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For more to ride bikes in U.S., cycling's image and infrastructure must change, says Dutch rider

cyclists
CC/Flickr/Will Vanlue
30 percent of Amsterdam residents regularly bike to work and another 40 percent occasionally do so.

Getting out of our cars and onto bikes would benefit not just us as individuals, but also our communities.

On the individual level, cycling is one of the best physical activities you can undertake for your health. In addition to being a great way to keep your waistline in check, cycling is good for the heart, muscles and brain.

And on the societal level, cycling offers a mode of transportation that has an extremely low environmental impact — essentially no carbon footprint.

Although cycling has grown in popularity in the United States in recent years  (18 U.S. cities are scheduled to launch bike-sharing programs this year alone), it hasn’t caught on with the broader public.

Even in Minneapolis, named the No. 1 bicycling city in the U.S. by Bicycling Magazine in 2012, only 4 percent of residents bike to work.

Compare that to Amsterdam, where 30 percent of the residents regularly bike to work and another 40 percent occasionally do so.

It was against this background that I recently watched a short video about the cultural and infrastructure differences between cycling in the U.S. and the Netherlands. Put together by Mark Wagenbuur, who writes the blog Bicycle Dutch, it offers provocative insights into why cycling hasn’t taken hold here as it has in parts of Europe.

An image of a ‘dangerous activity’

 “The main difference between the US and the Netherlands is that cycling is not seen as transportation in the US by the general public,” Wagenbuur writes in a blog post that accompanies the video. “Only very few people use the bicycle to go from A to B for their daily business. For the average American cycling is something kids do or when you do cycle as an adult, it is mainly for recreational purposes. And you dress up for the part: wearing hi-viz, a helmet, with a bicycle to match, one the Dutch would call a ‘race bike.’ ”

As Wagenbuur notes in the video, cyclists in the U.S. look more like they’re racing than trying to get home after work.

“The outfit of the average rider in the US gives cycling an image of a ‘dangerous activity,’ he adds. “On top of that, traffic makes … cyclists seem to be in a constant ‘hurry.’ Not surprising that cycling this way only appeals to a small group: the younger and fitter adults, mostly male.”

Wagenbuur was encouraged, however, by the “very different type of average rider” he saw in the university town of Davis, Calif.

“There the bicycles were far more of the upright variety and people were cycling in normal clothes without all the superfluous safety measures,” he writes. ‘Good to see that this is also possible in the US. This relaxed type of cycling obviously attracts a far wider range of people, even without specific cycling infrastructure.”

A lack of good infrastructure

Wagenbuur reports that he saw more biking infrastructure in U.S. cities than he did during previous trips, but that much of it was inadequate, particularly in terms of safety.

As Wagenbuur points out, cyclists in the U.S. are 30 time more likely to get injured than those in the Netherlands.

“I was disappointed to see that most lanes are just paint (that was wearing off already) and that these lanes usually stop right before junctions [intersections],” he writes. “To improve safety for cyclists it is most important to get the junctions right, because that is where crashes happen most. Lanes on straight stretches of road do not help much in improving safety.”

Wagenbuur liked some of Chicago's newest bike paths, which are located on the other side of parked cars. “But the lanes did still look a bit ‘temporary,’ ” he notes. “Probably because it was all still only paint with some plastic bollards. They didn’t feel so permanent and blended in as they do in the Netherlands. That makes ... you have the feeling the lanes could just as easily be removed again.”

Surprisingly, Wagenbuur has good things to say about U.S. drivers’ respect for other road users.

“As a pedestrian [in Chicago],” he writes, “I got the right of way in crossing the streets especially by turning motor traffic. Which, I am sad to say, you cannot rely on in London for instance. But most of the streets without cycle infra that I saw in Chicago did not look very inviting, not enough at least, to try and ride a bicycle myself.”

Needed: an image change

To get more Americans onto bikes, the U.S. cycling community needs to change its image as well as lobby for better infrastructure, Wagenbuur says. He believes the new bike-sharing programs (like Minneapolis’ Nice Ride), which are popping up in many American cities, are a step (or a wheel turn) in the right direction.

