Bike-Friendly Cities: It Can Happen Here

Holland is known for its bike-friendly cities, but there’s no reason why its bicycle boulevards, safe routes, and careful government planning can’t be exported.

Bicycle-Lane

In Dutch schools, students are instructed on bicycle and auto safety from a very young age. In Utrecht, kids earn a certificate from the city for passing a bicycle safety test at age 11.

FOTOLIA / MARCO RICHTER

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Back in 2010, former Utne Reader editor Jay Walljasper traveled to Europe to discover the secret behind Holland’s famously bike-friendly cities. The reputation is well earned: when commuting or running errands, Dutch residents use their bicycles more than a quarter of the time, and in cities like Groningen, the share is more than half. Writing for Solutions (April 2012), Walljasper outlined the Netherlands’ recipe for success:

First, start young. In Dutch schools, students are instructed on bicycle and auto safety from a very young age. In Utrecht, kids earn a certificate from the city for passing a bicycle safety test at age 11. Programs like this ensure that most students are comfortable on a bike and well-versed on safety. And results are immediate: fully 95 percent of Dutch students age 10-12 regularly bike to school. 

Safe options are big. It’s not just safe skills that are important. Most people in the U.S. say they’d bike more if roads and bike lanes were safer. In the Netherlands, they’ve got this down to an art. The key is to separate bikes and cars as much as possible, and clearly mark which is which. Off-road pathways and two-wheels-only “bicycle boulevards” may be nifty novelties in Portland and Berkeley, but in Holland they’re the rule, not the exception.

Biking is about convenient alternatives. In Holland, this often boils down to parking. Not content with traditional bike racks, many cities have indoor bike parking below-ground, complete with parking attendants. Secure bike parking makes biking more accessible for professionals and even people over 30. In places like The Hague, officials are retrofitting older parking garages to meet demand—one car space can fit up 10 bicycles.  

It’s planning, not DNA. Holland may seem unique, but there’s nothing all that special about Dutch bikers. Rather, almost all of the bike-friendly innovations Holland now boasts stem from careful government planning. The spark was the 1970s oil crisis. Desperate to find alternatives to a car-dependent culture, Holland embarked on a generation-long experiment that’s now bearing fruit. The takeaway, says Walljasper, is that this success can be repeated anywhere—even here.