Born on a bicycle

28Oct10

I have the good fortune in the work that I do to have met a few Dutch people this year. When the conversation inevitably turned toward cycling, they all said the same thing: “The Dutch are born on bicycles.” The reason all that fantastic infrastructure works so well is because people start learning to use it properly as soon as they learn to ride. They learn about it at home; they’re taught lessons on it at school. By the time they are old enough to drive, they are already cyclists first, so they now have a stake in how cyclists are treated on the road by drivers. (It certainly helps that Dutch road laws put culpability firmly on drivers in collisions with cyclists.)

I was endlessly amazed by this when I was in Amsterdam and Haarlem. I rode dozens of miles and never once did a driver cut me off, make a turn too close, or try to sneak out into the bike lane when cyclists were coming. Understand that I live in an area of New England where it is perfectly acceptable to “sneak out” with your car into a four lane road in order to stop one of the two lanes of traffic on your way through a left turn. The nearly universal deference to the bicycles on the road in the Netherlands was like riding through a cycling amusement park. And that is the closest analogue we have in the States: fantasy.

We were once like the Dutch. At the end of the nineteenth century, America was making nearly half of all the bikes produced in the world. When the early twentieth century brought the rise of the mass-produced car, America experienced a steep decline in bicycle use, but in the Netherlands bicycle manufacturing continued to climb. We spent the next 100 years building our cities around cars while the Dutch continued to build theirs around the bicycle and pedestrians. It wasn’t until the 60’s and 70’s that their decline began, but it was quickly turned back once it became clear what a shift to auto-centric roads would mean.

That is simplifying history, but the point is the Dutch have had a much longer and more practical relationship with bicycles than we have. It’s become a part of their cultural framework in a way that will take generations to build here, and that’s all assuming the infrastructure, laws, and education are taking shape along with it. So while we’re working on that, let’s have our children born on bikes and seek out ways and places for them to ride which aren’t fantasy. That’s our plan, at least.

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