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Posted by Gregory Maassen on May 20, 2021 - Latest revision November 2, 2021  Reading time: minutes remaining

A Tale of Two Capitals: Why Amsterdam Gets Around by Bicycle – And Why DC Is Starting To

Why do bicycles outnumber cars in the streets of Amsterdam, capital of the Netherlands?  Why do half a million people a day bike to work, school, or to the store there? 

An article by Jeff Baron, former Washington Post contributor.

This article was published in 2015.

The answer is simple, explained Dutch transportation planner Herbert Tiemens:  “We get around by bicycle because we feel it’s safe.”  

Despite the obvious benefits – to the environment, reduced congestion and ease of parking, traffic safety and personal health – if the Dutch didn’t feel it was safe to get around by bicycle they wouldn’t try to, Tiemens told me.

The importance of low stress biking environments

Feeling safe might be the last thing an American cyclist would say about navigating our auto-centric streets.  But in the Netherlands, officials like Tiemans figure the more bicyclists out on the roads, the safer they will be, and the numbers bear him out.  

DC and Amsterdam are comparable in area and population, but an Amsterdammer is twelve times more likely to make a given trip around town by bicycle than is a Washingtonian, and one-twelfth as likely to be hurt in a biking accident.  Put another way, the statistics for bicycle accidents, injuries and fatalities in the two capitals are about the same despite the vast differences in bike usage.

As Michael van der Plaat of the Dutch Embassy in Washington put it:  “Getting around by bicycle in Amsterdam is commonplace.  In DC, it’s always an adventure.  When people feel safe – when they feel it’s commonplace – more people will do it.” 

Bike lanes physically separated from cars, liability laws and traffic enforcement, driver attitudes – the factors, Tiemens told me, that provide for that feeling of safety.  

Post-World War II

With post-World War II prosperity, the Dutch saw the car as their transportation future.  But they didn’t like the consequences.

The automobile in the Netherlands

While the Netherlands has a long tradition of getting around by bike, that changed during the 1960s and 1970s.  Dutch planners saw bicycling as transportation as outmoded, for poorer countries – the automobile was the future.   (The Netherlands is the world’s thirteenth richest nation; the U.S. is seventh.) 

A gathering during the annual day of the Dutch AAA - the ANWB - in 1903, in black and white with male and female cyclists

A gathering during the annual day of the Dutch AAA - the ANWB - in 1903.

The Dutch wanted what America had – expressways, wider streets, big garages, Luud Schimmelpennink, who served on the Amsterdam City Council in the 1960s, said in an interview.  Municipalities began leveling old city centers, paving over open public space and even canals in order to accommodate more cars.

But the Dutch didn’t like the consequences – more cars on the roads meant increased air and noise pollution, streets too dangerous to bicycle or walk, longer travel times. 

An old Dutch street turned into a woonerf. A woonerf is a living street with shared spaces, traffic calming, and low speed limits. Under Article 44 of the Dutch traffic code, motorized traffic in a woonerf or "recreation area" is restricted to walking pace. Picture courtesy of Erauch via Wikipedia. 

So around 1980, after the oil shocks, the Dutch did something very un-American.  They decided the bicycle – along with the car and public transit – would remain an important mode in the country’s transportation future.  

It’s not that the Dutch were or are anti-car.  Car ownership remains widespread and 80 percent of trips over 10 miles are by car.      

Rather, it’s that the Dutch still see advantages in routine use of the bicycle, especially for distances up to about 5 miles.  

Bicycling is more convenient, faster, healthier and much, much cheaper

Door to door, they say, bicycling is more convenient, faster, healthier and much, much cheaper.  No hunt for a parking spot at the destination and parking is free.  Zero fuel costs.  Trivial maintenance costs.  The health benefits:  The Dutch obesity rate is 11 percent, compared to 35 percent in the U.S.  Air pollution and emissions:  zero, compared to an average of 5.5 tons of CO2 from a single car driven 12,500 miles.   

That said, there are some serious drawbacks in getting around Dutch cities by bike.

While the Netherlands is flat, it’s often rainy and cold, and winter daylight lasts just eight hours.  Streets in the old cities are narrow and twisting, filled with fast European drivers piloting fast European cars.  Think the Netherlands, think windmills.  “Our wind is your hills,” the Dutch Embassy’s Michael van der Plaat told me.

The Dutch make almost 25 percent of all commuting trips by bicycle

Yet the numbers reflect the choices the Netherlands has made.  The Dutch make almost 25 percent of all commuting trips by bicycle -- compared to 2 percent in England and about 1 percent in the U.S.

