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.
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.
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.
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.