I’m often stopped in mid-sentence by American cycling advocates when I proclaim that the template for designing bike-friendly cities already exists in Northern Europe. Common responses go something like this: “We are too car centric. American cyclists want to go faster than Europeans. We just need to do a better job of educating drivers and cyclists. The Dutch have 90+ years of bike culture under their belts and we can never replicate that. ” All of these statements are well intended but miss the larger point. We have a great deal to learn from the Europeans when it comes to making daily biking a habit for the masses.
I’ve never been a fan of the “American school” of bicycle safety from the likes of John Forrester, who maintains that the best way to promote safe cycling is to treat bikes like motorized vehicles. While Mr. Forrester has been instrumental in tactical recommendations that help American cyclists safely navigate our infra-structureless land (something for which he deserves big kudos), his outright disdain for the Northern European model borders on irrational xenophobia. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to conclude that the Germans, Dutch and Danes are doing something right when it comes to building effective cycling infrastructure. One only needs to compare those countrys’ ridership rates and injury/fatality statistics with that of the US or UK. Why do Americans find it necessary to redesign the wheel?
Rather than focusing on safe streets, Americans are fixated on mititgating the effects of the crash. Is it any wonder that we have some of the highest rates of helmet use and bicycle fatalities in the US? The critical flaw in Forrester’s theory is that it’s dependent on changing human behavior via education. If motorists simply respected bikers on the roads and if bikers always followed the rules our problems would be solved! Guess what? Humans don’t change unless they have to; we are inherently change averse. Europeans understand that the only way to change behavior is via new laws, positive and negative incentives, physical infrastructure and urban engineering, not happy thoughts of enlightenment.
One major myth is that Northern Europeans have been riding in cycling bliss for the past 90+ years. In fact cycling rates dropped massively in places like Holland in the 1950’s and 1960’s due to the same love affair with cars that afflicted America. It wasn’t until the oil crisis in the 1970’s that Northern Europe renewed its efforts to make their cities bike friendly. Call me an optimist, but I believe we can still do the same thing in the States.
I strongly encourage that American cycling advocates download and read Making Cycling Irresistible: Lessons from The Netherlands, Denmark and Germany. This paper is chalk full of best practices from three of the world’s top biking countries.
Dream the dream. We can make it happen here too, and we don’t need to redesign the wheel to do it.