By Laura Kelly
What Sets the Netherlands Apart
Vision and Values:
The language the Dutch (and other Northern European countries) have been speaking for years is finally beginning to be understood by the United States; cycling is beneficial in reducing motorist traffic, carbon emissions, and nonrenewable resource consumption, and increasing daily physical activity and the ease of transportation. Through coordinating infrastructure, programs, and policies, the Dutch view cycling as a very practical, efficient, and healthy means of transportation (Pucher & Bueler 2012). Land use and car-restrictive policies contribute to the inclination of the Dutch to cycle. Mandatory training courses and a separation between cyclist and motorist contributes to the perception that cycling is safe and a welcome alternative to driving. These factors create a society of people that choose to bike and find immense joy in cycling (Harms & Kansen 2018). The Dutch value this ability to get to and from on a bicycle, no matter what age or gender you are, and no matter where you’re headed. The United States has a lack of separation between motorist and cyclist, and a generally unfamiliar relationship between most people and cycling; two very different pictures are painted when comparing the two nations. Urban sprawl and government policies encourage a car-centric trend for design and roadway use, and biking is viewed as a recreational activity, done by either children or only very serious, confident cyclists. With that, a few major cities in the U.S. have seen increases in biking populations and have attempted to alter the infrastructure so that the trend continues, such as Portland and Minneapolis. Large U.S. cities especially could really benefit from adopting the Dutch ideas; biking is attainable close to city centers where commerce is more localized, universities with large populations of students more interested in biking exist, and where the topography supports cycling. To fully adopt Dutch ideas, training programs must change (such as enhancing Drivers’ Education), and more people must start biking. For cycling to become a daily activity that is safe, it must become more prevalent.
Something I had never considered before was the transition from the old issue with cycling – the lack of actual pavement – to the current – a proliferation of fast and frequent motor vehicles (Pucher & Bueler 2012). In response to the influx of cars in major cities and a desire to push cycling onto the general population, the European policy included creating a separation between cyclists and motorists, traffic calming techniques, and cycle tracks. On the contrary, the United States chose to integrate cars and bikes. The Dutch believe that there should be physical separation on any street with 2+ lanes, any urban street with the speed limit exceeding 50 km/hr, and any rural road with speeds exceeding 60 km/hr. The only situation in which bikes are mixed in with vehicular traffic is for slow speeds, low ADTs, and when there are no car lane markings. The Dutch prioritize the cyclists, and it shows through their infrastructure design. The United States, on the other hand, does not offer any source of relief for cyclists no matter the speed or number of vehicles. AASHTO believes it cannot please every type of cyclist, and therefore should not try to create guidance that would only please the slower, leisurely cyclist or the serious, confident cyclist. This mindset wonderfully correlates with the low-cost that comes along with markings and signage rather than cycle tracks and raised cycle paths. Claiming Dutch facilities to be inconvenient and indirect, John Forester’s idea that “cyclists fare best when treated as vehicles” has contributed to the lack of progress. Recently, with the creation of the Urban Bikeway Design Manual and an interest in different types of facilities (standalone paths, cycle tracks, contraflow, and local streets as bike routes), there appears to be progress towards shifting the American infrastructure more towards the Dutch. That said, for real change to occur, interest must increase along with a dedicated coordination between planning, regulations, and funding.
One of the most important takeaways from Pucher and Buehler’s analysis is the relationship between the amount of cycling and how safe cycling is. Cycling is fundamentally a safe, healthy activity that almost anyone can (and should!) be able to do. However, the average American questioning whether or not to cycle to work will inevitably choose not to, and the lack of perceived safety is often cited as the prominent reason why. This perception only aggravates the issue, because with fewer cyclists riding on the roadway, there is less awareness. In my eyes, this fear is founded; vehicular motorists don’t view cyclists as equal, valid roadway users, despite our limited infrastructure reminding us we should be through Sharrows and equally insufficient signage stating “Share the Road”. With recent advances in infrastructure design, such as the inclusion of cycle tracks, cycling can be seen as safer, since most of the injuries associated with cycling are due to interaction with motor vehicles.
When examining cycling injuries and accidents, there are three usual suspects: the road design, motorists, and the cyclist. In the States, the infrastructure sets up the cyclist to frequently interact with motorists that may or may not be aware of the cyclist. In the Netherlands, safety when deciding whether or not to bike is hardly a second thought. Two of the three situations that a cyclist is injured are eliminated; the infrastructure allows for minimal interaction between the motorist and the cyclist. The road design purposefully places cyclists out of harm’s (motorists’) way. Helmets, seen as a prudent option worn by the safest of cyclists in the United States, can be seen as an insult to the infrastructure the Dutch have carefully crafted for optimal safety. Cycling through Dutch streets, you will rarely see anyone wearing a helmet; instead, men and women of all ages cycle effortlessly and casually (Wagenbuur 2009).
Impacts of These Differences
The difference in how the Dutch and U.S. governments view cycling’s importance, exemplified through emphasis on training programs, safety, policymaking, and, most prominently, infrastructure, has led to a great disparity within the two countries. In the Netherlands, women actually cycle more than men (Pucher & Bueler 2012). Somewhat more surprisingly, growth of cyclists in the 65+ group has drastically increased, mainly using e-bikes (Harms & Kansen 2018). Contrasted to this range in both age and gender, the United States does not share a similar demographic of cyclists; the majority of bikers are male and relatively young. There is a mindset here that only fit people wearing spandex can bike, especially because the average American views biking for utilitarian purposes as dangerous (rightfully so). The Dutch are very proud of their cycling culture, and believe that cycling evokes joy and positive feelings. In addition to this sentiment, facts support the notion that cycling is physically healthy; the daily exercise provided by cycling can extend one’s life up to over a year. It also cuts down on obesity levels and promotes social interaction. Not to say that if the United States introduced cycling into the forefront that our obesity problem would disappear and people would become substantially happier, however there is truth to the idea: cycling promotes healthy behavior. It will take changes in leadership, funding, and objectives for the central government to promote cycling, and even more time and direction for local municipalities to accept it.
Harms, L., & Kansen, M. (2018, April 1). Cycling Facts 2018. Retrieved from https://www.government.nl/ministries/ministry-of-infrastructure-and-water-management/documents/reports/2018/04/01/cycling-facts-2018
Pucher, J., & Buehler, R. (Eds.). (2012). City cycling. Retrieved from https://ebookcentral.proquest.com
Summary National Policy Strategy for Infrastructure and Spatial Planning. (2013, July 24). Retrieved from https://www.government.nl/ministries/ministry-of-infrastructure-and-water-management/documents/publications/2013/07/24/summary-national-policy-strategy-for-infrastructure-and-spatial-planning
US DOT Strategic Plan for FY 2018-2022. (2018, May 8). Retrieved from https://www.transportation.gov/administrations/office-policy/dot-strategic-plan-fy2018-2022
Wagenbuur, M. (2009, August 8). Cycling Amsterdamsestraatweg, Utretcht, Netherlands[Video file]. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FOkbz4tm324