One reason to travel is to see how people elsewhere do things and perhaps learn from them. That certainly happened when I went to Holland for a two-week bicycle tour with a May-term public policy class from Transylvania University.
I had gone on a similar bike tour there six years ago with friends, and I was surprised by how different my impressions were. On my first trip, I was awed by the Netherlands’ extensive system of protected bikeways, which enable you to go almost anywhere.
This time, I realized that what is most impressive is that the bikeways are part of a complete transportation system. There also are sidewalks and rural paths for walking; roads and highways for cars and trucks; ferries and water taxis; urban trams, buses and intercity trains.
In the United States, we have a street and road system for motor vehicles and, if you’re lucky, sidewalks. But if you can’t drive or can’t afford a car, good luck getting anywhere. Trains, buses and bicycle paths are few and far between.
Another curious thing was that some Dutch people were surprised to hear that we were riding from one town to another. They ride bicycles daily for short trips, but they rarely if ever go very far. If they want to travel more than a few miles, most people drive or take public transportation.
Infrastructure makes those short bicycle trips easy and safe. Major roads where vehicle speeds are greater than about 35 mph have separate, protected bikeways. But only half of Dutch bicycle trips are made on those. The other half are made on streets that cyclists share with vehicles.
But those streets are designed much differently than American ones. They have low vehicle speeds, and htey encourage everyone to pay attention and negotiate passage with one another. Rather than a painted line down the middle, rural Dutch roads have bike/walk/passing lanes painted on either side. Vehicles negotiate passage in the middle, passing on either side as other traffic allows.
It hasn’t always been this way. After World War II, the Netherlands started developing an American-style car culture. But the 1973 global oil shock and rising numbers of traffic deaths — especially among children hit by drivers — caused a backlash. Dutch authorities decided to rethink their transportation system.
Now, the nation of 16.9 million people has 22 million bicycles, and about one-third of all trips are made by bike. You see everyone cycling: rich and poor, young and old. (What you don’t see are many obese people.)
But there are 11 million motor vehicles in the Netherlands. More than half of Dutch households own a car, and a quarter of families own two or more. But gasoline is expensive — about $6 a gallon — and it costs about $3,000 to earn a driver’s license, which, unlike in Kentucky, requires extensive driver training.
Thanks to technology, cycling will soon find an even wider audience. While in Amsterdam, I test-rode a Van Moof, one of a new generation of bikes with electric motors and lightweight batteries that assist in pedaling. These could be game-changers for older people or those with long commutes.
They also might make it more practical for a family to own one car instead of two. When you consider that the cost of owning and operating a car in Kentucky averages $2,288 a year, according to Bankrate.com, that could be like getting a raise.
The Transylvania class I was with spent a morning in Delft with the Dutch Cycling Embassy. It is a coalition of city planners and traffic engineers who work internationally to encourage cycling and safe infrastructure.
Bicycle-specific infrastructure is important, but the biggest and cheapest thing any city can do to make biking and walking safer and more popular is to lower car and truck speeds, said Dick van Veen, a traffic engineer who works with the Dutch Cycling Embassy.
Van Veen said American cities should understand that the greatest opportunity for increasing cycling is among people who want to make short trips to stores, schools or offices in densely populated urban and suburban areas. Coincidentally, these are the places that are often plagued by traffic jams.
That’s something Lexington officials should keep in mind as they consider speed limits and bicycle infrastructure, especially around downtown and the University of Kentucky campus. When you increase people’s ability to get places they want to go without a car, you have fewer cars clogging up streets.