By Annie Blissit
Our Romanian tour guide, Cornelia, from Sustainable Amsterdam put it best when she said that sometimes tours in the Netherlands are better from an outsider’s perspective. What people from other parts of the world know all too well is that the Netherlands is an unrivaled example of sustainable transportation. What the Dutch may often take for granted, having been exposed to this lifestyle since birth and having learned to ride bikes at an unusually young age, is truly remarkable to outsiders.
Another point, suggested by our hosts in Utrecht, is that while the Netherlands has historically been very good about sustainable infrastructure and bicycling, the relatively newfound attention from other countries seeking guidance has called for the Dutch to take a closer look at their own system and what makes it so wonderful. This has led to a sort of a bicycle renaissance, even in the Netherlands.
These points truly speak to the Dutch culture regarding transportation. Just as Americans typically do not second guess using their personal, single-occupancy vehicle to travel long distances to work, the Dutch instinct is set to use active transport locally and rely on trains and public transit for longer journeys. That is not to say the Dutch don’t use cars. Many people, including those in areas served well by transit, own and use cars. Cars are just seen as one option and in many cases are not the most convenient option available.
The US has a lot to learn from the Dutch regarding planning. In many cases in America, it feels that we are always behind the curve, retroactively planning. I think there is a lot more America can do with its zoning process and connectivity planning to facilitate more strategic, well-thought-out, livable cities. I believe now is a prime time for this mentality and approach in America. Perhaps due to my young age, but I think the current level of interest in bicycles, transit, and walkability is unprecedented for American cities.
Safety, comfort and convenience are three components to making bicycling a true alternative to other modes of transportation. From my experience, the Dutch truly make it the more convenient option to use alternate modes of transportation. Driving and parking cars in many locations seemed like a nightmare. Even where possible, the bike could get you so much closer, so much quicker. Safety and comfort are sometimes a balancing act when it comes to bicycles, but at the end of the day, the safety standards of the Dutch system put American infrastructure to shame. With all three traits, one important component is separation. The Dutch have proved that the bike does not always need to be separated but have shown that it is neither truly a car nor truly a pedestrian and in many cases deserves priority or its own infrastructure.
For transit, two crucial traits are convenience and reliability. Convenience may mean focusing on the last mile connectivity and strategic planning and zoning around transit accessibility. Reliability speaks to frequency of trip times and likelihood of delays. If people do not trust their system, the negative experience will deter many from use.
Since use and funding are typically contingent on each other, the decrease in one can create a negative feedback loop in decreasing the other. For either mode, bicycles or transit, as these qualities (safety, convenience, etc.) are met, the use of these systems will increase. With the increasing use, these modes will increase in safety, prominence, and hopefully funding. This is the opposite, positive feedback loop American cities are waiting for; it just needs to be triggered.