How did the Dutch do it?
How did they manage to build that bicyclist's paradise, the envy of bikers around the world, a pervasive network of cycle paths where nobody wears a helmet and mothers let their eight year olds find their own way to school, to the library, to the neighbourhood grass fields for a soccer game with their friends?
You can point out many reasons, but they all come back to just one basic thing: the broad and deep national concensus over bike use.
This is probably the most important reason that so much energy and funds are spent on building bike paths in the Netherlands, and one that I feel is often overlooked by communities trying to start up a system of bike paths. Dutch bike paths are used by a huge section of the population. In so many other places, bike riders and car drivers compete for space on the road, for right of way, for road construction funds, and so have an antagonistic relationship, an "us against them" attitude. I believe this attitude is entirely absent in the Netherlands because every driver is also a cyclist.
Before you can walk, you're already on a bike, quite literally: your mom would put you in the seat attached to her handlebar (so she can keep an eye on you). If she's a nice mom, she installs a windscreen so you don't catch cold too often.
When you outgrow the handlebar seat, or when you acquire a sibling, you move to the back of the bike, onto a seat attached to your mom or dad's luggage carrier. When you're four, you're a big boy / girl and expected to know not to do anything stupid behind your parents' back.
Just to be sure, and especially handy if you have expat parents, traffic safety and rules are part of the primary school curriculum, much like Drivers' Ed is in U.S. high schools. Sometimes there is also a road test.
But the real test is whether you can make it to school and back without incurring the wrath - I mean the comments - of other bikers. For the Dutch feel quite free to point out your mistakes to you, and not very politely so if you've made them brake or swerve. It's like having an army of aunties and uncles watching over you all over the place. -- Okay, I am being uncharitable: they do it because they are parents too and hope that someone will call their children on anything stupid that they might do. Because everybody realises that the road IS dangerous for bikers, and if it does come to a collision with a moving car, the car will always put a much bigger dent into the biker than the other way around.
Throughout your life you bike: to school, to a date, to college, to parties, to work (and yes, some will show up to their weddings on a bicycle). It is still not unusual to come across a Dutch person without a driver's licence. My parents' neighbours, now retired, never did bother to get one. Another set of neighbours are nearly 80 and think it a capital joke if you suggest that maybe they shouldn't do their groceries by bike any more. I have an aunt and uncle, now in their mid-70s, who at least once a week go on a 100-km ride (65 miles) for fun, to the beach, or someplace pretty, usually where there's a good restaurant tucked among the meadows.
Dutch bikes are comfortable.
Of course you see mountain bikes and racing-type road bikes on the streets in the Netherlands. But such "performance" bikes are the minority. Generally, Dutch bikes are workhorses, not recreational vehicles: sturdily built and equipped with cargo carriers, they give a very comfortable ride. Saddles are wide, and have just the right amount of cushioning. Steering bars are high (so you're sitting upright) and angled at the ends for an ergonomic hand grip. The tires have splash guards that keep your feet (and those riding behind you) dry even when you ride through puddles. Lights are compulsory and powered by a small generator that can be attached to your front wheel: no batteries are ever required.
"Eight to eighty" by markenlei via YouTube
The Dutch traffic manual includes a large section dedicated to car-bike interactions on the road: the rules are clear, and backed up by efficient law enforcement. And they have recently been revised to give bicyclers more road rights.
But it's not so much the threat of a ticket that makes drivers look out for those bikers: it's because on another day, that might be you on those two wheels, or your son, your niece or your grandma. Those bikers are you, in a sense, and therefore your treat them with care and respect, even when you happen to be in a car, and you make sure it's not your fault if they don't make it home in one piece. Besides, hogging the road, tailing or otherwise intimidating bikers is labeled "aso", the Dutch shorthand for anti-social behaviour just this side of solipsism, and is not tolerated. Where there are no bike paths, you're expected to share the road.
