A Land Where Bikes Rule the Road

At a Council hearing on Wednesday, November 2, there was a great deal of discussion about how to make cycling safer in the District. The testimony included calls for greater protections for bicyclists, better enforcement of existing laws and the installation of more bike infrastructure. DDOT has been working to make the District more bicycle friendly for years and that effort includes studying and replicating successful strategies used in other cities and countries around the world. Below is a firsthand account by DDOT Bicycle Program Specialist Mike Goodno of his recent trip to the Netherlands with Supervisory Traffic Safety Engineeer James Cheeks. Even if we can’t implement everything they saw, they came back with some great ideas.

James Cheeks and Mike Goodno in Nijmegen

In early October, James Cheeks and I, along with city transportation officials from Chicago and Miami, attended a one-week study tour of bicycling design best practices in the Netherlands.

During our visit, we travelled to seven cities (Utrecht, Zwolle, Groningen, Nijmegen, Tilburg, Rotterdam, and Amsterdam) to meet with local planners, engineers, and elected officials about how the Dutch make their cities such inviting places for bicyclists.

From my perspective, one of a transportation planner from a car-dominated country, I saw a simple, yet utopian vision of a place that put an increased emphasis on biking: children biking to school, people cycling to work, parents biking with children, and bikes with baskets filled with groceries. And even though most bicyclists didn’t wear helmets, biking was safe: In a country where nearly everyone rides a bike, drivers (who are often riders themselves) expect to encounter bicyclists and know how to interact safely with them.

A major component in the Netherlands’ effort to encourage bicycling is its emphasis on building bicycle infrastructure, which the Dutch treat as an equal mode of transportation.

In low-speed environments, it’s generally acceptable for bikes and cars to share the road.  However, when speeds differ substantially, or bicycle volume is very high, physically separated, red-tinted bike paths are installed. At controlled intersections, cyclists usually have their own traffic signals, some of which have advance bike loop detectors, ensuring that cyclists receive a green light when they reach the intersection.

Tilburg Fietstraat ("Bike Street")

If the right-of-way is narrow, and bicycle volume is greater than that of cars, the Dutch sometimes designate a roadway as a bicycle-priority street.  Physical cues such as raised intersections, red-tined asphalt, and signs are installed with a picture of a car following a bicycle with the text, “auto is guest.”

Below are some notable observations that I took away from my time in the Netherlands:

  • Nationally, 27 percent of all trips are taken by bike (in the United States, it’s 1 percent).  More than 50 percent of the trips in two of the cities were taken by bike (in the District, it’s 3 percent).
  • Nearly everyone in the Netherlands is a cyclist, and there are more bicycles than people. 60 percent of the Dutch cycle at least three times a week; 80 percent cycle at least once a week.
  • Most children begin learning to cycle at 3 or 4, and receive traffic education each year in primary school culminating in an on-road skills test.
  • The Dutch don’t believe cyclists are dangerous, they believe cars and car drivers are a primary safety hazard.  Therefore, car drivers are almost always liable when a collision with a bicycle occurs and are required to adapt their speed when bicycles share the roads with cyclists.
  • 55 percent of all cyclists are women in the Netherlands; this figure is 26 percent in the United States.

If you want to learn more about our trip, please contact me at 202-671-0681 or at Mike.Goodno@dc.gov. To see more photos please visit http://www.flickr.com/photos/ddotphotos/sets/72157628044401170/.

March 7, 2012 Update: Streetfilms just posted a great video recap of this tour with interviews of the participants, including James and Mike.

From the Netherlands to America: Translating the World’s Best Bikeway Designs from Streetfilms on Vimeo.

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