And that expansion of bike routes in cities and suburbs began in earnest only in the 1980s.  “It took 30 years to get what we have now,” Ria Hilhorst, Transportation Advisor to the City of Amsterdam, told me. 

What the Netherlands, about the size of Maryland, has now is 22,000 miles of cycling lanes, including 18,000 miles of bike lanes – called cycle-tracks – that are physically separated from streets and roads.  In fact, redistributing asphalt from car to bicycle became the centerpiece of national and local government efforts to keep cycling as transportation safe.  

For Dutch planners, cold calculations of transportation efficiency and cost drove those decisions to expand the cycling networks – recreation and fitness account for under 10 percent of all cycling trips in the Netherlands.

A map An intricate network of officially designated cycling paths in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

An intricate network of officially designated cycling paths in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Image courtesy of https://amsterdam.fietsersbond.nl

Amsterdam alone has 600 miles of bike lanes, half of which are cycle-tracks physically separated from cars.  Over 50 percent of all trips in the Dutch capital are made by bicycle.   Amsterdam streets are filled with bikes the way DC streets are filled with cars. 

Other Dutch cities also decided to “put bikes above other means of transportation,” as Victor Everhart, Deputy Mayor of Utrecht, put it.

The city of Utrecht in the Netherlands

In central Utrecht is a giant shopping mall that, at 100,000 square meters with 150 stores, is roughly the size of Bethesda’s Montgomery Mall.  Co-located with the mall is an additional 200,000 square meters of office space.   

Utrecht in the 1970s decided to build a four-lane expressway to bring shoppers to the mall and offices.  That meant clearing parts of the historic city center to build roads and garages. 

Victor Everhart

We wanted to create new economic activity, so we organized the city around moving cars.  But what we saw were problems with pollution, traffic, the destruction of a pleasant, livable environment.  

So we made a decision to preserve the urban quality of life.  We decided to remove the expressway and reorganize transportation in the city center around the bicycle.  That was a tough political decision.  We had to create space for bicycles – and space is terribly limited here. 

First, Utrecht restricted cars on the expressway to two lanes, freeing up two lanes for buses and bicycles. Now, all four lanes are dedicated to bicycles and buses and green space has been restored.  

The point wasn’t to eliminate cars from the city – motorists were redirected to other routes.  

The point was to speed movement generally by reducing the number of cars – and once it was safe to do so, a significant number of drivers got out of their cars and onto bicycles.  

Bringing along the downtown business leadership took time, Everhart said.

As Utrecht moved to reorganize transportation in 1980, businesses found the eased congestion improved their bottom lines.  Supermarkets, department stores, and boutiques found customers arriving by bike spent more because they shopped more often.  

Customers and employees alike preferred the convenience and lower transportation cost of bicycles over cars.  Aside from fuel costs, parking was a particular advantage. The Dutch figure a single car-park space accommodates 20 bicycles in the two-level rack system common throughout the Netherlands (cost:  about $500/unit).   

Utrecht's large parking garage for bicycles

Utrecht is now building a parking garage for 12,500 bicycles.  (Car parking for all of Disneyland is 10,242 spaces; for Tysons Corner with its five garages, just over 12,000 spaces.)  The shift from car to bicycle parking frees up land for new development and cuts costs for businesses as well. 

The interior of the worlds largest indoor garage for bicycles in Utrecht the Netherlands

The interior of the world's largest indoor garage for bicycles in Utrecht, the Netherlands. Picture courtesy of Shaun Jacobsen via Wikipedia.

Just as the Netherlands moved to carve out a place for bicycling as transportation, in part to reduce its own dependence on foreign oil, Washington DC emphatically went the other way.  

The second oil shock and Rock Creek Park

After the second oil shock in 1979, the National Park Service considered restricting cars in Rock Creek Park, including making one of the two expressway lanes bicycles-only.  

Long sections of Rock Creek Park have no bike paths, and when paths are available in the national park, they’re often too narrow and twisty to safely accommodate two-way bike traffic, runners and walkers.  

Nonetheless, and in the face of quadrupling oil prices, the National Park Service decided dedicating pavement to bicycles would be “politically inexpedient” and quickly shelved the plan.

A trail barrier keeping motorized traffic from Beach Drive during the weekends

A trail barrier keeping motorized traffic from Beach Drive during the weekends

While Rock Creek Parkway remains too hazardous for most commuting bicyclists, overall bike commuting in DC quadrupled in the last 15 years – from 1 percent in 2000 to 4 percent of all trips to work in 2013. 

Trips on those distinctive Capital Bike Share red bikes alone went from 50,000 per month in 2010 to almost 350,000 per month in 2014.  

