In September 2010 I joined a team of latter-day explorers in the Netherlands on a quest to discover what American communities can learn from the Dutch about transforming bicycling in the United States from a largely recreational pastime to an integral part of our transportation system.
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, according to Patrick Seidler, vice-chairman of the Bikes Belong Foundation, a nonprofit group dedicated to getting more people on bikes more often. Seidler regularly takes public officials on tours of cities where biking is popular. Bikes Belong sponsored our trip, which included half a dozen government officials from the San Francisco Bay Area.
Of course, the bicycle enjoys certain advantages in the Netherlands, notably a flat landscape and a long cycling tradition.
But there are similarities. The Netherlands resembles the United States in being a prosperous, technologically advanced nation where a huge share of the population owns automobiles. They simply don’t drive them each and every time they leave home, thanks to common sense transportation policies through which biking and transit are promoted as an attractive alternative to the car. Indeed, millions of Dutch commuters combine bike and train trips, which offer the point-to-point convenience of the automobile and the speed of transit.
A delegation of public officials from Madison, Wisconsin, returned home from a similar tour of the Netherlands the previous spring, and within three weeks was implementing what they learned on the streets of the city.
My fellow explorers on this journey included the president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors (or city council) and the city’s director of public works, chief traffic engineer, and director of the Livable Streets program. We were joined by a San José city council member, the chief traffic engineer, and representatives of the business community. Suburban Marin County was represented by city council members from San Rafael, Mill Valley, and Corte Madera as well as a transit project director.
Here is what we discovered in the world capital of biking.
The trip started in Utrecht, where our group marveled at the parade of bicyclists whizzing past us all over town. This raised an immediate question: why is biking a way of life in the Netherlands and only a tiny portion of the transportation picture in the United States?
We uncovered a large part 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 from 50 percent in 1970, according to the National Center for Safe Routes to School program (www.saferoutesinfo.org).
“I came to the Netherlands to have my mind blown about biking,” said Damon Connolly, vice-mayor of San Rafael, California. “And that sure happened when I heard that 95 percent of kids bike to school.”
This difference helps explain the childhood obesity epidemic in the United States, but also why so few adult Americans ride a bike to work or to do errands—a mere 1 percent of trips compared to 12 percent in Germany, 18 percent in Denmark, and 27 percent in the Netherlands.
A commitment to biking is not uniquely imprinted in the Dutch DNA. It is the result of a conscious push to promote biking that has resulted in a surge of cycle use since the1970s.
And a large part of that success can be attributed to what happens in school. “Kids learn how to bike safely as part of their education,” said Ronald Tamse, a Utrecht city planner who led our group on a two-wheel tour of the city and its suburbs.
A municipal program sends special teachers into the schools to conduct bike classes, and students go to Trafficgarden, a complete miniature city with roads, sidewalks, and busy intersections where students hone their pedestrian, biking, and driving skills (in non-motorized pedal cars). At age 11, most kids in town are tested on their cycling skills on a course throughout the city, winning a certificate of accomplishment that ends up framed on many bedroom walls.
“To make safer roads, we focus on the children,” Tamse explained. “Because it not only helps them bike and walk more safely, but it helps them to become safer drivers who will look out for pedestrians and bicyclists in the future.”
These kinds of programs would make a huge difference in the United States, where 60 percent of people report in surveys they would like to bike regularly if they felt safer—but only 8 percent actually do.
Next stop was the Hague, population 500,000, where bikes account for 27 percent of all trips around the city—exactly the average for the Netherlands as a whole. But not content with being merely average, the Hague is spending €10 million a year (roughly $14 million) to improve those statistics.
Hidde van der Bijl, a cycling policy officer in the Hague’s city government, outlined their strategy for improving bicycle speed and safety: separating bike paths as much as possible from city streets and, when that is not possible, designating certain streets as bike boulevards where two wheelers gain priority over cars and trucks. Bike boulevards are also being used in Portland, Berkeley, Minneapolis, and other American cities.
