An essay on bicycling

Heresy from abroad:  Where ‘bicycle friendly’ means something different

By Sue Luttner Coonen

September 21, 2005

We’ve received a surprise report from the Netherlands: The Dutch are not especially keen on bicycling, according to our house guest, they’re just practical people. Bicycles are great for getting to school and work, he said, but nobody he knows rides for fun.

Tom is 16 years old, which in the Netherlands means he’s legally allowed to drink beer and wine, but he’s still two birthdays away from applying for a driver’s license. He came to us through a summer exchange program with Enschede, Palo Alto’s sister city in the Netherlands. Our son spent almost three weeks in July living with Tom and his family in Hengelo, a smaller city outside of Enschede, and then both boys came here for the rest of summer break.

As always, travel broadened me, and this time it wasn’t even my travel. Tom gave me a new perspective on bicycling, of all things.

In addition to tulips, Van Gogh, and the sea-stopping delta works, the Netherlands is famous for its bicyclists. Statisticians report a full quarter of Dutch urban commuting is accomplished by bicycle, compared with approximately 1 percent in the US. In the Netherlands, citizens older than 75 say they use a bicycle for 24 percent of their local trips—Tom confirmed that his grandfather, now 89, gave up bicycling just a few years ago—while the reported figure among U.S. citizens older than 65 is .2 percent, and please note the decimal point.

Meanwhile, the Dutch bicycle-safety record is phenomenal. A 2003 study estimated the Netherlands had one-tenth the U.S. bicycle injury rate per kilometer traveled and one-third the bicycle-fatality rate, without bicycle helmet laws even for children.

Given all this, I wasn’t surprised when the emails from our son reported he and Tom were bicycling all over Hengelo and Enschede. What surprised me was Tom’s reluctance to bicycle after the boys came here. He went along with us on bike rides when we asked him to, but he never wanted to just take the bike out exploring, as I would have done in his place.

We asked him why, and that’s when he denied any special Dutch interest in cycling, except as a practical matter—and, he said, bicycling isn’t practical here. “Here it is not so good to bicycle,” is how he put it.

I was astonished, and a little offended. Earlier in the summer, relatives from Wisconsin and New Mexico had heaped praise on the Bryant Street Bicycle Boulevard, which we rode end to end in the moonlight just for fun. I was proud of our bike lanes and signal triggers. How could Tom be dismissing all this?

Part of his resistance, I think, was our insisting that he wear a helmet. “Typical teenager,” I thought—but I had to admit his position was understandable from someone who’s ridden daily without a helmet most of his life, in a country known for its traffic safety.

It was more than the helmet Tom objected to, though, and our son tried to explain: Bicycling in the Netherlands had been different, he said. Safer, more socially acceptable, more fun. “They have these cool side paths just for bicycles, so you don’t have to deal with cars,” he said, “You’re out there with everybody, and it’s great.”

Side paths? I had to do some research: Decades ago, the Netherlands adopted a controversial model of traffic planning that separates “fast” and “slow” traffic. Bicycles are prohibited on many roadways, but there are always alternatives, the side paths that our son found so charming.

This model is essentially the opposite of the US approach, which is to assert the bicyclist’s right to share the public roadway—I’d always just assumed “share the road” was a good message. Now I learn that in the Netherlands, where normal people bicycle all the time, they get roads of their own.

Alas, I don’t think the Dutch model works here—the infrastructure is already wrong. Two years ago, for example, city planners examined the plausibility of an off-road bike path along the Arastradero/Charleston corridor. The option was rejected for sound reasons: Bicyclists still have to cross every side street that feeds into the corridor. Cars on those streets can’t be expected to look for bicycle traffic emerging short of the intersection, and bicyclists would never want to stop at every block. The inevitable final design leaves bicyclists on a major commute corridor right next to car traffic, and Tom is right: It’s not very pleasant.

But don’t let me complain—we still have the bay lands trails, the Homer underpass, the 101 overpass, and plans for more, and it’s all here in the temperate Bay Area where even weather pansies like me can bicycle most of the year.

Sue Luttner Coonen is a technical writer who has served on the PTA traffic safety teams at Juana Briones Elementary School, Terman Middle School, and Gunn High School.