What Virginians Can Learn from Bicycle Nirvana

Americans, it is commonly said, have had a love affair with the automobile. By the same token, it is fair to say that the Dutch have had a love affair with the bicycle. A 1938 newspaper article declared the bicycle to be “the most Dutch of all vehicles.” Some 32 years later, when some friends and I spent a summer bicycling through Europe, we found the Netherlands the easiest of all European countries to navigate. All major roads were paralleled by bicycle paths — it was nice not competing with automobiles for space on the road. But it is only since then that the Dutch have gotten truly serious about bicycles.

The Netherlands has proven that a transportation system that relies heavily upon bicycles is fully compatible with a modern, urban economy with a high standard of living. Between 2005 and 2007, Amsterdam residents took more trips by bicycle than by car. Nationally, almost 30% of Dutch commuters almost always travel by bike; another 40% sometimes commute by bike.

The 14-minute video above records what a delegation from several American cities experienced recently when touring the Netherlands to see first-hand how its cities are organized for bicycle transportation. It is remarkable to see how many Dutchmen ride bicycles — the streets of Groningen look like a never-ending bike festival.

I recommend the video not with the thought that U.S. regions should aspire to the same levels of bicycle ridership as the Netherlands. After all Holland is flatter than the U.S., so cycling is easier. The country has fewer temperature extremes, so cycling is more pleasant. Netherlanders are well behaved and more inclined than many Americans to obey traffic laws, so cycling is safer. Perhaps most  important, Dutch settlement patterns are more compact, so riding to work isn’t like completing the Tour de France, as it would be, say, in the U.S. suburbs.

Rather, I recommend the video to show what is possible. In the U.S., only one to two percent of all commutes take place on bicycles. If the Dutch can push that figure higher than 30%, surely some U.S. regions — or, at least, the urban cores of some regions — can realistically aspire to a third that number. Imagine how a shift of that magnitude would clear the streets of congestion! Imagine how much more fit people would be!

One last thought inspired by a comment from one of the people quoted in the video: “Dollar for dollar, euro for euro, bicycle transportation is the best value there is.” That’s something for Virginians to consider as we decide how to unleash hundreds of millions of dollars in new transportation spending.


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9 responses to “What Virginians Can Learn from Bicycle Nirvana”

  1. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    One can only wish. The fact remains that much of Virginia and its highway system is simply too dangerous for bikes. A tractor trailer nailed a couple on the Richmond-Willismsburg route. Was out in Amelia County the other day running my dog and damned if a bicyclist wearing a helmet like a car hood ornament wasn’t holding up the parade on a twisting, shoulderless road. I was behind a woman driving a van and she must have been country folk because she had no idea what to do. She kept anticipating moving around the biker but each time there was a curve with a hidden vehicle barreling along.
    I think it may be time to LIMIT biking on many roads unless the state can make certain their are appropriate bike lanes. That will cost money hat no one has. You are supposed to be a fiscal conservative. What would you spend?
    Conjuring up idyllic bike trips through the Continental countryside without addressing these issues is just going to get people hurt or killed and they won’t all be on bikes..

    1. larryg Avatar

      I was gonna say …what if someone drove a car that speed on one of those rural roads and then I remember they do – post office vans and farmers on tractors.

      Cars today are much, much better handling at speed and all of us basically drive near the edge of the design of the road relative to the modern vehicle.

      In my subdivision – signed at 25mph and where many of us walk, kids and dogs – the neighbors drive at 40mph and faster – even though they’re fully aware there are people, kids, bikes, and dogs on that road every day.

  2. The Dutch have been building their bicycle infrastructure over decades… generations even. It’s nothing something you do in five or six years.

    As for people biking on country roads, I agree that there’s a major safety issue. It would be interesting to see how other countries handle similar situations.

  3. Scout Avatar

    The Dutch dependence on bicycles is one of long standing. At the end of WWII, the retreating German Army stole thousands of bicycles on its way out. In the post-war years, every Dutch family had a story about someone losing a bicycle. Fast forward to a major soccer championship about twenty years ago. I don’t recall whether it was the World Cup or European Championship or what. But it was a big, visible match. The Netherlands played Germany in Germany. The Germans were heavy favorites. As time ran down, however, it became apparent that Holland would pull off a monumental upset on the Germans’ home pitch. When it was late enough to be certain that the result was in the bag for the Netherlands, signs started appearing all over the Dutch spectator section of the stadium saying “Wo ist mein Fahrrad?” (“Where is my bicycle?”). A really, really, inside joke/taunt that no one but a Dutchman of a certain age would get.

    Bicycling conditions in much of Fairfax and Arlington counties aren’t too bad. I frequently commute from Vienna to downtown DC and am on city streets for no more than about 10% of the 14 mile distance to my office. A lot of new lanes have been added in Arlington and in my neighborhood, although having more segregated trails would be wonderful. I started riding around Washington, DC in the early 1970s and I must say that, in spite of increased traffic volumes, I think it is generally safer now than it was then. Riding on backroads in the country is a problem. The biggest concern I have there are motorists cresting a blind hill at high speed when I’m just over the crest. I’ve had some near misses in that context. Motorists in the country, presumably through lack of experience with bicyclists, also seem to have trouble judging how much distance they need to leave on their right for a bicyclist. Not only are there no shoulders on a lot of these road, there often is an unmanageable drop off.

    1. Wo ist mein fahrrad?

      Good line. I’ll remember that.

  4. Scout Avatar

    You’ll get some puzzled responses, as the Dutch did at the time. It’s the ultimate inside joke, Jim. It really was brilliant, because the signs were pre-prepared, the dutch had little chance of winning, it was a dig at the host country, and it was a dig that they were unlikely to get. But, at home in the . . .dams, every Ditch national knew exactly what the line meant.

  5. Scout Avatar

    PS: Plus it comes in handy if you lose your bicycle in Dusseldorf.

  6. Scout Avatar

    “Ditch” should read “Dutch”. No national slurs intended. I have been impressed in very positive ways with the industry and thrift of the Dutch. This goes back to the days when copper wire was invented by two Dutchmen fighting over a penny.

  7. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    Good to see you back here, Scout.

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