The Dutch Difference

Mark Wagenbuur’s Bicycle Dutch blog is one of my favorite sources for information about bicycling.  I’ve learned a lot from reading it.  In addition to the blog, I follow Wagenbuur on social media and this morning I was directed by LinkedIn to an Irish Times post about his recent visit to Dublin Ireland.

As I read “Genuinely Fearing for my Life” I marveled at how much cycling in Dublin sounds like cycling in the best US cities…places like Portland or Minneapolis.  I’ve cycled through both and while I can’t say that I ever once feared for my life,  I did spend a lot of time focused on my rear view mirror and thinking about escape routes just in case.  It’s not new to me like it is to Wagenbuur, but I don’t live in Holland.

And Holland is pretty special, though maybe not for the reasons most people think.  As As I’ve talked to fellow cyclists, I’ve come to realize that many of us believe that our Dutch sisters and brothers simply move from cycle path to protected bike lane and back again with nary a care in the world.  They never have to share their space with cars, trucks, or SUVs.  It’s infrastructure, the thinking goes, that makes Holland special.

It’s not, though.   I’ve been to Holland four or five times now, and even though it has been a while, I remember it as if it was yesterday.  There were cycle paths, to be sure, but there were also plenty of bicycles on the streets.  I checked Google Streetview to see if this was still the case.  It is.  Check it out…

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Amsterdam, Eindhoven, Utrecht and Groningen are as good as it gets when it comes to bicycle friendly, but even here it isn’t hard to see that cyclists have to share their space with motorists.  So what’s different about Holland?

I think it’s the Dutch mindset about how to share a street.  In Holland, the person with the most horsepower doesn’t automatically get to impose his will on everyone else.  The Dutch don’t tolerate this kind of behavior.  They recognize that the most vulnerable road users have the most to lose and so they prioritize  protecting them in a way we don’t.

So what does this look like?  Well, where it makes sense they build cycle paths and protected bike lanes.  Not everywhere, though.  The Dutch drive cars and Holland is a small country.  Infrastructure often needs to be shared. When separation is not possible or practical, the default is that bicycles and pedestrians are more important than motorists.  We go.  They wait.  Speed limits are reduced.  Twenty kilometers per hour (12 mph) is common.  It works…remarkably well.  Even though I suspect that the Dutch are in as much of a hurry as the average American, they don’t run over cyclists and pedestrians like we do.  When they do, there’s hell to pay.

Having seen this with my own two eyes, I realize that it’s more about building a culture based on respect for other road users than it is about building infrastructure.   This is the real difference between us and the Dutch, and it’s both a challenge and a great opportunity for us here in the States.  If we can do what they’ve done, then we won’t need protected bike lanes except on the highest speed thoroughfares.  If we can’t, then all the infrastructure in the world won’t matter.

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