Dutch Planners School U.S. Cities on Bikeability

In the Netherlands, 30 percent of trips under five miles are by bike.

The Dutch like their bike lanes to be continuous, two-way, and separated from traffic so that "bikes flow like water." Image: ##http://planetgreen.discovery.com/tech-transport/do-bike-helmets-save-lives-or-do-they-hurt-cycling.html##Planet Green##
The Dutch like their bike lanes continuous, two-way, and separated from traffic so "bikes flow like water." Image: ##http://planetgreen.discovery.com/tech-transport/do-bike-helmets-save-lives-or-do-they-hurt-cycling.html##Planet Green##

I know, I know, Euro-envy can get a little old. So the Dutch are trying to give us a little less to be jealous of. What if our streets were as bike-friendly as theirs?

We could get there. Our trip patterns aren’t dramatically different from theirs: most trips in this country are under four miles, or 20 minutes by bike. But here, people drive those short distances. What would it take to get more of us to go by bike?

In September, the Dutch embassy facilitated collaborative workshops between Dutch and local planners and engineers in Toronto and Chicago, evaluating bike facilities in those cities and making recommendations for improvements. This week, they gave their report card to Washington, DC. Next year: Miami and San Francisco; possibly Baltimore and Memphis.

They give specific recommendations for specific intersections and corridors, guided by principles of continuity and bi-directionality. Bikes, the Dutch like to say, flow like water. In DC, their suggestions included two-way cycle tracks (even on one-way streets) with buffers separating them from traffic, expanding public plaza areas, installing bike signals, bike-only connections where roads cut off, sharper turns at intersections, colored bike lanes and more.

As Cor van der Klaauw, a Dutch cycling planner, said, “I think most of the bikers from Holland, when they will cycle in your country, will think, ‘well, there are no facilities.’” But he also said he found some impressive bike innovations in DC – “We learned a few things which we can take back to Holland.”

On a national scale, there are things we can do to boost bike ridership. They’re not necessarily as sexy as cycle tracks but the Dutch visitors say they make a difference.

They say we make it too cheap to drive. Getting a driver’s license is cheap. Gas is cheap. Parking is cheap. Excise taxes on car purchases: cheap.

And we get our kids started off wrong by driving them to school every day. The Dutch planners say the U.S. doesn’t invest enough in school buses, and our streets often aren’t safe enough for kids to bike to school. In the Netherlands, 50 percent of trips to school are made by bicycle.

Rep. Tom Petri (R-WI), a co-chair of the Congressional Bike Caucus, told DC workshop attendees, “We are engaged in a bipartisan war against couch potatoes here in the United States. I think it’s been won for some considerable time, for a variety of reasons, in the Netherlands.”

  • Brandon

    Putting the bike lanes between the parking and the sidewalk is hugely important. If you see videos of dutch bike roads (more than a bike lane really in so many cases), this is key to their functioning. Sure, you cant be super aggressive and jump across to make a left turn, but these bike roads basically function as a seperate network from the standard road grid.

  • Bob Davis

    I was wondering how they avoided car doors on the passenger side being opened into the bike path, then I rechecked the photo and noted that the area next to the curb is reserved for streetlights (and probably other “street furniture” such as fire hydrants and trash containers). Moving down the hierarchy of street users, there doesn’t seem to be any barrier to prevent a cyclist from going “off track” and bowling over a pedestrian. How do they deal with this hazard? I can see a challenge in many cities: making the sidewalks wide enough to accommodate both walking and cycling as shown in the picture.

  • Doug

    Bob: Presumably, they don’t go off track because of education. Even the rowdiest motorcyclists and drivers are very very seldom seen on sidewalks.

  • To provide an adequate area for both walking and bicycling, do what the Europeans do–take out car parking and/or lanes of motorized vehicle travel. It’s all about priorities and optimizing use of public space. Cars are big bulky things that don’t belong in large quantities in high density areas.

