Cycling in the US from a Dutch perspective

This new video, Cycling in the US from a Dutch perspective, is a cracker. It’s short (5:19), beautifully made, and has as many lessons for Australian cities as it does for US cities.

It was made by Mark Wagenbuur who runs the Bicycle Dutch web site (the same man who furnished the information for my recent article on strict liability in The Netherlands).

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He observes that cycling is very different in the US compared to The Netherlands: there’s much more traffic to deal with and cycling-specific infrastructure is limited. Moreover, Americans cycle for recreation rather than transport, they voluntarily wear helmets, they prefer “race bikes” and they’re 30 times more likely to get injured than Dutch cyclists.

The only bright spot is Davis, California, where cycling reportedly accounts for 22% of trips. In Davis, he says:

the bicycles were far more of the upright variety and people were cycling in normal clothes without all the superfluous safety measures. Good to see that this is also possible in the US. This relaxed type of cycling obviously attracts a far wider range of people, even without specific cycling infrastructure.

Mr Wagenbuur’s comment that “it takes courage” to cycle on American roads and “you cannot trust drivers to play by the rules” probably encapsulates the fundamental difference between cycling in The Netherlands compared to the US or Australia. Dutch cyclists don’t think they’re being courageous because they’re not.

Some observations on the video:

  • I was a little surprised when he describes what looks like a flat-bar hybrid as a “race bike”. I appreciate there’s a big difference between a road bike and a typical Dutch upright, but the “distance” between a common mountain bike or hybrid and an upright isn’t anywhere near as far. Some cycling advocates argue acceptance of upright bikes is a pre condition for a dramatic increase in cycling in Australia. I think that might be going a bit too far. I expect they’ll have a place but we have a different tradition to European countries.
  • Helmets aren’t compulsory for adults anywhere in the US, but this video suggests very high rates of helmet wearing outside of Davis. I think that’s because riders wear helmets when they perceive cycling conditions are dangerous. In The Netherlands and Denmark they don’t wear helmets because they don’t feel the need – it’s not dangerous. The message is fix up the cycling environment, especially infrastructure, and helmets will be a non-issue.
  • The Davis “model” is very interesting because of the claim that cycling levels are high even though there’s limited cycling-specific infrastructure by Dutch standards. Care is needed though in interpreting the significance of a single case. It’s a university town (i.e. young, well-educated demographic), the central campus is closed to cars, and it’s very small (population 66,000 – that’s around two thirds the size of Bendigo or Ballarat and way smaller than Toowoomba, Townsville or Cairns).
  • He stresses that Dutch cyclists wear “normal clothes”. That’s fine for casual trips, but virtually all Australian workers who commute by bicycle change clothes. I’m not sure why we differ from the Dutch on this point but I think we do. Maybe it’s because we’re trying to “outrun the traffic” or, as a recent poll suggests, we commute long distances on our bikes (15.4 km in Sydney on average).
  • Like many cycling advocates, he dismisses ‘sharrows’. While ever cyclists share road space with cars, I’d like to see more of them at roundabouts, so motorists know I have ‘permission’ to take the centre of the lane.

Mr Wagenbuur has also written a blog post on the video, US cycling from a Dutch perspective, that’s well worth reading, as are the comments.