These are practical innovations that could make a dramatic difference in nearly every American town: research on this side of the Atlantic shows that physical separation from motorized traffic on busy streets is the single most effective policy to get more people to bike.
But officials in the Hague realized that fear about safety isn’t the only thing that discourages people from riding bikes more frequently; that’s why they are tackling the problem of bike parking.
This might seem a minor point to American cyclists who seldom find it hard to park bikes just a few steps from their destinations. But upon closer look, parking emerges as a significant issue for cyclists in any large city.
“The car is parked out in front of the house on the street, while the bike is stuffed away out back in a shed, or they have to carry it up and down the stairs in their buildings,” van der Bijl explained. “So people choose the car because it is easier.”
“It’s an issue for me personally,” agreed Ed Reiskin, San Francisco’s director of public works, “because I always have to carry my bicycle down to the street.”
People also worry about their bikes being stolen off the street at their homes or jobs. That’s why creating more secure bike parking in residential neighborhoods, commercial districts, and workplaces is a priority for the Hague’s transportation planners.
The city is busy building parking facilities in the basements of new office developments and at strategic outdoor locations throughout the center city, many of them staffed by attendants (similar to parking garages). You can park your favorite bike there for a nominal fee, confident that it will still be there when you return. (Groningen, the Netherlands’ biking capital with 59 percent of urban trips made on two wheels, debuted the first guarded parking facility in 1982 and now sports more than 30 in a town of 180,000.)
Meanwhile, in high-density residential neighborhoods, the city is installing bike racks or special bike sheds to make life easier for two-wheel commuters, sometimes taking over auto parking spaces to do it. One parking space can be converted to ten bike spaces, according to van der Bijl.
On our third day in the Netherlands, we biked across the Atlantic—at least it felt that way in Rotterdam, a city whose streets seemed almost American. We came face-to-face with familiar road conditions: heavy traffic on four-lane roads with aggressive drivers.
Bob Ravasio, a Marin County realtor and city council member in the town of Corte Madera, quipped “Utrecht seems like a fantasy land now. This is what we’re up against at home.”
Yet Rotterdam heightened our optimism about boosting biking in the United States when we learned that 22 percent of trips around town each day are made on bicycles—below average among Dutch cities but more than double the rate of any major American city. If they could do it, so could we.
“Rotterdam could be San Francisco or Oakland with more bikes,” observed Damon Connolly.
Even more encouraging was the news from Tom Boot of the city’s planning department that Rotterdam has been increasing its share of bike traffic by 3 percent annually for the last several years. They’ve achieved this phenomenal growth by expanding and improving the network of bikeways—separating them from car traffic whenever possible and coloring the asphalt bright red everywhere else to clearly mark bike lanes for motorists to see.
The experience of biking through four Dutch cities provided our team of Bay Area transportation leaders with plenty of examples of what they could do to make cycling more safe, popular, and pleasurable back home. Bridget Smith, for instance, director of San Francisco’s Livable Streets program, was excited about using more color on the roadways as an inexpensive but dramatic way of making sure everyone can tell bike lanes from car lanes.
But the experience also fueled our imaginations about the future of cities. We saw one glimpse of what’s possible on Java Island, a cluster of neighborhoods constructed over the past ten years in what was once the city’s harbor. It’s a scenic waterfront location with strikingly handsome modern architecture in a pleasing variety of styles that is linked to the rest of the city by tram, road, and bike paths. Although brand new, it exudes a charm reminiscent of the city’s famous canal neighborhoods—which for my money are some of the most vibrant and downright pleasing urban quarters on earth.
Like old Amsterdam, Java Island enjoys a picturesque waterfront setting. But it shares another trait with the city’s medieval districts that you would never expect in a newly built housing development: it accommodates bicycles more easily than cars. Motorized traffic is shunted to the side of each cluster of apartment buildings in underground parking garages, while pedestrians and bicyclists have free reign of the courtyards that link people’s homes, forming a green commons.
