Lessons from the Low Lands: 10 impediments to bicycling in the United States

After two weeks traveling throughout the Netherlands,  I have found my research bothered by a nagging but necessary question…

How can a successful model of bicycling infrastructure be adapted from a Dutch to an American context given the obvious and glaring differences between the two countries?

Therein lies the question I have sought to answer. It will not be easy.

In order to qualify my enthusiasm for the Dutch bicycling infrastructure thus far, I have prepared a list of ten impediments to the widespread practical usage of the bicycle as a means of transportation in the United States:

First. Terrain. Topography. Climate.

The Netherlands is flat. Denmark is relatively flat. The United States is not flat.

In spite of the European predilection to think of the US as a homogeneous mass of frontier-bound, loud-mouthed conservatives, it is in truth quite a nuanced land, politically as well topographically. Cities that could foster a successful cycling culture, like San Francisco, often have topographies unsuited to bicycling, while others that are relatively flat, like Houston, are culturally averse to it. Climatically, moreover, much of the United States deals with the extremes- cold and snowy winters and hot and sweaty summers. These factors, compounded by the long distances and decentralized development of much of the country, deter many potential American bicyclists.

Second. Sprawl.

The Netherlands is an incredibly dense place. Not only has the government been careful to preserve the country’s precious agricultural hinterland, but the Ranstad, with a population comprising almost 7 million people, has a very high population density. With space at a premium, even the suburbs are densely built. That makes the country an ideal place for short trips by bicycle.

With the exception of a handful of cities, most metro regions in the United States were laid out and designed with the primacy of the automobile in mind. That means that suburbs and subdivisions have since the advent of the commuter highway been calculated with driving times and distances taken into account, as opposed to walking or biking ones. Any potential bicycling infrastructure in the United States would need to cover these longer distances and compete with the country’s advanced and convenient road network.

Third. Infrastructure and Facilities.

If temperature, topography, and distance do not phase the American bicycle commuter, then a lack of infrastructure and facilities ought to. Many US regions lack cycling paths and lanes altogether, and oftentimes, highways or other infrastructural boundaries make bicycling (or for that matter, walking) impossible, especially if you work in an office park off the interstate. Bicycle parking and shower facilities, moreover, tend to be a lacking ingredient in the US, whereas these are a consistent complement to the bicycling infrastructure of the Netherlands or Denmark.

Fourth. Critical Mass

As cities like New York or Minneapolis are quickly realizing, the installation of painted bicycle lanes is not enough to deter cars or pedestrians from invading that space. A critical mass of bicyclists is a necessary element to make an infrastructure successful. In Amsterdam, for example, if a major street lacked a bike lane, it would still have enough bicyclists using it at rush hour to create a de facto bicycle lane. This is a classic chicken-and-egg dilemma. Without bicyclists, a city has less cause to justify building infrastructure, but without the necessary infrastructure, a city cannot attract a bicycle population to make streets safe.

Fifth. Culture. Upbringing.

The cultural differences between the US and the Netherlands represents a lengthy and complex topic. In the realm of bicycling however, several major differences come to mind.

First of all, the Dutch are practically born on bicycles. Kids ride a bicycle as early as their coordination possibly allows, which is four or five years old. Parents in the Netherlands (and Denmark for that matter) also tend to give their kids a bit more of leash than in the United States. The philosophy I have observed is one of “learn by making mistakes” as opposed to “learn and do not veer off course in the process.” That’s not to say that the Dutch are hoping for their kids to get hooked on drugs so that they won’t do them when they are older, but independence does seem to come at an earlier age here. An integral element of that independence is owning and commuting by bicycle.

Sixth. Car culture. Bicyclists as a special interest group.

People in the United States are proud of their cars. The automobile is almost as enmeshed in our culture as bicycling is for the Dutch. The United States Interstate System, moreover, is one of the great wonders of the world, and we should be proud of it. Where things begin to go too far is when people starting banking, eating, and shopping at the drive-thru. Its regressive and sad.