“If there are many of those bikes on the streets that may change the image of the ‘cyclist’ a bit,” he writes. “A necessity in my opinion if there is to be a good future for cycling in the US. The image of the ‘cyclist’ would have to change from the more racer type of cyclist to the more ordinary person on an upright bicycle. If a combination were possible of more riders like the ones in Davis, and more cycling infra of the quality I saw in Chicago (or better), then cycling will appeal to a much wider range of people. That is the way forward for cycling in my opinion, not only in the US, but everywhere.”

You can watch Wagenbuur's video below.

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Comments (18)

Great recommendations. Now

Great recommendations. Now if we'd only follow the advice! When the interstate system was designed, Eisenhower looked towards the autobahns of Europe to design a road that would provide efficient transportation. I looked at the Bicycle Dutch blog and found great ways that the Netherlands have continued to make transporting people efficient with safety of everyone in mind. Having seen similar bicycle infrastructure in Paris, I have always wished that our own city would have the insight to build efficient and safe infrastructure like that in the Bicycle Dutch blog- an Eisenhower for multimodal transportation, if you will.

With the exception of the Greenway, I haven't seen any other recent street modifications that have the safety of pedestrians, bicyclists, and automobile drivers in mind. In fact, the current designs in the Twin Cities (which the blog says are outdated by Netherlands' standards) seem to be focused primarily on traffic calming via medians and sharrows, which in turn slows down bicycle traffic and bus traffic and decreases safety for the majority using the street.

Hard to argue

…with most of his points.

I spent a summer in Davis, CA nearly 30 years ago for a graduate seminar, and even decades ago, Davis was a haven for cycling. I'm guessing it was a combination of university-student poverty, the cachet of doing something "different," and the fact that Davis, like much of Minneapolis, is as flat as could reasonably be asked for, so high degrees of athleticism weren't required to get about town on one's bike. I can't remember the name of the street any more, but one of the main thoroughfares in Davis featured a gigantic piece of public art in the form of an oversized "big wheel" bike from the 19th century – the kind with a front wheel about 4 times the size of the rear wheel – that stood at least 8 feet tall in the median of the street.

Admitting that it's good exercise, I've not taken up cycling in my dotage because the motion required is pretty much exactly what makes my aging knees hurt the most, along with spectacular snap, crackle and pop noises. I'm a pedestrian instead, and while acknowledging all the dangers to cyclists in the American urban environment, and there are many, I'm more often irritated by cyclists than by automobile drivers.

I expect auto drivers to be oblivious, an expectation only occasionally unmet, but there's no excuse for a cyclist to be distracted. My observation as a pedestrian is that, far more than drivers, cyclists either don't know the rules of the road, or they ignore them. Possibly one or two percent of the time am I warned properly by a cyclist approaching me from the rear. The vast majority of those encounters rely on me somehow intuitively knowing that someone far removed from my line of sight is approaching me at fairly high speed. Even when an attempt is made to warn me, it's usually phrased badly, as in "Behind you." Really?

A cycling advocate with whom I'm acquainted admitted that he gets annoyed by having to say to pedestrians "On your left" or "On your right" repeatedly, as if others are not similarly annoyed by the occasionally intrusive safety regulation. Stop signs also come readily to mind, mostly because cyclists routinely ignore them, even when pedestrians are in the crosswalk.

Those complaints aside, however, I'm on board with most of the Dutchman's critique. It would be very encouraging to see "real" bike lanes, with curbs, or at the very least, separated from auto lanes by parked cars. I'd also like to see cycling get far, far away from the "boy racer" mode that encompasses most of the cycling activity I see in the Twin Cities. Lots of spandex and helmets and garish colors (the latter perhaps necessary to gain the attention of the aforementioned oblivious driver), but not much in the way of ordinary people going from point A to point B, running errands, getting groceries, etc., and far more relatively youthful males than females, which merely reinforces the notion that cycling is something not to be taken seriously as a genuine alternative means of transit for everybody.

I'd like to see more "cargo bikes" and fewer racers.

Stop Signs

I have to counter your complaints by pointing out that cars also routinely ignore stop signs. Park yourself at any four way intersection and see how many cars stop. And I'm not talking just slowing down and almost stopping--we're looking for wheels completely stop turning. I've done that and found that a full 90% of cars don't stop and many of the rest only bother because there's a car from the side street that gets to go first.

