Message from cycling heaven: it’s not that fantastic here

Column written by Thalia Verkade, co-author of the forthcoming book Movement (together with Marco te Brömmelstroet).

I too used to be a somewhat naïve Dutch herring who didn’t realise what wonderful water she was swimming in. Who took for granted that we are able to cycle to school, the supermarket, the library, and friends.

It was only after I returned from a few years abroad when I realised that what foreigners often say is true: the Dutch live in bicycle heaven.

This is amazing.

As soon I had children, I felt deep gratitude for Dutch cycle paths, especially for the so-called separate cycle paths, with a small roadside next to it. Compared to the permanent hurricane on the motorway, such a fully separated route is truly a safe haven with and for children.

No wonder dozens of delegations visit the Netherlands each year to see how it’s done. They come to learn from our Dutch Cycling Embassy, how good cycling infrastructure is created, and that this only works with a coherent and sophisticated policy. That a bicycle country is far more than mere technology and asphalt. It constitutes culture, a form of participation. In the Netherlands, you may participate in the conversation. OK, at most, you get a tenth of the budget the motor lobby arranges for itself, but still. You can have your say.

Cycling as a cure for the problem of the congested city resulted in highly marketable engineering knowledge: separate bicycle paths, bicycle traffic lights, bicycle rain sensors, bicycle speed bumps, bicycle roundabouts, bicycle parking facilities, bicycle highways, and bicycle streets – a street where the cyclist – as an exception - has priority over the motorist.

It works fantastically, I am grateful for it, and I enjoy it every day. However, it dawned on me during the corona pandemic that this remedy also has its drawbacks. The bicycle path is a medicine with serious side effects.

The deal is: do not hinder each other

Let’s consider this tweet from a father of a school-going child in the Netherlands. In September, when the schools reopened after the summer holidays, he wrote:

“Mail from school. That there are complaints from car drivers about the number of people bringing their children to school by bicycle. Whether the cyclists are willing to adapt. I had to read it twice to make sure it actually said that”.

A foreigner might think: at least in the Netherlands it is unbelievable that a school board would dare to complain about parents and children cycling to school. Yet the tweet went viral. Within two hours, it got a thousand likes. And within a day, three thousand likes. It seems that this father touches upon something that all cyclists in the Netherlands apparently recognise.

I believe the following to be the case: if cyclists are not properly assigned to their own lane, that wherever the cycle path ends it immediately seems as if cyclists are cycling ‘in the way’ of motorists.

This is a consequence of the deal we made at the ‘lobby tables’: don’t hinder each other. Cyclists are given their own small lane, enabling car drivers to carry on driving too. If the highway continues to clog up, we will add a cycling highway. Which helps all of us to cover more road kilometres annually, facilitating the growth of our mobility and our economy.

So, don’t dawdle on the cycle path. And don’t let children loiter in the middle of the school road.

Pandemic stagnation

During the first coronal lockdown, it suddenly became apparent how little space actually is available for people on the street. And it turned out that a congested city can be treated in a completely different way.

Brussels temporarily turned the pentagon in the city centre into a residential area: as a motorist you were the last to get priority. This is a completely different model from the Dutch one, with a separate lane for each means of transport. Brussels aimed to reduce the speed and danger of street life by allowing traffic to mix and mingle.

Milan said: those emissions we used to have, we never want them back. And therefore we are going to reduce car use. During covid, this idea has hardly been discussed in the Netherlands.

Paris rapidly added hundreds of kilometres of cycle path. This was not done with the idea of moving everyone from one end of the city to the other in the most efficient way possible. In the 15-minute mode Paris uses, people have the right to participate in all meaningful self-development activities without having to rely on fast mobility. That is the message the ‘city-of-a-quarter-hour’ gets across. Which is fundamentally different from ‘everyone even faster from a to b’.

All these conversations abroad made people reinterpret the street for what it truly is: the remaining space between houses, with all sorts of uses and purposes worthy of discussion. Public space does not necessarily exist to facilitate fast traffic.

The Dutch formula has a lot of benefits. During the pandemic, thanks to the creed ‘Don’t hinder each other', and its practical implementation with each means of transport its separate lane, our cities were not facing the same problems with car mobility as those abroad.

However, this solution has also resulted in a lack of fundamental discussion in the Netherlands about the street as a public space and what purposes it can serve.

And it explains why a school director, perhaps especially in the Netherlands, can send such an e-mail. Asking if cycling schoolchildren want to make way for parents bringing their children to school by car.

We export: stop thinking

These are the side effects of our medicine: assigning each means of transport its own lane on the street will cement the idea that streets are meant for moving fast unhindered.

When lines and coloured asphalt determine what is allowed and what isn’t, you tend to lose the ability to question how to behave courteously towards others in public space. We additionally export: stop thinking.

This should be included in the leaflet. A proper description of the side effects of the separate cycle paths and all our experiences with it may help other countries to actively consider what public space actually is and in what ways cycling can play a role in it.

How to market cycling even more

Because cycling is so much more than a healthy, clean and efficient solution to the problem 'car'. And so there are probably more (and more interesting) aspects of cycling in the Netherlands we can export in the years to come.

Is it possible to use the bicycle as an instrument to create more social public space? Can we actively promote how meaningful it is to transport someone on the back of your bike: the bike as a friendly service? Not as a side effect of the Dutch cycle path but as a goal in itself. There is undoubtedly a market in this.

A luggage carrier able to take a beating is worth more than you think.

Or take this one: what are actually the requirements for all good ideas created on a bicycle, as people find themselves getting in a flow? Can we tell about how the Nobel Prize-winning molecules of chemist Ben Feringa originated on a bike? Or M.C. Escher's French toast? The pleas of criminal lawyer Bénédicte Ficq?

Marketing slogan: Eureka on the bicycle. If only to avoid talking about travelling time or health benefits for once.

Is it possible to market the idea of how valuable learning to balance your body as a toddler is, in the middle of public space, with the help of parents who do not have to fear for your life? And how to continue doing this as an adult by choosing an ever more challenging bike? A fixie, a high bi? What benefits does it bring to a city if there is enough space for that?

Because as beautiful as they are, it's not those cycle paths that make cycling in the Netherlands so great, as I thought for years. It’s the cycling itself.

I presented this column on the 30th of September at the tenth anniversary of The Dutch Cycling Embassy. Dutch original text can be found at De Correspondent.

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