In the US, bicycling is considered a special interest activity, a hobby for a financial analyst to take up and so spend his afternoons riding around backroads in spandex. If bicycling were regarded as a real form of daily transportation, people might be more willing to look into how a real, permanent infrastructure for it could be funded and developed.

Seventh.  Funding

Speaking of funding (nothing fun about it I think), the Dutch have high taxes. Very high taxes. Given that much of the country’s economy is devoted to the logistics of transport- moving goods from one port or city to another, it isn’t surprising that the effect trickles down all the way to the bicycle paths. With a high population density and regular, major investment in roads, there is no surprise that the bicycling infrastructure is as impressive as it is.

When roads in the Netherlands are redone, so are bicycling paths. They are viewed as a permanent, necessary part of the country’s infrastructure.

Eighth. Policy.

Policy is perhaps the trickiest piece of the puzzle and one of the least understood. Dutch government policies support bicycle commuting and culture. It is viewed as integral to the national identity and prized as a work of infrastructure and development.

Policies in the United States, though not explicitly geared against bicyclists, certainly do not wholly support them. Precious few dollars are invested in bicycling infrastructure, often only at a municipal level. Car commuting, moreover, is highly subsidized. As compared to Europe, gas is relatively cheap, getting a license cheap and easy (for most), and driving around care-free. Whereas drivers in the Netherlands or Denmark cannot get a license until age 18, United States teenagers yearn to get their permit at age 16, an age when many would argue adolescents are neither mature or sensible enough to responsibly drive.

Ninth. Multi-modal transportation network.

The Netherlands has one of the most impressive and efficient rail networks in all Europe. Trains leave from Rotterdam to Amsterdam nearly every twenty minutes and are usually on time. With such an impressive rail system, many people commute by bicycle only to the nearest railway station. Though this type of model might be applicable for certain cities in the US, primarily on the coasts, most metro regions lack a rail infrastructure of such quality, if rail is an option at all.

Tenth. Culture of Exercise.

The culture of exercise and activity in the US is biased towards the young. People tend to play a sport at school or for a team through their high school years, but afterwards take up a solitary exercise routine that deteriorates as they grow busier and less flexible in their schedules. Exercise becomes a burden, and a dusty treadmill is a common sight in many an American basement.

In the Netherlands and Denmark, in addition to routine bicycling, people often belong to sports clubs well beyond their illustrious youth. Soccer, kayaking, or running clubs of varying ages are a common sight here. Even though these do exist in the US, participation appears to be more widespread here.

Please feel free to add to my list or comment on anything I have said, whether you agree or disagree. My thoughts continue to evolve as I observe Dutch bicycling habits and reflect back on the situation in the United States.

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5 Responses to Lessons from the Low Lands: 10 impediments to bicycling in the United States

  1. For some time now, I’ve been working through the list of excuses that people make for why cycling can’t happen in their country.

    I don’t think the impediments that you list are much different. The density is very often over-stated. Do you realise that the areas of the Netherlands which have the highest cycling rates are often the least dense, and that they’re less dense than many American states and cities? ?

    Also try visiting Limburg in the South of the Netherlands. It’s quite hilly, yet has a cycling rate significantly higher than flat areas in other countries. The capital of Limburg has a high cycling rate by world standards, and they’re working to increase it.

    The cost of the cycling network in the Netherlands is perhaps less than you think. It costs only around 30 euros per person per year. Less than the cost of a tankful of gas.

    Speaking of “gas”, yes that is more expensive here than in the USA. However, it’s not significantly more expensive than it is in the UK, and the UK has exactly the same low cycling rate as the USA does.

    You could view the Randstad as one of the bigger areas of sprawl in the world. The Netherlands has plenty of people who live a longer distance from their work. This is the reason why much effort is being put into encouraging longer distance cycling commuting in the Netherlands, by building inter city bicycle highways. There are plenty of suburbs consisting of larger and more spread out houses, from which people cycle.

