As we get closer to leaving for the Netherlands, the higher the expectations seem to be getting for this tiny country under the sea. Every day of this week I have read a chapter from John Pucher and Ralph Buehler’s book, City Cycling, and each chapter was an excellent lesson on how much a little effort in design can go towards creating a more sustainable future. It goes both ways though: the more in awe I am of countries like the Netherlands that put effort into making bike infrastructure a priority, the more disappointed I am of my own country, for continuously relegating cyclists and pedestrians as second-class citizens in the hierarchy of the road. In the United States, good pedestrian and bike design is an afterthought.
But this does not mean I am without hope. Every day, I see signs that point to a future with greater considerations for these kinds of elements. Cycling culture is on the rise, suburbanism is losing its appeal, and every young professional I encounter at career fairs is enthusiastic and ready to design solutions to our problems.
Design in the Netherlands can be summed up in the phrase that was shown to us on the first day of the semester: “need for separation”. Dutch design is predicated on the simple fact that motor vehicles and bicycles are not equal, and that bicycles deserve priority and protection on the majority of roads. More road width is dedicated for bicycles. This policy of prioritization both influences and is influenced by a high percentage of travel mode share by bicycle.
Design in the United States is a 180º flip. For the design of roads, bike infrastructure must be integrated with motor vehicle traffic in order to control the speed of both users. It is unsafe for cyclists, and even though it is statistically more dangerous, the perceived risks are even greater, and the result is extremely low bike ridership. Just like in the Netherlands, this in turn influences design, and a cycle of priority relegation ensues.
From my readings I saw two main concerns separating both countries in their efforts to promote non-motorized transportation. The first is perceived safety. From my reading of chapter 7, Cycling Safety, it became clear that citizens are too caught up on the potential risks of cycling that they fail to see the huge health, economic, and environmental benefits that cycling could bring. If we switched our design focus from providing safety to promoting healthy, sustainable communities, perhaps we could begin to see more progress in the United States. Note: when I say switch focus, I do not mean we completely forgot about safety in our design; safety is still a very crucial component that ensures the retention of a high cycling population. What I simply mean is that our talking points for promoting bike/ped infrastructure should go beyond safety.
The second main concern I see with the American approach to design is that there is a lack of trust in governmental institutions to promote change. From reading the Summary National Policy Strategy for Infrastructure and Spatial Planning, published by the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment, there is a great amount of trust between agencies to work concertedly towards a common goal, with this goal typically related to promoting and fostering sustainable communities. From my experience here in Atlanta, I have not seen the level of trust indicative of having the capacity to promote change. This goes for both agencies at the same level of governance and institutions between different levels. There is a lack of synergy between the transportation goals of the city of Atlanta and those of the state of Georgia.
That being said, I am still confident that change can come to Atlanta, and to the rest of the United States. The answers to our problems are available, and can come from anywhere. Our next big solution could come from a citizen of the city, another program in some other part of the country, or outside our borders all together. To tap into that solution, we need to be ready to listen to those outside our cities, and most importantly, learn from them. And boy, are we about to learn!
Links & Readings
Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure –
Dutch Ministry of Transport, Public Works and Water Management–
City Cycling –
Pucher, John and Ralph Buehler. City Cycling. Boston: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2012. Print.