In their new book Building the Cycling City: The Dutch Blueprint for Urban Vitality, Melissa and Chris Bruntlett use the example of the Netherlands to show how a cycling culture promotes community building and health.
Frustrated by the obstacles to urban cycling in North America, Melissa and Chris Bruntlett traveled with their two kids from Vancouver to the Netherlands in 2016 to take a deep five-week dive into places that do cycling better. Traversing cities in the Netherlands by bike, they found that cycling is not just a better way to get around; when done right, it leads to healthier, safer, more vibrant, more family-friendly communities. They wrote it all up in their new book, Building the Cycling City: The Dutch Blueprint for Urban Vitality, which provides a guide for cities and communities that want to do cycling right, and for urban cyclists and families who want to learn the keys to cycling as a way of life.
I spoke to the Bruntletts by phone earlier this month about what they’ve learned and about what cities and people in the United States and Canada can learn from the cycling lifestyle in the Netherlands. Our conversation has been lightly edited for space and flow.
Why did you decide to go to the Netherlands and start cycling like the Dutch?
Melissa: We lived so long experiencing cycling in Vancouver and telling a lot of great stories about what building cities for cycling can do. We felt that in order to really tell that story, we needed to go to the place where that is what people enjoy throughout the country and learn what has made them so successful.
Sometimes critics of cycling say it’s about “yuppies,” “hipsters,” and “the creative class,” and a force for “gentrification.” But your book talks more about the role of cycling for families and in building stronger communities.
Chris: Cycling plays a tremendous role in how we now look at cities for families. If it’s not safe enough for our 8-year-old son, then it’s just simply not good enough. I think for far too long in North America, we’ve made cycling acceptable for the “fit and the brave” that are willing to suit up and get on their bikes, but there are entire segments of the population that are completely ignored.
M: What people overlook in those conversations are the people that can’t drive. For anyone that is not of driving age, cycling is an independent means of transportation, so they don’t need to rely on an adult or a bus. When we get older, there is a certain point when we may not be legally allowed to drive anymore. A lot of the conversation in terms of the elderly population is around aging in place. But it also includes the ability to still feel connected to their community, being able to go outside and travel comfortably even with limited mobility. Bicycles play a key part in that. It’s less stress on the joints. It also affords elderly people a way move around the places where they have always lived and where they want to continue living. By saying that the infrastructure and the investment in cycling is only for the “fit and the brave” is to completely ignore entire swaths of our population and not afford them the same rights that we afford able-bodied people in their 20s and 30s.
I remember when I was a boy growing up in New Jersey, my brother and I rode our 10 speeds everywhere. LeBron James recently said the thing that most affected his youth growing up in Akron, Ohio, was the ability to ride a bike everywhere. How can cycling help kids get a sense of the city or even a sense of freedom?
C: The Netherlands ranks as having the happiest children in the world. That’s not by accident. That’s because they give them safe places to cycle and they trust kids to get from place to place without adult supervision. They don’t quite have the stranger danger that we have. It’s also because their streets are traffic-calmed, there’s fewer cars, they’re going slower. Kids are given a free reign to get around the city, whether it’s by foot, bicycle, or bus.
M: A lot of kids are getting less and less physical activity. And that simple bike ride to school is one of the easiest ways to build in 15-30 minutes of physical activity in a day and help them be a little bit healthier. The Dutch are one of the only advanced countries to reduce their obesity rate. It’s not because they have the healthiest diets. It’s because they have built exercise into their day-to-day activity.
I had a colleague from Sweden who visited Toronto and she said she wouldn’t ride in Toronto or let her kids ride there, not just because of cars and inadequate bike lanes, but because the cyclists ride too fast—like they’re in the Tour de France is how she put it. But as you point out in your book, cyclists in the Netherlands ride at a slower pace. Why is that important?
C: I think that’s an indication of how you build your streets. If you build hostile streets, people are going to want to keep up with car traffic and armor themselves up with protective equipment. There’s a differentiation in the Dutch language between a sports cyclist and a utilitarian cyclist; the two phrases loosely translate to “walking with wheels” versus “running with wheels.” The “wheeled walkers” make up the vast majority of people that bike in the Netherlands because they’ve created these conditions that aren’t as hostile, so anybody feels like they can do it.
Another point you make in the book that’s so important is about the different kind of bikes Dutch cyclists ride.
M: They’re upright, they’re a little bit slower but they’re meant for utility. They’re meant to get them comfortably, without any complication, from point A to B, hauling some goods along the way or hauling children. Those utility bikes mean a lot in terms of simplifying the trip. They don’t overcomplicate it. The bikes already come with all the gear, you don’t have to worry about buying lights or a bell separately. They’re meant for day-to-day transportation.
Why is the bike shop such an important part of the cycling environment?
C: In Vancouver, the cycling shops were still very sport-focused. The staff weren’t trained to sell bikes, they usually only have one or two collecting dust in the corner. Because the vast majority of people riding bikes in North America are doing it for sport and recreation, the retail industry is still playing catch up. It’s almost become this chicken and egg scenario where they don’t see a large market for transportation bikes so they’re not putting many resources into developing that market. Bike sharing has kind of changed this a little bit, because people are riding these more upright utilitarian bikes. But if they ultimately want to invest in one, they have a real job on their hands trying to find one.
In the book, you point out that a very small fraction of Dutch riders wear helmets, but the rate of injury and death from cycling is much lower.
