By Dara Colwell
OPINION During rush hour, seeing the intersection at Weesperzijde and Meester Treublaan in Amsterdam would make a San Franciscan gasp. As cars move forward, cyclists continually pedal past, undisturbed by traffic—20, 30, or 40 at a time, in both directions—onto the narrow Weesperzijde, which runs along the Amstel River.
For the Dutch, this is the norm. In the Netherlands, the average person takes 300 bike rides per year covering roughly 560 miles. Cycling deaths remain the lowest in the world.
If only this were true elsewhere. In San Francisco, four people were hit and killed while biking in and around SoMa in 2013. As of Nov. 14, the fifth person in nine days was killed cycling on London’s roads. On both sides of the Atlantic, the issue raised by such tragedies remains the same: as long as roads favor cars, cyclists are at a dangerous disadvantage.
As a former San Franciscan now living in Amsterdam, I am continually impressed by the comprehensive infrastructure that allows me to bike everywhere safely. But it didn’t come out of nowhere.
The Dutch had their love affair with cars, too. In rebuilding itself after World War II, the country became prosperous, and with more money flooding in, people ditched their bikes for cars. Because Dutch cities are small, densely populated, and hemmed in by canals, there wasn’t a great deal of room to expand. As cars piled onto the streets, traffic-related deaths soared. In 1971 alone, cars killed more than 3,000 people, 450 of which were children. The public, outraged that this was too high a price to pay, started demonstrating.
In 1973, the international oil crisis hit, heightening concerns about oil dependency. This also pushed the Dutch to invest in the cycling infrastructure we see today—where every major street contains separate bike lanes and traffic lights.
Cycling here looks very different from San Francisco: couples hold hands, mothers willingly cart their children from A to B and people hold conversations as they ride along bike paths separated from the road. Legally, too, Dutch cyclists have the right of way on the road. According to the ANWB, the Dutch tourism and car owners’ association, car drivers are liable for accidents unless they can prove they were overpowered by circumstances beyond their control.
Having lived in Amsterdam several years now, I am convinced that recreating the Dutch system elsewhere will take more than better bike lanes. In the Netherlands, cycling regularly (and not just for sport) has been ingrained for generations. Dutch children learn the importance, relevance, and necessity of cycling at an early age, and they learn how to do it well and therefore, safely.
In Dutch schools, cycling proficiency lessons are compulsory. Children have to pass two tests—one, an exam on road rules; the second, cycling through traffic— to earn a bike diploma. When these children cycle along bike paths, they are cycling next to drivers who have also cycled most of their lives, and are looking out for them.
In the USA, getting drivers to think about cyclists sharing the roads is going to be a gradual process. When cycling in San Francisco a decade ago, I was once sideswiped by a driver too busy looking left at oncoming traffic to notice I was on his right side. As he turned right and knocked me over, thank god at only 5 mph, I was so shocked I apologized. But he was at fault. A friend of my mother’s once joked I should be careful “because people like me never look out for cyclists.” Cycling deaths constantly prove this is really no joke.
While it is more challenging to build cycling infrastructure in America as there are greater distances to cover, with no infrastructure, nothing happens. Build it, and yes, the cyclists will come—but then you have to remind everyone else that cyclists are there. Do it repeatedly and years from now, we can boast it really works, just as it does in Holland.