    Really, distances are not the issue: 40% of American journeys are under 2 miles, but 90% of those short journeys are made by car.

    To summarise, I think it’s too easy to rationalize why it is that the cycling rate in one country is higher than another. My belief is that it comes down to exactly one thing: how attractive a proposition cycling is. In the Netherlands we have the best cycling infrastructure in the world, leading to cyclists having a higher degree of subjective safety than anywhere else in the world. This means that people in general view cycling as a perfectly reasonable thing to do. They also view it as a perfectly reasonable thing for their partners and their children to do, as well as for their parents and grandparents. Cycling is accessible and attractive to everyone.

    • dev2103 says:

      Thank you for your comments on this post. I think they have the potential to generate a really interesting debate.
      First of all, let me apologize for not including number eleven on my list, which is “a culture of excuse-making.” It is a kind of specialty in America, and I think we are quite skilled at it myself.

      You make some fair points, but I am still not convinced. I would liken cycling in the United States to a symphony playing to an empty room. Without all the instruments, it doesn’t sound quite right, but without the audience, no one can pay for the violinist, the tuba player, and the composer.

      The Netherlands already had the audience. Even though its bicycling infrastructure has seen tremendous investment and enhancement over the last several decades, the country had an usually high level of cycling to begin with. This infrastructure in many ways solved an existing traffic problem (that of bicyclists riding in the same area with cars), as opposed to creating a cycling populous from scratch. (I need only refer to Rotterdam’s Maas Tunnel, which was constructed with an entirely separate bicycle and pedestrian tunnel on top of car traffic in the late 1930s and early 1940s.)
      For people in the United States (and elsewhere of course), driving is second nature. Even if a person had to drive only two or three minutes to pick up milk and bread, they would still take a car. Thats what feels natural, safe, and easy, just like cycling in the Netherlands.

      The reality is that to make cycling an attractive proposition will require the participation of a complex ensemble of lawmakers, government officials, funding partners, and ordinary citizens. It is never only a question of hills or gas prices or culture. Each is just one part of the problem.

      I would like to address your points one by one.
      1. Density
      Even if the density in certain parts of the United States is over-stated, that doesn’t change the nature of development from being one that is car-oriented. A professor of mine once referred to the United States as a landscape of disparate fragments. The most convenient way to reach the Burger King next to the IHOP may be walking, but the only way that is indicated is by car. The problem is not just density, but accessibility. Office parks in the Netherlands are connected to regional and local bicycle networks. Even if people do not use them, the option is there. For many in the United States who might like to bicycle to work, even in an extremely dense city like Boston or New York, the spatial development of the city or region has precluded that option.

      2. Topography
      Topography is never a make or break factor when it comes to cycling. The state of Oregon, and especially the cities of Portland and Eugene, has comparatively high rates of cycling to places in the country that are much flatter. This is largely because Oregon (at least western Oregon) tends to attract people with a flair for the outdoors. Portland, moreover, is an incredibly young and vibrant city. Even if the bicycle paths weren’t there, there would be a substantial cycling community based on culture and demographics.

      3. Gas
      If gas prices go up in the US, most people would try carpooling before bicycling to work. If gas prices went up in the US and the country invested millions of dollars in creating bicycle networks, most people would demand better public transportation instead of better bicycling facilities. Bicycle commuting may be making some progress in certain cities, but for the most part, it is not really viewed as an option. If firms, schools, and businesses incentivized bicycle commuting in some way, then people might consider the idea. Even then, without the infrastructure or appropriate marked routes, most people would not know where to begin.

      4. Sprawl
      Now that I have tried many of the Netherlands’ new intercity bicycle highways, I am curious to know their user demographics. My hunch is, at least for anything over 10-15 km, there is a bias towards men between the ages of 20-55, many of whom wear spandex, and then take a shower when they get to work. (I’ll qualify that statement by admitting that I have seen these highways being used by a good number of school children, so perhaps their usage has a more complex demographic than I am willing to admit.)

