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Where the Sidewalk Ends: Utrecht’s cycling path network

Where the sidewalk ends

Utrecht is a model for modern-day bicycle commuting, but will it work in the U.S.?

Words and photos by Dan Cavallari

The dialogue is as tired as the grupetto up l’Alpe d’Huez. Drivers hate cyclists and cyclists hate drivers. In the United States, commuting by bike is viewed with suspicion, as though the activity itself is so un-American that the very concept of building infrastructure around it should carry charges of treason.

American cyclists often look to various parts of Europe as the model for the commuting renaissance, and while there’s something to that sentiment, it’s important to keep in mind that the ire still exists, the suspicion and anger and pointless debates still rage, even in communities that have accepted cycling as a way of life.

It’s a bit different in Utrecht, Netherlands, where the Tour de France started this year: There’s cycling infrastructure in every direction. Cars and bikes cohabit on the same streets, in many cases separated from each other, with little drama and far less debate than is the norm in the U.S. How did they do it? Why does it work? And how do we import that success to the United States?

The kids aren’t alright

It’s important to understand the history of commuting before tackling the larger questions like how to completely overhaul a deeply entrenched motor-driven system that has spanned nearly seven decades. Many American cities were not made for motor-vehicle traffic. They were designed for foot traffic and horses. Bicycles fit nicely into this structure, but when the car came along, all other users were forced off the roads. No longer could families use the open spaces right outside their doors. Car companies launched campaigns to place fault on pedestrians should they get hit by a car, and that general mood has persisted and strengthened over time.

Pedestrians, horses, and bicycles came first; the automobile didn’t come until much later, but with it came a difficult infrastructure transition in American cities — retrofitting. That has been the strategy ever since: The U.S. retrofits existing paths, roads, and sidewalks within cities to accommodate an ever-burgeoning population of people who’ve got somewhere to be, usually in a motor vehicle.

Of course, the harsh reality is that when a cyclist and a driver collide, the cyclist always loses. The driver may be at fault, but the cyclist pays with his body, or worse, his life.

This is not the case in the Netherlands, where a movement in the 1970s called Stop de Kindermoord (stop the child murder) changed the country’s infrastructure permanently. During this era, car-on-bike accidents became commonplace, mostly at the peril of small children. The death toll among kids mounted quickly and a public outcry ensued. It was a well-timed movement, if the death of a child is ever well-timed: Oil prices were rising rapidly and the population was looking for alternatives to the motor vehicle. The sea change was almost inevitable.

What followed was something the Dutch called the “unraveling of modes.” It’s an infrastructure model that rolls back motorized transportation within city centers and implements more opportunities for cycling and walking. In a sense it’s retrofitting, but with the end goal of phasing out automobile traffic rather than accommodating its growth. The effect is a center-outward change in the way people move around cities.

Flying the Flag

Kindermoord, in its own way, is happening in the U.S. as well. Not only are cyclists killed in auto altercations, but children are also starting to grow up without the bicycle at all. Parents, rightfully wary of the dangers of riding on the roads, eschew bikes.

So why, in the face of so many fatalities and road rage incidents in which people of all ages are injured or killed, does the U.S. resist change? Why can’t we unravel our modes? The bicycle is still viewed as a nuisance, motorists still don’t suffer the full extent of the law even in the most blatant acts of aggression, and infrastructure for cyclists is almost non-existent.

Violence is just part of our world’s reality. We accept the death toll as the price for convenience. Yet when that violence happens to one of our own, or to ourselves, the rage is real. The fear is real. And change seems vital.

“The greater good, right?” Says Dave Kemp, senior transportation planner for the city of Boulder, Colorado. “We have a very me-first attitude when driving, biking, and even walking in the United States. Anybody in front of you is in your way. We don’t have a lot of courtesy or patience because we are on a mission. We’ve got to get from point A to point B.

“[The Netherlands] is socialist country and they were able to see the greater good for their community. With 33,000 vehicle-related deaths each year in the U.S., we have accepted it as the norm — until it happens to your family member. That’s when it hits close to home and people say, what the heck.”

A Pinto or a Ferrari

Walking around Utrecht is an exercise in controlling bike lust. Two-wheeled transportation is found on every corner, along every building wall, and even in specially designed bike parking garages, creating picturesque scenes for every corner coffee shop. It’s easy to get caught up in it: snapping photos of steel head tubes with arcane head badges; watching people ride by in work clothes, with shopping bags hanging off the handlebars, with small dogs tucked in front baskets; drinking in the sheer novelty of seeing bicycle stop lights, and riders observing them.

