Bicycling by design
Last month, I joined a panel discussion about urban bicycling as part of Seeing Orange, a weeklong series of talks contemplating the global influence of Dutch design in San Francisco. Naturally, widespread use of the bicycle for transportation is the first thing that comes to mind when I think of the greatest Dutch achievements, but it’s worth remembering that some of the world’s leading innovators in fashion, architecture, and industrial design also come from this flat Northern European country of 16 million. Dutch designers are exceptionally good at tackling challenging problems, whether it’s coming up with a better table for your living room or a better way to move around in your city.
On the panel with me were Rob Forbes, founder of the modern furniture store Design Within Reach and current CEO of PUBLIC Bikes, and Soraya Nasirian, whose experiences as a ex-pat mother living in The Netherlands inspired her to start My Dutch Bike, an importer of highly practical (and family friendly) Dutch utility and cargo bikes. Speaking in a posh modern art gallery surrounded by installations by Dutch artists set on impossibly white walls, the panel was challenged to explain why so many people ride bikes in the Netherlands compared to the United States. Twenty-seven percent of all trips in Holland are made on a bike, with numbers exceeding 50% in some city centers. In the U.S., less than 1% of trips overall are on two wheels, but bicycles comprise 5%-8% of trips in our best bicycling cities.
Upon hearing these statistics it’s tempting to casually dismiss the entire Dutch cycling experience as irrelevant to our own, as if some exotic alien technology beyond our comprehension were responsible. I’m no biologist, but I’m pretty sure there is no unique bicycling gene only present in Dutch nationals that compels them to ride bikes way more than anyone else.
On the contrary, most of the factors that enable high levels of bicycle use in the Netherlands can be traced to deliberate (and replicable) human decisions. Consistent investment in high-quality infrastructure over the past four decades, policies favoring compact and diverse land use, comprehensive traffic safety education, economic and legal incentives; all of these work together make bicycling the fastest, easiest, cheapest and most logical way move around for short trips.
You’d be crazy not to ride a bike.
A good design solution is one that is simple, practical, efficient, intuitive and above all, user-friendly. The key to mainstream bicycling, at least according to the Dutch experience, is to make it an irresistibly rational choice for the majority of the population. None of that happens by accident; it’s all part of a careful design.
Learn more about what we're doing to replicate the Dutch experience in the U.S. through our Bicycling Design Best Practices Project.