Buildings for bikes, like you won’t find in Holland.

In deference to my helpful comrade @amsterdamized, the word “Holland” has been replaced with “The Netherlands”. I do hope he’s not pulling my leg.


Dutch cycling is wonderful, an inspiration, and if I could wrangle it, I would move to Rotterdam and live in the Breitner Hotel—for a whole week. But bicycling lessons from Holland The Netherlands have to always be taken with caution. Calvinism in their heritage, has led to a national fondness for inverse status symbols, hardly so popular in more overtly consumer driven societies.

To the American, or Australian bicycling pundit, a practical city bike would be a fixie, built on a collectable frame bought for a small fortune on eBay, with very particular wheels and supple non-durable rubber. But a practical urban bike, to a Kaaskop, will have beaten-up mudguards, buckled wheels, and ten years left in the rubber, at least. The only way to increase that style of cycling, outside of Holland The Netherlands, would be to swell the ranks of the poor, and I’m not sure that’s on our stated agendas.

What we call “Dutch” cycling, in consumer societies, is typically pursued on top-of-the-range classic roadsters—the only models worth putting on ships—sold at a premium outside of Europe, for their fashionableness. Their owners wouldn’t dream of leaving those bikes overnight on the street. A revolving red velvet plinth in their long-gallery, is where they imagine keeping their beater.

As architects, we are left to find ways of celebrating bicycling culture, without precedent in the world’s model bike transit nation. We’ll be designing bicycling equivalents to those googie style drive-in milk bars and cinemas from the 50s and 60s, conceived for car lovers, as places to play with the pieces of tin they so cherished. We’ll be catering for populations of cycling enthusiasts, who, no matter if they’re into pretending they’re Dutch, or pretending they’re Lance, or whoever, will see their bikes more like GUCCI handbags, than simple tools.

I don’t believe in importing, exporting, or critiquing bicycling cultures, but rather allowing each and every one of them to blossom from the culture around them. Looking at all these bike cultures, I feel a little like Andy Warhol, gazing in starry-eyed wonderment at every new wave, only this time it’s bikes, not cars, providing the gel for all of these cultural trends: ecological awareness, individualist narcissism, cultural pluralism, a desire for authenticity in the age of cyberspace, anti-capitalism… not all related, or even compatible, but again, that just adds to the wonder.

This line of ranting, I must confess, is in reaction to the whining I hear from people whose complaint with the world, goes beyond the barriers it presents to us cyclists, but to every last aspect of our consumer society. You know, a dint in car culture would be sufficient. There is no aspect of bike culture, in our culture, no matter how vain, that I’m not finding absolutely marvelous darling.

As an addendum Mr @amsterdamized reminds me that Holland has cycling enthusiasts too. The difference, is in Holland, you can leave your enthusiasm at home, and roll your beater bike 3km to work on a bike track.

6 Comments

  1. Colin says:

    Perhaps it’s a different situation in that minor clapped out ex-industrial town in which you reside, but here in the sin-city to your south the consensus regarding the appropriate form of “practical urban bike” appears to be a crappy old mountain bike. That’s not my preference, but it appears to be the popular preference of those riding on the city streets. Fixies are like hippies in the 60s; lots of colour and headlines for a small minority of folks that are the exception rather than the rule.

    Second to clapped out mountain bikes are new(ish) flat-bar road bikes, verging on what might be called “hybrid”. The sort of thing a salesperson would recommend to you if you walked into a bike shop and said you wanted a bike to “commute to work” on, because it’s the closest thing your average bike shop stocks to a more Euro-style city bike, and your average cycling-sport obsessed bike shop employee can still relate such a bike to sports cycling, albeit it a dumbed-down, detuned version for the plebs.

    And so I think our cycling culture in this respect is not too dissimilar to that in the Netherlands. People ride the cheapest bikes that are easily available, and here that’s the crappy old mountain bike that’s been stuck in some garage for the last ten years, or a newish flat-bar road bike. In the Netherlands it’s a crappy old “Dutch” bike, and maybe occasionally a new “Dutch” bike.

