Contrasting American and Dutch Transportation Design
You are a doctor. A sick patient enters your office and asks what illness they have. What is the first question you ask?
“What are your symptoms?”
A similar approach can be used to evaluate transportation planning practices across countries. We must first evaluate the impacts of the differences, and then determine what caused the impacts.
Transportation System Impacts
When asked to contrast the transportation planning and design priorities and processes between the Netherlands and the United States, Figure 1 tell us all we need to know about the final symptoms of each country regarding bicycling. The United States has a 1% and 0.5% bike mode share for all trips and work trips, respectively. The Netherlands experiences 26% bike mode share. With deeper analysis, we find that even the most bike-centric cities in the United States (Davis, CA 15.5%) hardly rival the least bike-oriented cities in the Netherlands (Rotterdam 16%) (Pucher, 2012).
Figure 1: Percent Bike Trips by Country (Harms, 2018)
Transportation Policies and Culture
We must ask ourselves, what caused such a disparity in bike usage between these two countries? Of course we can point to geographic differences. The United States is both more expansive and, in general, hillier than the Netherlands. However, it is necessary to look deeper at the design of Dutch transportation and the transportation policies and culture as it contrasts to the United States’. We often draw a link between car ownership and car-centricity, but the Netherlands disproves that theory. Almost all Dutch households have cars, similar to the United States, but the bike usage numbers are drastically different (Pucher, 2012). In the United States, we see car ownership as a status symbol, whereas the Netherlands does not buy into that culture. They use cars for utility, but if a bike ride serves the same purpose, then a user is not seen as inferior. The higher gasoline retail prices in the Netherlands (about three times the United States’ cost) probably contributes to the higher bike usage as well (Pucher, 2012). European policies also make driving more expensive in concert with the provision of bike infrastructure to drive the shift from car to bike. Safety, a major influencer of a person’s decision to bike, is a priority in the Netherlands, shown by 1/5 as many cyclist fatalities as the United States (Pucher, 2012). Cars and bikes often contradict each other from a safety perspective. If there are more cars nearby, we are less likely to ride our bikes. That is why the United States primarily bikes for pleasure, often driving our cars to secluded trails just to bike. Cycling training for all Dutch children in school contributes to the overall safety of the biking system.
Physical System Design
The Dutch see the separation of modes as a “fundamental principle” to their transportation system, a view that the United States does not share. This has various positive implications like increased safety for both parties, traffic calming measures, and more efficient bike throughput. To summarize the difference, the Dutch bikeway design manual almost never recommends a bike lane in the street with vehicular traffic. In contrast, AASHTO’s Guide for the Development of Bicycle Facilities does not provide criteria for separated facilities, and often rely on narrow bike lanes, sharrows, and signage to accommodate the biking population (Pucher, 2012). AASHTO asserts that comfort and speed of bikers are mutually exclusive. In fact, AASHTO has followed John Forrester’s vehicular cycling (VC) theory, which suggests that bikers are safer in the mix with vehicular traffic rather than separated. Their proclivity to build on street bike infrastructure is a testament to their dedication to the VC principle, as well as the associated budgetary savings (Pucher, 2012). The Dutch do not abide by that theory and design their infrastructure accordingly. Aside from purely providing a safe and comfortable path from point A to B, the Dutch prioritize the integration of their bike network with public transit. From the sea of bike parking at transit stations and ample storage space on busses and trains to the ability to rent bikes at transit stations, the Dutch continuously make it easier to ride a bike (Pucher, 2012). While the United States has progressed in on-transit bike storage in recent years, it is nowhere near the volume to make a significant difference.
Overall, the differences between Dutch and American bikeway design and culture are significant deterrents to bike usage here in the states. But it's better late than never! Some of the more progressive and bike-oriented cities in the United States have started to employ Dutch principles and have seen success and growth in their biking population. We should see those successes as a pilot program and institutionalize changes in our design manuals to better accommodate biking as a real mode of transportation. Once the physical design allows for safe and comfortable travel, our culture will shift.
As transportation planners, we can be the doctors treating our sick patient, the potential for biking in America. We know the symptoms and the causes of the sickness, now we have the opportunity to prescribe a solution.
Harms, L. & Kansen, M. (2018). Cycling Facts [PDF file]. Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management. Retrieved from https://www.government.nl/documents/reports/2018/04/01/cycling-facts-2018
Pucher, J. & Buehler, R. (2012). City Cycling. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.