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A dispatch from Dutch cycling heaven: we have a problem

Originally, I too was a naive Dutch herring who didn’t realise what great water she was swimming in. Who took it completely for granted that one could cycle to school, the supermarket, the library and one’s friends. 

Only after I returned from a few years abroad did I see it. That what foreigners always say. The Dutch live in cycling heaven. 

This is amazing. 

When I had children, I felt deep gratitude for the Dutch bike paths, especially the so-called separate bike path, with those shoulder sections in between the different lanes. Such a completely separate route is really a safe haven, next to the permanent hurricane on the main road. 

So it’s not surprising that tens of delegations come to the Netherlands every year to see how it all works. To learn from our Dutch Cycling Embassy how good cycling infrastructure comes about, and that it only comes about with coherent and That a cycling country is much more than just technology and asphalt, that it is also a culture, a form of participation. In the Netherlands, you have a seat at the table. Okay, at most you get a tenth of the budget that the motorist lobby arranges for itself, but still. You get to have your say. ​

The Dutch medicine for the problem of the congested city has turned out to be excellently marketable engineering knowledge: separate bicycle paths, bicycle traffic lights, bicycle rain sensors, bicycle thresholds, bicycle roundabouts, bicycle parking garages, bicycle highways and bicycle streets – a street where the cyclist has priority over the motorist, a street where the latter is ‘a guest’. 

It works great, I’m grateful for it and I enjoy it every day. But in the corona pandemic it dawned on me that the Dutch remedy also has its disadvantages. It is a cure with serious side effects. 

If cyclists don’t stick to their lane, they’re ‘in the way’

Take this tweet from a father of a child attending school in the Netherlands. Early this month he wrote:

‘Email from school. Motorists are complaining that there are so many people who bring their children to school by bike. And if the cyclists please could make way. I had to read it twice to check if the email really said that.’

Now a foreigner might think: in the Netherlands it is at least hard to believe that a school board dares to complain about parents and children coming by bike. But: the tweet goes viral. Within two hours it has a thousand likes. And within a day three thousand. This father touches on something that everyone on a bicycle in the Netherlands apparently recognises.

I think it is this: if cyclists are not neatly assigned their own lane in the Netherlands, they soon are seen as riding ‘in the way’ of people who are in cars.

It is a consequence of the deal we made at those lobby tables, where people are allowed to participate in discussions as cyclists: Don’t Obstruct Each Other. The cyclists get their own lane, so that the motorists can also continue to drive. If the freeway becomes congested, we will construct a freeway for bicycles, so we can cover more kilometers on the road every year. So that our mobility and our economy can continue to grow. No loitering on the cycle path. And no standing still in the middle of the road in front of school as a child.

A pandemic pause

During the first lockdown it became clear that things can also be done very differently.

Brussels temporarily turned the city center into a so-called ‘woonerf’: an area where people go first. By car you are the last to have priority. That really is a very different model from the Dutch one, where everyone has their own lane. Brussels tried to take the speed and danger out of street life, by creating mixed streets.

Milan said: we don’t want those exhaust fumes we had before the pandemic ever again. And so we are going It is an idea that has hardly been discussed in the Netherlands in corona times.

Paris added hundreds of kilometers of bike path. Not with the idea of getting everyone from one side of the city to the other as efficiently as possible. In the that Paris uses, people should have the right to participate in all meaningful activities for self-development, without having to depend on fast mobility. That is the message that

In all those conversations abroad, people again saw the street for what it is: the remaining space between the houses where you can do all sorts of things, that has all sorts of purposes that you can discuss. Public space doesn’t have to facilitate fast traffic.

The Dutch formula does get you somewhere. Thanks to the creed ‘Don’t Obstruct Each Other’, and its implementation, Dutch cities didn’t have such big problems with automobility as those other cities when the pandemic hit.

But to me it also explains why there was no fundamental discussion in the Netherlands about the street as a public space that can serve a thousand and one purposes. And it also explains why a school director can send such an email – especially in the Netherlands, urging schoolchildren on bicycles to please make way for parents who bring their children to school by car.

The export product: stop thinking

If you give everyone their own small lane on the road, you get even more stuck in the idea that we should be able to keep on driving, because that’s what streets are for.

And when lines and coloured asphalt determine what you may and may not do and in which place, you might forget to ask yourself how to actually behave towards others courteously in public space. We also export: ‘you can stop thinking’.

These, I now see, are the unintended and paralysing side effects of the Dutch medicine for the congested city. We should indicate these side effects in a package leaflet. A good description of the side effects of our medicine, with all our experience with them, can help other countries to keep thinking about what public space actually is, and in what ways cycling can play a role there.

Cycling is so much more

Cycling is so much more than a healthy, clean, efficient solution to the problem of cars. And so there may be more (and more interesting) aspects of cycling in the Netherlands that we can export.

Can we use cycling as a tool for more social public space? Can we actively promote how meaningful it is to sit on the back of someone’s bike or to take someone with you: And then not as a side effect of the Dutch cycle path, but as a goal in itself. There must be a market in this. A bike rack that can take a beating is worth more than you think.

What are actually the conditions for all those good ideas that arise when people are cycling, because it got them into a state of flow? Can we talk about how chemist Ben Feringa’s Nobel Prize-winning molecules came to be on the bicycle? Just as M.C. Escher’s and lawyer Bénédicte Ficq’s pleas against the tobacco industry? Marketing slogan: If only to avoid talking about travel time savings or health benefits.

Can we market the idea of how valuable it is to learn as a toddler to perform an exciting balancing act with your body, with the support of carefree parents, in the middle of public space? And how you can continue doing this as an adult, by choosing an increasingly challenging bike? A fixie, or a penny farthing? What does it bring to a city if there is a lot of space for that?

Because that, I now believe, is what makes cycling in the Netherlands so great. It’s not the bike lanes, as I’ve thought for years.

I read this column on September 30 at the tenth anniversary of The Dutch Cycling Embassy.

Let’s see if we can make this a truly international conversation. Please click here to come to the Dutch page and share you thoughts there in English.
Correspondent Mobiliteit & Straatleven