What Cycling Eden Can Teach the World About Bicycle Infrastructure

amsterdam, netherlands people rides bicycle in street of amsterdam
The Very Dutch Approach to Bicycle Infrastructureagrobacter

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Wave after wave of cyclists flooded past me as I straddled my borrowed Gazelle e-bike near the entrance of my Amsterdam hotel and entered the slipstream. I’d seen photos of this cycling nirvana, of course, but to actually be in the middle of it myself was almost overwhelming. I’ve done plenty of mass-start bike rides before in the U.S. surrounded by thousands of other riders. But those were special events; this was just everyday life in the Netherlands.

The Netherlands wasn’t always a cycling Eden; in the 1970’s, its car-centric infrastructure actually mirrored much of the U.S. But when pedestrian traffic deaths began to rise and gas prices skyrocketed due to the oil crisis, Dutch officials decided to pivot to a more bike-friendly transportation plan. There were some hiccups along the way, of course, as road designers learned from their mistakes. But over the decades, bicycling has become an ingrained part of Dutch life and the primary mode of transportation throughout the country.

Despite focusing their city infrastructure around bicycles, motorized vehicles haven’t been relegated to the dust bin in the Netherlands. Driving and vehicle ownership rates roughly equal the rest of the European Union, while Dutch highways are filled with cars and semi-trucks, just like in the United States. By not prioritizing motor vehicles at the expense of every other mode of transportation, they all seemed to work in harmony with one another.

It's a different story in my hometown of Indianapolis

Pedaling the streets of Amsterdam, I couldn’t help but feel jealous. Being a bicycle rider in the United States, especially in my hometown of Indianapolis, can be frustrating. Whereas the Netherlands have painstakingly built the world’s best cycling and pedestrian infrastructure, Indianapolis’ patchwork network of bike paths and trails has been largely neglected or rolled back since they were constructed.

“Infrastructure is so dependent on political will, it’s easy to lose momentum and whatever progress you’ve made,” says Chris Bruntlett, co-author of ‘Building the Cycling City: The Dutch Blueprint for Urban Vitality’ and ‘Curbing Traffic: The Human Case for Fewer Cars in our Lives.’ Bruntlett also serves as communication manager for the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a public-private consulting firm that teaches foreign municipalities the secrets to building a lasting cycling infrastructure.

So what can we learn from the Netherlands about bike infrastructure and how can we put it into practice here?

Make driving “a little more” inconvenient

In Amsterdam and other Dutch cities, roads are designed to make it easier to get from point A to point B by walking or pedaling. What might be a 10-minute bike ride in the city center could take a car double or triple that time. Dutch cities create a “hierarchy of roads,” Bruntlett says, differentiating between local and through traffic and diverting cars from economic and residential areas.

In Utrecht decades ago, engineers filled in one of the city’s main canals in order to build a multi-lane road. It not only took away from the city’s beauty and character, but it also added to the traffic congestion. Almost as soon as it was constructed, city planners realized it was a mistake and set about reversing it. Today, city planners are considering reducing car traffic on another major road, prioritizing it for the majority of users, namely cyclists.

Design “forgivable” streets that excite the senses

Dutch traffic engineers design infrastructure to physically protect riders, lower speeds, and raise awareness of the surrounding road users, Bruntlett says, increasing the safety of everyone. This includes creating raised, continuous cycle paths that are prioritized over motor vehicles. Roads with shared traffic are narrow, often textured or feature a traffic-calming device like a speed hump or table, and are capped at 30 kilometers an hour (18 mph).

If a crash between a vehicle and a bicycle occurs in the Netherlands, the driver of the vehicle is automatically considered to be at fault. Despite that, the Netherlands is also considered one of the best countries for drivers because the road design removes much of the uncertainty.

But road design incorporates more than just safety concerns. Bruntlett says traffic engineers try to design routes that “excite the senses” instead of just building cycletrack to take people from Point A to B. After all, why shouldn’t your commute into work be enjoyable?

Let the riders figure it out

Near the Amsterdam train station, there was a pedestrian intersection that gave city officials fits, where ferry and train commuters crossed a busy trail. Planners tried signage, lights, and even a human crossing guard, but all the potential solutions just caused the foot and pedal traffic to back up. So they did something that would be considered an anathema here in the U.S.; they removed them all and let the pedestrians and riders figure it out on their own.

It worked. Watching the organized chaos was like seeing a living organism. People judged traffic and made eye contact with one another, picking up on subtle indicators about when to move and when to pause for others to go.

Give riders a convenient, secure place to park

In Amsterdam especially, rows of racked bikes stand in front of most major buildings. But given the number of riders, that’s still not enough bike parking. Bike-parking garages can be found in city centers and surrounding the train stations. Utrecht boasts the world’s largest bike-parking garage at the central railway station, with room to store more than 12,500 bicycles, while Amsterdam built a massive garage that’s at least partially submerged underwater.

In all, four stations around Amsterdam’s city center hold more than 25 thousand bicycles, and there are plans to build even more in the coming years. Around the country, more than 40 train stations offer secure, indoor bike storage. Parking is typically free for the first 24 hours, then a nominal 4 euro fee is charged per additional day.

Connect to larger transportation infrastructure

More than 80 percent of the Dutch population live within a short bike ride to a train station, so it’s no wonder that rail journeys are also a major part of the transportation network. More than half of all Dutch train trips start with a bike ride. Of the 17.6 billion kilometers ridden in the Netherlands each year, it’s estimated one quarter are either to or from a train station.

So why does this all matter?

Why should American cities like Indianapolis follow Amsterdam’s example? According to statistics provided by the Dutch Cycling Embassy, the cyclist fatality rate per 100 million kilometers bicycled was .9 versus the U.S.’s six. It’s estimated more than 22,000 fewer Americans would have died on the roads if the U.S. had undergone similar transformations in road safety nearly 50 years ago.

But it’s also about bettering the quality of life.

Dutch residents are the most physically active of any country on earth, getting an average of 12.8 hours of exercise each week. It’s estimated that cycling prevents 6,500 premature deaths in the Netherlands each year, while saving their economy nearly 20 billion Euros, roughly 3 percent of their gross domestic product. Dutch children are among the happiest on earth, enjoying unparalleled levels of physical activity and autonomy. Both senior citizens and the physically disabled are able to use modified bikes or e-bikes to get around without assistance.

“Riding a bike helps maintain cognitive functions (as you get older),” Bruntlett said. “Cycling has a wealth of intangible effects – you feel better physically, you’re healthier and happier – that makes life better.”

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