Conversation with a Dutchman (Part 1)

As kids, you and I caused our mums the same heartache. All of your mothers in the Netherlands, and our mums in Australia, were terrified their kids would be hit by cars on their bikes. Both of our countries had the same deadly mix, caused by increasing numbers of cars on the road. It’s what your mums and our mums did differently, to protect us, that makes yours now a nation of cyclists and mine a nation of drivers.

Your mums joined rallies to end the murder of children on bikes, demanding protected bike infrastructure, and traffic calming in residential streets. Our mums learned how to drive, so they could drive us around instead of letting us ride. Another factor was that driving was being sold to our mums as a rite, in attaining independence from men. Advertisements for cars in the 70s, targeting women, show how car makers used womens-lib rhetoric to trap women, by making them work to pay for 2nd cars, that would cause them even more work, ferrying my friends and I off to soccer.

In the mid seventies most Aussie kids were still cycling to school. By the 80s, I was one of a handful still riding, the result of my own mum being one of the rare mums who did not learn to drive.

Remaining a cyclist meant my adolescent and teen years were somewhat more fraught (I have scars to prove this). From age 9 I’ve been cycling with cars, hand signalling and trusting drivers to see me, even though accident statistics prove they are prone to see through me. Instead of safe cycling infrastructure, my government gave me rider training when I was 10, underpinned by John Forester’s dangerous generalisation that “Cyclists fare best when they act, and are treated in return, as drivers of vehicles“.

In your country, the Netherlands, road engineers were giving you a protected space to ride on each street. Your bike modal share crept up to one quarter of all kinds of trips. In my country, Australia, it was just kids like me, whose mums didn’t drive, left riding bikes. Consequently our bike modal share dropped to one trip in every hundred. It dropped even further when my government introduced mandatory helmet laws, thinking these would reduce the horrible probability of death that still faces the handful of cyclists remaining.

Four decades later, it’s obvious whose mums did the best thing for their children. Your generation in the Netherlands can expect to live longer, in cities with passive surveillance provided by bikes, where you all get to work quicker. The only question is: How can you now sell us your expertise? (And now for Part 2).

About Steven

I'm on a mission to put cycling on the agendas of architects, urban designers and fellow academics, who see the potential for bicycles to change cities and buildings. My PhD is in architectural history and my interdisciplinary research spans art theory, philosophy and cultural studies. I teach architectural history and theory and design studio at The University of Tasmania, Australia, and formerly worked as an architect designing large public housing projects in Singapore. My favourite bikes are a titanium racing bike I use for racing, a Velorbis retro commuter for riding to cafes and work, a single speed ultra light Brompton that I take with me when I travel on planes, a 29er hard tail mountain bike that I get lost on in remote places, an old track bike that scares me, a 1984 Colnago Super with all original campagnolo components that is plugged into a virtual realm that I train in, and a Dutch-made Bakfiets, that could easily replace half of the bikes I just mentioned.
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6 Responses to Conversation with a Dutchman (Part 1)

  1. Luke says:

    Factoids of the day: the Netherlands (unsurprisingly) produces fewer cars than almost any industrialised country. It’s a small country, you say.

    But it also produces fewer per head than just about any industrialised country, and fewer per $ of GDP. To put numbers on that, plucky little Belgium (pop 11 million) produces 313,000 per year; Slovenia (pop 2m) produces 195,000. NL (pop 16.6m) produces 48,000.

    One country that does not appear on the list at all is Denmark, which means that it produces less cars than Botswana and Serbia Montenegro. Do we see a pattern?

    http://www.nationmaster.com/graph/ind_car_pro-industry-car-production

    This falls down a bit when you look at the figures for US and Australia, which produce a lot, but not that many per head, or per $ of GDP (less than UK for example). But maybe the car industry in, say, the US, has enough people in it to make a lot of noise, even if it’s not actually that big an industry (by US standards). Whereas in NL/Denmark nobody gives a stuff about the car industry?

    Anyone who really understands statistics may be able to do better than me.

    • Steven says:

      Great oids. In Australia, every car factory closure is reported as a threat to our nation’s self sufficiency, and loss of skills we will need when global trade ends, presumably due to energy wars— I don’t say my countrymen have really thought this thing through. Meanwhile, our bike industry has dwindled to a few custom bike makers.
      An aside: are there any frame making factories in Denmark?

    • J.. says:

      What’s your point Luke? That countries that make cars do better economically? That’s rediculous. Furthermore, you’re reading your own statistics wrong. The list you refer to references the number of cars produced per million of GDP. That doesn’t tell you anything. Here’s a comparison of gross national income per capita:

      http://www.google.com/publicdata/explore?ds=wb-wdi&met=ny_gdp_mktp_cd&idim=country:USA:CHN:FRA:DEU:JPN:GBR#!ctype=l&strail=false&bcs=d&nselm=h&met_y=ny_gnp_pcap_pp_cd&scale_y=lin&ind_y=false&rdim=country&idim=country:NLD:SVN:JPN:BEL:DNK:FRA:DEU&ifdim=country&hl=nl&dl=nl&ind=false

      I’ve included the countries you mentioned, plus a few well known car producing nations such as France, Germany and Japan. You will note that the Netherlands and Denmark top the list. It seems people who cycle a lot also make more money. This isn’t true, of course. As you add and remove different countries, you’ll find there’s really no correlation.
      Not every industrialised nation has to produce cars. Some might be doing better in other branches of industry. BTW, the car industry is not a very reliable industry to be in, nor is it an extremely profitable one.

    • Steven says:

      Cool, I always dreamed of the day my blog would be a forum for heated debates I can’t follow myself. Come on Luke, don’t take this lying down :)

  2. Luke says:

    J, my point was not that producing cars is necessary to be rich. Looking at the examples I give, that’s plainly not the case – eg, as I say, Denmark produces fewer cars than Slovenia, Botswana, and Serbia Montenegro.

    No my point was that having a small or utterly insignificant car industry might be a factor in a country having good segregated bike lanes/zoning etc. To spell it out using three similar countries:

    Belgium is rich, flat, wet, windy, cold, half Flemish, next door to NL and mad on bike racing – zero bike lanes. It produces lots of cars – more per head than any country on earth.

    Denmark is rich, flattish, wet, cold, windy, close to NL, not particularly keen on bike racing. Loads of bike lanes. It produces no cars.

    NL is rich, flat, wet, cold, windy, less keen on bike racing than Belgium. Loads of bike lanes, etc. World centre of bike lanes in fact. It produces very few cars for an industrialised nation, however you measure it (per head, absolutely, whatever).

    Sorry for any lack of clarity.

  3. Luke says:

    Not really for publication or relevant to this post, but by all means go ahead. You’re in Rotterdam soon? Local saying – in Rotterdam, shirts are sold with the sleeves already rolled up (cos they work so hard). Chance to ingratiate yourself. And now to bed…

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