Wow! What a week it was! Having the privilege of traveling to the Netherlands to observe their cycling culture and infrastructure has been one of the highlights of my whole academic career here at Georgia Tech. It has been a humbling experience seeing how the Dutch create sustainable communities.
After weeks of posting about how the Dutch approach is different from the United States on paper, seeing it play out in real life and real time has cemented that thought. The simple fact of the matter is that the Dutch people stopped holding the motor vehicle on a high pedestal back in the 1970s. They literally have a whole generation that grew up accustomed to the bicycle as a standard and integral part of the transportation system. And this generation is now the one in charge of transportation and land use planning. With them at the helm, they’ve been able to preserve and protect the bicycle as the main form of transportation within the country through meaningful design that prioritized the two-wheeled tubes of steel.
Unfortunately, we did the same, but instead of enshrining the bicycle we lionized the car and gave it this untouchable status of ruler of the public space. Our nation’s land use planning gave into capitalism, and allowed uncontrollable markets to develop huge suburbs, creating spread out communities that we are now finding difficult to stitch together with a solid, reliable public transportation system. It doesn’t help that the political entities we depend on for smart planning have to deal with the other fact that they do not own the land they seek to improve (recall that Amsterdam owns ~80% of its land, and therefore it is easier to make planning decisions).
Nevertheless, I remain hopeful. What took one generation to shove suburbanism and car-dependency down a society’s throat will take another generation to pull us out of that unhealthy, unsustainable relationship. It can start in the dense city centers of Ted Turner Drive. It can start in the spread-out suburbs of Druid Hills or Brookhaven (heck, it can even start in Marietta). It can start with young adults reaching for the bicycle in order to get to work. It can start with homemakers shifting their errand trips away from cars. This week made me open my eyes to the many possibilities that await our amazing city of Atlanta. Truly now more than ever is Atlanta a city on the verge of cycling greatness!
P.S. The last sentence is a reference to Mark Pendergrast’s book “City on the Verge”, which focuses on the socio-economic and political implications of the Atlanta BeltLine on the neighborhoods it threatens to both destroy and renew. It is an excellent read and I highly recommend it!