M: It’s not even a part of the conversation in the Netherlands because they’ve engineered their streets to take out a lot of the possible stresses and risk of collisions that would inherently make people feel like they need the extra bit of safety. Less than 1 percent of the population in the Netherlands actually wears helmets, because they’ve got the investment in the safe infrastructure and safety in numbers.
How much do the protected lanes matter, or are there other elements of the infrastructure that are of equal or more importance?
M: In North America, a lot of the times we talk more about protected and fully separated infrastructure. But in the Netherlands, the conversation is actually much more about traffic calming. A lot of their streets don’t have speeds over 30 kilometers [approximately 18 miles] an hour. On neighborhood streets, they build in surface treatments that inherently force you to slow down, like laying cobblestone or narrowing the street. Also, because more people bike there, drivers have a more empathetic approach toward cyclists.
Why do you think we have this mentality that the car is more important than a cyclist or even a person?
C: It’s been a product of 60 years of post-war planning and propaganda from the automobile industries that streets are for one purpose: moving cars from A to B. Before the Second World War, streets in a lot of Dutch cities were places for connection and community and commerce. Then the post-war planners came along pushed all those public functions into parks and private spaces. The Dutch resisted that urge to modernize their city around the car, so they kind of have this 40 to 50-year head start on us.
You see cycling as a way of connecting diverse groups of people —not just hard infrastructure, but an element of what Eric Klinenberg calls the social infrastructure which binds people and communities together.
M: On a bike, you inherently have to make a physical connection with people. In a car, you’re separated by glass and steel. But when you’re out on a bike, you can actually see everybody, you can say hello to the people that you meet along the way. The side of the road becomes a place to reconnect or have a quick wave in the morning to brighten your day. That’s how we need to see our streets—as places for connection as opposed to just a place to pass through.
There’s a great chapter in your book titled “Not Sport. Transport.” You make the point that riding a bike can connect more people to public transit.
C: The prevailing understanding is that the bicycle doesn’t replace the car. Neither does the public transit system. But by combining bikes with trains and buses, and trams, suddenly you’ve got this game-changing seamless transportation network that can get you from door-to-door often quicker than a car, with a little bit of exercise and social connection. In the Netherlands, that means providing bike parking and infrastructure that leads to the transit stop, and then providing a last-mile solution like bike sharing or rental on the other side of the trip. That ultimately can be used as a strategy to reduce congestion in our cities.
What about electric bikes now that they are growing in use?
M: Electric bikes are quite prevalent throughout the Netherlands.
C: One in three new bike purchases is electric-assist.
M: For e-bikes that can go over 40 kilometers [approximately 25 miles] an hour, those see a lot more restrictions than just the regular e-bike.
C: They can’t use the bike infrastructure, they have to wear a helmet, and they have to have some kind of insurance and registration.
M: E-bikes give people an option to travel longer distances without worrying about the sweat or having to change clothes or even just the extra exertion and time it takes.
A really nice bike isn’t cheap. A Dutch bike can cost more than $1000; a cargo bike several thousand; and an electric bike can be even more. Does this reflect and reinforce our growing urban economic divide?
C: Countries such as Belgium, France, and Germany started incentivizing electric and cargo bikes by providing tax rebates or cash discounts for residents in the knowledge that they will ultimately reduce the amount of capital they have to spend on car infrastructure. Keep in mind that any transportation system that requires somebody to own and maintain a $20-30,000 motor vehicle is the ultimate inequitable solution. Supplementing bike share is another way: In Vancouver, we now have a community pass where you can get an annual membership for $20 if you qualify as a low-income resident. There are solutions out there, they just involve subsidy and incentivizing these purchases.
What are some of the Netherlands’ key steps that cities might be able to emulate to make themselves safer for pedestrians and cyclists?
C: They’ve developed the Sustainable Safety principles which categorizes and codifies all of these safety ideas into a manual that their street designers and engineers would always have to follow. In North America, we’ve maybe only now reached a point where people are rightfully shocked by the carnage that takes place every day. One of the biggest challenges we have right now in city building is reducing the amount of death and injury on our streets.
You make this great point in the book that there’s no “one size fits all.” Every city is different and you can’t just copy and paste.
M: Too often cities are like, “Let’s just put in a bunch of separated cycle tracks and everyone will be safe.” It’s more about looking at how those spaces are used and what you want that space to be used for. That’s why “8-80” is such a great term. If it’s not great for 8 year olds and it’s not great for 80 year olds to move around a city on however they want to move, whether that’s foot, bike, car, or public transportation, then something needs to change.
R: Your book focuses on the Netherlands and Europe, but do any North American cities get it close to right?
M: Oh, for sure! We’ve got it pretty good in Vancouver. We talk about New York; it’s still slow progress and there’s always a battle against parking and less space to work with. We’d like to also point out Calgary, Alberta. In a Canadian context, it’s a pretty unlikely city to be adopting cycling and they did it in a very affordable and quite effective way. So we’re all doing it in our own way that makes sense for our city. Also, the Dutch have been doing this for 50 or 60 years, but they made a lot of mistakes along the way. We can now look at that and say that idea didn’t work, let’s not do that, let’s try this better one.
What are the constraints that hold cities back from doing this? What are the things that tend to get in the way of implementing a more vigorous agenda for cycling and safety?
C: Perhaps the most dangerous idea is that cities are done or they’ve reached the peak. Once the place is declared America’s or Canada’s “bicycle capital,” politicians feel like their work is done. The job of building the cycling city is never done.