DC has made some important gains

While Dutch commuting bicyclists would see little to envy in the 65 miles of bike lanes now in DC streets, some important gains have been made – DC began with only 3 miles of bike lanes in 2000.

“Our biggest challenge is building up physically separated cycle-track bike lanes,” said Greg Billing, advocacy director at the Washington Area Bicyclists Association (WABA).  “Five years ago we had zero miles – so no actual demonstration of the protection the cycle-tracks provide cyclists and the benefit of traffic flow predictability they provide drivers.”

Downtown DC now has 5 miles of cycle-tracks on thoroughfares such as Pennsylvania Avenue, 15th Street, and L and M streets. Commuting cyclists say serious design and operating problems remain to be addressed.  For example, the separated bike lane on M Street changes course repeatedly to accommodate on-street parking.  That forces cyclists and drivers to deal with dangerous lane shifts in heavy traffic. 

Bicycle traffic lights on M street in Washington DC

Bicycle traffic lights on M street in Washington DC.

Delivery trucks routinely park in the separated bike lanes, forcing cyclists to swing around into traffic.  As drivers cut across the cycle-tracks to turn into streets or garages, they often don’t think to look for bicycles.  And the design of the 60 miles of non-separated bike lanes puts passing bicyclists well within range of opening car doors, so with the increase in bike trips has come a corresponding increase in emergency room visits, too.    

Even with those serious design shortcomings, most cyclists welcome the added safety – and drivers the added traffic flow predictability – from the 5 miles of separated cycle-tracks we now have.  

DC Department of Transportation (DDOT) 2014 Long-Range Transportation Plan, moveDC

And the goal in the draft DC Department of Transportation (DDOT) 2014 Long-Range Transportation Plan, moveDC, would sound familiar to Dutch planners:  Provide “next generation alternatives to single occupancy driving in the city.”  

In fact, DDOT found “bicycling is the mode with the greatest potential to accommodate more demand” for transportation as regional population grows.


DDOT

Washington DC

moveDC is the long-range transportation plan for the District of Columbia. Under Mayor Bowser’s leadership, moveDC establishes goals, policies, strategies and metrics for District Department of Transportation to invest in transportation facilities and programs that address the future needs of Washingtonians across all eight wards. 

The DDOT plan calls for a linked bicycle network of almost 350 miles, including 75 miles of physically separated cycle-tracks, over the next quarter century.  Pavement would be reallocated on such corridors as Massachusetts and Connecticut avenues, and on residential side streets as well, to route bike traffic to those main corridors, in order to reach downtown destinations.

Failure to Yield

Hit by a car in an Arlington bike lane, the bicyclist was ticketed for “failure to yield.” 

Pae Wu was coming out of X-ray when Arlington County police officer L. M. Harden handed her a ticket for causing the accident that had sent Wu to the Virginia Hospital Center emergency room July 1, 2014.

Officer Harden’s crash report indicated Wu was traveling eastbound in the green-colored bike lane on Clarendon Blvd. when she was hit by the 2014 BMW driven by 25 year-old Jaime Berkowitz, who was crossing the bike lane to make a right-hand merge. 

Harden recorded that Wu was traveling in “the right bicycle lane” and that the driver of the BMW “stated that the bicyclist refused to slow down or change her course.” 

Officer Harden ticketed Wu, a 33 year-old consulting scientist at DARPA, for failure to yield.  The BMW driver got a pass.      

Wu recounts Harden told her she was at fault because she had done “nothing to prevent the accident from happening.”  

A few days later Wu spoke to Harden’s supervisor, Arlington County Police Sergeant Donald Fortunato.   Sergeant Fortunato affirmed Wu’s ticket, explaining that under Virginia law, bike lanes are not legally regarded as traffic lanes – that they are not real lanes of travel.

The lesson to the driver from her accident, Wu marveled, is, “It’s okay for a driver to see a bicyclist in a bike lane, not slow down for them, cross the bike lane – and then hit them.  And to the police the bicyclist is at fault for being in some non-defined place on the pavement.” 

Then came Wu’s second shock.

Contributory negligence

Consulting an attorney about recovering medical expenses, Wu was introduced to the concept of “contributory negligence.”

While DC area cyclists accept real risks in getting around by bike, few understand that if they’re hit by a car, they may receive little or nothing to cover medical expenses and damages from the driver’s insurance company.

That’s because DC, Maryland and Virginia are three of the five U.S. jurisdictions that still adhere to the doctrine of “contributory negligence.”  (Alabama and North Carolina are the other two.) 

Eds: This has changed since the publication of this article. See this article for more info.

