Dutch show how SF cycling could grow



By Dara Colwell

OPINION During rush hour, seeing the intersection at Weesperzijde and Meester Treublaan in Amsterdam would make a San Franciscan gasp. As cars move forward, cyclists continually pedal past, undisturbed by traffic—20, 30, or 40 at a time, in both directions—onto the narrow Weesperzijde, which runs along the Amstel River.

For the Dutch, this is the norm. In the Netherlands, the average person takes 300 bike rides per year covering roughly 560 miles. Cycling deaths remain the lowest in the world.

If only this were true elsewhere. In San Francisco, four people were hit and killed while biking in and around SoMa in 2013. As of Nov. 14, the fifth person in nine days was killed cycling on London's roads. On both sides of the Atlantic, the issue raised by such tragedies remains the same: as long as roads favor cars, cyclists are at a dangerous disadvantage.

As a former San Franciscan now living in Amsterdam, I am continually impressed by the comprehensive infrastructure that allows me to bike everywhere safely. But it didn't come out of nowhere.

The Dutch had their love affair with cars, too. In rebuilding itself after World War II, the country became prosperous, and with more money flooding in, people ditched their bikes for cars. Because Dutch cities are small, densely populated, and hemmed in by canals, there wasn't a great deal of room to expand. As cars piled onto the streets, traffic-related deaths soared. In 1971 alone, cars killed more than 3,000 people, 450 of which were children. The public, outraged that this was too high a price to pay, started demonstrating.

In 1973, the international oil crisis hit, heightening concerns about oil dependency. This also pushed the Dutch to invest in the cycling infrastructure we see today—where every major street contains separate bike lanes and traffic lights.

Cycling here looks very different from San Francisco: couples hold hands, mothers willingly cart their children from A to B and people hold conversations as they ride along bike paths separated from the road. Legally, too, Dutch cyclists have the right of way on the road. According to the ANWB, the Dutch tourism and car owners' association, car drivers are liable for accidents unless they can prove they were overpowered by circumstances beyond their control.

Having lived in Amsterdam several years now, I am convinced that recreating the Dutch system elsewhere will take more than better bike lanes. In the Netherlands, cycling regularly (and not just for sport) has been ingrained for generations. Dutch children learn the importance, relevance, and necessity of cycling at an early age, and they learn how to do it well and therefore, safely.

In Dutch schools, cycling proficiency lessons are compulsory. Children have to pass two tests—one, an exam on road rules; the second, cycling through traffic— to earn a bike diploma. When these children cycle along bike paths, they are cycling next to drivers who have also cycled most of their lives, and are looking out for them.


Makes cycling more desirable. Not many people are going to be able to bike up SF's steep grades.

Posted by Guest on Dec. 27, 2013 @ 4:59 pm

steep, and more people walk their bike there than ride on the bike lane.

Posted by Guest on Dec. 27, 2013 @ 6:02 pm

on hills and resettling everyone only on flat parts of cities as a means of encouraging people to cycle.

Posted by Guest on Dec. 27, 2013 @ 8:22 pm
Posted by Guest on Dec. 30, 2013 @ 8:26 am

"While it is more challenging to build cycling infrastructure in America as there are greater distances to cover"

I must disagree with this statement. I believe it is far easier to construct cycling infrastructure in the USA than it was for the Netherlands. American cities are generally set up with far wider roads and in far more regular patterns then Dutch cities. Taking a tiny strip from an American main street for a bike path would be far simpler than figuring out where the heck you're going to put cyclist along a narrow Amsterdam one-way street along a canal.

The distances may be slightly larger on the whole, but cycling infrastructure is a largely urban affair. Even the Netherlands rarely has bike lanes outside of city limits, as the majority of trips are short. Limiting the development to city centers at first would do wonders to establish the biking culture and improve safety at the places where it is most needed.

Of course as you pointed out, the associated culture (and legislation) will take more time.

Posted by Mark Jansen on Dec. 30, 2013 @ 7:06 am

An entire lane of traffic or parking typically has to be removed to enable a bike lane and that has a magnifying effect on all other forms of road traffic.

Moreover, the real bike nuts want super-wide, physically segregated bike lanes and they require even more lateral space.

The point about distances is valid because cycling isn't an option in a place like the Bay Area or LA where many people commute a hundred miles a day.

Posted by Guest on Dec. 30, 2013 @ 8:29 am

How does limiting development to city centers when the Bay Area has multiple well established disparate job and housing centers going to scale?

In those cases where removing auto lanes for bike lanes snarls traffic which in turn snarls transit, then transit has to win every time if any of this is going to scale.

