A recent trip to one of my favorite cities in the world, Amsterdam, got me thinking about bicycle culture and how bikes, cars, and pedestrians can coexist.
Can it work in our cities?
Bike Culture in Amsterdam and the Netherlands (and Denmark)
One of the places on earth most accepting of bicycles on the streets is Amsterdam, as well as most of the country it is in, the Netherlands. Another bike-centric culture is in Denmark.
How did they get that way?
In the Netherlands, specifically in the cities like Amsterdam, in the 1970s the city centers were clogged with cars, smog, and other offshoots of car culture that made these cities less than wonderful to live in. (If you’re old like I am, you remember that decade; if not, it was a time without social media, HDTV, smart phones, or K-pop, let alone answering machines, faxes, or email. You can judge for yourself whether we’ve progressed or not.) There had been discussion of filling in canals and building highways to make it easier for cars to navigate Amsterdam, but fortunately there was huge pushback and this never happened.
City leaders decided to aim to reduce or eliminate motor vehicles from cities whenever possible. Among the moves they made were adding dedicated bike lanes, enacting high taxes for motor vehicles within specified zones, and decreasing available parking.
There was even signage proclaiming “fiets straat auto te gast,” which translates to “cars are guests.”
And guests, of course, should not act like they own the place.
One city, Utrecht, essentially banned all cars from the city center. In 2019, Utrecht built a huge bike parking lot that can accommodate over 12,500 bikes!
As of 2018, over 27% of all trips in the Netherlands were made by bike (18% in Denmark), well over five times the percentage in France or the United Kingdom at about 3-5%. The U.S. percentage of trips made by bike was only about 1%!
How They Built a “Bicycle Culture”
Well, the first thing they did was build lots of bike-only lanes. One of the most significant things you will see in the Netherlands is that bike lanes are completely SEPARATED from vehicular traffic. This is infrastructure that all but defines many Dutch cities like Amsterdam. But there is more to it than just bike lanes. There are traffic crossing signals for bikes using the bike lanes, of course, but also laws that encourage motorists to be alert and aware of cyclists, such as the “Dutch reach” which is now law in Illinois.
Mostly, however, what I observe nearly every time I am in that country, people EXPECT bikes and look for them. While not every motorist is welcoming and polite, the vast majority of them are at least looking for cyclists and driving as if they see them. I even saw taxi drivers (while swearing under their breath on occasion) slow or stop to let bikes pass or cross.
Keep in mind that cities like Amsterdam throw a few cycling dangers at riders, like tram tracks and cobbled streets, both of which are very slippery when wet (which it seemed to be the entire time we visited this March). Nevertheless, even in the sub-40 degree rainy weather, bikes were out and about at all hours. Yes, even at night. Simply put, the bike is the preferred way to get around.
What About The U.S.?
Let’s start with Chicago, my hometown. Over the past decade plus, many miles of bike lanes have been built. In addition, there are what I call “fake bike lanes,” which are no more than painted lines on the street to demarcate the car lanes from the bike lanes.
But even in a supposedly “bike-friendly” city like Chicago, there are hazards for riders.
The main problem is that our culture is still car-based. A secondary offshoot is that while dedicated and separated bike lanes exist, they are not nearly ubiquitous enough to make cars accept them as something connoting a level of respect to bikes. Often, motorists still treat cyclists as an annoyance and traffic clogger, rather than fellow travelers with an equal right to the road.
Simply put, if you have a two lane road that you drive on regularly, and all of a sudden the city cuts that down to one lane for cars and one for bikes, car drivers are going to resent bikes. Widening roads so that motorists don’t have to “give up” a lane for cyclists to have a bike lane is costly, time consuming, and sometimes impossible. The U.S has a long way to go.
What Can Be Done?
My thought has always been that infrastructure, such as separated bike lanes, laws prescribing behavior like the “Dutch reach,” and other things are useless without a change in attitude and education.
In short, drivers have to accept bicycles as a normal part of life. Drivers have to be educated to accept cyclists and bikes, not as something to be grudgingly tolerated, but as equally deserving of space on the road. (Admittedly, this may be something of a challenge when drivers often don’t see other drivers as equally deserving of space on the road.)
Without that attitude shift, I don’t see how we get to anything close to what the Dutch have as far as a bike culture.
One pedal stroke at a time.
- A bike-centric culture is accepted in The Netherlands
- Bike infrastructure and education are key to this
- The U.S. is moving forward but has a long way to go
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