Wednesday April 23, 2014 Full Website »
Urban Wonk

Why There's No War Between Drivers and Cyclists in the Netherlands

Why There's No War Between Drivers and Cyclists in the Netherlands
Shutterstock

Bicycling is such an integral part of life in the Netherlands, you might think that Dutch people are born knowing how to cycle.

They aren’t, of course. What’s kind of wonderful is the way that they learn.

It’s not just a matter of going to the park with a parent, getting a push, and falling down a bunch of times until you can pedal on your own. Dutch children are expected to learn and follow the rules of the road, because starting in secondary school – at age 12 – they are expected to be able to ride their bikes on their own to school, sometimes as far as nine or 10 miles.

Because this independent travel for children is valued in Dutch society, education about traffic safety is something that every Dutch child receives. There's even a bicycle road test that Dutch children are required to take at age 12 in order to prove that they are responsible cycling citizens.

This emphasis on early education in the rules of the road doesn’t simply result in well-mannered and safe bike riders who use the excellent cycling infrastructure on Dutch streets responsibly. It also means that everyone in the society understands what it is to be a cyclist. All the people driving cars have had experience on bikes. They can look at cyclists and think, “That could be me.”

How different from the way people on bicycles, or pedestrians for that matter, are perceived in the United States, with its mostly substandard infrastructure and wildly differing laws about biking (you must use the sidewalk, you cannot use the sidewalk, etc.). Here, drivers often see bike riders as nuisances or outright adversaries, whether they are obeying the law or not. Anyone who’s ever ridden a bicycle has experienced the rage. If you haven’t, take a look at a few comments on a recent CNN article about bicycling injuries:

Sorry, but if you insist on riding a bike at 15 MPH on a road filled with people trying to make it to work in a half-awake state going 45, 55+ MPH, you shouldn't act all surprised and shocked when bad stuff happens.

The way that i see it, any cycling moron out riding in the road outside of a residential area is begging to get hit.

Grow the heck up bikers. We don't live in this cute little fantasy world where everyone is perfect 100% of the day. You're occupying road space that 99.99% of the time is being used by cars going the same speed as everyone else. What do you think is going to happen occasionally (and tragically)?

Some of the comments from cyclists are just as confrontational:

Bicyclists should carry a nice hammer to adjust the body work of offending vehicles.

Some times I wonder if the only way a cyclist can get respect is to strap on a fully automatic weapon across their back.

Imagine if everyone in the U.S. had to complete the type of educational program you see in the “traffic garden,” an educational facility in Utrecht, the Netherlands, where kids take turns navigating in cars (pedal-powered), on foot, and on bikes in a safe, small-scale environment.

Educational programs like these set the tone for a lifetime.

Could it ever happen in the United States? With more and more people using bikes for transportation all the time, more comprehensive education about how to ride would certainly be a civilized response.

Top image: Max Topchii / Shutterstock.com

Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn. All posts »

Join the Discussion