The wisdom of the bicycle sages of Holland by mattsteinglass
July 17, 2008, 2:18 am
Filed under: Netherlands, Transportation

Ezra Klein writes today about the dramatically higher usage and greater safety of biking in the Netherlands, and Megan McArdle writes about how infuriating and dangerous the disregard of DC drivers (especially commuters) towards bikers and pedestrians is. My basic reaction is: yes and yes and yes. Biking is great, and societies designed for biking, like the Netherlands, make biking seem like the easiest, fastest, most obvious way to get around. However, having just got back from the annual vacation in the Netherlands to visit my wife’s family, I also have two further reactions. The first is a caveat: creating the infrastructure of a bicycling society, both physically and culturally, is a very big deal. It’s not just about painting a couple of bike lanes. Exhibit A:

This is the Kleverlaan, the shopping street of a residential neighborhood just north of the town center of Haarlem. As you can see, the auto traffic lanes are reduced to about 1.5 car widths, with speed bumps, forcing cars to slow down and avoid the kind of hostile driving Megan decries in DC. (Past the shops it broadens to 2 lanes.) Most of the width of the street is taken up by sidewalks, two red paved bicycle lanes (note the one at left; one lane heads in each direction, and riding the wrong way in a bike lane is strictly not done), and a couple of little dividers with pink flowery shrubs. Parking is practically nonexistent. Shopping is expected to be accomplished mainly by bicycle or on foot. But automobile traffic remains reasonably sparse because, a quarter-mile away through a little park, lies…

The Haarlem train station. It’s two stops to Amsterdam Centraal — less than 15 minutes. The Dutch rail network is extraordinarily dense and efficient; it serves every decent-sized town in the central part of the country. With the possible exception of New York City, I don’t believe any region in the US has a comparably dense rail network. With a rail network like that, biking to the train station becomes the logical default commuting option. But that’s not all. This is just Haarlem, a little town of perhaps 100,000. Once you get into Amsterdam, you get this:

This is Waterlooplein, with behind us the Blauwe Brug over the River Amstel; the brick building at left is the Opera House. This is a huge, wide avenue with just two lanes for cars. Taking up the rest of the space, besides the sidewalks, the red bike paths on either side, and the pedestrian islands, we have tram tracks down the middle of the street. Taxi cabs are allowed to drive along the tram tracks. And, up ahead underneath the Opera House, is a Metro station; the Metro runs underground in the city center and elevated in the suburbs. And note the red knee-high metal posts at the edges of the sidewalks, “Amsterdammertjes”, which separate pedestrians from bicycles. In sum, this is an urban transit concept with a very sharply restricted role for cars. It works beautifully, but it’s a complete system; you need to put together a lot of different parts to make it work. (We are entirely leaving out the canals, which used to play a major urban transit role but are now important mainly for sightseeing and pleasure boats and occasional light freight barges.)

And that’s just the physical infrastructure. Perhaps more important is the mental or cultural infrastructure which makes the system run: habits of good cycling and driving around cyclists. To start with, cyclists always have presumptive right of way; a motorist who hits a cyclist is always assumed to be at fault. That entails an extra check in the motorist’s right side mirror every time she makes a right-hand turn. Stoplights have three sets of signals, for cars, pedestrians, and cyclists. Pedestrians are not allowed to walk in bike lanes and will be yelled at for doing so, and, as mentioned before, cyclists must ride in the bike lane on the right-hand side of the street — even, technically, on the right-hand side of the canal, even if this entails riding out of their way for a block or two to the next bridge in order to cross to the proper side. (Though in practice there’s some tolerance for riding the wrong way along a canal, if traffic isn’t heavy.) And then there are these:

These are flashing LEDs to hang on the back of your saddle. In recent years, city police have begun to strictly enforce the requirement that every bicycle have a working headlight and a working rear warning light at night, a rule that used to be enforced only in the countryside. (In a very weird way, the stricter enforcement of these kinds of traffic rules has gone along with rising antipathy towards Muslims and immigrants and less tolerance for drug use — what the Christian Democrat PM Balkenende refers to as normen en waarden, “norms and values”.)

The overall point here is just that the Dutch cycling model, which is a fantastic model, has lots of moving parts and grows out of a whole complex transit culture which you probably can’t just introduce in a day. I think it’s a better model than the American model not just because it’s physically healthier and makes for a more attractive and human urban environment, but because it’s more resilient, precisely because it depends less on a single modality. American cities that already have decent urban rail systems (Berkeley/SF, Boston, NY, DC, Chicago) should definitely move in this direction though.


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[…] here’s a link to my post explaining the utterly different and smart-planning-heavy way the Dutch lay out their streets and […]

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The first picture is the “Kleverparkweg”, not the “Kleverlaan” in Haarlem.

Comment by Duke

Presently there are 150.000 people living in the city of Haarlem, 50% more than you indicated….

Comment by Duke

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