Some More Thoughts on Bicycling in the Netherlands

I will try not to be too redundant with Michelle’s great summary of bicycling in the Netherlands, but one can’t travel from a place with sporadic, questionable bicycling infrastructure to the world leader and not say anything!

But first I do have to repeat just how amazingly pleasant it is to go anywhere.  Washington Bikes has been asking for people to write about their favorite ride or destination.  Mine is easy and too short for a blog post, though Michelle is now challenging me to do so.  It’s our church because it’s the only place we can go on neighborhood streets.  It’s pleasant though crossing the collectors still reminds one of the car-centric nature of everything.  The grocery store would almost be on the list but (1) it’s close enough that we walk, and (2) even it involves crossing an arterial, which is simply awful.  Every ride in the Netherlands was like the ride to our church, except better.

Second, they get it.  The planners/engineers get it.  The people (bicyclists, drivers) get it.  This isn’t news to anyone, but it’s hard to really understand what this means until one goes there and sees it.  The infrastructure just works, and we rode a pretty big range (from neighborhood streets with no separation to paths basically along highways).  There is cooperation between modes.  If a car comes up behind you on a neighborhood street, the driver doesn’t come up close or honk or any of that nonsense.  And when (and if) you get a chance, you let them through.  In the US, almost every moment is claiming space and self-defense to the point of forgetting that people might actually be able to work together.  There were many times where I was comfortable where I wouldn’t have been with the identical situation back home.

One design point from this: intersections are always at least as protected as the roads leading to them.  Normal bike lanes lead to protected intersections (and “protected” here means buffers and separate signals designed for the intersection, not cookie-cutter copies of the “protected intersection” graphic/video going around these days).  We’ve got this backwards where we seem to be fixated on the roads and often neglect the intersections.  Here’s an extreme example of no infrastructure leading to a separated path (though to be fair this is a pretty quiet street hitting a major one):

Third, it’s hard to imagine how many bikes there are.  Pictures and video give a pretty good idea of this.  They’re everywhere, and people don’t run into each other in intersections and plazas.  Seeing the sheer number led me to realize a number of things about handling it.  Bikes on buses?  Not where we were.  It simply doesn’t scale; bikes are too big (except folding ones).  So while it can be handy here and might help attract the next new wave of riders, I wonder how good of an investment it is.  (I don’t know how expensive those 2-bike to 3-bike conversions on the buses were, so maybe it doesn’t matter much.)  On trains?  Yes, but it will cost you 7,5€ (about US $8.25) one-way, so it’s for special occasions.  Then there’s parking.  The train stations are known for having lots of very good parking, but things get interesting in other places.  We’ve gotten very picky about our parking here, but our solutions (like widely spaced staples) take way too much space.  In dense areas, there needs to be a row (or rows!) of bikes pretty much touching all the way down the row.  In fact, often it takes some luck to find anything to lock to at all, so a lot of just wheel-locking is done.

In fact, I think it might be safe to say that the law of induced demand, which we love to refer to when discussing the expansion of highways, applies to bike parking.  The Delft train station houses a lot of bikes overnight.  Grocery store racks were over half full after closing.  It’s a bit annoying and feels wasteful, but it still comes out way ahead compared to space for car parking (not to mention the road space to get the cars there).

Last is pedestrian infrastructure.  In city centers things are fine because pedestrians (and bicycles) pretty much go everywhere.  Busy roads will have separate bicycle and pedestrian paths.  At the other end, it doesn’t really matter in the quietest places.  However, we found the middle area to be remarkably inconsistent.  Sidewalks would end without warning.  This picture from the Delft/Rijswijk border shows the priorities pretty nicely:

priorities on a narrow bridge

priorities on narrow bridges

The bike path continue on both sides.  The car lanes are reduced to a shared single lane.  From the camera’s view, the nearest part of the road only has a pedestrian path on the right side.  The bridge only has a pedestrian path on the left side.  (And unfortunately we were then turning right immediately after the bridge so we would have to cross back.)  And well back behind the camera, the pedestrian path flips sides again.  On the bright side, the merge point provides a pedestrian island.  And more importantly, the overall culture of careful driving trumps it all and makes it work out.

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