Everybody bikes, not just across ages, but also across social strata. The hierarchy is very flat, but still, it's not just the janitors, the students, and the construction workers who use the bike to get to work, it's also the teachers, the doctors, and all the other professionals. Heck, the prime minister, Mark Rutte, rides his bike to work.
"Bicycle Rush Hour in Utrecht" by markenlei via YouTube
Check out the footage (above) of a bike path in Utrecht at rush hour: you see a broad cross section of the Dutch population (except the retired, who prefer to wait until it gets quieter). Everybody from high-schoolers with book bags to parents with young children on their way to school or day care, to professionals in suits and ties toting their leather laptop bags. Even one lady with a cello on her back!
There you have it: there is no "us against them" - there is no "them". Those bikes, and bike paths and everything else that goes with it, is "us".
But it wasn't always that way: even the Dutch had to fight, and fight long and hard, to get those bicycle paths. Before that happened, many cyclers died, including a huge number of children, because they weren't used to sharing the road with cars, whose numbers mushroomed after the second world war.
"How the Dutch got their cycle paths" by markenlei via YouTube
More at BicycleDutch: "showing you what NL cycling is about"
The cost of all that infrastructure that puts bikers from other countries (except Denmark) into a swoon, is borne as a public expense, and on the whole with good cheer. Because everybody realises that in the long term, there are financial benefits that vastly outweigh the costs of supporting bicycling. The frugal Dutch have a sharp eye for savings, even if they occur in the future.
Biking is frugal.
Even from the shortest possible point of view, a bike is cheaper by far than any other means of personal transportation, be it horse, car or private jet. Or even a motorbike. 100 euros will get you a very decent used bicycle, and after purchase it requires nothing but minimal maintenance that you can do yourself (mostly), plus enough food for you to pedal it around. That's energy independence for you.
You certainly don't need the gasoline that's sold at around $9 per gallon here.
For places without the biking culture, it's a chicken and egg problem that requires intervention at city or state level: For without a good and safe network of cyling paths you will not convince enough people to start riding their bikes, to make it worth while. You need to convince moms, professionals, seniors, in short, everybody, that the paths are safe. This includes putting in place clear traffic rules, so that cars, bikers and pedestrians know the proper road etiquette. It all sounds like a lot of work, but the potential benefits are huge and will continue to pay back far into the future.
Biking saves on health care costs. Firstly, riding around with your hair in the wind (remember, no helmets) makes you intensely happy. Even when you don't realise it. Like, when you're struggling into the 25 mph wind that's not unusual in the fall. It keeps you in shape and the exercise is good for you.
Even though the country is completely flat, there is still enough exercise in biking to benefit everybody, even the 80-year old going to the neighbourhood grocery store.
There has been a decade-long campaign to get people on their bikes for fun. The promotion of recreational biking (rather than simply getting from A to B) is high on the government priority list because they realise that healthy citizens are cheapest, in terms of health care costs, unemployment or disability benefits, and the cost of the social support network, a large part of which is borne by that same government. If you look at it that way, installing a complete network of bike paths is not a luxury. It's the savvy thing to do.
Cities in the U.S. - New York being the latest - are discovering that building bicycle-friendly roads enjoys broad popular support, even if the "infrastructure" consist of nothing more than bicycle-shaped paint affixed onto the asphalt, and offers no real protection from cars. But if they stopped do to a few estimates, they would find it would be worth it to install real bicycle paths, separated from the cars. A lot more people would use those.
It makes the news in the US when scientists calculate that a good bicycle infrastructure that actually gets people out on their bikes could lead to a city saving worth billions of dollars annually (both from the health benefits of cycling itself and from the increase in air quality). Dude: why re-invent the wheel? The Dutch Court of Audits ("de Algemene Rekenkamer", literally the General Accounting Office) has arrived at this same conclusion several decades ago, and the arithmetic is not changing on this one, especially as the population is ageing.
Biking is frugal all around, and there is probably no bigger return on a municipal or state investment than a network of interconnecting and safe bicycle paths.
Build them, and we bikers will come.