      5. Short distances
      2 miles in New York, 2 miles in Houston, and 2 miles in the Ranstad can mean a lot of different things. For many places in the United States, reaching a small convenient store is not as easy as it looks from a car window. Moreover, there is something to be said for psychological distance versus physical distance, as places awkwardly spaced apart may feel farther than they really are.

      I agree. Too many excuses have been made for why the US isn’t suited to cyclists and not enough for why it is. Many regions in the US are already fertile ground for better cycling infrastructure and investment. Others, for a variety of regions, will never be able to support cycling populations.

      I think that how to make cycling an attractive proposition is a question with many answers for many different regions. For some, the incentive for bicycling may be health-based, for others, a way to save money, and for still others, a simple matter of convenience. All of these still rely on the actions and enthusiasm of policy makers and politicians, who need to take bolder steps to accommodate them with safer infrastructure and better facilities, as well as ordinary consumers who must realize that the option to walk and bicycle comfortably to places 2 miles from their home, sadly does not exist. This is the challenge we face in the United States. I believe it is a surmountable one, but there are, and will always be, plenty of excuses.

      • I’m British, and can assure you that British people are just as good at making excuses as Americans are.

        I think you’re absolutely right that 2 miles in the USA (or in the UK where I come from) is completely different from 2 miles in the Netherlands. “Car oriented development” has a lot to answer for. It makes cycling a lot more difficult. The same kind of thing has been done in the UK, and areas there which are more densely populated than most of the Netherlands have a negligible cycling rate. Roads becoming the domain of the the motorcar resulted in a drop off of the cycling culture in Britain which was very steep indeed, from quite a high level of high cycle up to around 50 years ago. The difference in what otherwise identical streets now look like speaks volumes.

        On the other hand, cycling is so easy in NL, that longer distances don’t seem like longer distances. I think this is part of the reason why it’s commonly assumed in English speaking countries that the Dutch only make short journeys. They just don’t have to struggle in the same way to make their journeys, and as a result it’s not seen as particularly special. I take it you realise that 15% of all journeys in the Netherlands between 7.5 km and 15 km in length are made by bike – a percentage higher than for short journeys in almost every other country.

        Some of the longer distance commuters do tend more towards spandex. However, not all. I have a 30 km each way commute, and I know (from sight at least, and shouting hello) of some of the others who do the same. It’s about 50:50. Some do this on quite normal looking town bikes at a not particularly high speed. They simply set off a bit earlier than the faster ones.

        Secondary school children (age 10/11 upwards) actually ride much further than you might expect. It’s not unusual at all for a child to ride unaccompanied 20 km to get to school and the same to get back home again. In fact, many villages have only primary schools, and there are no “school buses”, so there’s not really much of a choice at secondary school age

        I showed one of the local school routes from a village 8.5 km from the nearest school on my blog a little while ago. Conditions are made such that this is a relatively easy thing to do, and just as importantly, an easy thing for parents to allow their children to do. The routes are also kept open in winter so that you find the school cycle racks full whatever the weather.

        I do take your point about the “empty room”. It makes it very difficult to convince people. It takes a lot to make people enter such unfamiliar territory. That’s why merely tweaking the price of gas isn’t enough. It’ll make people complain, but it won’t make them change the habit they’re used to.

  2. Baird says:

    I have to agree with you on pretty much every single difference you draw between the States and Denmark/the Netherlands. So I guess the biggest question I have for you, which is one I wrestle with, is where do we start? What’s the easiest thread to untangle from the knot? I thought we were going somewhere in the summer of 2008, when a spike in gas prices suddenly boosted transit ridership and dropped the number of miles driven, but apparently as a nation we’ve largely adjusted to higher prices (just not shocks, which are more temporary). I wonder if there’s a simple economic mechanism like that–like adjusting the gas tax for inflation or simply putting higher taxes on gas for environmental damage or that sort of thing. But the political push-back is so intense, which makes me think a shift in culture is most important…but how do you think that happens?

