Dutch & US bicycling
- I spent six days bicycling, walking and using public transit in Amsterdam
and one day in Antwerp during my stay to attend VeloMondial 2000.
1) There are MANY more people using bicycles (35% of daily trips!?) for
everyday transportation and recreation than in San Diego. Bicyclists I
noticed were almost exclusively adults but of every adult age and economic
2) I saw no one wearing a helmet who didn't appear to be a tourist (In
seven days I saw three people with helmets who were not part of Velo
Mondial. I saw thousands of bicyclists.)
3) Also, no one seemed to be wearing special clothing for bicycling. I saw
only normal street clothes, business attire, dates side-saddle on bike's
rear racks, short and long skirts, even formal evening wear... maybe folks
had bike shorts on underneath?
4) Amsterdam is a very compact city with very difficult conditions for
using a car - lack of parking, narrow roadways/lanes, tram-train-bus
facilities taking up space, narrow spaces between buildings, relatively
high fuel costs, and maybe most importantly, ...
5) Motorists showed a great deference to bicyclists! Somehow the behavior
towards bicyclists, especially at those seemingly silly intersections where
straight-through bicyclists are directed to the right of right turning
cars... motorists yielded. General consensus among those to whom I spoke
about this was that motorists either are also bicyclists or have family
members/friends who are bicyclists. The "critical mass" for acceptance had
apparently been passed. More on this later.
6) Pedestrians also seemed to defer to bicyclists. This was clearly the
case on the "bicycle tracks" (side paths) but also on shared sidewalks, at
intersections and otherwise unmarked roadways.
7) During one morning's count I saw that more than 75% of bicycles being
used had chain guards and fenders. The style and equipment of bicycles
seemed to be dictated by the desired use - everyday commutes, rather than
the clothing being chosen by the requirements of the sporty machines
(predominant in the US).
8) It appeared to be expected that bicyclists would take any
advantage/opportunity to keep rolling - through stop signs, red signals,
etc. I didn't see anyone do this to block another persons right of way, but
if there was a space to cross bicyclists would... strangely it seemed that
pedestrians were not as likely to do this. My coming to a complete stop at
red lights surprised several overtaking bicyclists... "when in Rome, ...".
9) The only time I was honked at was when doing a vehicular left turn at an
intersection that only provided for a side path/sidewalk style left turn. I
believe that I was acting illegally for Amsterdam... mandatory side-path
10) On roadways with a bike lane stripe there never seemed to be space
enough to ride within the marked area and to stay out of the Door Zone.
Parking turnover seemed to be very slow - few car doors were likely to
open, but locals I asked said they had experienced being doored.
11) Usually the available lane space left of the bike lane stripe,
(reserved?) for motorists, was very narrow (>10' ?). On these facilities I
observed the normal behavior to be that motorists would pass bicyclists
very closely w/o causing the bicyclists to waver/change course at all. The
close passing was disconcerting to me at first until I noticed even "little
old ladies" bicycling seemingly w/o concern in these situations.... "when
in Rome, ...".
12) The traffic environment met my needs - I was on vacation. I had no real
time constraints to reach any destination. I wasn't interested in speed...
just cruising around gawking. I was however not content to be segregated
from the rest of the roadway.
13) The advance stop lines and the traffic signals sequenced to give peds
and bicyclists the opportunity to start first certainly seemed to preclude
the right/left turning motorist "error" of cutting off the non-motorized.
Coupling these with having most bicyclists roll through a red light anyway
made intersections appear pretty chaotic at first. But,
14) Speeds were slow enough and most road users seemed adept at the close
encounters - able and willing to non-verbally negotiate many encounters
from every direction.
15) Adults with children that were too young to bicycle, usually carried
them in a child seat mounted between the handlebars and the bicyclist.
These often had a windscreen for the child. Slightly older kids were
astride the beefy rear racks. I saw several groups on there way to school
with children on front and back. One woman I saw was riding like this while
holding the back of the neck of her other child who appeared to be leaning
to bicycle to school on her own... none with helmets of course.
16) The coaster brake bike and the congested riding experience led me to
set my rental bike's seat an inch or more lower than optimal for pedaling
efficiency. I did this to help me stop the bike with the pedals in position
to easily re-start.
17) I participated in the Velo Mondial 2000 conference session titled
"Integration or Segregation". The segregationist were firmly in control of
the discussion via the moderator. I thought of the term "Uncle Tom", used
in the US to refer to someone willing to put up with racial
segregation/degradation because it is easier than trying for equality.
I think that the Amsterdam system provides a desirable for some, but
ultimately second class bicycling environment because it removes the choice
to use the roadways when it is desirable and reasonable to do so. Even
though many routes are exclusively for bicycling, even though bicycling is
allowed (tolerated?) in two directions where motoring is one-way, even
though they have spent lots of resources on special facilities, even though
there certainly are lots of people bicycling, and even though motorists
have learned to give way to bicyclists, I'd say the Amsterdam system of
segregation should be used as an interim step toward integration with
primacy of bicyclists and pedestrians on public roadways/rights of way...
emergency vehicles excepted.
I believe that the goal/issue is one of behavior change, not as primarily a
For safety and efficiency we need to have shared understandings/common
behaviors that accommodate all legitimate road users. The steps toward
those desired behaviors may include special facilities when appropriate,
lots of education, appropriate enforcement, etc.
The Amsterdam system of lanes for cars, bicycle "tracks" and sidewalks
wouldn't work if established today in the US. We'd be mowed down by
motorists at every intersection.
Conversely, imposing on Amsterdam the US system of lanes for everyone (if
you're willing to assert your rights) and sometimes some other special
facilities for bicyclists would, I expect, result in many deaths in the
We need a transition plan.