by Hans Voerknecht
Fietsberaad International is one of the founding fathers of the Dutch Cycling Embassy (DCE). So Fietsberaad International will be united with other organisations into the Dutch Cycling Embassy. However, the basis for our work, all the knowledge and experience assembled in the website will still be accessible and will keep its strong links with the Fietsberaad-site. The way to approach this treasure chamber will be www.cyclingembassy.nl and will contain all the existing and new information you are familiar with.
I myself will also quit international cycling promotion and exchange. It has been a great 3 years and I am very glad that I had the opportunity to work together with so many enthusiastic and committed people abroad as well in the Netherlands. I think that at the moment “fietsen” is really taking of everywhere in the world and the modal share of cycling will soon be reaching double digit percentages in most countries. The way the Dutch bicycle ambassadors have worked for Fietsberaad International has really attributed to the cycle zest that is going on in the world. Not as preachers who knew everything better, but with a open mind to the problems in the rest of the world, unknown to us Dutchmen.
Because when I started this job, I knew that cycling in the rest of the world was less popular in the Netherlands, but I could not understand the resistance to cycling. How can you be against a mode of transport that is so sustainable, healthy, convenient, environmental friendly, efficient (add some more adjectives) as a bike? A mode of transport that is unquestionably the best mode for all urban transport. And that is so cheap both in purchasing as in investments for the society? And which is above all, SO MUCH FUN to do.
Well in those days the book “Joyride” by Mia Birk had not been written. Mia Birk was the bicycle policy officer of Portland, Oregon and is now president of Alta Planning. This books shows what amount of prejudice, stubbornness and even aggression you had to overcome just to have a wee bit more of cycling. A must-read for everybody (and it is really good fun to read, even for the non-professional).
And I am glad that the Thinkbike-workshops have come into existence. Because in the beginning of this job, I always thought, when I had given a presentation on cycling to foreigners:”OK, their very enthusiastic, they love what we’re doing, they’re put off their feet by the amount of cycling in the Netherlands and how normal it is, but what can they do with is at home?” So I was very pleased when Pex Langenberg and Nell Neal of the Dutch Embassy in Washington D.C. asked me to develop a format to really make the Dutch knowledge and experience applicable elsewhere. The Thinkbike workshops that I have done (Toronto and Chicago) belong to the best days in my working life. Completely exhausting and intensely satisfying. So what everybody warned me about:”The rest of the world see the Dutch as arrogant know-alls.” is not true.
What is true, is the fact that we have to work very hard to make our knowledge applicable for people outside the Netherlands. Because we never had to do the work uphill, trying to promote cycling from scratch, with no cycling culture and no infrastructure and aggressive car drivers. The last time that the modal share of the bike was below 20% of all trips in the Netherlands must have been 1910 or so. And we did not have to fight any negative image of cycling. On the contrary, aldermen in the Netherlands can even lose their job when they do not enough to please the cyclists. And this is just something we inherited. Because the first bicycle league in the Netherlands, the ANWB (Algemene Nederlandse Wielrijders Bond, or the General Dutch Association of Bicyclists) was an association for the upper middle class and still cycling is more popular in the upper middle class than in the other classes.
What more to mention?
In the years that I have worked on this topic I have found that there are several quite persistent obstacles for more cycling, that seem to be very hard to tackle. Here is my top 5 ( call it a cri de coeur, call it my last testimony):
1. Stop helmet promotion!
This is a controversial one. But I am convinced that promoting helmet use is very counterproductive against more cycling. And in the end bad for safety and health. This seems to be a strange argument, because there sure are cases where there are people with head injuries that would have been better of when they would have protected their head with a helmet. But there is much much more safety to be gained in what is called “safety by numbers”: The more people cycle, the safer it gets. And the fact is, that the problem with a lot of countries is, that they lose almost all cyclists between the age of 11 and 18.In the Netherlands, cycle use is the highest in this age group:
Kids between 12 and 16 cycle more than 6 km per day on average. The bike is their key to freedom. And freedom for their parents who do not need to bring their children wherever they want to go. The fact that these kids do cycle brings to things:
1. They will be very good cyclists later;
2. The chance that they will keep on cycling when they are older is quite high.
Like it or not, you will not get these kids wearing helmets on their bike. They probably will throw the helmet away, or they will not cycle. And then you will have to get them back on the bike when they are adults. And having a very large group very good cyclists will provide a lot more safety than any helmet can do.
