I am reposting this from the Assoc. of Pedestrian and Bicycling Professionals listserv because I think it is the best summary of these issues that I have seen:
"Culture is constructed. A big difference between the US and Europe is the number of people who live in cities vs. the number who live in the suburbs. Gasoline prices are significantly different. It's a lot harder and more expensive to get a drivers license in Europe. Car excise taxes are much higher. In many European cities, it is very hard to get urban parking privileges. (E.g., in DC, a residential parking permit costs $15/year.) Etc.(Sorry to be pedantic.)
So bikes and cars (and transit) aren't on a level playing field, motor vehicle based mobility occupies a privileged position. That's not about culture or norms, it's about policy.
But I raise the issue of cities vs. suburbs for two reasons (1) because in cities speed limits tend to be significantly lower than in suburbs. And with slower speeds and shorter distances between stop and yield signs and traffic signals, traffic moves much more slowly. In such situations it's a lot easier to ride in mixed traffic situations. It helps that the distances between origins and destinations can be relatively short.
(2) in most cities, with the exception of parts of DC, Boston, NYC, Chicago, Seattle, SF, Portland, LA, and parts of certain others, trends still don't favor urban living, therefore trends don't favor urban biking.
Biking as transportation is a class movement (well, it's bimodal, and also appealing to people who can't afford a car). And for the people with choices living in the suburbs, generally lack of facilities, high speeds on traffic engorged arterials, and long distances between origins and destinations makes biking comparatively impractical.
In DC I do feel like I am seeing a lot more bicyclists in the core of the city, and especially women, in significant numbers. The city has two cycletracks (but one, on PA. Ave. isn't in an area where people are likely to use it) and a few trails. Most transportational cyclists ride in places with either no lanes or lanes, not cycletracks. I attribute this to the class/choice factor mostly, co-incident with the change in attitudes that favors living in DC (as opposed to the suburbs). This has been a phenomenon of the past 5-7 years especially (e.g., you could still buy commercial buildings in now hip areas for under $200K through early 2003).
I get "riled up" when people talk about "bicycle culture" or similarly "how people in Portland are somehow unique and atypical."
What is atypical about Portland is that around 1970 they began developing a sustainable transportation policy (they tore down a freeway), and prioritized public investment downtown including bus transit, later extended to light rail and streetcar transit, and then to the support of bicycling. That's not culture. It's policy, and it's taken them 40 years to get to where they are.
Only by understanding this process, that it is a process, and not something that derives from drinking special koolaid, or special "culture" can we make comparable progress with sustainable transportation policy elsewhere. (This pertains to Copenhagen and Amsterdam as well.)"