So the bell that "bikers don't stop" really rings hollow to my ears. Also keep in mind that it's easy for cars to get going again from a full stop--they just have to tap the pedal. Bikes, on the other hand, have to work it pretty hard to get going again. In other words, not all vehicles are created equal, so they do and should have different rules based on their capabilities.

I see your point about encouraging more women, older people, and other demographics to bike, but that will be driven by better and different infrastructure, not limiting racing bikes and spandex clothing. As a regular bike commuter, I'll probably buy a racing bike in the next couple of years as it will cut my commute by a third over the old heavy and slow mountain bike I currently use. And while I don't wear spandex now, I'll probably buy some of that clothing too as it's effective at whisking away sweat, an important consideration given the hot and humid weather we've been having.

The rules

No matter how often it's repeated, I just don't buy the "if only bikers just followed the rules of the road, everything would be great" argument. Riding a bike for transportation, even in a reasonably bike-friendly city like Minneapolis, is being a square peg in a round hole. Our entire street system and rules were long ago designed for only one purpose, which is to funnel cars through the city as fast as possible. If the streets and laws had been designed from the ground up for multiple modes of transportation they would be entirely different. A biker who obeys the letter of the law will discover they can't get anywhere fast because bike boulevards often have stop signs at every single street. Our city is too spread out for a biker to wait two minutes at every unoccupied stop light; and if there are cars behind them, they will just as soon be trampled by the onslaught as everyone leaves the light simultaneously, or honked at by a right-turning car. Everyone I know who has taken to biking for transportation has quickly realized that safe and efficient biking in a world made for cars takes some rule-bending.

Audible warnings

Ray,

The law does not require audible warnings every time a bike passes a pedestrian, only when it's necessary which of course is a matter of judgment. As long as you're walking on the right side of the of the trail and not wandering out into the middle a bike can pass you safely without a warning. As a biker I've found that warnings sometimes startle pedestrians unnecessarily so I don't always issue them. Likewise there is no "rule" regarding the nature of warnings i.e. "left" or "on your left". It depends on the situation. When I encounter pedestrians walking side by side on the bike trail instead of the pedestrian trail essentially blocking it, I will sometimes just tell them they have a bike behind them so they can move out of the way however they choose.

health benefits

I'm far from convinced that cycling is one of the best physical activities for your health.

I guess I can only speak from my personal experience, but, while certainly better than being sedentary, cycling (daily, >1,000 miles per year) did not keep me from gaining wait, or improve my blood pressure or heart rate.

It wasn't until I started seriously running that I lost weight, lower my heart rate and blood pressure.

Weight Loss

Losing weight is a function of calories in vs calories out. And that's going to vary from person to person based on how much and the type of exercise they get, metabolism, and the kind of food they eat, volume of food, and when they eat it. For you, the scales were tipped in favor of weight gain despite biking. Keep in mind though that you would have gained even more weight if you hadn't been biking.

For me, I lost over 20 pounds from biking alone with no change in eating habits or additional exercise. I was already at the point where I was barely gaining a little weight per year and a modest change in lifestyle was enough to tip the scales in the opposite direction.

And given that most people get any exercise at all, cycling is a great place to start as it doesn't need take much time, doesn't need a lot of cash outlay, and it's easy on the joints--an important consideration when two thirds of Americans are overweight.

Well established as one of the best

The physical benefits of biking have been well documented. It's ONE of the best, but not THE best for everyone. A lot of runners blow out their knees for instance and injure their feet and back. Biking is lower impact. On the other hand, pure bikers have had trouble with their bone density if they don't get enough impact some other way. Running will get your heart rate up no matter what while slow biking can be accomplished without much physical stress. It all depends what your trying do.

Like I said, form my own

Like I said, form my own experience, I saw no movement in the various health metrics until I started running seriously.

While I wasn't racing, I commuted by bike daily, 8-16 miles round trip, and 50-70 miles on the weekends.

Metrics?

