Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Going Dutch: Is Boston on board?

Stasha recently called my attention to a lengthy and thoughtful article by Martine Powers in the Boston Globe, examining the components of the Netherlands' successful mainstreaming of utility cycling and considering how the techniques might be brought to America. Go read it. I'll wait.

OK, back? Good. I mostly want to talk about the diagram, reproduced in teensy size to the right. Notes:
  • 2 and 3 are the same thing.
  • In Manhattan, the 1st/2nd and 8th/9th Avenue bike lanes have features 1-4 (and cyclists love 'em!). Those lanes are among the best cycling infrastructure in the United States, and their appeal to novice cyclists is a testament to the effectiveness of the "Dutch" approach.
  • I'm ambivalent about 6, unless the cyclists get the light slightly before drivers (allowing them to safely establish a presence before right-turners cut them off). Berlin has bike-specific signals, too, and the timing is staggered in this fashion at major intersections, and it works; but it's important to remember that Germany and the Netherlands are fundamentally more law-abiding cultures than the US, and that American cycling is still seen as something of a Wild West, so it may be quite some time before cycle-specific signalization gains traction, but I guess you have to start somewhere, if you want the American endgame to look like the Netherlands.
  • 7 is not a feature of Dutch cycling infrastructure but rather a byproduct (and partial enabler?) of the ubiquity of utility cycling in the country. It was perhaps unwise for the Globe to bring up this issue, one of the most contentious* in the bike advocacy world. Shall we dismiss Australian utility cycling as doomed to fail, given that country's universal helmet requirement?
  • The real game-changer, as far as infrastructure goes, is 5, which could greatly diminish the incidence of right hooks. (One of the strongest arguments advanced by vehicular cyclists* is that separating bikes and cars using cycletracks actually decreases cyclists' safety at intersections, when they "suddenly appear" from directions drivers aren't expecting.) 5 is an elegant physical solution to that problem.
Of course, the true core component of Dutch bike safety is the high-awareness, cars-last culture they enjoy. Since virtually everyone rides a bike at least some of the time, virtually everyone is very attuned to the presence of bikes on the roads; and the law holds drivers at fault in most collisions. Even the small things matter - American drivers open their door (into the bike lane) with their left hand, but Dutch drivers are trained to turn and open the door with their right hand, forcing them to look out and confirm that the adjacent lane is clear. (Powers covers all these cultural factors well in the article.)

Oh, and - there's parking in the upper diagram, but none in the lower one. How nice! (Realistically, yes, some street parking should remain in cities, but eliminating parking at intersections is a huge boon to safety. Neckdowns help enormously; the protected bike path can curve along the curb extension to approach the intersection more alongside the car lanes as per the illustration.)

I knew most of the facts from the article already, but a couple stood out for me:
  1. A key moment in the Dutch adoption of utility cycling was a nationwide moratorium on Sunday driving caused by the 1973 oil shortages. I've long admired the collectivist spirit of northern European democratic socialist societies; the last time the American government mandated consumption reductions was the rationing during World War II. (Some municipalities, like the Bay Area, now have voluntary air-quality improvement programs, but voluntary just isn't enough for the vast, silent majority of the population.) In the US, the approach is to gently change the market and societal incentives to encourage a transition to cycling, an approach that appears to be working. But it's fairly slow, and I have a hunch that a lot of people out there would take to utility riding if given the nudge. ("A transportation liberal is a conservative who's taken one ride on a Citi Bike.")
  2. The Dutch system of school-based cycling instruction and a "bike diploma" at around age 12 is wonderful. I had the good fortune of being raised by a mobility specialist, so had a very strong grounding from a young age in matters of street safety. I think such pedestrian/bicyclist education is very important, but I also feel strongly that there should be no legal licensing requirement for bicyclists. (They just don't pose enough danger to merit such a requirement.) But formalizing the education and training process - and making it as integral to primary school as driver's education was at my high school - is such a good way to disseminate life-saving information throughout society.
The question that Powers' well-informed article raises, of course, is whether American cities in general - and Boston in particular - can or will go Dutch. It's a crucial question, because adopting and adapting a Dutch street model is about much more than widespread bike use: it's about street safety for all users, smart use of limited space, fostering walkable, human-scale communities, and adjusting our carbon footprint in the face of climate change.

Perhaps simply because of its scale, but also doubtless due to the unparalleled intensity of its land use (and its citizens' resultant reluctance to cede any portion of that land or its use), New York has been a center of attention in the American livable-streets movement. But let us not ignore Boston! Boston beat NYC to bike share; Boston has about 9.7 miles of bike lanes/sharrows per 100,000 population, more than NYC's roughly 6.6 miles per 100,000 citizens. (But, again - scale. New York has more than 500 miles of bike lanes to Boston's 62. Hubway is celebrating two years and 1 million rides; Citi Bike is currently seeing nearly a million rides every month.)

I'd love to hear from some Bostonians about how street safety and bike infrastructure are coming along in their neighborhoods; I'm planning to visit in November and will take the pulse myself. But in the meantime, this article and the progress it reports are heartening for me. Keep up the good work!

* I don't want to get into the vehicular cycling debate, or the helmet debate, at least not here. But I surely will, down the road.


  1. I would like to correct you on one point. Germas are possible more law-abiding, but the dutch.... i think not.
    We have got a authority problem. Bucause we are all equal. Even the queen or king goes to the toilet:-)