The title seems to be the belief of many in Minnesota when the subject of bicycling for transportation comes up.
I often hear people say that we can never be anything like the Dutch because The Netherlands is flat, more temperate, less snowy, and bicycling is, after all, part of their culture, so we shouldn’t even try.
Too Hilly – Yes, much of The Netherlands is quite flat. Well, so is Shoreview; so is Minneapolis and even Boulder Colorado. Just because there’s a hill in Stillwater doesn’t mean I can’t ride my bike in Saint Paul.
Worse, for people using this excuse, not all of The Netherlands is flat, but much of the southern portion is quite hilly. Watch the Amstel Gold bicycle race and you’ll get an idea. That hasn’t stopped them though, they still ride bicycles for daily needs like my favorite video of the Postman riding up the Cauberg with Team Rabobank.
There are certainly places like portions of Duluth where the hills or mountains will severely limit how much people ride, but that doesn’t have to stop others. As well, the inventive folks in Norway have a solution in their Trampe lift (photo).
Too Cold – No doubt Minnesota is cold as are some other parts of the U.S…. and also some parts of The Netherlands. While Bill, Julie, and Tony might ride every day all year in all weather, I won’t. I’ll ride a mile in just about anything, but beyond that I’m good for about two miles above 10o F, three or four above 20o F and about anything when it’s above 30o F, but I’m a Southerner. And, just because it might be too cold for me in Minnesota a few days each winter doesn’t mean my brother Billy in Alabama can’t ride a bike one mile to work when it’s 50o F.
Oulu, Finland has a climate nearly identical to Minnesota in both temperature and snowfall yet they still have a bicycle modal share of 25%. Come to think of it, it gets quite cold across the river in Minneapolis and yet they still have one of the highest bicycle modal shares in the U.S. (Note Winter Cycling Congress 2016 will be hosted in Minneapolis the 2 – 4 of February).
Too Hot and Humid – There are days when it is, indeed, quite oppressively hot and sticky. Weather folk tell us it’s the dew point. This year hasn’t been a problem in Minnesota, but a few years ago there were several days that were over 100o F with high humidity that were certainly uncomfortable.
Folks in the deep south will often point out you’ll get just as sweaty or even more so just walking from your car across a parking lot as riding a few miles on a bicycle. Riding a proper upright Dutch bike will often keep you cooler than walking. I grew up down there, so I can attest to this.
Fashion can also play a part. I don’t wear lycra to commute, but I won’t hesitate to wear nice shorts and an oxford shirt which is quite accepted outside the U.S. Helmets are hot and prevent efficient cooling; from everything I’ve read, they are good for little more than fashion and I’m not sure they’re good for that.
For a cooler and more comfortable ride, ditch the helmet and gloves, wear nice shorts if you can get away with it, ride a proper upright bike (e.g, no weight on your hands, no leaning forward and creating sweat inducing folds of skin), and ride at a moderate pace of 10 to 14 mph. Oh, and if you’re overweight, lose it. I know this isn’t for everyone, but will work for many.
Too Wet – Really? Get Wet. Get an umbrella. Wear a poncho. Just because there’s rain on the plain in Spain doesn’t mean that I can’t ride on a sunny day in Woodbury.
OK, some days the rain is too heavy or there’s thunder and lighting. Just because you ride a bike most days doesn’t mean you have to do it everyday. This might be a good day to drive.
Too Far – But, but, The Netherlands is more dense and everything is closer together so it’s easier for them! Just because there’s a bunch of open space in Traverse County MN doesn’t mean that I can’t ride my bicycle to my local grocery two miles away in Roseville.
As a country, The Netherlands is indeed quite dense but each city, where most people actually live and go places, really isn’t much different than here.
As Alex Cecchini showed us, 55% of people in Minneapolis live within 5 miles of where they work. That’s a 30 minute or less bike ride. 16% within a mile or 5 minute bike ride. BTW, Minneapolis is fairly flat and as I write this it’s sunny and 72o F.
Within one mile of my house is a grammar school, grocery store, eight places to eat, and numerous stores. Another couple of miles adds more eateries, a pharmacy, and another grocery. I and my neighbors can quite easily ride to all of these if we have decent infrastructure.
We shouldn’t expect very many people who live 25 miles from work to ride their bicycles, but almost all of us can ride a mile or two to dinner. How many people driving in to the local park & ride to catch a bus drove from less than 5 miles away? Could they have ridden a bicycle instead? How many kids live within 5 miles of their school?
