In advance of our upcoming trip to the Netherlands, we’ve been tasked with reading several chapters of John Pucher and Ralph Buehler’s book, City Cycling. City Cycling covers several topics related to biking, from infrastructure to policy, and gives a general overview of the state of cycling in the United States, the Netherlands, and beyond. For this week’s post, I’ve picked some key passages that help paint the differences between the cycling scene in the United States and the Netherlands:
Cycling as a transportation mode-choice
“The Dutch, Danes, and Germans cycle for much higher percentages of trips than Americans and Britons over all distance categories” (Pucher & Bueler 2012).
- For trips under 2.5 km (~1.6 miles): Across all modes of transportation, this trip distance makes up approximately 40% of trips in the Netherlands compared to 30% of trips in the US. Given this distance, Americans will use their bikes 2% of the time, compared to the Dutch using their bikes 29% of the time.
- For trips between 2.5 & 4.5 km (~1.6 miles – 2.8 mi): Americans choose their bikes for just under 2% of these trips, compared to the Dutch who use their bikes 35% of the time.
“More than 60 percent of bike trips in the United States are for recreational purposes, compared to 27 percent in the Netherlands” (Pucher & Bueler 2012).
The statistics above reveal that cycling is truly thought of as a mode of transportation in the Netherlands. This is due to the thorough connectivity of bicycle infrastructure in the Netherlands. In the US, getting from point A to point B using bicycle-specific infrastructure takes serious planning. There is no “get up and go,” but instead, there is a carefully mapped out route that most likely still has gaps where cyclists are traveling alongside high-speed traffic.
The Netherlands: “In many European countries, including the Netherlands, cyclists’ need for separation from fast, heavy traffic is considered a fundamental principle of road safety. This policy has led to systematic traffic calming on local streets, and along busier streets, the provision of a vast network of cycle tracks” (Pucher & Bueler 2012).
The US: “AASHTO has no criteria regarding when cyclists should be separated from fast or heavy traffic. There is no limit to the traffic speed or number of lanes for which a road may have bike lanes or even be designated as a “shared roadway” (Pucher & Bueler 2012).
Note: AASHTO is the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials and is responsible for establishing design guidelines for roadways throughout the US.
In the Netherlands, any two-lane roadway with speeds over 19 mph requires a bike lane or cycle track. Furthermore, any four-lane roadway over 19 mph requires a complete separation from vehicular traffic. Not only does the Netherlands have policies for establishing bicycle infrastructure on every street, but the Netherlands also releases their design manual (called the CROW Manual) in several languages as guidance for other countries who may want to follow suit.
Although the Dutch design manuals are beneficial, without guidance from US agencies like AASHTO, engineers have a hard time justifying innovative bicycle infrastructure. As a design engineer in Detroit, I was at times guilty of “blindly” following roadway manuals, but I would counter that a manual has been standardized for just that purpose. National support will help provide a foundation to garner local support, and the current outlook of such support in the US is bleak. That’s not to say some improvements haven’t already taken place. The National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) released new design guides for bicycle-appropriate infrastructure that mimic Euro-style infrastructure. AASHTO is set to release additional guidelines for bicycle-specific infrastructure in their next design handbook as well.
Integration with transit
City Cycling goes on to discuss the importance of integration between transit and cycling. Cycling is simply not feasible for some trips, but by linking transit with cycling, people can ditch their cars for alternate modes of transportation. What does it mean to integrate transit use with bikes? Below are some examples:
- Add bike parking at rail and bus stops
- Establish provisions for taking bikes on board trains and buses
- Offer bike rental facilities near public transportation stops
- Coordinate bike routes with public transportation
Some cities in the US are already following some of these steps. Chicago is offering a plethora of bicycle parking at transit stops and San Francisco has incorporated “bike-only” transit cars for cyclists. The Netherlands, however, has incorporated nearly all of these elements rather than picking and choosing between integration techniques.
Lastly, some food for thought:
“Cities with the highest bike mode shares have the safest cycling; and cities with the lowest bike mode shares have the most dangerous cycling. It is likely that causation runs in both directions: safer cycling encourages more cycling, and more cycling encourages greater safety” (Pucher & Bueler 2012)
Cities such as Portland, OR or Davis, CA, have shown that people do want to cycle in the US when proper infrastructure is in place. Almost any city that features European-like bicycle infrastructure has seen increases in cycling participation. We do not have to get rid of our cars, but instead, we must prioritize bicycle infrastructure. Cities can only do so much to advocate for cycling without national support. The Netherlands implemented bicycle policies country-wide, and after acceptance became widespread, best practice for cycling infrastructure became law. Given the issues cities face today (equity, transportation congestion, vehicular emissions and lack of funding for major infrastructure projects), we have very little to lose by implementing more bicycle infrastructure.
Pucher, J.R., & Bueler, R. (2012). City cycling. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.