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.
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.