US cycling from a Dutch perspective

Source: BICYCLE DUTCH

While a delegation from Portland Oregon was visiting my hometown ’s-Hertogenbosch and some other places in the Netherlands to experience Dutch cycling, I was looking at cycling in the United States. Not that that was the main goal of my journey -I was in the US for a self-paid holiday and to visit friends- but I couldn’t help seeing and recording what some of the cycling and the infrastructure was like. (Video at the end of this post.)

The average cyclist in San Francisco seems to be a young fit adult, mostly male and appears to be in a constant hurry.

The average cyclist in San Francisco seems to be a young fit adult, mostly male and appears to be in a constant hurry.

In Amsterdam (and elsewhere in the Netherlands) the range of people cycling is much broader.

In Amsterdam (and elsewhere in the Netherlands) the range of people cycling is much broader.

Of course I know it is not really possible to say something in general about “cycling in the US”. There are many different places with very different cycling cultures. But I have now visited the US so often and I have been in so many places, that I do observe some general patterns that I think may be interesting to share.

The main difference between the US and the Netherlands is that cycling is not seen as transportation in the US by the general public. Only very few people use the bicycle to go from A to B for their daily business. For the average American cycling is something kids do or when you do cycle as an adult, it is mainly for recreational purposes. And you dress up for the part: wearing hi-viz, a helmet, with a bicycle to match, one the Dutch would call a ‘race bike’.

The social pressure to wear a helmet in the US is enormous and it is almost completely absent in the Netherlands. In that respect the two societies couldn’t be further apart. That is just an observation, I don’t want to get into a helmet discussion here. Many in the US genuinely believe in the helmet and only very few do in the Netherlands. A given, that won’t change. But the outfit of the average rider in the US gives cycling an image of a ‘dangerous activity’. On top of that, traffic makes that cyclists seem to be in a constant “hurry”. Not surprising that cycling this way only appeals to a small group: the younger and fitter adults, mostly male.

A relaxed upright rider in Davis California.

A relaxed upright rider in Davis California.

I found it very interesting to also see a very different type of average rider in Davis (CA), a university town with a lot more cycling and a lot more relaxed cycling. There the bicycles were far more of the upright variety and people were cycling in normal clothes without all the superfluous safety measures. Good to see that this is also possible in the US. This relaxed type of cycling obviously attracts a far wider range of people, even without specific cycling infrastructure. I did see some cycle lanes in Davis, but I saw no cyclists in them, only private trash cans waiting  to be emptied. I am told that Davis has bike trails that connect neighborhoods and also tunnels to cross roads and railroad tracks. A lot of the campus is also car-free. But I didn’t see that. I saw most people cycle in the quieter down town area with (for the US) narrow streets with low traffic volumes at low speeds.

To most Dutch people (and I think that also goes for the rest of Europe) these signs seem a bit excessive. The information on them would be considered common knowledge, but apparently they are needed in the US.

To most Dutch people (and I think that also goes for the rest of Europe) these signs seem a bit excessive. The information on them would be considered common knowledge, but apparently they are needed in the US.

I also saw much more cycling in San Francisco than before (5, 6, 7 years ago) and there I did see new infra. Bike lanes had been installed that had not been there on my previous visits. That is a good development, but I was disappointed to see that most lanes are just paint (that was wearing off already) and that these lanes usually stop right before junctions. To improve safety for cyclists it is most important to get the junctions right, because that is where crashes happen most. Lanes on straight stretches of road do not help much in improving safety.

I was impressed by some streets in Chicago, a city I visited for the first time. The experimental two-way bike lane in Dearborn St. is not bad at all. It was great to see bike signals. They are very new (only installed last November) but they work very well. Cyclists obey them, almost certainly because there is no other traffic in your path when you have a green light. That is because there is a different green cycle for turning motor traffic and for cyclists going straight. It makes the wait worth while! This is something I hadn’t seen for myself in any country but my own. A real step forward.

A two-way Chicago bike track away from traffic. But since it was ‘constructed’ only with paint and plastic posts it looks a bit ‘temporary’.

A two-way Chicago bike track away from traffic. But since it was ‘constructed’ only with paint and plastic posts it looks a bit ‘temporary’.

A similar track in Utrecht has a much more permanent feel.

A similar track in Utrecht has a much more permanent feel.

The bike tracks in Chicago are also ‘on the other side of parked cars’. That enhances the feeling of safety. But the lanes did still look a bit ‘temporary’. Probably because it was all still only paint with some plastic bollards. They didn’t feel so permanent and blended in as they do in the Netherlands. That makes that you have the feeling the lanes could just as easily be removed again.

In my personal experience US drivers seem to have respect for pedestrians. But these signs on the surface are very confusing to a Dutch driver especially near side streets. This looks like the ‘shark’s teeth’ in the Netherlands which mean “yield to all other traffic” while in the US this only means “yield to pedestrians on the zebra crossing”. (Picture taken in Virginia City NV)

In my personal experience US drivers seem to have respect for pedestrians. But these signs on the surface are very confusing to a Dutch driver especially near side streets. This looks like the ‘shark’s teeth’ in the Netherlands which mean “yield to all other traffic” while in the US this only means “yield to pedestrians on the zebra crossing”. (Picture taken in Virginia City NV)

It was good to notice that US drivers generally seem to respect other road users: as a pedestrian I got the right of way in crossing the streets especially by turning motor traffic. Which, I am sad to say, you cannot rely on in London for instance. But most of the streets without cycle infra that I saw in Chicago did not look very inviting, not enough at least, to try and ride a bicycle myself.

Discussing the Divvy shared bicycles of Chicago. (Picture by Steven Vance)

Discussing the Divvy shared bicycles of Chicago. (Picture by Steven Vance)

Chicago is about to have a shared bike system. The ‘Divvy‘ bikes. I have already seen them when they were presented to the public and they look very good. San Francisco is getting a small system this August. The ‘Citi bike‘ system in New York has just been implemented and it is very successful. Shared bikes are coming to more US cities. If there are many of those bikes on the streets that may change the image of the ‘cyclist’ a bit. A necessity in my opinion if there is to be a good future for cycling in the US. The image of the ‘cyclist’ would have to change from the more racer type of cyclist to the more ordinary person on an upright bicycle. If a combination were possible of more riders like the ones in Davis, and more cycling infra of the quality I saw in Chicago (or better), then cycling will appeal to a much wider range of people. That is the way forward for cycling in my opinion, not only in the US, but everywhere.

Is this the future of cycling in the US? An upright Dutch Oma-fiets, and a rider in ordinary clothes! (Picture taken on Market St. in Castro, San Francisco)

Is this the future of cycling in the US? An upright Dutch Oma-fiets, and a rider in ordinary clothes! (Picture taken on Market St. in Castro, San Francisco)

My personal observations of cycling in the US. (Filmed in Chicago, San Francisco, Davis (CA), the Lake Tahoe area and in Virginia City (NV). Some of the footage from the rental car was filmed by Lei Lennaerts.)

This blog is about cycling in the Netherlands, but I sometimes write about placesoutside the Netherlands to look at cycling there from a Dutch perspective. Previous posts featured cycling in LondonBudapest, the Czech RepublicBrussels,Kortrijk (Belgium), Berlin and Milan (Italy).