The result of this visionary planning is more than just lovely—Java Island represents a bold new vision of urban life where people matter more than motor vehicles. You feel a liberating sense of ease moving about these new neighborhoods—and so do the residents. I’ve never seen kids—even really young ones—who look so completely comfortable running around their neighborhoods, not even during my own childhood in the days before autos completely ruled the road. We passed two sets of young girls staging tea parties, one of them taking place on a blanket just inches from the joint biking and walking trail that served as the neighborhood’s main street.
Pascal van den Noort, executive director of the transportation organization Velo Mondial, which led our tour through the city, urged the group to “imitate this in California, please.”
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.
After five days of biking around Dutch cities, the Bay Area delegation was fired up about the potential of bicycling to improve life in American cities. On our last day, after a lengthy jaunt through Amsterdam—covering medieval and modern neighborhoods, rich and poor ones, all full of bikers—we dismounted for one last discussion at an outdoor café overlooking the waterfront. The next day most of us would be headed back to our homes and jobs and cars in the United States, where most people would dismiss as science fiction the idea of bikes making up 25 percent of urban traffic.
The group wondered how we could reconcile our amazing experience of biking in the Netherlands with the auto-choked streets of San Francisco, San Jose, and Marin County. But as Hillie Talens of CROW (a transportation organization focusing on infrastructure and public space) reminded us, it took the Dutch 35 years to construct the ambitious bicycle system we were now enjoying. 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 lay an expressway through its beautiful central city. But the oil crises of that time convinced the country that it needed to reduce its 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 more convenient.
Following the Dutch model will make biking mainstream in America. The morning and evening rush hour of cyclists you see on the streets in the Netherlands are not all the young, white, male, ultrafit athletes in spandex we are accustomed to seeing
in the United States—people of all ages and income levels use bikes for everyday transportation, with women biking more than men.
Of course, we won’t do everything the same as the Dutch; there are considerable differences between the two countries geographically, politically, and culturally. This was reflected in the questions our team posed to the numerous transportation experts we met during the week: “Where did you find the money to do that? How did you overcome the opposition of motorists, merchants, developers, etc.?”
And, inevitably, American ingenuity will envision solutions the Dutch, the Danish, the Germans, and the Chinese never thought of.
But the Netherlands does offer plenty of practical ideas to get us started, as well as the inspiration of seeing a place where bikes have gained their rightful role as a primary form of transportation. Sitting on the sunshine with a chilly breeze blowing off the harbor (this was the first day we were not rained on at least once while biking—one advantage most American cities have over Dutch ones), each member of the group shared thoughts on what they’d learned (see box).
Reflections on Biking through the Netherlands
“There is actually a road map of do-able public policies we can adopt to get us where the Dutch are today.”—David Chiu, president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors
“We can brand biking as cool, make it hip, and get the bicycling community coming out to meetings to support these improvements.”—Sam Liccardo, San José City Council
“What we can immediately take back home is their general planning for bikes; for instance, all the visual clues that tell motorists to look for bicycles.”—Shiloh Ballard, vice-president of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group (a business and civic organization)
“We can concentrate on two or three corridors that can be a showcase that gets people excited, to get things going, to show what’s possible.”—Manuel Pineda, deputy director for the San José Department of Transportation
“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.”—Ed Reiskin, director of public works, City of San Francisco
“What I will be thinking about when I get home is how closely related land-use planning is to transportation planning—they are almost the same thing.”—Damon Connolly, vice-mayor of San Rafael
“The low-hanging fruit is getting people to start with short trips—to the store, for example—not commuting all the way from Marin County to San Francisco.”—Bob Ravasio, city council member in Corte Madera
“The Dutch are not somehow exceptional people when it comes to biking. Everything we see here is the result of a deliberate decision to improve biking here. Even little things, like paint on the street, adds up.”—Zach Vanderkooy, program coordinator for Bikes Belong
“Imagine if all the bikes we saw in the Netherlands were single-occupancy vehicles. It would not be the same place.”—Bruno Maier, vice-president of Bikes Belong