We are less than a week away from our trip to the Netherlands! To help us prepare for the trip Dr. Watkins asked us to read a portion of City Cycling by John Pucher and Ralph Buehler to get an idea of how the United States stacks up against our Western peers in terms of cycling. The portions that we read show the drastic differences in approaches to cycling that exist between Western European nations and North American nations. When looking at the specific differences between the United States and the Netherlands there were two things that stuck out to me, the difference in the approach to cycling infrastructure and the difference in the approach to educate both cyclists and drivers.
In the United States we have historically had an aversion to separated infrastructure while the Dutch have placed a high priority on creating separated infrastructure. Separated meaning completely physically separate facilities for cyclists and drivers. City Cycling cities the vehicular cycling movement as a major reason that United States has shunned separated infrastructure. The movement, which is based on the idea that cyclists must have the same rights as drivers (which fun fact, we don’t) therefore must ride with other vehicle traffic to be safer (another fun fact, it is not), took root in the traffic engineering power circles right as cycling was primed to grow significantly during the 1970s. Of course the Dutch began their move toward separated infrastructure during the 70s and saw massive growth in cycling while the United States and the vehicular cycling movement stagnated growth of cycling in the US.
Outside of just having great infrastructure, City Cycling shed light on how much different the education process around transportation is in the Netherlands when compared to the United States. In the Netherlands, children are taught IN SCHOOL at a young age about how to cycle safely. Police officers come in to provide instruction and they even go out and ride with students to show them about cycling in the real world. In the United States, we have very limited programs about bike safety for children and most are only taught by their parents about cycling. The other difference in education that was striking was how drivers are educated. In Western European countries, and especially in the Netherlands, driver education is much more intensive and expensive. The intensive part includes teaching drivers to be more aware of vulnerable road users, such as cyclists, and the expensive part reduces how many people actually get their licenses. I know from my personal experience with driver education in the United States that we barely even talk about vulnerable users and passing the courses are relatively easy to do. Outside of just increasing cycling and protecting cyclists, I personally don’t believe we require enough education for a license to operate a 2,000 pound piece of machinery. I think the United States lacks in many common sense things that save lives and unfortunately reading City Cycling only helped to confirm that belief.
In addition to reading City Cycling we also read a few Dutch documents that outline policies that they have in place relating to planning and cycling. What I found most striking about these documents was the focus on decentralization. The focus on decentralization goes against what I always here about European governments, they are large and overly controlling and we don’t want our government to be like that. But based on the reading, at least in regards to transportation and cycle planning, the national government in the Netherlands primarily serves as a supporting body and leaves a lot of power in the hands of the lower levels of government. Looking at the United States, we do have some local control at a municipal level but state Departments of Transportation are huge in driving transportation investments. Obviously the Netherlands system is government is different than the United States but I think we can learn a thing or two about not having giving quite as much decision making power to a single, large state agency.