The right tool for the job
Last week, I helped lead my third European Transportation Best Practices Trip in The Netherlands, supported by the Bikes Belong Foundation. These trips involve guiding U.S. city officials — urban planners, traffic engineers, politicians, and other leaders with the capability to influence the shape of our communities — on a whirlwind tour of the best bicycling cities in the world. We wake up early and stay up late, our days packed with meetings and bike rides with Dutch cycling experts and elected officials. Passionate discussions go on well into the night about how the successful Dutch practices, policies, and infrastructure designs might be adapted to American cities. We eat, breathe, live and travel like a typical Dutch resident for five days, fully immersed in a society where a quarter of all trips are made by bike. Stepping out of our hotel rooms each morning with a busy schedule ahead, we approach each excursion by choosing from a rich menu of transportation options, often mixing walking, cycling, trains, buses, cars, and even boats.
I’ve been to the Netherlands half a dozen times in the last 3 years, but it never ceases to impress me how easy, convenient and comfortable it is to travel around in this crowded country of 16 million. The key is having so many different options for different travel needs. Going to a business meeting in a different city? The fast, reliable inter-city rail service will get you there on time. Convenient bike rentals at the train station will take you that last mile to your destination. Need to carry a heavy load? Take the car, or try a cargo bike if you want a workout. A short trip to school, work, or the store? The bike is the nearly always the fastest and easiest way. It’s like having a full set of tools in the toolbox, rather than trying to erect an entire house using only a 3/8” phillips head screwdriver.
Hillie Talens, a Dutch traffic engineer and one of our generous hosts for the week, called it the “and-and-and” approach to transportation planning. Every Dutch person is at different times of the day a pedestrian, a cyclist, a driver, and a transit rider. This makes everyone safer by allowing road users to empathize with those traveling by different modes.
In the United States, we tend to divide ourselves neatly into categories based on our mobility choices. “Where you come from,” Hillie observed, “it seems that everyone is either a cyclist or a car driver or a pedestrian.” This “or-or-or” approach is not only unproductive — it doesn’t make any sense. High-quality bicycle and transit facilities add depth and freedom of choice to a transportation network, enabling more people to get where they’re going quickly and safely and giving them more options for doing so.
Like the U.S., The Netherlands is a wealthy industrialized country with high rates of automobile ownership. The difference is that Dutch people don’t automatically use a car for every trip, every day. That’s not to say that cars don’t have a place. A bicycle is no more a replacement for a car than a hammer is a replacement for a saw. Both are useful in the right context, and cities need to be designed to safely and comfortably accommodate both. It’s about choosing the right tool for the job.