This doesn’t mean we don’t have work to do. At the top of my list is probably getting webs of safe and comfortable bikeways spidering out from schools and park & rides. Where our children cannot safely ride bikes to school it is a huge detriment to them and our nation.
Next is the big boxing of grocery stores. Where once we almost all had a local grocery within a couple of miles, those are disappearing and being replaced by big-box groceries that are five miles away. Interestingly, Walgreens and CVS are eyeing this space.
In the end, I have difficulty finding density to be much of a problem.
Bicycling Is Part Of Dutch Culture – Not really more than others. In the 1970s The Netherlands was on the same car-centric trajectory as all other developed nations. At that time, they actually cycled less than people in other countries such as the U.K.
The big change began only quite recently (and after the 1970 breakup of the Beatles). An increase in the number of people killed by drivers alarmed Dutch traffic engineers and parents. The Stop The Child Murder campaign is often seen as the seminal moment when The Netherlands began to give equal treatment to people walking and riding bicycles rather than focusing primarily on cars. Copenhagen followed soon after and Germany sometime later. Recently Spain, Sweden, and many others have been jumping on the bandwagon.
I’m not sure what culture has to do with it anyway. How would that prevent us from embracing the same thing?
The Netherlands has been successful because they realized 45 years ago that 15 mph 100 lb bicycle riders and much faster 3,000 lb cars do not share very well. Most people, Dutch or other, aren’t comfortable playing dodge-car with 3,000 lb weapons driven by people more interested in the latest Instagram than paying attention to their driving. People driving cars don’t like to be slowed to 10 mph by people
taking blocking the lane, and when there’s a collision between the two it never goes well for the bicycle rider.
They began building their current bicycle infrastructure in the 1970s and had largely completed it 20 years later. While they built a lot of protected infrastructure in the early days, they also built a lot of unprotected painted lanes and other not-quite-up-to-par stuff. They’ve learned a lot over the past 40 years and since completing their network they’ve been working on updating older infrastructure to current protected standards outlined in the CROW Design Manual For Bicycle Traffic.
They built their network from scratch without others experience to lean on. We have a huge advantage in that we can lean on their experience and avoid their mistakes.
Most Dutch are also very quick to point out that bicycling is not part of their culture nor a cultural thing nor do they have a bicycle culture. They’ve simply embraced a more expansive solution to transportation.
Moreover, the Copenhagenize Index of the 20 best cities for bicycling includes cities in France, Sweden, Denmark, Belgium, Spain, Germany, and others.
Changing Modes – Once those myths above are debunked, people often then try to say that people don’t like to switch modes, but rather they prefer to use the same mode, usually a car, every day for every trip. They don’t want to ride their bicycle one day and have to switch to driving their car the next because of weather or trip length or whatever. I can only shake my head.
Most Dutch have cars and they do drive them occasionally. Their first choice is often their bicycle but if weather, time, distance, or cargo doesn’t favor their bicycle, then they’ll drive their car or take transit. Similarly, my bicycle is my first choice and my car second. This is really not difficult.
Bicycles are also not necessarily a replacement for cars. For a few they are, but for most of us, and for most Dutch, they are simply another tool that is better for some trips but not all.
Something that surprises me is I often hear the “problems” above as a list of blanket excuses to cover the entire U.S. What’s ridiculous is how often I hear these excuses from lycra clad cyclists who usually add, “We’ll never be like Europe and never have many people riding bicycles, so we shouldn’t try.”
There are people for whom riding a bicycle for transportation will not be a viable option. I think this is a very tiny minority, though. Most of us live where local errands are a short and relatively flat distance away and weather is rarely an issue.
For most of the rest of us, these impacts are temporary. Some winters I can ride every day. A couple of winters ago there were numerous days when I chose to drive due to below zero temperatures. Just because I couldn’t ride due to extreme cold didn’t mean that someone in Florida couldn’t.
For more excuse-maker myth-busting: Let’s put those tired anti-bike arguments to rest.
 I am not opposed to taking the lane when necessary. When I do, I am also very cognizant of the fact that I am negatively impacting a lot of others by slowing them down. I wish this were not necessary and that is one reason I believe we need to put considerable effort in to a separate protected bicycle network built to Dutch standards.