Last spring, public officials from Madison, Wisconsin, returned home from a tour of the Netherlands, and within three weeks were implementing what they learned there about promoting bicycling on the streets of their own city.
This month, I joined a similar group of latter-day explorers 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.
My fellow explorers on this journey included elected officials, traffic engineers, and business leaders from the San Francisco Bay Area, all in search of what Patrick Seidler, vice chairman of the Bikes Belong Foundation, sponsor of this fact-finding mission, called our own “27 percent solution” (in the Netherlands, 27 percent of all daily trips are made by bicycle, with enormous health, environmental, economic, and community benefits).
The Netherlands resembles the United States in many ways: It is a prosperous, technologically advanced nation where a huge share of the population owns automobiles. The difference is that the Dutch don’t drive every time they leave home. Their 27 percent rate dwarfs not only the measly 1 percent of trips taken by bicycle in the U.S., but also the rates of many, much bike-friendlier nations (12 percent of trips in Germany are by bike; in Denmark, it’s 18 percent).
But a commitment to biking is not uniquely imprinted in the Dutch DNA. It is the result of a conscious push to promote biking, which has resulted in a surge of cycle use since the 1970s.
So what did we learn from their example?
Start bike education early
Our trip started in Utrecht, where our group marveled at the parade of bicyclists whizzing past us all over town. But what really shocked us was a visit to a suburban primary school, where principal Peter Kooy told us that 95 percent of older students—kids in the 10 to 12 age range—bike to school at least some of the time.
In the U.S., roughly half that percentage (50 percent of kids) walked or biked to school… back in 1970. Since then, the rate has dropped to 15 percent, 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, Calif. “And that sure happened when I heard that 95 percent of kids bike to school.”
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 schools to conduct bike classes, and students go to Trafficgarden, a miniature city complete 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 through 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. “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 intimidating street conditions mean that, while 60 percent of people report that they would bike regularly if they felt safer, only 8 percent are regular cyclists.
Bikers—and bikes—need to feel safe
Next stop was the Hague, where bikes account for 27 percent of all trips around the city of 500,000 people—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) to improve those statistics.
Hidde van der Bijl, a policy officer for cycling in the Hague’s city government, outlined the strategy for improving bicycle speed and safety: The city is working to separate bike paths as much as possible from streets used by cars and trucks, which in some cases means designating certain streets as bike boulevards where two wheelers gain priority over automobiles. Bike boulevards are gaining popularity in the U.S., and are now in use in Portland, Ore., Berkeley, Calif., Minneapolis, and other cities.