“Contributory negligence makes it much more difficult for cyclists to recover financially when they’re injured,” Bruce Deming, an attorney (and bicyclist) in Northern Virginia specializing in accidents involving bicyclists, told me.

“Even if the driver is 99 percent at fault, if the cyclist is found to be 1 percent negligent, he or she won’t get a cent for medical expenses, lost wages or continuing care.  With contributory negligence, even if the bicyclist has a lifetime injury, even if the driver was overwhelmingly at fault for the accident, the driver’s insurance company routinely will deny the claim and refuse to pay,” Deming said.

The other 46 states adhere to “comparative negligence,” which pro-rates compensation based on the degree of fault assigned to the parties in the accident.

Contributory negligence is bad for cyclists but good for insurance companies, Deming said, and the companies in the DC metro area have successfully lobbied against any change in the law.

On the critical question of how traffic laws are enforced, Deming said he sees a “pervasive bias against bicyclists that cuts across society generally and extends to police officers, jurors and insurance adjusters.”   Most people are drivers and either have little awareness of bicyclists or don’t think bikes should be on the road.  Of course, bicyclists who flout the traffic laws poison attitudes against cyclists generally, he added.

When the attorney Wu had contacted read Officer Harden’s crash report, he declined her case.  “No insurance company will accept a claim,” he told her.  

Following Wu’s accident, the Arlington County Board is now looking into how county police enforce traffic laws as they relate to bicyclists. 

Contributory negligence in the Netherlands

Reasoning the operator of a 25-pound bicycle needs more protection than the operator of a 4,000 pound vehicle, the Dutch take a very different approach to liability and enforcement.

If a car hits a bicycle under almost any circumstances the driver has a big problem,” Rotterdam lawyer Derk Byvanck told me.  In the Netherlands, as transportation planner Herbert Tiemens put it, “The driver must always have in mind, ‘If I hit a cyclist, legally, I’m at fault.’”  

Indeed, while governments often strive for middle ground on complicated policy issues, there is zero ambiguity in a Dutch Ministry of Transportation white paper on this matter:  

The liability of cyclists

In some countries, bicycling is seen as causing danger, which sometimes ends up in an anti-cycling policy.  The Dutch philosophy is:  Cyclists are not dangerous; cars and car drivers are, so car drivers should take the responsibility for avoiding collisions with cyclists.  This implies that car drivers are almost always liable when a collision with a bicycle occurs and should adapt their speed when cars share the roads with cyclists.

Bicyclists Aren’t Obstacles

 Bicyclists aren’t road obstacles to Dutch drivers – they’re friends and family on bicycles, and motorists really don’t want to hit them. 

In those old narrow streets in Dutch city centers, the normal traffic pattern is bicycles on the right, cars in the same direction to their left – and to the left of cars, a stream of oncoming bicycles – two-way traffic in streets barely wide enough for a single car.  

Even on those heavily-trafficked streets, commuting cyclists say they have no sense of danger from cars.

That shows just how critically important that final factor for safe cycling as transportation is:  driver attitudes and behavior.   

Education is part of that, said Merrel Dekker, another commuting cyclist on assignment at the Dutch Embassy.  In the Netherlands, bicycle-specific scenarios come up in both written and road tests for drivers licenses.  The dreaded bicycle-car door collision is rare because drilled into aspiring drivers is, “Look first before opening the door,” Dekker explained.

Practically all Dutch drivers have another reason to look before they swing the car door open, because practically all Dutch drivers are also bicyclists.  Eighty percent of the Dutch bicycle at least once a week, 60 percent three times a week or more.  

Even if a motorist is in the small minority of those who don’t get around by bike, when they take the wheel, they naturally think of their children and parents, friends and co-workers, who do.  

As a result, they don’t honk, or speed up to veer around the cyclist in front of them, or make that right turn without first looking – not the cursory glance, but really looking – for bicyclists.  

Bicyclists aren’t road obstacles to drivers – they’re friends and family on bicycles, and motorists really don’t want to hit them.

No Sweat

Electric bicycles now make a 15-mile commute no-sweat. 

Aside from safety, there are solid reasons why a lot of people in DC don’t get around by bike – people don’t want to make the effort, get to a shower-less workplace in a lather, or lug around lot of stuff.

New developments in electric bicycles, or e-bikes, make bicycle transportation a no-sweat proposition

Dutch e-bikes can now go 100 miles between battery charges at speeds up to 30 mph.  Batteries are the size of a family-size bottle of Heineken and easily slide in and out for plug-in recharging at home or work.  The electricity used to power the bike costs 1/20th of the equivalent in gasoline per mile and the bikes require little maintenance. 