    • dev2103 says:

      A major shift in culture and behavior is not on the immediate horizon. I always like to draw the link to post-embargo Cuba. After the imposition of severe economic constraints, the average Cuban citizen lost something like fifteen or twenty pounds, had to radically shift their diet, and oftentimes alter their mode of transportation. That was a massive adaptation, but it isn’t one I think the US will be pressured to endure too soon.

      A the highest level, there needs to a coalition of three major bodies (in addition to everyday consumers) that begin to enact these sorts of change.

      1. Government.
      Public officials need to be enthused and motivated about making changes to the way Americans do transportation. That means politicians have to shy from the temptation of running campaigns based on short-term goals to gain election, while bureaucrats need to look at bicycling and other forms of transportation as a permanent investment in infrastructure and start envisioning projects 25 or 30 years down the line.
      Without the necessary changes in policy, precipitated by a shift in the culture and priorities of bureaucracy, that is not likely to occur.

      2. Business and Industry
      One of the major hurdles to creating a bicycling infrastructure and culture is the amazing amount of investment already based in the automobile industry. A large scale shift in the way people run errands, get to work, and go to school would not only undermine the profitability of that industry, but might even be attacked as un-American by its detractors. If business, advertising, and industry can support bicycling and other alternative transport options, then there may yet be hope for its advancement.

      3. The academic world
      I would argue that there is already a strong push for better bicycling and transport options emanating from the universities. Still, the research which proves that these modes of transportation are more viable, better for our health, happiness, and economy, can influence the former two camps supporting a measure or not.

      The fourth body, consumers, will react to the changes and limits put forth by the former three. Bicycling advocacy groups and other similar associations can of course make a tremendous difference at the early stages, but without real fiscal and government support and policy changes, their efforts are for naught.

      I definitely believe that there are solutions to start creating a bicycling culture, as well as “beyond the automobile” culture in general.

      1. Pilot programs. Incentives.
      Firms, school systems, and even elderly facilities need to incentivize healthy transportation options. Even in the Netherlands, where cycling is almost ubiquitous, the government has subsidized commuters who are using several of the country’s newly built bicycle superhighways on certain pilot routes. I think that a similar pilot project could be developed for certain school districts, business or elderly facilities, in conjunction with infrastructural improvements and signage.

      2. Permanent Infrastructure
      In my opinion, one of the reasons people do not always use certain transport options is because they do not feel tangible. Buses are a perfect example. Whereas most people have a pretty decent idea of a city’s train network- its various colored and numbered lines, stops, and routes- bus networks tend to be more of a mystery except to their daily users. The cues created for trains are simply more legible, tangible and accessible to the commuter. I believe that bicycling infrastructure can adopt a similar strategy, dedicating certain primary, connected routes with good signage, parking, maps, and even possible share facilities. Sub-routes will of course be necessary and indicated, but the main pathways need to feel like part of a permanent integrated transport system.

      3. Thinking beyond the car
      Bicycling is wonderful, but in certain areas I really don’t believe it is feasible. That said, the cycling infrastructure in the Netherlands is used by more than just bicyclists. Mopeds, scooters, tiny (Steve Urkel) cars, skaters, joggers, and elderly electric movers often share this space as well. This creates a new hierarchy of transport and opens up the potential for innovation within that space. A lot is already being done to promote small car-sharing programs in the US and elsewhere. The infrastructure in the Netherlands proves that creating a new space for transportation does not only permit better bicycle usage, but also opens the door to further transportation innovation. Who knows, maybe one day we will all be taking Segways to the grocery store.

      The reality is, the United States, for reasons of health, economy, and sustainability, needs to diversify its transportation hierarchy. The three lane highway with no sidewalk is neither livable nor something to be proud of. Personally, I think that a sterling bicycling infrastructure would be a major boon to quality of life. It will take a lot more than bicycles, however, to solve the issues that the United States is struggling with. It is important that we begin, as many European and Asian countries have already, to tangibly innovate and experiment with these, before we fall too far behind.

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