During the week of September 12th, 2016 we had the pleasure of playing a role in Vancouver’s hosting of the Pro Walk / Pro Bike / Pro Place Conference. As a part of our activities, we were asked to give a short talk at the Dutch Urban Design Centre, at an event hosted by the Consulate General of The Netherlands. The following is our presentation, which compiled ten lessons for aspiring cycling cities, based on our #CyclingAbroad travels.
Earlier this year, we were lucky enough to spend five weeks in The Netherlands, to learn about the drastic cultural changes needed to shift away from the car-centric paradigm, to one that puts people first. We visited five Dutch cities (Rotterdam, Eindhoven, Amsterdam, Utrecht, and Groningen), and spoke with local politicians, planners, and citizens about the strategies utilized to improve livability, mobility, and social equity. Drawing from those experiences, we have assembled a list of ten cycling lessons for Vancouver (or any other aspiring cycling city).
1. Functional, Everyday City Bikes
One of the first things you’ll notice when you step outside a Dutch train station is how remarkably similar, yet practical all of the bicycles are. Gender-neutral step-through frames, sweeping handle bars, fenders, lights, frame locks, chain guards, racks, and baskets are all standard on the typical Dutch workhorse, and you’ll spot people of all ages on them (particularly teens and the elderly). In stark contrast, the North American bike industry appears fixated on sport cycling, while functional, everyday city bikes for transportation remain frustratingly hard to find.
2. Electric Assist Levels the Playing Field
As recent converts to the world of electric bikes, we’re excited by their ability to close the gender and age gaps, flatten hills, and remove sweat from the equation, addressing many of the barriers to the uptake of cycling as a means of transport. Nowhere is that more apparent than in The Netherlands, where one in five new bicycles sold is electric, with 80% of them bought by people over the age of 50. A recent study found e-bikes are ridden twice as far and twice as often as traditional, non-motorized bicycles, with the biggest impact on females and seniors.
3. Cycle Tracks on High Streets
Historically, North American cities have placed their bike routes on side streets rather than main streets, forcing a problematic choice between comfort and convenience. This places an unintended emphasis on longer, faster commutes to work; when – with cycle tracks on corridors people want to visit – many more could be convinced to make the slow, short jaunt to the supermarket, cafe, or doctor’s office. In The Netherlands, cycling acts as an extension of walking rather than driving, with the vast majority of bike trips less than two miles or 20 minutes.
4. Better Biking on Side Streets
While Dutch planners have gone to great lengths to enable short utilitarian trips, that isn’t to say the commute to work or school has been neglected. Complementary bike routes are often provided to make the latter as convenient as possible, characterized by red pavement, prominent branding, parking reduction, and traffic calming measures that dissuade motor vehicle through traffic. We’d love to see these features along the neighbourhood greenways in our own city, making it clear cyclists are their main users, and motorists are guests.
5. The Bike-Train-Bike Combination
An astounding 50% of passengers arriving at a Dutch train station do so by bike, a statistic manifested in the endless sea of bicycles outside the front door. These numbers are a testament to the unique way planners have integrated bike and train travel; making intercity, door-to-door trips entirely seamless. This powerful combination is further strengthened by OV-fiets, the national bike-sharing scheme run by their rail company. For just €3 per 24-hour period, one can borrow a bike from virtually any train station in the country, paid for on a single smart card.
6. Benign Acts Are Perfectly Acceptable
B.C.’s outdated Motor Vehicle Act contains a number of counterproductive rules by which cyclists are expected to adhere. Riding abreast remains illegal, despite evidence it is safer (and easier for drivers to pass). Doubling remains illegal, despite it being an obviously benign act. Riding without a helmet remains illegal, despite studies demonstrating the health benefits of cycling (even bareheaded) outweigh the risks by at least 20:1. And “Idaho Stops” remain illegal, despite studies showing they are safer than requiring a complete stop at every intersection.
7. Weather Is a Red Herring
Weather is often used as a convenient excuse as why North American cities will never be like The Netherlands. While Vancouver has one of the wettest climates in Canada, averaging 166 days a year with precipitation, here’s a startling fact: Amsterdam averages 217 days of rain per year. With sufficient infrastructure, traffic calming, and a slow, upright culture; riding a bike becomes much like walking with wheels, where raincoats, umbrellas, and gumboots are enough to keep on rolling. As we often repeat: safe streets trump weather, every day of the week.
8. Make Rural Cycling Practical
While we spent most of our time exploring the top-notch cycling facilities within Dutch cities and towns, we did manage to get out into the countryside, which is crisscrossed with countless rural cycling routes. This unparalleled network provides residents with the option to comfortably pedal from one city to another, without sharing the road with motor vehicles. This opens up not just possibilities for longer-distance commuting (particularly when e-bikes are part of the equation), but also for recreation, freeing up limited motorway space for those who really need it.
9. Bike Lanes Aren’t Just for Bikes
Of the many arguments made against building better bike infrastructure, the most spurious may be the one that claims bike lanes reduce accessibility. Whether in an urban, suburban, or rural setting, slow, safe, and inclusive streets benefit all residents, not just those fit enough to get around on two wheels. Over five weeks, we spotted all manner of wheelchairs, scooters, and tricycles in the cycle tracks; providing those with physical limitations the freedom to get from A to B, without inconveniencing people on the sidewalk, or requiring a costly automobile.
10. Cargo Bikes Mean Business
It’s no secret we are smitten with cargo bikes, having witnessed firsthand their small, but growing role in our own city’s emerging bike culture. However, this trip opened up our eyes to what's possible when they are applied on a bigger scale. Virtually everywhere we travelled, big businesses were utilizing them for logistics, including shipping giant DHL. They were also being used for pizza and beer deliveries, and on-site retail. It was clear many of these organizations had figured out that for more efficient urban deliveries, the nimble cargo bike couldn’t be beat.
"Just Something the Dutch Do, Without Overthinking It"
While North America has made great strides in allotting space for cycling in recent years, the Dutch experience reminds us building a successful cycling city is more than just paint and planters. Riding a bike is so natural, so unremarkable; not the fringe activity it is seen as here. Cycling to work, school, the supermarket, and everywhere in between is just something they do, without overthinking it. We would be wise to take a page out of their book, and start striving for a similar bike culture, without the needless hand wringing that often turns casual users away.