Bicycling to Nirvana: Fighting Gridlock the Dutch Way

Major cities try to emulate Amsterdam's bike-friendly approach.

This month millions of Americans will pedal out onto the nation's roads during National Bike Month. But for the nation's roughly 800,000 bicycle commuters, May won't be different from any other month.

Frustrated with rising gas prices and overcrowded roads, a rising number of commuters have turned to cycling. Since 1990 their ranks have nearly doubled in the largest U.S. urban centers, with cities such as Portland, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., seeing increases of more than 400 percent.

Not coincidentally, bike-sharing initiatives in those cities are also booming. And since New York introduced its bike-sharing program last year, road safety has improved, with cyclist deaths cut in half.

This is welcome news for city politicians and urban planners, who increasingly view cycling as a remedy for a range of mounting transportation and environmental problems.

If you don't count the metal and rubber used to produce them, bikes offer carbon-free transport, and they require much less costly infrastructure than cars do. Furthermore, research shows that although improving cycling infrastructure does slow down car traffic, it actually makes the roads safer for motorists as well as cyclists and pedestrians.

Then there are the health benefits: A recent study in the U.K. concluded that on average, regular cyclists have the fitness level of someone ten years younger, are half as likely to suffer from heart disease, are 27 percent less likely to have a stroke, and are likely to live two years longer.

But none of this is news to the Dutch, who have long been recognized as pioneers in the modern cycling movement. Amsterdam has emphasized bicycling infrastructure since the 1970s and now effectively serves as a case study of what works and what doesn't. The Copenhagenize Index, which every two years measures the world's best biking cities according to 13 criteria, has ranked Amsterdam number one since its ranking began in 2011.

Roots of Dutch Bike Culture

But it wasn't always smooth pedaling in the Netherlands. The history of Dutch cycling has seen its own share of ups and downs. In the 1950s, almost 85 percent of trips made in the Netherlands were by bike. But by the early 1970s, with car ownership on the rise, the number of trips made by bike had plummeted to about 20 percent.

With fewer bicycles on the road, deaths of cyclists and pedestrians escalated. Activists organized mass protests demanding safer roads for non-motorists and a rethink of the country's transportation policies.

This growing movement happened to coincide with the world oil crisis, which had provoked the Dutch government to implement a fuel conservation policy, effectively shutting down driving on Sundays. With the public calling for new answers, Dutch leaders realized there was only one way to solve their traffic problems: reduce speed limits and make driving less attractive. It made sense in a crowded country with centuries-old, already-dense cities that had nowhere to expand.

The largest city, Amsterdam, was a driver's nightmare of narrow streets and canals built for pedestrians and horses, not for cars and parking. The government gradually began to adopt policies that would lead to the centers of most cities in the Netherlands being car-free while also creating an infrastructure that would promote cycling.

Urban Biking 2.0

Cut to present-day Amsterdam, where the car is "machina non grata" and where biking is not a choice but a necessity. The Netherlands now has a formidable cycling union, which represents the interests of the nation's 13 million bicyclists, lobbies for better biking infrastructure, and wields significant power in urban planning.

The country's cycling network features stoplight-free and intersection-free bicycle highways designed for regular and electric bikes (some of which can go up to 25 miles per hour, or 40 kilometers per hour) for travel between urban areas. Public education curriculums include bicycle traffic school. The nationwide bicycle-sharing system features racks of bikes at nearly every train station.

Furthermore, cycling is safe. Though helmets are rarely used, accidents are few.

But cycling in Amsterdam—where there are more bikes (880,000) than people (800,000)—is not for the faint-hearted. Some 70 percent of trips to the city are done by bicycle, which has led to a serious overcrowding problem when it comes to bike parking.

Despite this, Dutch politicians of all stripes are looking to the bike as the future of transportation. In last month's nationwide municipal elections, even the right-wing parties touted the bicycle as the future, calling for more bike parking in city centers and near train stations, fewer red lights for cyclists, and better networks for long-distance commuting.

Their cycling platform fits neatly within the national consensus that supporting a comprehensive biking infrastructure is cheaper than building roads, requires less maintenance, and reduces carbon emissions, plus it saves on health costs because populations stay fitter longer. (It's not uncommon to see octogenarians tooling around Amsterdam on bikes.)

To be sure, the Dutch aren't writing off cars completely, but they are doubling down on a cycling infrastructure that's even better than the one they already have.

Importing the Dutch Model

London's mayor, Boris Johnson, is eager to see his own sprawling, traffic-choked city embrace pieces of the Dutch model. In March, he announced plans to create "mini Hollands" in three of the city's boroughs, investing £90 million ($150 million U.S.) in the process.

Johnson, who cycles to work, wants to increase bicycle commuter numbers by 400 percent by 2026. The project will include a car-free section in the center of one borough, as well as separated bike lanes and "Dutch-style" roundabouts that keep cyclists and motorists separated in what can be treacherous intersections.

Separated bike lanes and similar features are crucial to growing the ranks of bicyclists, says Carolyn Szczepanski, spokesperson for the League of American Bicyclists and founder of a program called Women Bike. She notes that research consistently shows when cities install "protected lanes" that have some sort of physical barrier, such as a line of plastic cones, to separate them from car traffic, they attract more new riders and more female riders.

"To effectively change a city's biking culture in the way places like Amsterdam and Copenhagen have, the focus can't just be on fit young guys commuting to work. It has to be about integrating bicycling into daily life, shopping, going to school, running errands, et cetera. For that kind of change, you need women," she said. "And making female riders feel more comfortable on the roads is definitely a game changer in getting them to embrace bicycling."

Critics point out, however, that what works in the Netherlands and Europe doesn't necessarily work everywhere else. In Los Angeles, the discussion about implementing segregated bike lanes actually has had some bike activists arguing against them, on the grounds that they are not safe enough in that particular city. In Australia, tension between cyclists and motorists is increasing as cyclists make themselves more present on urban roadways; a recent opinion piece in the Australian responding to that rift stated: "We have no equivalent of Amsterdam and should stop pretending we do."

In addition to road-sharing issues, there are financial challenges. Earlier this year Montreal, the only North American city on the Copenhagenize Index, announced that Bixi, the company that supplies its bike-sharing program, is bankrupt. The city, which is owed $34.5 million by Bixi, has taken over the operation of the popular program, after a $98 million bailout package it provided in 2011 failed to keep the firm afloat.

Perhaps in some places, bicycling nirvana may have to wait, or simply exist in some other form.

Anik See is a writer and radio producer based in Amsterdam and an avid long-distance bicyclist. Follow her on Twitter.

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