Friday Opinion: The Dutch and us

Just another day in the Netherlands.
(Screen grab)

The Dutch Cycling Embassy launched this week. Their mission?

“To facilitate cycling worldwide as the most modern, efficient and sustainable means of transportation by sharing our expertise and technology as the world’s number one cycling country.”

They’ve also released Cycling for Everyone, a 7-plus minute video that gives an excellent overview of cycling in the Netherlands from a historical and a planning context (watch it below).

Cycling For Everyone from Dutch Cycling Embassy on Vimeo.

If it was 2005 I would have seen something like this and gotten all excited and giddy for the future. We can do that! We’re Portland!

But now it’s 2011. We’ve sent our transportation leaders and policymakers to Europe many times. They know what to do and how to do it. Yet we still struggle to make bicycling a highly prioritized part of central city transportation. We wring our hands over any decision that has even the slightest impact on reducing access for automobiles. We green-light projects that include myriad compromises put in place to avoid any major shake-up to the auto-centric status quo. We think a comfortable bikeway is when signals are timed at biking speeds on three-lane downtown thoroughfares.

Yes, we are making progress; but it’s incremental change when we need much more.

NE Couch street, after we spent $17.8 million to “improve” it.
(Photo © J. Maus)

That’s why, today, when I watch this video I think — What’s holding Portland back? Is it political will? Cultural differences? A lack of public support? All of the above? (Yes.)

Even recent “bikeway” projects we celebrate here don’t come close to the type of “seamless integration” and level of priority and separation bicycles are given in the Netherlands.

And, not to be the wet blanket, but the story of the Dutch fighting back against cars in the ’70s has limited applicability to the American experience. Their modern history has one major difference to ours. Just a decade or so prior to their civic activism for bicycling they had, within themselves, a keen sense of what a true bicycling city felt like. They had something to fight for, a memory of how things used to be — not an abstract idea of what the future could be.

Here in America we can’t rely on that type of public upswelling of support (even though we’re trying). Not because people don’t like bikes; but because they haven’t experienced a city where bikes are taken seriously and therefore have no idea how bicycling (and “roads designed for people” as they put it in the video) can transform a city.

That’s why it’s imperative that we have political and civic leadership that’s not afraid to challenge the status quo, push ahead and be bold.

Watch the video for yourself and see how close (or how far, depending on your outlook) we are to a city where cycling truly is for “everyone.”

As always, I welcome your thoughts and feedback.

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