When comparing cycling statistics in the U.S. cities to Dutch cities, it is clear that the culture and infrastructure built around transportation must be very different. For example, 26% of trips are made by bicycle in the Netherlands, whereas only 0.5% are made by bicycle in the U.S. (1). Additionally, while there are 1.6 cyclists injured per 10 million kilometers in the Netherlands, 33.5 are injured in the U.S. That means that cyclists in the U.S. are more than 20 times as likely to get injured than cyclists in the Netherlands! What is causing such a large discrepancy of ridership and safety in the U.S. and the Netherlands? Does it almost seem like a chicken and the egg scenario: is there adequate infrastructure in place in Dutch cities because there is such a high volume of cyclists or did the amount of cyclists create the need for such strong cycling infrastructure?
The Netherlands didn’t always have such robust cycling infrastructure in place. It wasn’t till small Dutch cities became overcrowded by vehicles and too many people were injured by cars that Dutch society started to call for more bicycle use. Stemming from a mass social movement in the 1970s protesting the injuries caused by cars on children, the government made a conscious effort to increase cycling nationwide. Cities were designed to promote bike safety. In the Netherlands, this means as much separation of cars and bikes as possible. Bicycle lanes are separated from traffic either by physical barriers or preferably they have their own path. Measures were also taken to calm roads in whole neighborhoods, with speed limits ranging from 7-30 km/hour (2). Additionally, bike safety is taught in Dutch schools, and when getting their driver’s license, the Dutch are taught to respect bikers and pedestrians as they are more vulnerable. Finally, the Dutch are also purposeful about designating a considerable amount of responsibility for bike safety and infrastructure to the municipalities rather than tackle it on a national level (3). This helps decentralize decision-making and allows communities to have more of a stake in the planning process.
On the other hand, in the U.S., cyclists are often sharing space with cars to increase speed for both parties. This, however, often discourages all but the “highly-tolerant”, or the most confident cyclists (1). Additionally, it is proven to be less safe, as discussed above. While there is national funding for pedestrian and bike safety, it is still up to the cities to implement strategies and as of now that funding still loops pedestrians and bikes together (1). Additionally, there is no nationwide cycling education and drivers are not taught to mind for cyclists when getting their licenses. Overall, it is mainly seen as a recreational activity and only a motivated handful use it as an everyday mode of transportation.
When looking at the development of cycling infrastructure in the Netherlands and comparing it to the current state of its counterpart in the U.S., the differences in results are clear, and the chicken and egg question becomes clearer. The Dutch wanted to solve problems such as the high number of car accidents and injuries and declining air quality in cities. They decided that increasing cycling was a favorable solution and made active efforts to make it accessible and safe for everyone. They identified a need and addressed the concerns of the people. Meanwhile, Americans haven’t historically expressed a strong desire for increased accessibility to cycling. While it is improving, it's clear from the data presented that there is a long way to go before it is as integrated into our culture as it is in the Netherlands.
1. Pucher, J. R., & Buehler, R. (2012). City Cycling. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
2. Harms, L. and Kansen, M., (2018). Cycling Facts 2018. Retrieved from https://www.government.nl/ministries/ministry-of-infrastructure-and-water-management/documents/reports/2018/04/01/cycling-facts-2018