What we can learn from the Dutch about biking and cities

Bicycling was in a death spiral, and Amsterdam asked an American to help plan a freeway through the heart of the city. Then came the oil crisis, and the Dutch consciously set out to make biking easy.

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A bike parking lot in Amsterdam: Part of the Dutch success with biking is from planning to make it easy to use a bicycle.

Bicycling was in a death spiral, and Amsterdam asked an American to help plan a freeway through the heart of the city. Then came the oil crisis, and the Dutch consciously set out to make biking easy.

I joined a team of latter-day explorers in the Netherlands this month on a quest to discover what American communities can learn from the Dutch about transforming bicycling in the United States from the largely recreational pastime it is today to an integral part of our transportation system.

Patrick Seidler, vice-chairman of the Bikes Belong Foundation, sponsor of this fact-finding mission for transportation officials from the San Francisco Bay Area, announced we were in search of the "27 percent solution" — the health, environmental, economic, and community benefits gained in a nation where more than a quarter of all daily trips are made on bicycle.

Of course, the bicycle enjoys certain advantages in the Netherlands, notably a flat landscape and a long cycling tradition.

But the idea of learning from the success of the Dutch is not far-fetched. The Netherlands resembles the United States as a prosperous, technologically advanced nation where a huge share of the population owns automobiles. But they don’t drive their cars each and every time they leave home — thanks to common sense transportation policies where biking and transit are promoted as an attractive alternative.

Our trip started in Utrecht, where our group marveled at the parade of bicyclists swooshing past on bikeways separated from the streets. Immediately, we were asking each other: This raised the immediate question among for us: Why is biking a way of life in the Netherlands and only a tiny portion of the transportation picture in U.S.?

We uncovered a big piece of the answer that afternoon at a suburban primary school, where Principal Peter Kooy told us that 95 percent of older students — kids in the 10-12 age range — bike to school at least some of the time. Compare that to the 15 percent who either walk or bike to school in the United States, down, alarmingly, from 50 percent in 1970, according to the National Center for Safe Routes to School program.

That statistic alone helps explain the childhood obesity epidemic in the U.S., and also why so few adult Americans today ride a bike to work or to do errands — a mere 1 percent of daily trips.

The success of cycling in the Netherlands can be attributed to what happens in school. A municipal program in Utrecht sends special teachers into the schools to conduct bike classes, and students go to Trafficgarden, a miniature city complete city with roads, sidewalks and busy intersections where students hone their pedestrian, biking, and driving skills (in non-motorized pedal cars).

These kinds of programs would make a huge difference in the United States, where 60 percent of people tell pollsters they would like to bike regularly if they felt safer — but only 8 percent actually do.

A commitment to biking is not uniquely imprinted in the Dutch DNA. It is the result of a conscious push that began in the 1970s. As Hillie Talens of C.R.O.W. (a transportation organization focusing on infrastructure and public space) reminded us, it took the Dutch 35 years to construct the ambitious bicycle system we see today. In the mid-1970s biking was at a low point in the country and declining fast. Even Amsterdam turned to an American for a plan to rip an expressway through its beautiful central city. But the oil crises of that time convinced the country that they needed to lessen their dependence on imported oil.

The Dutch gradually turned things around by embracing a different vision for their cities. While the country’s wealth, population, and levels of car ownership have continued to grow through the decades, the share of trips made by cars has not.

We could accomplish something similar in the United States, by enacting new plans to make urban cycling safer, easier — and absolutely mainstream. The morning and evening rush hour of cyclists in the Netherlands are not all the young, white, male ultra-fit athletes in spandex we are accustomed to seeing in the U.S. People of all ages and income levels use bicycles for everyday transportation, with more women biking than men.

"It's one thing to read statistics about the Dutch biking," observed David Chiu, president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. "It's another thing to see it happening; not just for hard-core bicyclists but as an everyday way of life for the majority of citizens. There is actually a road map of do-able public policies we can adopt to get us where the Dutch are today."

Ed Reiskin, San Francisco’s Director of Public Works, added, "They don't just think about bikes. Every presentation we heard tied things together — public transit, parking, cars, streets. The Dutch sense that people are going to do what's easiest. If we think about how to improve the quality of biking, more people will bike."

Bicycling is popular not only in the charming, old-fashioned centers of Dutch cities, but in newly built suburban areas as well. We caught a glimpse of a hopeful future for the world's cities on Java Island, a cluster of neighborhoods constructed over the past 10 years in what was once the Amsterdam's harbor. Motorized traffic is shunted to the side of each cluster of apartment buildings in underground parking garages, while pedestrians and bicyclists reign on the courtyards that link people's homes.

You feel a liberating sense of ease in these new neighborhoods. I've never seen kids — even really young ones — who look so completely comfortable running around. We passed two sets of young girls staging tea parties, one of them on a blanket just inches from the joint biking/walking trail that served as the neighborhood’s main street.

Amsterdam city council member Fjodor Molenaar, who met up with us on Java Island, explained that the Dutch call this an "Auto Luw" development, which translates as "car light" or "car sparse," adding that this planning idea is now the official policy of the city.

This article was distributed by Citiwire.net.


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