By April Gadsby
After traveling around the Netherlands for two weeks, I feel I have a very different perspective on transportation. Although I already believed the United States needed more and better cycling and transit infrastructure, it brought a whole new perspective to see it implemented and to talk to the Dutch about how it got implemented. I feel capable of thinking about roadways in a fundamentally different way than before I went there.
I think there are 4 major aspects of their sustainable transportation system that allows it to function: public participation, prioritization of safety, varied prioritization of modes, and network focus. The Dutch are a pragmatic and direct people. They care a lot about safety, especially of children, as well as noise and air pollution and density, but it is the death tolls of children on the roads that led to the riots that got the Dutch their infrastructure. They knew cycling was safer, so they did that. It was a theme in our discussions that the people wanted something, so it was built. Americans do not interact with their infrastructure in such a way, rarely (never?) rioting for improved infrastructure. We get much more passionate about civil rights related causes. Perhaps if we can tie civil rights into our need for improved infrastructure, we can have a similar reaction.
True to the roots of their cycling infrastructure, the Dutch prioritize safety over expediency in most situations. In America, we prefer expediency, even the vehicular cyclists' arguments are based on expediency. However, based on what I experienced in the Netherlands, a focus on safety has far more benefits. Instead of shared lanes, they have shared roads, but roads are only shared when speeds are very low (around 20 mph). Above that, and there is at least a bike lane. But if the road has the volume and speed requiring 2 lanes in each direction, then the bikes are always separated. Prior to the Netherlands, I thought the protected cycling track on 10th street was really great, but when going past it today, I thought it was still so far behind what I had ridden on the last two weeks. But, also by prioritizing safety, they slow down the cars. Slower cars are safer for everyone. As bike and pedestrians feel safer, they increase in number. With such high numbers of cyclists, the Netherlands was able to remove cars from many city centers. This then gave them more space, which is a priority in such a small country. They were able to use this space for better uses. For example, the square our hotel was on that was crowded with people dining each night, was previously a parking lot! This was outrageous given the historic feel of that part of the city. By removing cars from teh city centers, they made their cities far more livable, safe, less polluted, and quieter. I think that being accustomed to quiet cities makes people more aware when it is loud and this brings about the Dutch people's concern about noise pollution.
Although the Dutch do prioritize safety, they also prioritize different modes at different times. This way of thinking seemed so different from how we think in the United States, although I've known about complete streets. We have talked about such things as bike boulevards, but the concept of having many places where cars were not the priority was mind boggling. They have signs marking this all over the place. They have signs showing when you have entered a pedestrian zone, for example. In these areas pedestrians have priority, although other modes can still use the space. They also have fietstrats which are bike streets. Their signs say it is a bike street, but other modes (such as cars) can use them as guests. They also have their roadways with heavy car use and their highways, but they aren't afraid to say that this area will be for another type of mode. I think there would be a lot of fear about doing that here, but could have a great impact on some sections of the city.
Finally, they think in terms of networks. I think we too try to think in terms of networks, but perhaps some political and financial situations make this harder. What is especially interesting about their networks is that they also think on a regional scale. We attempt with out MPOs. It is possible to travel between cities in the Netherlands by train, car, or bicycle. They also think about integrating these modes so that a person can use local networks by bike, regional by train, then local by bike again or however they wish to travel. Their immense network facilitates a lot of this travel.
By prioritizing safety, having spaces where bikes are the priority, and creating extensive networks that are well connected to other modes, the Dutch have built a transportation system that they are proud and that the people connect with and ask for more of.