that, $56 million (a little more than 2%) will go to bike-related projects.