A discussion of what makes Dutch cycling so unique
The Netherlands’ incredible cycling infrastructure and culture resonated with me the most during our time there. It never ceased to amaze me because it is such a stark contrast to anything I have seen or experienced in the United States.
My home town is Charlotte, NC and if there is one thing we are good at it is, like most American cities, designing for the automobile. Probably 95% of Charlotteans live in the suburbs, including me. Although I am only ten minutes to downtown by car, it would take me at least an hour to walk, longer to figure out which bus could take me there, and risk my life to bike there. Everywhere I go in Charlotte I am forced to take a car. So biking in the Netherlands was a novel experience and one that taught me many lessons I hope Charlotte can learn from as well. The Dutch cycling culture is something I have vaunted ever since I arrived home.
The very idea of biking in The Netherlands is decades ahead of what it means to the typical American. Here it is not thought of as a mode of transport but instead as a form of exercise- primarily performed by people with enormous quads decked out in skin-tight suits and aerodynamic helmets on wheels with the thickness of a pencil. The Dutch don’t think of cycling as anything special, it is simply the most practical way to get around. Given this mindset, cycling is ingrained in nearly every facet of Dutch society. City planning has made traveling by bike easy, safe, and preferred.
There are many small and large ideas that the Dutch have integrated to create this cycling culture. The first and most noticeable is the ubiquity of bike lanes. They exist on nearly every road and if they are not present it is for one of two reasons. One, the nature of the street is such that cars travel at slow speeds and it is understood bikes and cars share the road. This understanding is created by the design of the street. In The Hague it was typical of a street like this to be narrow and layered with brick or a material other than black pavement. Two, if bike lanes are not present on a street than there are most likely alternative routes for bikes that are safer and just as fast, if not faster. We learned about cycling superhighways that are located in The Netherlands and we experienced cyclist-only routes that were alternatives to highways that bikes were not allowed on.
On a large scale the omnipresence of lanes is important but it only works because of the details the Dutch have taken care of on the street level. The most important of which is the different color treatment bike lanes receive compared to the road. Throughout the Netherlands, we saw bike lanes that were a burnt-red to separate them from the automobile lanes. Something as simple as a color change makes cyclists feel safer and more comfortable riding in such close proximity to cars. In Charlotte, while we do have some bike lanes, they are the same color as the car lanes. Consequently, drivers drift in the bike lanes, cyclists don’t use the lanes, and it is as if they did not exist. The Netherlands show that something so seemingly trivial, is imperative for a successful cycling network. Moreover, cyclists are given their own traffic signals to create an efficient traffic flow and keep cyclists safe. Other details include wider lanes, extensive bike parking, shorter routes via tunnels and cut-throughs, and protected or separated lanes when necessary.
I hope Charlotte can learn from the Netherlands. Creating a comfortable and successful cycling network is beneficial economically, socially, and environmental. In the Netherlands it doesn’t take facts and statistics to understand that either. It is clearly evident in the everyday life and observation of the incredible Dutch cycling culture.