Well there's your problem Dave, you're using the metric system :)

European Cycling

My girlfriend and I swung through Amsterdam last fall on a trip through the low countries. I was amazed at the advanced and integrated bicycling structure they had laid out and the vast number of people who were using it day and night. Bike lanes were separated from both car and pedestrian traffic through the use of curbs in stead of just a stripe of paint. Downtown there was a parking garage capable of handling thousands of vehicles, exclusively for bikes and not a car in sight.

There were people out biking in ordinary street clothes, day or night, sunshine or rain. And nobody thought much of it because it's become so integrated into their daily routine.

Bikes Lanes

Here's a good example of the separated bikes lanes I saw in Amsterdam.

http://www3.telus.net/wmaggie101/resources/biking/Bike%20Lane%201.jpg

Bollards separate the vehicle traffic from the bike lane, it's visually separated from the sidewalk, and there's good drainage to keep the lane clear of water.

We could build one of these on Minnehaha Avenue right now!

Unfortunately, Hennepin County has been reluctant to think seriously about building one of these on Minnehaha Avenue. For the past year, the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition (https://www.facebook.com/minneapolis.bicycle.coalition) has been trying to get the city and county to seriously consider building a high-quality cycletrack on this important corridor. There's a meeting about it tomorrow! Show up, or let the county know what you think about this kind of design.

Biking is definitely a different deal in The Netherlands

Biking is definitely a different deal in The Netherlands. I have observed and traveled the bike routes in both Amsterdam and Eindhoven.

Some of the bicycle commuters seemed to be avoiding exercise by traveling at a slower rate than I could balance a bicycle, while simultaneously smoking and talking on a cell phone. Some seemed like they were biking because they were too lazy to walk. People too lazy to bike, ride motorized scooters on the bike paths. Hand signals are more commonly used than on the bike trails of Minneapolis.

The primary reason that paint is used to separate bike routes from motor lanes in Minneapolis is facilitate snow removal.

Let It Snow

I know this is the wrong time of year to talk about snow, but here's my take on snow removal and bike lanes in the Twin Cities.

What happens with these painted lanes is the snow gets pushed off to the side of the road, but not off the road itself. That means the bike lane quickly gets covered in a three foot bank of ice that's better suited to mountain climbing than riding a bike. And it forces the intrepid souls who bike in the winter to ride ever farther out into traffic. Even on the days when it's warm enough for the chemicals to do their job, the slush still gets pushed off into the bike lane by the cars' tires, making it difficult for bikers to keep on keeping on. And when the slush freezes, the rutted tracks are impossible to bike on by anyone who's not a professional trapeze artist.

In my opinion (and this is strictly my opinion), we need to have dedicated and separated bike lanes that are plowed in their own right. As it is the bike lanes are, at best, a secondary consideration when it comes to design and snow clearance. We're trying to build this system on the cheap with a little bit of paint and plowing standards that work fine for cars, but not a light weight two wheel vehicle. If we want to get serious about encouraging people to bike in the Twin Cities, then we need to get serious about the infrastructure too.

Growing up-it's time

Our bike program in Minneapolis is a slip-shod thing. Some of the "lanes" are a joke. Other streets undoubtedly violate code in their design. Driving in the university area can be a challenge. Many bikers still are not very mature on the road, and being young do not think clearly about death and it's possibility. Lack of adequate illumination and an attitude of entitlement do not work well in traffic. Bikers need to grow up just as motorists need to accept bikes on the roadway. Additionally, not taking the slop-shod approach our august mayor favors would be helpful. As would mandatory insurance and licensing.

Assurance

If you were to license bikes in proportion to the wear and tear they create on the road, you'd be charging people 35¢ a year. It would cost more to set up and maintain the program than it would bring in--not a good use of government resources.

To require insurance is silly at best. People already have insurance through work (health insurance) and home (home owners insurance). How much more insurance do they need and what do they need it for? Not to mention that mandatory insurance, like mandatory helmets, would raise the perception that biking is dangerous. That would prompt fewer people to bike and greatly decrease the number of people getting much-needed exercise. The end result would be to increase health care costs as obesity rises. It's far more beneficial to people and society to forgo those requirements and instead encourage more riding.

Mandatory Insurance?

And licensing? For whom?