Most of the Netherlands was not built out for autos, existing towns were retrofit for car streets. Most of the US, especially west of the Mississippi, was built around and for autos, both streets capes and land use patterns. Those incumbent land use patterns is what is the main impediment as co much as build out sparsely.

There is no free lunch. Massive transit investment, like in the Netherlands, is the base upon which transition to less dependence on autos is build.

Posted by marcos on Dec. 30, 2013 @ 9:14 am

densely populated cities and small college towns. The idea that people will be commuting between Dublin and Mountain view by anything other than car or corporate shuttle is quite fanciful.

We cannot pull down all our infrastructure and start over as if we are some small, flat, medieval European town. There is neither the money nor the popular will to do that on any scale that would make a difference.

Bikes are a marginal transportation resource and always will be,

Posted by Guest on Dec. 30, 2013 @ 9:29 am

The San Francisco Bay Area is densely populated. Transit between Dublin and Mountain View is the low hanging fruit if there is BART over the Dumbarton. The real problem is the first and last mile.

Posted by marcos on Dec. 30, 2013 @ 10:00 am

requires a bus to Pleasanton BART, then a train that runs only 4 times a day to San Jose, or BART to nowhere close to getting the light-rail or CalTrain up to MV, and then a shuttle bus to your campus workplace. You're looking at 2 hours each way.

Buses will never work because of freeway and bridge congestion so that just leaves you with a new fast commuter rail system, and good luck with finding a ROW for that.

Wanna try Santa Cruz to Daly City instead? How about Vallejo to San Rafael? Walnut Creek to Cupertino?

I'm afraid the genie left the lamp a long time ago for your blue sky thinking to have relevance.

Posted by Guest on Dec. 30, 2013 @ 10:53 am

There is the Dumbarton Bridge and the old railway bridge near it that could serve as ROW for a southern BART crossing.

Posted by marcos on Dec. 30, 2013 @ 2:15 pm

An old railway bridge probably isn't usable as is but, anyway, the problem isn't the Bay but the built up areas at either end of it.

I'm all for more BART, as it's the only local transit system that works. But the planned extension from Fremont to San Jose more viable. Personally I'd replace CalTrain with BART as well but I think HSR plans to use that ROW if it ever happens at all.

Posted by Guest on Dec. 30, 2013 @ 3:13 pm

Point being, there are options to extend BART across the southern SF Bay which would allow for a one leg commute via transit from the Tri Valley to the northern Silicon Valley.

Posted by marcos on Dec. 30, 2013 @ 6:04 pm

to not use their cars.

What's your plan for persuading us all to vote to pay more taxes for your pipe dream? Convince me.

Posted by Guest on Dec. 30, 2013 @ 6:29 pm

Transit only works if there is housing density. There is no housing density in the Bay Area other than the north and east sides of SF, and a few parts of Oakland. BART was built to facilitate suburban sprawl and to greatly increase the value of SF downtown real estate since BART delivers hundreds of thousands of worker bees from the suburban hinterlands, which enriched the downtown SF commercial landlords by a few billion when the highrises followed.

Most Bay Area towns will never allow enough housing density to make transit a viable alternative (at least for the next 50 years). And job centers are far too diffuse to make transit workable to try to connect job regions with transit, even with masisve tax subsidies.

If the Bay Area committed to building a few hundred thousand housing units within a mil or so of Highway 101 between SF and north San Jose, near many of the largest job centers, then transit could work on the peninsula. But good luck trying to sell a housing density strategy to Palo Alto, Burlingame, Foster City, San Mateo, Belmont or even Redwood City.

Without heavy subsidies for transit (mostly buses) in Alameda, CoCo, Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, those bus systems would have been bankrupt years ago. When the next economic downtourn occurs the rising operating and pension costs of these bus systems will cause them to go on life suppport. Cities/counties will be faced with either gutting the bus systems or gutting local police forces. We all know which priority will win. Besides, many people are ageing in place. As boomers retire in record numbers over the next 15 years, they don't need or want to pay for transit systems to take them to work centers where they no longer work. And like most NIMBYs everywhere, they sure don't want a bunch of new dense housing developments near their homes. Who wants more traffic congestion and possibly poorer people to move into their neighborhood?

The sooner governments stop subsidizing freeway and transit "improvements" the sooner land-use patterns will change dramatically to encourage higher density housing, which will encourage private businesses to provide transportation solutions to various job centers. Private jitneys, medium distance van services, and other private transportation systems work well in most places in the world. They can work well in the US too.

Posted by Guest on Dec. 30, 2013 @ 7:26 pm

Germany has outer ring suburbs that are similar to the US and which are served by rapid regional rail. Nobody drives into the cities unless that have a good reason to.

Posted by marcos on Dec. 30, 2013 @ 7:40 pm

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