What Lessons Are to be Learned From the Dutch on Bicycling?

By Dom Nozzi, AICP

 Last year, I was sent a video showing the misery of driving a car in LA. By contrast, the video shows the large number of Dutch bicyclists enjoying travel in a healthy way.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-9RATQKiOZE

The lessons many Americans get from scenes such as this is that the key for inducing a large number of Americans to ride a bicycle is to build facilities such as bike paths, bike routes, bike lanes, bike parking, and traffic signals designed for bicyclists.

But this misses the main ingredients for transforming motorists into bicyclists.

We do NOT recruit large numbers of bicyclists (who were formerly motorists) by building bicycle-friendly facilities. No, the key is not that simple.

Increasing the Cost and Inconvenience of Driving a Car

The key lies with the vastly successful effort of many European cities to make car travel highly inconvenient and financially costly.

Parking for cars in such cities is extremely scarce and the few spaces that are available are expensive to use. Dimensions for streets and intersections are often quite small, which requires relatively slow, careful, attentive driving. And the price of gasoline is extremely high.

Some of the best, most common tactics American cities can use to achieve car inconvenience and higher car costs include:

1. Road dieting, where, for example, a four-lane road is reduced to three lanes. Particularly as a way to install new bike lanes or separated bike paths (do NOT install new bike facilities by widening a road).

2. An increased gas tax.

3. Conversion of town center off-street surface parking to on-street parking (and converting the off-street parking to buildings).

4. Increasing residential densities in the town center.

5. Reforming local government parking regulations, particularly within the town center, so that parking is not required as a condition for new development. One way to do this is to turn upside down the common requirement stating that a developer must install AT LEAST “X” number of car spaces per square foot of building. A much better rule: A developer is not required to install ANY parking spaces for cars. Instead, the previous minimum required number of spaces is now the MAXIMUM number of spaces that are allowed.

6. Traffic calming, where the street is designed with “horizontal interventions” such as on-street parking or sidewalk bulb-outs (or road diets) to narrow the street and obligate the motorist to slow down and drive more attentively.

7. Increased parking fees (to achieve an 85 percent parking space occupancy rate) or the introduction of parking fees where parking is now free.

As an aside, making driving more inconvenient or more costly in these ways is also the key for significantly increasing the number of pedestrians and transit users.

All cities in the world where the levels of bicycling, walking and transit use are high share this characteristic: driving and parking a car is inconvenient and costly.

Another thing such cities share is that the large numbers of bicyclists, pedestrians and transit users create a “virtuous cycle” – a self-perpetuating phenomenon where the sight of large numbers of citizens safely enjoying non-car travel induces others to realize that such travel is hip, safe and fun. “If they can do it, so can I!!”

A recent study has found that people are much more likely to engage in a socially desirable behavior if they see (or are told) that many others are ALSO engaging in the behavior. Not doing so induces a feeling of shame or guilt. It is a form of “herd mentality.” This strategy is much more effective than “public education” campaigns, for example. Campaigns that inform us that we will “protect the environment” or “save energy” or “promote better health” if we do a desirable thing such as turning off unused lights.

Make It Clear that Bicycling is Safe

Creating the impression that bicycling is safe is an essential tool for recruiting new bicyclists.

In the video, only 2-3 bicyclists (out of the several hundred shown) were wearing a helmet. It is quite interesting that of the many Americans who go to Europe to learn lessons about why European bike ridership is high and what the US can do to increase biking, not a single person I know of suggests the US bicycle advocates need to ratchet down the hysterical, single-minded “wear a bike helmet at all times!” campaign.

More importantly, as noted above, not a single “lessons from Europe and what the US should do” person mentions that by far, the most effective way to increase bicycling and reduce car dependence is to make it difficult and expensive to drive and park a car.

Too many are quick to attribute most or all success in Europe to bike parking, bike sharing, and separated bike paths.

I believe that is at least in part due to the fact that very few of us have any control over the effective tools (some of which I listed above). When all we have is a hammer, all our problems look like nails…

One reason so many like to tell us we need to install bicycle facilities is that bike parking and separated bike paths are very visibly obvious, whereas the effective tools (pricing and inconveniencing cars) is mostly invisible. Not to mention the fact that pricing and inconveniencing cars is unacceptable to the vast majority of bike advocates in the US, who are also, in most cases, primarily motorists. The handy thing about bike parking and separated paths is that bike advocates – when they push for such things — can avoid the unpleasant need to fight battles with motorists (paths and bike parking are not in the way of our Fords), and that they don’t have to advocate something that would increase their own costs and inconvenience when they drive a car.

Yes, bike facilities are an important component in a bike-friendly community — a community seeking to create a much larger number of bicyclists (not to mention pedestrians and transit users). But in many cities in the US and around the world, the starting point was not to create new bike paths or buy more buses or install light rail.

The starting point is to create the political will. To create the community where large numbers of citizens are eager to bicycle, walk or use transit for their daily trips.

This is not achieved by building new bike paths or buying more buses. The desire – the political will — to do that comes AFTER we make it costly and inconvenient to drive a car. If driving a car is not extremely costly and inconvenient, even the best bike paths and buses in the world will lead to unused bike paths and empty buses.

And the last thing we want is for the motorist and road-building lobbies to be able to sanctimoniously point to expensive bike or transit facilities as wasteful of public dollars because they are unused.

_________________________________________________

Visit my urban design website read more about what I have to say on those topics. You can also schedule me to give a speech in your community about transportation and congestion, land use development and sprawl, and improving quality of life.

Visit: www.walkablestreets.wordpress.com

Or email me at: dom[AT]walkablestreets.com

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1 Comment

Filed under Bicycling, Politics, Road Diet, Urban Design, Walking

One response to “What Lessons Are to be Learned From the Dutch on Bicycling?

  1. I live in England and am a keen walker. I find it too frightening to ride a bike in England, because there is not much segregation of bikes and cars. However, in the area where I live public transport is reasonably good, so I usually combine bus, trains and walking to get around.

    I do ride a bike when I visit friends in Holland. It feels much safer there, partly because of good bike facilities, but also because cars give way to bikes.

    When I visit friend in the USA, I feel scared WALKING in some areas. For example, in Denver side walks (when the exist) are sometimes right next to big, wide roads with fast cars. Boston has ‘count down’ signals for pedestrian crossings – and the streets are very wide.

    It makes me feel very sad that when I visit the USA I see little to suggest that the average American wants to reduce energy use/ car use.

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