For Gazelle, the Netherlands’ leading bike manufacturer, with 6 million bikes on the road, e-bikes now account for 25 percent of all new bike sales because they extend transportation possibilities.  With the electric drive on, the cyclist can travel far without doing any work at all; electric drive off, the rider can get a real workout.  

Modern, fun, and functional The Gazelle Medeo family offers quality, reliability, and affordability. These hard-working bikes come fully loaded with our standard complement of accessories and powerful Bosch eBike Systems to take you on rides far and wide with confidence. With an active to sportive seating position, Gazelle Medeos are perfect for commuters and athletic riders looking for a fast and responsive ride.

Modern, fun, and functional:  The Gazelle Medeo e-bike family offers quality, reliability, and affordability. These hard-working bikes come fully loaded with a powerful Bosch eBike system. Picture courtesy of www.bikersedge.com

Until recently, customers at Rene Waning’s large bike shop near Amsterdam bought conventional bicycles; now, e-bikes account for half his business.  That’s because many of his customers commute to work at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, about 10 miles from the town.  Off peak by car, the trip takes about 15 minutes.  During rush hour, though, the expressway can look a lot like our beltway, and the commute stretches to 45 minutes and more.  

Rene and Saskia of Fietsplezierwinkel Waning Tweewielers

Rene and Saskia of Fietsplezierwinkel Waning Tweewielers in the Netherlands. Image courtesy of https://www.facebook.com/Waning2wielers.

Waning’s customers on e-bikes make the commute on bike paths that connect the village to the airport, for a 25-minute trip that costs a fraction of transportation by car.  The bikes are reliable.  Customers who want a workout get it.  Those who don’t can use full electric assist, so going to work is no sweat at all. 

E-bikes are also changing the way Dutch planners deal with the expensive question of mass transit.  Amsterdam’s public transportation system at rush hour is jammed; for city planners, encouraging e-bike commuting is much less expensive than expanding the tram and bus network. 

The interest in e-biking is spreading.  The city of Paris now subsidizes 33 percent of the purchase price of a new e-bike for residents, up to 400 Euros (about $530), figuring it’s cheaper than investing in new transit infrastructure.  Thirty other French cities have similar programs.

Washington DC

Washington DC:  What Is To Be Done? 

Luud Schimmelpennink’s face showed something between incredulity and amusement at recalling that Amsterdam in the 1960s had invited an American traffic engineer to advise on the transition to its car-centric future.   An industrial designer, the former city council member is known in the Netherlands for launching the world’s first bikeshare program, in 1965 in Amsterdam, dubbed “White Bikes.”  John Lennon and Yoko Ono had a photo taken in their hotel room with a White Bike when they honeymooned in Amsterdam.  

The Dutch are leading the e-mobility movement

Now, cities around the world are looking to the Netherlands for lessons learned in encouraging bicycling as transportation and reducing – not eliminating – reliance on cars and carbon-intensive travel.  

In 2010, Washington DC brought experts from the Netherlands to look at possibilities here, and transportation planner Tiemens was among those invited. 

In Utrecht I asked Tiemens, who has participated in safe cycling study missions to 14 cities in 11 countries, what is to be done to increase transportation by bicycle in U.S. cities.

The answer, he said, was simple:  Take measures that make people feel safe on bicycles.  Real separation for bicycle lanes, not painted lines.  Cycling lanes as wide as car lanes.  Design paths to accommodate commuters on e-bikes who will cover longer distances at higher speeds.  Reform liability laws and enforcement, so motorists watch out for cyclists or know they will be liable.  The city must set detailed goals, not like the length of new bike lanes, which may be poorly planned, but the number of new bike commuters.  

“When people in DC feel safe to bicycle there will be a lot more bicyclists,” Tiemens said.

What’s in that for non-bicyclists?  

Sam Zimbabwe, DDOT’s Associate Director for Policy, explains that the point of building out DC’s bike route system is to ease congestion on roads and already-crowded Metro trains and buses.  

“We’re in a period of explosive population growth, 8 percent in the last four years alone, so doing nothing is not an option.  We already have congestion on our roads, buses and rail, but expanding any of these is expensive and takes time.  If people feel safe, they will switch from cars and mass transit to bikes, especially for shorter trips.  By providing bike lanes and cycle-tracks on busy streets, we’re also providing more order and letting drivers and cyclists know what to expect.  If we don’t address policy and infrastructure simultaneously, the citizens of the region are going to pay a hefty price.”  

In other words, with innovative transportation solutions, which in the Netherlands have included policy and infrastructure so people can move safely by bicycle, we can do something about that daily gridlock in our nation’s capital.   


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