    • Steven says:

      Case nicely made, and the situation is roughly the same here in Newie, and in the US, and in Britain, as far as I can ascertain. Most new bikes sold in Denmark these days are flat bar roadies, with rear rack, hub gears and mudguards. Throw on some reelights, and you’ve got a pretty quick bike for less than 1k, that can do almost anything. But back here: didn’t Ride to Work day flush out some clunkers! If only people knew just how much $10 mountain bike tires slowed them down! Really, the government should fund mass conversions!

  2. Mike says:

    I think you should try looking around at the cars in your local “car culture”. How many of them look like fashion accessories? I put it to you that, apart from enthusiasts, people who use them for transportation consider both cars and bicycles to be tools, not objets d’art. This is probably more true of bicycles than of cars, in fact; when you see someone driving, you see the car, but when you see someone on a bike, the rider is far more visible that the vehicle. Dutch bikes are built the way they are for practical reasons, and even though they may look like antique “beaters” to the eyes of the unfamiliar, this gives a false impression.

    The problem is that, in English-speaking countries, a disproportionately large percentage of the cycling population is made up of enthusiasts, because they are less likely to be scared off the roads than the general population. This causes us to make some incorrect assumptions about the Dutch. The Netherlands (of which Holland is a part) does not have great cycling infrastructure because it has a “bike culture”; it has a lot of people who frequently ride bicycles because it has great cycling infrastructure. In fact, I have seen no evidence of a “bike culture” in the Netherlands (though I must admit to lacking first-hand experience, sadly). All I see is that they have more and better ways to get around.

  3. Steven says:

    Oh I know exactly what you mean about these a to b types in Holland. Just ask my friend Art (not Garfunkel) at Tromm Tweewielers (www.tromm.nl) : within day of getting their Shenzhen passports, they have blown all their dough on weed and brass, and are looking for the cheapest stolen bike they can find. If they’re good thieves themselves, they go for a motorized scooter, and of course would buy cars if they could afford some place to park them. The problem is they blend in so neatly with sturdy Calvinist types who ride old bikes in the rain to do their dead grannies proud… or am I confusing the Dutch with the Belgians? Which one has the surf beaches? And how did I manage to get myself drawn into yet another of these “who knows the most about Holland” discussions? I know, I know, I brought it all on myself! Folks, listen up, Holland is a mature bicycling nation with mature bicycling architecture. Immature bicycling nations need bike buildings with a little panache!

  4. Mike says:

    My point is that you are making assumptions here, which are not well supported by evidence. You spin a nice yarn about the Calvinist Dutch, all riding ancient clunkers and taking pride in that fact. It’s a nice story, and I’m sure there are people in Holland who are still daily riding 50-year-old bikes happily, but you can also find plenty people of that sort in North America. And in Amsterdam, you’ll find plenty of brand new omafietsen with generator hubs, LED lights, and other modern components. These bikes are common because they are practical. They are used instead of the racing bikes and mountain bikes that are also very common not because they are “beaters”, but because they work better than sport bikes for transportation. These types of bikes are not common in the English-speaking world because there is almost no infrastructure to make cycling safe, comfortable, and convenient in those countries, so few people other than enthusiasts are willing to use bikes to get around. Ignoring the obvious, straightforward reasons why they Netherlands has been so much more successful than others at achieving a high rate of cycling, and insisting that it’s all about style distracts from the fundamental changes that a city must make to get people out of cars and onto bikes. “Immature bicycling nations need bike buildings with a little panache”? I don’t object to the panache, but what is really needed is high-quality infrastructure, and the “panache” is far too often provided *instead* of what is really needed.

    • Steven says:

      I’m not denying the virtues of bike paths. But this is a blog about things that architects can do to help cycling. I’ll confess too, I’m more exited by progress in Portland and Minneapolis than the Dutch royal standard. The Dutch got cycling restarted after just a slight blip in 60s. Where we are, mass bicycle transport has faded from living memory. The politics, for us, are radically different.

Leave a Reply