A Week of Biking Joyously: Part II

On a recent fact-finding mission to the Netherlands, a delegation of California public officials marveled at the promise of bicycles as a primary means of transportation in their cities and towns. Today, the second installment of Jay Walljasper’s report.

Kids getting ready to bike home at this primary school in Utrecht, Netherlands. Ninety-five percent of the older kids bike to school at least some of the time. Zach Vanderkooy

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To read Jay Walljasper’s first dispatch, please scroll down.

Squarely Addressing the Problems of Bike Safety & Theft

Our next stop was the Hague, where bikes account for 27 percent of all trips around the city of 500,000—exactly the average for the Netherlands as a whole. But not content with being merely average, the Hague is spending 10 million euros a year (roughly 14 million dollars) to improve those statistics.

Hidde van der Bijl, a policy officer for cycling in the Hague’s city government, outlined their strategy about improving bicycle speed and safety: separating bike paths as much as possible from city streets and, when that is not possible, designating certain streets as bike boulevards where two-wheelers gain priority over cars and trucks. The latter are known as bike boulevards in the U.S, and are being used in Portland, Berkeley, Minneapolis and other cities.

These are practical innovations that could make a dramatic difference in nearly every American town, because research on this side of the Atlantic shows that physical separation from motorized traffic on busy streets is the single most effective policy that gets more people to bike.

But officials in the Hague are realizing that fear about safety isn’t the only thing that discourages people from riding bikes more frequently. That’s why they are tackling the problems of bike parking, which emerges as a significant issue for cyclists in any large city.

“The car is parked out in front of the house on the street, while the bike is stuffed away out back in a shed or they have to carry up and down the stairs in their buildings,” van der Bijl explained. “So people choose the car because it is easier.”

“It’s an issue for me personally,” agreed Ed Reiskin, San Francisco’s director of public works, “because I always have to carry my bicycle down to the street.”

People also worry about their bike being stolen off the street outside their home or job. That’s why creating more secure bike parking in residential neighborhoods, commercial districts and workplaces is a priority for the Hague’s transportation planners.

The city is busy building parking facilities in the basement of new office developments and at strategic outdoor locations throughout the center city, many of them staffed by attendants like a parking garage. You can park your bike there for a nominal fee, confident that it will still be there when you return. (Groningen, the Netherlands’ biking capital with 59 percent of urban trips made on two wheels, debuted the first guarded parking facility in 1982 and now sports more than 30 in a town of 180,000.)

Meanwhile in high density residential neighborhoods, the city is installing bike racks or special bikes sheds to make life easier for two-wheel commuters, sometimes taking over auto parking spaces to do it. One parking space can be converted to 10 bike spaces, according to van der Bijl.

Something Hopeful in Rotterdam

On our third day in the Netherlands, we biked across the Atlantic—at least it felt that way in Rotterdam, a city whose streets seemed almost American. We came face-to-face with familiar road conditions: heavy traffic on 4-lane roads with aggressive drivers.

Bob Ravasio, a Marin County realtor and city council member in the town of Corte Madera, quipped, “Utrecht seems like a fantasy land now. This is what we’re up against at home.”

Rotterdam heightened our optimism about boosting biking in the U.S. when we learned that 22 percent of trips around town each day are made on bicycles—below average among Dutch cities but more than double the rate of any major American city. If they could do it, so could we.

“Rotterdam could be San Francisco or Oakland with more bikes,” observed Damon Connolly.

Even more encouraging was the news from the city planning department’s Tom Boot, who said that Rotterdam has been increasing its share of bike traffic by 3 percent annually for the last several years. They’ve achieved this phenomenal growth by expanding and improving the network of bikeways—separating them from car traffic whenever possible and coloring the asphalt bright red everywhere else to clearly mark bike lanes for motorists to see.

“Good things are happening here,” observed Bruno Maier, vice-president of Bikes Belong, “and you can really envision it happening back home.”


