Why Do Netherlanders Bike So Much More than North Americans?

by: EJ on 07/26/2017

People from the Netherlands ride their bikes 40 times more than North Americans.  Why is that?

Well, let's get this out of the way, right away, the Netherlands are flat.  But besides that....Peter Kalmus, author of the Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution has some additional reasons.


Sharon Kalmus and dog Mitzi commute together by bike

1) Mindset
As North America was settled, space was something to be conquered. This historically adversarial sense of space, along with the emergence of a cultural fetishization of convenience (convenience as progress) in the mid-20th century, intensified a national love affair with cars. Americans equate cars with speed, status, power, and freedom. If we think of bikes at all, we think of them more as recreational toys than as serious transportation.


Aerial view of Los Angeles (photo credit: Museum of the City)

2) Urban sprawl
Urban sprawl is the physical imprint of this mindset. Cities and suburbs in the US tend to be more spread out than in Europe, with vast parking lots for cars and poor integration between residential and business districts. European cities were built before cars existed; their compactness makes them bike-friendly. In Europe, there’s simply less distance between where you are and where you need to go.


3) Lack of Infrastructure
This is an unsurprising side effect of the car’s cultural dominance. Unlike bikers in Europe, bikers in the US must deal with mega-intersections, hostile and distracted motor traffic, and too-narrow roadways with traffic whizzing by, all while managing the risk of being doored by someone getting out of a parked car. Because of this lack of infrastructure, biking here is thought of as too dangerous. In Europe, segregated bike tracks that connect residential neighborhoods to shops, schools, and places of work increase both actual and perceived safety, making biking viable for even timid or elderly riders.

4) Safety in Numbers
There’s also a safety in numbers effect: when there are more bikes out, motorists are more aware of bikes. Every doubling of the number of bikers in a community reduces risk of injury from motorists by over 30%. This increases the real safety of biking. It also increases the perceived safety of biking. Biking encourages more biking. In the long run, a culture of biking could even reverse urban sprawl, because bicyclists tend to advocate for policies that encourage local businesses and compact, integrated neighborhoods.

What to do?  Peter has these suggestions:


Eight Ave NYC (photo credit: Streetsblog NYC)

Get on your bike and get started! See point #4

Ride aggressively for your own safety. Take the space you need to be safe while remaining aware of the changing traffic situation.

Ride smart and minimize that risk. This means, at a minimum, knowing what specific traffic situations are dangerous and avoiding them. He recommends studying Bicycle Safe - How Not to Get Hit by Cars carefully—it’s well worth the few minutes it will take.

Watch out for dogs. (to which I add - parked cars and opening doors)

Have a well maintained bicycle

Have fun

And finally, join bicycle advocacy clubs, like Bike To Work Week and lobby for cyclist safety, dedicated bike lanes and other infrastructure.



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