It seems that cyclists and their supporters are getting a lot of press and a vocal, if not large, group of supporters. As I have written previously on this blog, I spent a year in grad school at the University of Amsterdam and often biked through the Rijksmuseum to classes on one of the famous canals — the Herengracht. I don’t believe bikes are a wave of the future in Richmond or anywhere else in the United States. Pete Jordan, an American who moved to Amsterdam and stayed to open a bike shop, examines some of the historical, cultural, and geographic reasons for the popularity of cycles in Holland in his book, “In the City of Bikes.”
The Dutch never developed a domestic auto industry. The Netherlands never had anyone comparable to Henry Ford who had as his goal, “cars for everyone at affordable prices.” Autos were expensive and, as Jordan points out, credit to finance consumer goods was not readily available .
Gasoline has always been significantly more expensive in Europe than it is here. It is not unusual for gas prices to be two to be three times as high as in the US.
The availability of parking favors bikes. The center city was mostly constructed in the 17th century, and the fact that much of the it is built on reclaimed land that is sandy, making it expensive to build, retards the building of garages in the business district. In fact, until the 1930′s, it was illegal to curbside park.
The old Dutch saying that God created the earth, but the Netherlanders created Holland indicates that having fought nature for centuries to claim the land, most loath giving up space to to store autos. Holland is a small country, very densely populated with distances between cities very short by American standards. With a well developed inter-city train system, commuters tend to ride bikes to the suburban train stations and use the tram system to take them to their place of business. Dutch cities, even the largest Amsterdam and Rotterdam, do not compare in population or square miles to a New York or Boston much less Los Angeles.
As the land was hard to acquire and building costly, most streets in the older central business districts are narrow, making it difficult for bikes and strollers to share space. The addition of cars makes things difficult. Several times a week I would see a car being raised out of a canal as a driver failed to negotiate the ancient street effectively (often under the influence of a bit too much Genever).
In his book Jordan highlights another interesting point. The tradition of Calvinism causes the Dutch to downplay outward displays of status. Autos in the U.S. are often sold as status symbols and many Americans drive to impress. As they say in LA , “You are what you drive.”
History and culture are not the only drivers of public policy but they cannot be ignored. I doubt that the current emphasis on bikes will add significantly to urban development in the U.S. and certainly not in Richmond’s historic Fan District.
– D. Leslie Schreiber