By Annie Blissit
There is a reason that the bike share of trips is 1% in the United States and 26% in the Netherlands (Pucher 2012). In the Netherlands, the highest percent of trips by cycling are made by those younger than 17. Also notable is that the third highest percent of trips by cycling are made by those older than 65. There are many differences between the US and Netherlands- including terrain, travel distance, and density- that present challenges to bicycling in the US; however, when studying cities, where density and trip distance limit deterrents, the challenge becomes more related to the infrastructure design.
Designing infrastructure for safety is imperative for encouraging cycling. This is particularly true for children, women, and the elderly. From 2004 to 2008, cycling fatality rates in the Netherlands were one-fifth of those in the US. Injury rates in the Netherlands were one-twentieth of those of the US during the same time. Many components are important to cycling safety including education, signage, speed limits, and separation. In the Netherlands, separation is the foundation for bicycle infrastructure. Cars and bicycles can share roads with low speed limits but once this exceeds 20 mph, it is deemed unsafe to combine the two and there will be dedicated infrastructure for bicycles.
In the US, the concept of separation is in stark contrast to the vehicular cycling theory. This theory supports that bicyclists are safer when acting as cars than if separated. This cycling theory only seems to stand ground when intersections are not designed safely for all users. US cyclists see separated infrastructure as a threat to their right to the road. However, I argue that these cyclists are very experienced and comfortable with riding alongside vehicles and that this mentality is not representative of the larger pool of would-be cyclists. Since American standards are developed using American data, the deterrence from separated cycling infrastructure has become a self-fulfilling prophecy in that we discount the data available and proven in Europe for our scarce or unideal local data. Thankfully, cities have pushed back on this theory in recent years and are implementing more and more protected infrastructure.
Policy is another important driver to cycling use. While national policies can encourage cycling, the most effective strategies occur at the local level. In successful cycling countries like the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany, most households own a car; however, policies deter the excessive use of one. In the Netherlands, there are high taxes on fuel and new car purchases. When cars began to dominate the Dutch culture in the 1950s and 1960s, the increasing pollution, congestion and number of accidents spurred the population to demand restrictions on driving. Thus began car-free Sundays. Removing the car for even just one day let people experience the safe roads before fully committing to an infrastructure change. This “pop-up” mentality has increased in popularity in the US and could be a key to easing shifts in public support for better bicycle infrastructure and pro-bicycle policy.
To take the potential success of bike infrastructure and truly grow its impact, the logical connection is the integration of bicycles and public transportation. This connection particularly assists with the challenges of American terrain and travel distances. Public transport can be an alternative for inclement weather or for attacking the longer, hillier portions of trips while still providing access to your bicycle for local portions. For non-transit-oriented developments, bicycles connect homes and offices to trains without the use of vehicles. In the Netherlands, it is common to see bicycle markings on the doors to the trains for designated bike cars. This system makes it easy to bike from your home to the train, take the train to the next city and continue your journey by bike to your destination. The Netherlands also concentrates its bike parking and bike share stations at train stations for those that prefer this trip continuity without bringing their own bike aboard.
Having safer, separated, and well-designed infrastructure for cyclists promotes the use of this infrastructure by a much larger portion of the population than with vehicular cycling theory. With better infrastructure will come the masses, as continuously seen in the US. With the masses comes safer cycling in numbers and the safety factor will continue to grow. This active transport culture also promotes a healthier lifestyle through ingrained exercise and time spent outdoors. These health benefits have been seen to far outweigh the cost of the infrastructure itself. Policies should be made to encourage alternate means of transportation and to ensure safer design of intersections. With increasing passage of local transportation funding programs, trust is beginning to grow between the people and their officials when it comes to infrastructure. I believe the people within cities will be willing to pay more as long as the city is successfully bringing safe, valuable opportunities for active transportation.