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No Helmets, No Problem: How the Dutch Created a Casual Biking Culture

CEO Tinh Phung
In the bustling city of Vancouver, BC, Chris and Melissa Bruntlett made a bold decision in 2010 - they sold their cars and embraced a car-free lifestyle. Inspired by their experiences, they began blogging about...

In the bustling city of Vancouver, BC, Chris and Melissa Bruntlett made a bold decision in 2010 - they sold their cars and embraced a car-free lifestyle . Inspired by their experiences, they began blogging about their adventures in cycling, which eventually led them to explore the cycling culture in the Netherlands. This journey resulted in their book, "Building the Cycling City: The Dutch Blueprint for Urban Vitality," where they share the valuable lessons they learned from Dutch cities and their cycling infrastructure.

The Dutch Transformation

The common perception of the Netherlands as having it all figured out is not entirely accurate. The country faced its own challenges and had to overcome them. Take Rotterdam, for instance. The city was completely destroyed during World War II and rebuilt with a car-centric approach. However, residents soon realized that this design was inhospitable to walking, cycling, and public transit. Cycling rates plummeted, and road fatalities increased. This prompted a rejection of car-centric urban planning across the Netherlands in the 70s.

The Dutch Cycling Mentality

One fascinating aspect of Dutch cycling culture is their distinction between wielrenners (sporty cyclists) and fietsers (everyday cyclists). Unlike in the US, where cycling is often seen as a specialized activity, the Dutch view cycling as just another mode of transportation. It is not uncommon for them to use a bike for everyday tasks, such as going to work or running errands. The Dutch don't identify themselves as "cyclists" but rather as individuals who happen to use a bike to get around.

Safe and Efficient Bike Infrastructure

The Dutch prioritize cycling safety through their infrastructure. They provide separate cycling lanes, ensuring that cyclists have their own space. Roads are classified based on car speed, and if there is a significant speed difference, full separation is required. Mixing of cars and cyclists is only allowed on streets with lower car speeds and minimal traffic volume. Additionally, the Dutch have integrated cycling infrastructure into intersections, giving cyclists priority and ensuring their safety.

Cycling Education for All Ages

Education plays a vital role in cultivating a cycling culture from a young age. Dutch kids start learning about cycling at preschool, using push bikes to familiarize themselves with the concept. By grade four or five, they undergo cycling skills courses, which include both written and practical exams. These courses teach kids to navigate the streets safely and responsibly, instilling a deep understanding of cycling rules and road etiquette.

Bikes and Public Transit Integration

In the Netherlands, bikes and public transit go hand in hand. The Dutch actively encourage the use of bikes to access public transit. Approximately 50% of all trips on the transit system in the Netherlands begin with a bicycle ride. This integration expands the reach of public transit, increases the catchment area for each station, and gives people more travel options. Additionally, initiatives like the OV-Fiets rental bike make it easier to combine cycling with train journeys.

Dutch Bike Culture: Practicality and Inclusivity

Dutch bikes differ from those commonly seen in the US. When purchasing a bike in the Netherlands, one gets a complete package with fenders, lights, racks, and other practical accessories. Dutch-style bikes allow riders to sit upright, providing comfort and facilitating social interactions. The focus is on practicality and durability rather than high-performance features. Dutch cyclists value reliability and longevity in their bikes, often riding them until they fall apart.

Safety First: The Dutch Perspective

One distinguishing aspect of Dutch cycling culture is the absence of bike helmets. Less than 0.5% of Dutch cyclists wear helmets, and that is primarily limited to sport cyclists. The Dutch prioritize safety through infrastructure design, reducing car speeds, and creating a culture of cycling. They believe that focusing on safe streets and infrastructure is more effective than relying solely on protective gear.

The Future of Dutch Cycling

The Netherlands continues to innovate and improve its cycling infrastructure. Long-distance bike corridors, known as bike highways, are being developed to provide efficient and convenient cycling routes between cities. These bike highways, coupled with the rise of e-bikes, e-scooters, and electric mopeds, offer even more transportation options for the Dutch population. The Dutch have managed to classify these electric vehicles based on speed, ensuring they can coexist safely with cyclists.

Overcoming Resistance and Embracing Change

While the Netherlands has made remarkable progress in building a cycling culture, challenges still persist. The Dutch face debates over the allocation of space between cars and bicycles, just like in other countries. However, the overwhelming public support for cycling has made it difficult for politicians, even those on the right-wing, to oppose further investment in cycling infrastructure. The Dutch have shown that prioritizing sustainable transportation and safer streets benefits everyone.

In conclusion, the Dutch have achieved a casual biking culture through a combination of innovative infrastructure, education, and a shift in mentality. Their approach prioritizes safety, practicality, and seamless integration with other modes of transportation. By embracing these principles, other cities around the world can learn valuable lessons from the Dutch blueprint for urban vitality.