The bikes themselves are often claptrap, steel one-speeds with rattle-can paint jobs. Theft deterrence is certainly a motivating factor, but it’s also economy: Low budget commuters make sense and they’re often well-built enough that they can withstand daily use. Since the Netherlands is a relatively flat country, simple gearing is fine and overall weight isn’t much of a concern. Utilitarian needs such as racks and fenders are higher priorities.

And helmets? Not a single one in sight.

In the United States, the opposite is true: commuters often roll along bike paths in Lycra, wearing a helmet, mounted on an expensive commuter bike with lights and cameras. It becomes yet another barrier between cyclists and those who view cyclists from the outside: strange people in tight clothes who must be on a bike because they’re a granola-eating hippie or a drunk who lost their license.

In Utrecht, those barriers don’t exist. The bikes are what the layperson might consider normal. People are dressed for work or the coffee shop, not for the race course. There’s even a level of fashion among cyclists in Utrecht, the bicycle a lifestyle accessory rather than simply a mode of transportation. It is normal, easy, and in a sense, the bicycle almost floats into the background of life. It is something so ubiquitous that its revolutionary existence can be forgotten entirely, like cell phones.

And all of that happened because of one simple infrastructure promise: If you follow the rules, you can be safe on the bicycle. That has taken root and there’s truth to it. While incidents between cars and cyclists still happen, the frequency has drastically dropped and in the courts, the driver is ultimately responsible unless the cyclist egregiously breaks the rules. Even then, the driver is held accountable to some degree. The scales have tipped in favor of cyclists.

Rose-colored cycling glasses

Complete commuting harmony — it’s a vision that, if we hold drivers accountable in the U.S., then perhaps we, too, can enjoy a commuting renaissance.

Not so fast, says Kemp. “The car has been king for so long that even the mere thought of managing one’s right to use a car is ridiculous.”

Kemp, however, wears a cycling cap, and for a man who has spent the last several years trying to figure out ways to emulate that Dutch model, hope abounds in every sentence. His plan is grand, but his expectations grounded in reality. His cycling glasses may be rose-colored, but he’s still riding on roads that essentially belong to motorists.

“The term we use is ‘complete streets,’ where you plan from the face of the curb to the face of the curb, and you incorporate transit stops, and bicycle lanes,” says Kemp. “We’re moving towards protected bike lanes or buffer bike lanes as the new normal. So, you’re really trying to include pedestrians, bicyclists, transit users, and motor vehicles in the planning process. This was thought up in the 1990s and now more and more cities are starting to adopt a complete streets policy. As we look at these streets and form connections, we are now making these livable streets for everyone.”

It certainly seems logical, but the outcry from motorists is inevitable, and it will be a loud and potent outcry. This became evident during an experiment in Boulder that redesigned a busy road with a protected bike lane on either side, cutting down motorized traffic from four lanes to two. The immediate outcry from motorists forced city council members to delay similar projects. Motorists bemoaned the delays (up to 60 seconds total, essentially nothing more than an extra stop light), and the city council reversed course. Instead of continuing with the plan to see how it played out long-term.

Still, there’s plenty to be hopeful about. Milennials are driving less and cycling more, which means the demand for projects and the unraveling of modes in the U.S. will only get stronger.

“People call that somewhat of a social engineering,” Kemp says of the efforts to boost cyclists’ rights and presence on roads. “But if you look back in the history of streets, we were socially engineered to see that motor vehicles were the only way to go. Now we have to reengineer our social thinking to some degree because it’s really about all modes, not just driving.”

Picture this

As inefficient as it may be, retrofitting is perhaps the best bet for cycling success in the United States. In a culture slow to band together for the greater good, incremental progress, even at a snail’s pace, is still progress. Americans aren’t ready to rip off any band-aids; it’s a slow-peeling process, a painful one at that.

When a horrific shooting takes place, it’s common for politicians to get on television and say, “We need to start a national discussion.” But it’s not true. The time for discussion ended long before the shooting. Discussion leads to capitulating. The same can be said for cycling infrastructure: The time for talk is over.

But like all painful processes, dialogue is necessary. Perhaps the key to the puzzle is convincing motorists that right-sizing and retrofitting is beneficial to them as well, not just to cyclists. It’s a tough case to make, yet it’s ultimately true. The hard sell is to city governments, but the soft sell is to everyday motorists who are always one inch from anger, one text away from a horrific collision. With any luck, that soft sell won’t have to be our own Kindermoord.