I joined a team of latter-day explorers in the Netherlands this month on a quest to discover what American communities can learn from the Dutch about transforming bicycling in the U.S. from a largely recreational pastime to an integral part of our transportation system.

Patrick Seidler, vice-chairman of the Bikes Belong Foundation, sponsor of this fact-finding mission for key decisionmakers from the San Francisco Bay Area, announced we were in search of the “twenty-seven percent solution”—the health, environmental, economic and community benefits gained in a nation where more than a quarter of all daily trips are made on bicycle.

Of course, the bicycle enjoys certain advantages in the Netherlands, notably a flat landscape and a long cycling tradition. But the idea of learning from the success of the Dutch is not far-fetched. The Netherlands resembles the United States as a prosperous, technologically advanced nation where a huge share of the population owns automobiles. They simply don’t drive them each and every time they leave home, thanks to common sense transportation policies where biking and transit are promoted as an attractive alternative to the car. Indeed, millions of Dutch commuters combine bike and train trips, which offers the point-to-point convenience of the automobile and the speed of transit.

Seidler noted that a delegation of public officials from Madison, Wisconsin returned home from a similar tour of the Netherlands last spring, and within three weeks was implementing what they learned on the streets of the city. Bikes Belong, a non-profit group dedicated to getting more people on bikes more often, regularly takes public officials on tours of cities where biking is popular.

My fellow explorers on this journey included the president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors (city council) and the city’s director of public works, chief traffic engineer and director of the livable streets program. From San Jose, come a city council member, the chief traffic engineer and representatives of the business community. Suburban Marin County was represented by city council members from San Rafael, Mill Valley and Corte Madera as well as a transit project director.

Here is what we discovered in the world capital of biking.

Kids Just Wanna Ride Bikes

The trip started in Utrecht, where our group marveled at the parade of bicyclists whizzing past us all over town. This raised an immediate question: Why is biking a way of life in the Netherlands and only a tiny portion of the transportation picture in United States?

We uncovered a large part of the answer that afternoon at a suburban primary school, where Principal Peter Kooy told us that 95 percent of older students—kids in the 10-12 age range—bike to school at least some of the time.

Compare that to the 15 percent who either walk or bike to school in the United States, down from 50 percent in 1970, according to the National Center for Safe Routes to School program.

“I came to the Netherlands to have my mind blown about biking,” declared Damon Connolly, vice-mayor of San Rafael, California. “And that sure happened when I heard that 95 percent of kids bike to school.”

This helps explain the childhood obesity epidemic in the U.S., but also why so few adult Americans ride a bike to work or to do errands—a mere one percent of trips compared to 12 percent in Germany, 18 percent in Denmark, and 27 percent in the Netherlands. A commitment to biking is not uniquely imprinted in the Dutch DNA. It is the result of a conscious push to promote biking that has resulted in a surge of cycle use since the1970s.

And a large part of that success can be attributed to what happens in school. Kids learn how to bike safely as part of their education said Ronald Tamse, a Utrecht city planner who led our group on a two-wheel tour of the city and its suburbs.

A municipal program sends special teachers into the schools to conduct bike classes, and students go to Trafficgarden, a miniature city complete city with roads, sidewalks and busy intersections where students hone their pedestrian, biking and driving skills (in non-motorized pedal cars). At age 11, most kids in town are tested on their cycling skills on a course throughout the city, winning a certificate of accomplishment that ends up framed on many bedroom walls.

“To make safer roads, we focus on the children,” Tamse explained. “Because it not only helps them bike and walk more safely, but it helps them to become safer drivers who will look out for pedestrians and bicyclists in the future.”

These kinds of programs would make a huge difference in the United States, where 60 percent of people report in surveys they would like to bike regularly if they felt safer—but only eight percent actually do.

Coming next week: More reactions from public officials, as well as observations about safety, bike lanes and challenges and opportunities back home.

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Jay Walljasper—author of The Great Neighborhood Book—writes, speaks and consults about creating strong communities.

Tags: infrastructurepublic transportationsan franciscobikingcity councilssan josenetherlandsmadison

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