Inspiration from the Dutch
Our Executive Director recently returned from a bicycle study tour in the Netherlands
My new Dutch friend responded as I described my job as a bicycle advocate. For young folks in the Netherlands, safe bicycling is just an afterthought. You wouldn’t wish someone a safe ride as you part ways because you know everyone will have a safe ride home – the whole city is designed around it.
But I learned recently that it hasn’t always been a bicycle paradise in Amsterdam and other Dutch cities. Early this month, I was on the “Citybuilders Bicycle Study Tour” in the Netherlands, organized by our friends at People for Bikes, where we learned the story of how the Netherlands decided to make bicycling a key piece of their mobility system.
After World War II, like in most of the Western world, the Netherlands embraced the personal automobile. Historic structures were downed to expand roads, beautiful downtown plazas became parking lots, and by the 1960’s, traffic congestion and parked cars filled the roadways. People, especially children, also started dying in crashes, and the Dutch people refused to accept the carnage on the streets. Major protests by the “Stop Child Murder” organization and other groups, along with sustained political engagement, made the government shift their focus and investments in infrastructure.
Over the next few decades, cities in the Netherlands transformed its mobility system to the point where 27% of trips in the entire country are taken by bicycle, with rates going above 40% in some cities!
The story inspires me to continue building the grassroots movement for equitable mobility here in New Orleans! We may have a long way to go, but with the right strategies, political engagement, and community support, we can create our own, unique way of ensuring everyone can easily and safely get around Greater New Orleans.
It’s more than just the amazing bicycle infrastructure though (more on that below). Mobility in the Netherlands is approached holistically within the urban fabric and in incorporated into how cities are more generally organized. In Utrecht, over 40% of the people who take the train each day ride their bike to the station (and there’s a 6,000 bicycle parking garage!). In Amsterdam, on average people can bike to 3.5 transit stops, giving them many options of routes. Grocery stores, ATMs, and other quotidienne destinations are distributed through neighborhoods making them easy for people walking and biking to reach, rather than clustered on major corridors designed for cars. As we move towards a more livable and equitable New Orleans, we’ve got to stay focused on the whole picture and how all of our systems interact.
That bicycle infrastructure though! The Dutch have created an incredible system, undergirded by national standards and executed on the local level. A few of the infrastructure highlights include:
- All roads over 30 kilometers per hour (around 21mph) have dedicated, protected bicycle infrastructure
- All bicycle infrastructure, including shared 30kph roads, are painted. If it’s red, you know to expect people on bikes
- Slow, shared roads are separated from the faster roads with raised sidewalks. The gently sloped vertical bump signals a clear shift from one type of road to another.
- There are dedicated bicycle traffic signals everywhere!
- “Flow” streets move cars, buses, transit. “Exchange” streets have stores / places people are going, parking / changing from driver to pedestrian, people biking, and much more overlap of modes. Flow and exchange streets never mix.
- The concept of “bicycle permeability” or making it easy for people biking to get places as directly as possible, means that on many slow, exchange streets, people riding are allowed to go against traffic.
Of course, there are many key differences between the the Netherlands and the US, Amsterdam and New Orleans. The Netherlands have no domestic car industry, a rather homogenous population, different societal values around taxation and government support. I don’t think we’ll turn New Orleans into Amsterdam, nor should we, but myself and other members of the New Orleans delegation on the trip are excited to implement many of these ideas and lessons!
On the trip, organized as part of People for Bikes’ The Big Jump Project, we also learned from US peers, as there were people on the trip from Austin, Memphis, Fort Collins, Providence, and Tuscon. All the cities are from the 10 cities that were competitively selected to participate in The Big Jump Project, a 3-year program in which People for Bikes provides support and assistance to develop the network of protected bikeways to help more people get riding. We’re glad to be in that number, and we’re excited to keep learning and working towards safe, easy, and fun bicycling for everyone!
“Dank je!” (Dutch for “thank you”) to all the People for Bikes staff, fellow study tour participants, and the many locals who shared their knowledge and experiences.
I’m excited to be back in New Orleans with renewed vigor for improving mobility to improve livability and equity in our region! Join the movement today by becoming a Bike Easy Member.