Bikes, Ajax,and Delft Blue

The tourist vision of bikes and canals in Amsterdam.

Recently the role of bicycles in the urban transportation mix has come to the fore. The death of a rider last summer in Richmond’s West End, the explosive growth of VCU and its bike riding population, rising concerns over air pollution and desire for a “healthy” lifestyle, have all buttressed the dialogue.

The young lady killed last August by a hit-and-run driver was a former student of mine, and, as a resident of Richmond’s Fan District, I am aware of the difficulties in adding cycling to the urban transportation mix. Developing bike lanes in an already congested urban area, where parking is acutely scarce and the streets narrow, remains problematic. However, an even bigger impediment to the use of bicycles is the lack of enforceable protocals. A consensus of the rules would be a good first step. Is this possible in Virginia?

I spent my final year of graduate school  studying the European Economic Community in a 17th century townhouse in Amsterdam. Ground transportation in the city was comprised of bicycles, trams, and automobiles. This seeming prescription for chaos was tempered by the Dutch acceptance of a set of rules of behavior for each mode of transport. At the intersections, there are often traffic lights for cars, bikes, and trams.

Stakeholders accepted this system  because they saw themselves as participating in the common good to retain the character of their ancient city. When it rained, which was often, people wore specially designed raincoats so that they could continue to use their bikes. This sense of social cohesion is rooted in Dutch history.

Unlike much of Europe, feudalism in Holland played a very small role in political development. Nearly 1,000 years ago, when the ancestors of the present day Batavians began to drain the polders and build dykes, they developed a unique culture. Government was needed, and it worked best when a common plan was executed that would aid a large number of members of the community. Royal prerogatives were limited. This governmental structure laid the foundation for a system that eventually gave rise to the first joint stock company: the Dutch East India Company, the first Stock Exchange and the most tolerant religious environment in the 17th century. The system produced a class of merchants who built the canal houses as they traded with the world. Besides engaging in trade, these capitalists, whose profits were not drained by the usual royal and clerical drags, funded some of the world’s great artists.

The dark side of the Dutch psyche: bikes dredged from a canal.

For the past decade, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has been undergoing an extensive renovation. In the course of this project, an amazing discovery has been made: a portrait recently attributed to Rembrandt, of one of the most colorful dissenters in early Dutch history. This picture of Kijn van der Chelly, the town fool of The Hague, is shown railing against European Socialist Government and screaming for lower taxes as a huge storm approaching from the North Sea is about to break the dike that protects him and his family. I do not think there is much hope for sensible transportation policy in Virginia.

– Les Schreiber

3 Responses to Bikes, Ajax,and Delft Blue

  1. Les:

    There will be sensible transportation policy in Virginia when that policy is set at the local, rather than the state, level. There is no problem with Virginia or Virginians. Our problem is a power drunk, opaque and feudal state legislature which doesn’t have the sense required to come in out of the rain – special raincoats not withstanding.

    Bikers against Dillon.

  2. Les, you pulled your punches! When you and I talked about this story, you told me how VCU students hurtle down the Fan Streets paying no heed to stop signs or stop lights. They are the antithesis of the Dutch. The Dutch (like the Danes) have developed highly successful bicycling cultures because they are homogeneous, rules-obeying societies. Americans are undisciplined, don’t-tread-on-me maniacs! That’s what you said — admit it!

    Note to readers: The photographs and cut-lines were my selection, not Les’.

  3. along the same lines – I often get the impression that law enforcement pretty much leaves even “illegal” biking alone unless something egregious or provocative is done.

    I wonder how many bike “tickets” are issued each year. I bet they’re as scarce as hens teeth.

    that helps engender a mindset that bike are not “serious” transportation if they are not held to somewhat equivalent standards as other vehicles.

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