I really enjoyed starting off my day while in the Netherlands on a bike because I felt much more awake and energized than I usually feel in the US. I honestly miss the comfort of the Dutch paved cycle paths and how smoothly integrated biking and transit were. I am hopeful that the US will see improvements in biking infrastructure.
Infrastructure Design Influences Cyclists
In the US city of Atlanta, cycling makes up 1.4% of all commutes (Atlanta 2017). The city of Rotterdam in the Netherlands is comparable to Atlanta in size and population, and yet about 31% of travel in Rotterdam is by bike (Sutton 2017). US designs are suited for low numbers of cyclists that include narrow bike lanes on already established roads for vehicles, because it is cheaper than creating separate and safer infrastructure for cyclists. If there were safer, more protected bike routes in Atlanta, we might see a higher percentage of travel by bike comparable to that in Rotterdam.
I learned while in the Netherlands that there is always space for cyclists. When roads are predominantly for vehicles, there will be advisory bike lanes, like what you’ll see in the US where cyclists ride on the edges of the roadway. I learned from a city planner in Amsterdam that initially, Dutch designers were putting bike lanes on streets with pedestrians and cars but as the number of cyclists increased, bike lanes were getting widened to the point that it made more sense for cyclists to use the entire street and share it with other traffic modes. This concept was given the name woonerf and typically has no safety infrastructure to guide users. Roads have reduced speeds and the space makes all users cognizant of others, which increases road safety. There may be more near misses, but no serious injuries typically result in these spaces. Both the demand for cycle space and the success of infrastructure design is fascinating.
People enjoy traveling by bicycle in the Netherlands because of short commute distances, because they feel safe biking, and because they are prioritized on the road. I discovered all of these claims to be true during my one-week abroad. Priority is given to cyclists in numerous ways including:
- Timing traffic signals so that when cyclists are present, they get to go first through intersections
- Making cycle routes quicker and more accessible than those for vehicles
- Street markings such as shark teeth that signal cars must yield to cyclists
- Sign posting such as those on a fietsstraat, or bicycle boulevard, where cars are guests on the road
Culture and Design are Intertwined
The Netherlands has a mostly flat landscape which makes it easier and more comfortable to bike daily. Most Dutch people live in urban areas and the small size of the country makes people willing to travel those distances by bike. Additionally, biking infrastructure takes up less space than car infrastructure, such as parking, making cities more livable. Landscape is a major barrier to cycling feasibility in cities like Atlanta that are hilly and sprawled, however we can start making biking friendlier in city centers by completing cycle paths across cities. Not only would this benefit city dwellers, but people that for example travel into the city using MARTA, can bike from trains stations to their work.
Dutch people also bike because driving a car is more expensive. For example, in 2013 the US gas tax was $0.53 per gallon, and $3.79 per gallon in the Netherlands (Pomerleau 2015). Not only is driving a car more expensive, but it’s also more difficult to drive on narrow city streets that are typically shared with bikes, and it is more difficult to find car parking. The inconvenience of driving in the Netherlands is furthered by street utility. Streets that allow cars in cities have reduced speeds to make it friendlier for low stress transportation modes, including walking. If you already have to travel at speeds close to that of a cyclist, why not cycle?
City of Atlanta Department of City Planning. 2017. Annual Bicycle Report. Retrieved from https://www.atlantaga.gov/home/showdocument?id=34089
Sutton, M. (2017). Netherlands further builds on cycling’s modal share, hitting 51% in Utrecht [Web Article]. Retrieved from https://cyclingindustry.news/netherlands-further-builds-on-cyclings-modal-share-hitting-51-in-utrecht/
Pomerleau, K. (2015). How High are Other Nations’ Gas Taxes? [Web Article]. Retrieved from https://taxfoundation.org/how-high-are-other-nations-gas-taxes/