More Learnings from Amsterdam: Day 4

“The goal of this course is to be confused, but on a higher level. We expect you to go home not with answers, but with the ability to ask better questions about cycling and city-building.”

This was the message shared with the Planning the Cycling City class by the course co-director, Marco to Brommelstroet, in our first lecture just three days ago. This message was confusing in the moment but is becoming clearer each day. Understanding why cycling works so well in the Netherlands is no simple task, and in reality, it is the result of a series of complex relationships. I entered this course with a biased engineering mindset that infrastructure is the key to unlocking cycling, but already I understand that there is so much more than bike lanes to building a cycling city.

On a more digestible level, continuing off of my Day 1 post, here are a few more of my key learnings from the past few days:

Bike infrastructure in the Netherlands is ubiquitous

Bike path next to a horse field in Amsterdam Zuidoost, about 10km outside the city centre

Eventually a network of infrastructure gets developed to the point where it is literally everywhere you need to go. This is the case with roads and driving in North America, where we don’t ask the question “can I drive there?”, but rather “how do I drive there?”. The Netherlands has been building bike infrastructure for so long that travel by bicycle, both within and between cities, is as ubiquitous as car travel. In Amsterdam, there is no need for “bike routes”, because every road has accommodation for bikes. Even in the countryside, vast bike routes stretch for hundreds of kilometres across the country, connecting cities. The intercity trails are so extensive that until recently, the government didn’t even know how many kilometres of paths existed. To address this, they recruited volunteers from across the country to manually log the entire network. The result: 37,000 kilometres of bike infrastructure!

The Dutch do not “outgrow” the bike when they become successful

In typical North American culture, wealth and social status are highly sought-after, and often flaunted when they are achieved. This ostentatious behaviour is what drives people to buy bigger homes, fancier cars, and nicer clothes, even when what they had before worked perfectly fine. China for example, has had historically high cycling rates, but recent economic growth and opportunities have led people to view the car as a status symbol, and as soon as they can afford to, they leave their bicycle behind and start driving. The Dutch identity, on the other hand, is rooted in modesty and frugality. Flaunting wealth is frowned upon in the culture, and so there are no negative connotations associated with the bicycle. This is why in Amsterdam, though one of the richest cities, it is quite uncommon to see luxury cars on the road, and those that are present are often driven by people of a non-native Dutch background, with different cultural values.

A Dutchman in a suit riding a very plain bicycle to work

Children are a fundamental part of cycling in the Netherlands

It’s quite common for North American adults to recall the last time they rode a bike as when they were a child. Back then, it was likely used as a recreational toy, eventually outgrown when they were old enough to drive. In the Netherlands, children are raised on cycling. When they are too young to ride a bike, they are ferried around by their parents in cargo bikes and in bike-seats. They sit facing forward, so even before the children can ride a bike themselves, they are exposed to rules of the road and interactions between cyclists.

Cargo bike
Dutch parents use bike seats and cargo bikes to transport children who are too young to ride yet themselves. Source: Pinterest

Cycling education is also a part of the Dutch school curriculum, and at the age of 11, 90% of school children take part in a national bicycle traffic safety practical exam. By the time they are 12-18 years old, the average Dutch child is riding an average of six kilometres per day. In the 1970’s, when car-driving was increasing at significant rates in the Netherlands, pedestrian and cyclist deaths spiked as well, with children being most-commonly killed. This sparked a fierce counter-car movement from the Dutch, called Stop De Kindermoord (stop the child deaths), which at its peak involved an organized “die-in” protest of over 100,000 people.

dutch die in
The Stop De Kindermoord die-in protests were used to demonstrate the many lives that had been lost to traffic deaths

I hope by now you are also understanding the complexity of this challenge. Stay tuned for my next post!

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