    Exchanging car infrastructure for walking and bicycle infrastructure has numerous economic benefits. Fewer cars with their heavy mass damaging the roads mean far less street repairs and maintenance costs. More walking and bicycling means lower health care costs. (17% of US GDP goes to health care costs, higher than any other nation in the world. However, even with all the money we spend, we rank 72nd out of 191 nations in our overall level of health.) Lower levels of pollution from cars reduce asthma and cancer levels. Quieter streets improve neighborhoods and property values.

  • On a related note, I took some photos from the Tuesday evening workshop session (open to the public):

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/ajfroggie/sets/72157625417151262/

  • Tanya Snyder

    Thanks, Froggie! Here, also, are some pictures from the bike tours they took. http://www.flickr.com/photos/ny400/sets/72157625393731550/

  • amomymous

    I’m not sure if Doug answered to the right question?

    Even on the picture the surface for bikes is smooth and pedestrians have tiles. So the cyclists can both see and feel where they should be. And pedestrians too. Often there is even some kind of curb. Can’t say for sure if there is one on the picture though.

  • Dave

    It’s nice the Dutch are coming over here and schooling our traffic engineers on bicycle promotion. We won’t figure it out quickly enough, however, and nor will the Chinese or the Indians, so soon I hope they come back and school our civil engineers on dykes to keep out the rising waters!

    Less seriously, though, the fact is that sidewalks and streets in the Netherlands are not as thoroughly designed to prevent pedestrians and bikes from getting in each others’ way. I like to think of the cultural difference like this: ours is a right-of-way culture (the rules dictate whose turn it is, and who has the “rights” to a place, and that’s how you decide who’s at fault in a collision, for example) and theirs is a “give way” culture (in a crowded country there’s more shared space and less feeling of entitlement to a particular path or place, so people give way when they can).

  • I attended the opening and closing “ceremonies” at ThinkBike Chicago in September and wrote a few articles on my blog about it.
    http://www.stevevance.net/planning/thinkbike-the-opening-ceremony/

    The best thing I learned: “There must be a legal system that protects vulnerable users. Drivers are 100% liable for collisions with children on bikes (because children cannot help but to behave unexpectedly and the driver should always be aware of this). For other collisions, drivers are at least 50% liable.”

    BikePortland.org wrote about this last week:
    http://bikeportland.org/2010/11/09/would-strict-liability-help-curb-americas-distracted-driving-habit-42432

  • Erik G.

    ^Bob was wondering how they avoided car doors on the passenger side being opened into the bike path?

    The average occupancy of a motor vehicle being 1.2 passengers helps. Odds are there are no passengers getting into the car!

  • kwk

    Some of these “statistics” are due to the lower status, the excess free time and the lack of access to an automobile that Dutch women enjoy:

    http://www.slate.com/id/2274736/

  • “They say we make it too cheap to drive. Getting a driver’s license is cheap. Gas is cheap. Parking is cheap. Excise taxes on car purchases: cheap.”

    This seems like the most important point. And driver’s liability to those they injure: cheap.

    I remember when I was in Berlin, I went to a club, and everyone got stupid drunk. My host blamed the club owners for making the beer too cheap. With the government subsidizing giant SUVs and foreign oil wars and parking it’s no surprise that drivers have overrun the streets, drunk on cars.

  • Bike LA

    @Dave, I agree about the difference in the approach to using the road. The American style “Right-of-way” road-using culture is full of people who all believe that they own the road. In many other places that I’ve driven and cycled (like Shanghai), the flow of traffic seems chaotic, but is a negotiated use of shared space with fewer traffic accidents.

  • We got to meet with the Dutch planners and engineers in Miami on Thursday for an unofficial preparatory meeting to plan next year’s ThinkBike Miami that was supposed to have been this week. Herbert, a civil engineer from the Netherlands, showed us this video he made highlighting a lot of their local bicycle facilities http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EBiYohzwSn4

    Your caption isn’t a bit overgeneralized. Not all the facilities are separated from traffic. They have a number of good shared spaces as well, from bike boulevards to bike lanes. Their lower speed limits make these facilities better, of course.

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