Conversation with a Dutchman (Part 2)

Following on from Part 1

I wish I could tell you that other countries are lining up to buy your bike knowhow. But the crux of Dutch cycling is the segregated cycle track, that has hardly been widely embraced by the idiotocracies of the world. Where I come from, roads have been hijacked by cars for as long as any fool can remember, and people who have not ridden a bike since their mum started driving them around in the seventies, are voting for mayors who promise more car lanes and parking. Start building cycle tracks, even in a city like New York that desperately needs them to increase people movement, and drivers will park across them in spite. I have to be optimistic, and say we’ll have cycle tracks one day—but not before my own kids are adults. And I am impatient!

Cycling in your country was revived in the seventies because of enlightened road engineering, that unenlightened voters elsewhere don’t want. What can succeed right now in car loving countries, is enlightened urban design. In post-industrial cities, architects, urban designers and landscape architects, are everyday working with brownfield renewal sites. We need to take a new, city-wide view, when doing our plans. We need to see how the docklands we are master-planning this year, connect to next year’s factory site project, via last year’s greenway that took a former rail corridor or old canal.

If more designers took a city-wide view when redeveloping former industrial land, they would see how these vast and contiguous systems that once moved and processed commodities, can be transformed into parallel cities, for moving and processing bike riders’ knowledge—I don’t need to tell you as a Dutchman that bike transport encourages chance interaction, and allows more time for meeting and being creative. So while stupid voters won’t let us orient quality bike networks to roadways, there is an even better opportunity, to weave parallel bicycling layers into each city, complete with non-vehicular routes and places to live, work and recreate.

If I am to expect you to run with me here, and be involved as consultants in helping cities elsewhere claim their former industrial lands for bicycle oriented redevelopment, I’m going to need to forewarn you of a few fallacies, that you will no doubt encounter when you meet our bicycling advocates.

The first is hardly worth wasting our breath on, but anyway: some experienced and brave cyclists out there cling to the belief that bike transport can flourish on the road amidst motorised traffic. These are the kinds of people who call for more rider training, 40kph speed limits, and critical mass rides, but ignore the concerns of risk-adverse mothers. Mums want transport options for themselves and their children that carry 5-star safety ratings, not a system that mixes vulnerable bodies with 5-star safety-rated machines. To a point, you in the Netherlands can mix cars and bikes, because most of your drivers are cyclists themselves. Behind the wheel, each is still one of the cyclists, looking out for the bikes. But mixing the two in countries where drivers don’t look, leads to death rates 3 to 5 times higher per kilometre cycled, and bike modal shares of 1%.

The next myth is that countries like mine will win our bike infrastructure, the same way that you did, by lobbying politicians for a fair share of the road. But your lobbyists of the ’70s spoke for a population who could still remember life before cars, in the ’40s. Your lobbyists spoke for a population who were all still regular cyclists. Your lobbyists spoke for 400 child cyclists per year being killed.

Our lobbyists speak for the passionate few, who are further divided into bickering tribes. Politicians know they can ignore us, and still be reelected. Even in mega cities where many voters have given up finding some place to park, so are turning to cycling (New York, London, Paris, etc.) politicians still don’t have the liberty to do what yours have done: make it nigh impossible to drive in the city. But see how much worse it is in thousands of small cities, where driving and parking still function: voters there will never let driving be stymied for cycling, not until every non-renewable fuel source is spent.

In non cycling countries, cycling is a marginalised mode. The sooner we accept this, and focus on space at the margins, the sooner cycling will flourish and attract converts.

Stay tuned for Part 3!

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.
This entry was posted in blog. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply