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10 January 2012


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Eric Schliesser

Catarina, what a lovely post. I have one critical and one constructive observation.

You write, "(although there is a lot of that [recklessness] too, especially in cities like Amsterdam)." The main problem here is *the damn tourists* and small-town folk (from towns like Oegstgeest) who visit Amsterdam and bike around with their heads in the skies (often because they are too doped out) and become utterly unpredictable (and just a plain nuisance to the locals).

Second, the crucial statistic in the film is that in 1957 the daily traffic distance was 3.9km and by 1975 it was 23.2km. It would be interesting to learn if it has been reduced (or even stabilized) since then. (I doubt it has been reduced because highway construction has not ended in the Netherlands at all, and what's true for bike-lanes is also true for highways, 'if you build it they will come.')

What this statistic tells you is that prior to the 1960s the population was really living and working in a very narrow world (dominated by hierarchically organized 'pillars' of Church, Work, Family, and social clubs). Now, within an extremely short period (less than a generation) the Dutch daily umwelt was completely changed--it's the period where the Dutch left their churches, and where after a population explosion, family-size was dramatically reduced.

Weirdly (but not surprisingly enough after all this change), our politics is now dominated by a desire to return to those mythic days when the daily umwelt was of manageable proportions, sheltered and, of course, immigrant-free.


This is very instructive. It does seem to indicate that being disgruntled and angry (a trait the Dutch seem to often criticize themselves for) is sometimes the only thing that helps. In Belgium, progress towards cycling is very slow. When I was a child there were many accidents in my native village involving young cyclists who traveled from home to school, because of a high-traffic road intersecting the village (alas, at age 10, was involved in one such accident, and have a permanent, invisible injury). Every time a child died, there were flowers, a memorial service, but, shockingly, never did parents go out and protest to improve the safety. And today, still nothing has happened. My parents tell me that children in this village now simply don't cycle to school anymore, and are all brought by car. The one parent who did something (put a life-size sign telling people to reduce speed) had to remove it because it wasn't legal.

Catarina Dutilh Novaes

As for your first point, having worked in Amsterdam for many years, I am of course familiar with the real danger brought in by clueless tourists. I would often stop my bike and tell people as politely as I could that they were actually walking on the cycle path, and for their own sake they should just get out of there. But bikers also cross red traffic lights and such things, so I stand by my claim that there is quite some reckless biking going on.

People in Oegstgeest are very familiar with cycle paths, don't you worry. In fact, in the last winters when we had a lot of snow, Amsterdam and Leiden and elsewhere were a disaster to bike on, but the cycle paths in Oegstgeest were always clean, as we are such a netjes village :)

Catarina Dutilh Novaes

As for your second point, I agree (insofar as my patchy knowledge of Dutch history allows me to). There's no point in fueling nostalgia for the days gone by, and you just can't compare the situations in any fruitful way.

Eric Schliesser

Crossing a red traffic light is not reckless, but a controlled risk (ceterus paribus, i.e., absent tourists and other out-of-towners).

Catarina Dutilh Novaes

There are different kinds of crossing a red traffic light :) Some of the stuff one sees is truly unbelievable. (This being said, I'm a crosser myself, under favorable circumstances...)

Mark Lance

Wonderful post. Would that the US were so civilized. But one thing I must dispute Biking without a helmet is reckless. It would be if you were absolutely alone on a smooth path. Tires blow out. You hit rocks. Any simple fall from a bike is enough to kill if your head hits at the right angle. (cf, eg, Nico, formerly of the Velvet Underground who died this way.) And you say in your own post that there are all sorts of other dangers. The omportance of helmets as safety items has been conclusively demonstrated. Please consider changing this practice. We want to keep you around.

Eric Schliesser

There are no rocks in the Netherlands.

Ken Aizawa

I know I was surprised that they don't wear helmets in the Netherlands. (I was also surprised at how slow they were to ban smoking in bars.) In the generally cycling unfriendly US, helmets are coming to be more accepted by children and young people as a kind of fashion accessory.

To add to Mark's list of bike hazards, there are patches of black ice and you can edge off the side of the bike path. I've crashed a bike three times in tens of thousands of miles of riding. Once in a bike race, then on the ice and off the edge. And, you can have pedestrian tourists step into your path.

I try to be vigilant regarding the bike paths when walking through Amsterdam, just as I am about looking the right way crossing roads in London. But, I do have 50 years of living in places without bike paths, so it is easy to forget. And, part of what I love about Amsterdam, for example, is the beautiful architecture, the canals, etc. I want to take all that in and not merely get from point A to point B. I also find it sometimes takes a few tens of a second to parse up a visual scene into what is and what is not a safe place for pedestrians. So, while I'll own up to being a lazy and ignorant American, there are probably also some pretty basic, non-cultural psychological characteristics of attentional mechanisms, etc., that distract me from the bike paths. I'm just not habituated to the sights and sounds of that city. If I were, I might go to Edinburgh or Florence or ... instead.

Eric Schliesser

I rest my case, Catarina.

Ken Aizawa

Shreveport is like the Netherlands. We don't have rocks either ... except the imported ones.

John Protevi

There's lots of great stuff here! For one thing, it shows that high usage of cars is not some natural evolutionary step for civil society ["people like cars, they choose them freely ..."], but part of an overall transportation system subsidized by all sorts of government decisions.

It makes me wonder why US Republicans have started their own War on Bikes: . Is it that they hate the idea that once you reveal the government decisions behind high car use, people begin to wonder what other government decisions could be made about transportation?

Ken Aizawa

My first guess about the GOP is simply that being anti-bike is just another dimension of supporting big car companies and big oil and gas companies. Same with being anti-train, yes?

John Protevi

Hi Ken, yeah, sometimes I over-think things. Ockham's Razor slashes another one of my arguments!

Ken Aizawa

I don't think you should rest your case Eric. My habits do not do much to support that idea that the biking native's main problem is the tourists. Maybe it is, maybe it isn't.

In truth, I was seconding Mark's idea that helmets are a good idea. I was also responding to Catarina's comment about clueless tourists. I would think that the clueless ones walking in the bike path would be less dangerous than ones like me. I'm not clueless. I know what I'm supposed to be doing in the abstract, but I'm not practiced in navigating Amsterdam. It's like many other skills. I know what I'm supposed to do, but doing it is another matter. It's basic psychology that makes me erratic, not ignorance or cluelessness. An explanation from Catarina of the nature of bike paths, etc. would not help me be less of a menace. The little ringing of the bells, however, does a pretty good job of getting my attention.

It seems to me that I've seen folks in Amsterdam texting while biking. Is this correct? That seems reckless to me. Here in the US I've heard that there is a federal level recommendation to ban texting and talking on the phone while driving.

I know that when I drive in big cities like DC, NYC, or Boston, it's somewhat more stressful for me than is driving here in Shreveport. (Hell, getting across the bridge in Baton Rouge makes me wary.) Maybe that's because I'm not practiced in big city driving. Maybe I have a lack of driving skill. OTOH, maybe it's just that I am not familiar with those particular big cities or those particular environments. So, I wonder what it's like for someone who drives in, say, DC to drive in Boston. Do they find driving in a new, but similarly bustling environment challenging? They might have "big city" driving skills, but lack relevant information about the layout of streets, etc.

Catarina Dutilh Novaes

Regarding helmets, I'm not really sure why they never became widely adopted here. It would be interesting to see the statistics of casualties per specific place, comparing a place where helmets are widely used to one where they are not like the Netherlands. The few bike-related casualties I've heard of would not have been prevented by the use of a helmet, as they involved substantial injuries not on the head. I'm not presenting these as arguments, I'm simply wondering why it is so around here.

The more serious biking accident I had would not have been less serious had I been wearing a helmet; one of my teeth got dislocated , but fortunately the dentist was able to put it back in place.

As for 'clueless tourists': I agree that it is somewhat mean to use this terminology, but through the years one gets truly exasperated... Like I said, in my better days I tried to explain to the tourists why they shouldn't be there, but in my less good days I'd just scream at them to bugger off :) In that respect, my life got better since I've been working in Groningen!


Remember, though, that helmets are important not just (maybe even not mostly) in cases where the person dies, but where there's a brain injury that's not fatal. There's more and more evidence that head injuries that don't even seem that bad (i.e., not obvious changes to personality or loss of memory or the like) can have long-term effects. My (vague) recollection is there's some question as to exactly how useful helmets are for this sort of thing, though most agree they are at least somewhat useful. So, looking at the statistics is likely to be misleading, because it won't include lots of the people who are injured but either don't die or don't go to the doctor right away. And, helmets really are a cultural thing, much like not wearing seat belts in some countries. Even if people in the Netherlands are safer while biking than in the US (something that seems plausible enough to me) that doesn't mean that helmets wouldn't be a good idea.

Ken Aizawa

What is surprising about the Netherlands is not that some people don't wear helmets, but that basically no one does. I would have thought that at least some of the folks in the Netherlands would (perhaps even mistakenly) have seen some value in helmets.

In my three bike crashes, I never hit my head, never went to the doctor, and I never got more than road rash. And I haven't crashed in 20 years. I still wear one.

Maybe cyclists find "the others" as the most irritating menace. In the US, "the others" are motorists and truck drivers. In the Netherlands, it is the tourists. Nowhere I've ever lived in the US has many tourists around.


I lived in Amsterdam and loved to cycle there, but it was the tram lines that did for me. My front wheel got jammed in one and I flew over the handlebars and into a pile of gravel, face first. A helmet wouldn't have helped. It's really worth looking out for those tram lines!

Chris Bertram

I cycle in a hilly city (Bristol UK) with few cycle paths (most of which are strips painted on the road rather than genuinely separate spaces). There's quite a lot of hostility from drivers to cyclists (and vice versa). Given the topography, separation may not be feasible for much of the city. However, I've also started to think that it may be the wrong way to go and that we'd be better off fostering a culture where drivers, cyclists and pedestrians learn to share the same space in a mutually tolerant, respectful and low-speed manner. That may be utopian .... (I always wear a helmet, one accident due to my own stupidity.)

Catarina Dutilh Novaes

There is no doubt that topography is going to make a difference as to how easy it would be to implement bike-friendly measures. But perhaps the biggest difference here is that *everyone* is a biker, so when you happen to be driving a car, you keep bikers in mind because at many other times you are the biker yourself (or your kids, relatives, friends...).

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