The evidence of advantages of wearing helmets is rather thin anyway. There is not one example where helmet use has lead to less head injuries per cycled km. In some countries it has lead to a significant decrease of cycle use.
Some people at a University meeting on helmet use in Amsterdam said that every victim that can be avoided, should be avoided. If you persist in that, you would also plea for car drivers wearing helmets. Or, even stronger, when it was shown that by far the most head injuries occur with accidents at home, you could argue that all children should wear helmets at home. (If you would call this stupid, how about helmet use on bikes).
And what speaks even more strongly for myself: I must have been falling on my bike more than a hundred times. But I have never had the slightest bruise on my head. And I don’t have my kids (5 and 6 year old boys) wearing a helmet, because I do not want to give them a negative association with something so positive as cycling.
To put another argument on this pile of arguments: The Netherlands, with the lowest helmet use in the world (<0,5%) is by far the safest cycling country in the world (<10 casualties per billion cycled kilometres)
If you insist on wearing a helmet yourself, but if you want more and safer cycling, STOP PROMOTING HELMET USE.
2. Cycle planning is an essential part of urban (mobility) planning
Far too often, cycle planning is done at a separated office away from urban transport planning. The result is: far too many cars on the streets, congestion, noise, bad air quality and so on. It is extremely important that with urban planning you always include cycling in it. I-ce calls this Cycle Inclusive Planning. When you see the power of the bike in making urban transport much more efficient and sustainable and making all destinations more accessible. So it is important to include cycling already in the exploring phases of planning in order to have comfortable, attractive, direct and safe bicycle infrastructure from the beginning of the developments.
3. Sacrifice car lanes for bike lanes: A win-no lose-deal
In Toronto Rob Ford won the mayor’s election race partly because he made the Torontonians believe that exchanging car lanes for bike lanes was a “war on cars”. Because, he stated, there is already too little capacity for cars in Toronto, so there is need for more, not less, car space. This is a common myth almost everywhere in the world (even in the Netherlands). The problem with this is that people can only think in statics and hardly in dynamics. What is true that if you are lacking parking space, that it helps to build more. Because cars stand still. Static. The problem is that when we are talking about mobility, we are talking about flows. Consider this picture:
When you want to have a liquid flowing from A through pipe B to C, it does not help at all to make A or C larger, because the throughput is determined by the width of B. This is the same when A and C are stretched of road and B is a traffic bottleneck, mostly an intersection. Of course it helps the whole system to increase the throughput of bottleneck B, but as long as the throughput of the stretches of road is greater than the bottlenecks the throughput of the whole system is completely independent of the width of the stretches of road. This is very hard to grasp for people, who say: “But if you build 10 lanes, there will be more car traffic than with 4 lanes. The answer is “No”. When the capacity of the bottleneck is only one lane than there will be no more throughput than for one lane. And remember that every intersection in an urban area is such a bottleneck. So when you have six car lanes and a capacity of 1 lane at the bottlenecks, you can take away four lanes completely without loss.
4. Aim at sepearte bicycle paths.
Most cities think in cycle lanes. The problem with this is not absolute. In the Netherlands are – and should be- a lot of cycle lanes. But only in calmed streets with a low car intensity. Putting cycle lanes in a 50 km/h street is not very bicycle friendly. It does not feel comfortable and it feels risky. And it is so easy to provide separate bicycle infrastructure: Just change:
5. There is no such thing as ‘free parking’, just as there is no such thing as a free lunch
As Donald C. Shoup already stated in “The High Price of Free Parking’, there is always someone who has to pay for the costs of parking. And when parking is free, somebody else pays it. Also people who do not own a car. Shoup states that the costs of parking are often higher than the costs of having a car. And this incorrect pricing of parking (the true costs of parking are at least €2000 per car per year) causes undesirable effects on the market, which is pro car and anti bicycle use. Because the bicyclists also pays for the parking of the car. When the true costs of parking would have to be paid by the user, the choice he would make would change dramatically. In Amsterdam, when they raised the price of parking to €5 an hour, there was a dramatic decrease of car use in favour of bike use. So the invisible subsidising of car use should stop and there should be an end to free parking.