Why “Bike Friendly” Often Isn’t

Friendliness is an attitude, not a lane

It took me a few years, a couple of pretty bad run-ins with a variety of cars, and a move to a new location without any bike infrastructure to come to this conclusion. I cannot recall where I heard this quote, but I think it applies; “The US is a place where people don’t say what they mean, or mean what they say.” And this seems to apply double to any city that proclaims its “bicycle friendliness.”

I lived car-free in a city with arguably one of the nation’s most “bike friendly” mayors. During those six years I rode to and from the office the majority of the time and averaged daily round trips from 40 to 80 miles (I worked for a company that moves people around between offices constantly). I helped where I could. Every time a new initiative like the Seattle Bicycle Master Plan came along I attended city council meetings and took part.  I also took part in recreational and commuter social clubs. Back then I was deeply involved in the bicycle culture and really enjoyed my time in the saddle.

Lately, I’ve been much less involved although I still spend plenty of time at the cranks. What I’ve come to realize is that regardless of the time I spend working at bicycle advocacy the attitudes of drivers, my most routine challenge on the road, remains unaffected. Most drivers tolerate my two wheeled presence on the roads; we treat each other with an matched indifference for those few moments during any day we may be near enough to one another for it to matter. And then there are those few outliers that feel compelled to stand out from the crowd, who endanger my continued existence for a lack of patience, or tolerance, or simply because they need someone anywhere to rub up against.

Here in Boulder there has been an exceptional amount of work done to promote safe bicycle travel. Plenty of bike lanes and sharrows. Boulder has some multimodal paths that connect parts of the city and protect riders and pedestrians from all motor traffic. Bike parking tends to be a scarce, but where isn’t it. Overall, here in Boulder, cyclists have it pretty good.

But here in the US, even our very best will never measure up to the Netherlands where the least exceptional suburban housing development has amenities we do not even realize we are missing. And the reason is not because we, as a people, skimp on bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, and we do. The reason the best in the US cannot measure up to the worst across the pond is because we routinely confuse infrastructure with temperament.

Of the five “accidents” I have had while exclusively biking in the Seattle area four of them were obviously motivated by anti-cyclist rage, the fifth, and arguably the worst, was just an inattentive driver in a rush who tried to flee the scene after t-boning me. And right there is the difference, here in the US cyclist (those people you see riding bikes) are perceived by drivers as a nuisance and a potential agent of delay. And that attitude is accepted, even regularly promoted.

Friendliness is an attitude, not a lane. The world over, in any automobile dominated country, it is possible to find plenty of anti-bicycle sentiment. Everywhere except the Netherlands.

A standardized web search for the US or Australia seeking key terms like “country”, “bike”, and “hate” usually turns up plenty of trash like this cut from Australia’s version of Top Gear.

“Oh bikes are so annoying,” goes the standard refrain. The excuses for bad motorist behavior are plentiful. My favorites are always the generalities; cyclists wear lycra and they never follow the rules get so much air time that they log jam any possibility of real discussion.

If you do a similar search for the Netherlands, you’ll get web results a hundred deep about why the Dutch hate to wear bike helmets. Blog posts, videos, and photos about the most bicycle advanced culture on the planet hating the wet-paper seatbelt of a safety device the rest of the world is compelled to dawn in order to stave off paralyzing fear.

You will be hard pressed to find invective indicating that roads are made for cars. And you’ll start to believe that the entirety of the entertainment news industrial complex was abducted by little grey men before you find a news caster publically ranting that motorists should just mow cyclists down.

Regardless of what you think about cycling specific infrastructure, helmets, or any number of bicycle related topics I believe the one thing that cycling advocates should all be trying to figure out is why the Dutch don’t hate bikes. Given the nature of their streets and the preponderance of cycling that takes place on them these people should be casting the same generalizations and prejudiced motor centric remarks that the rest of the world seems happy to encourage. Because they have that many more people in the saddle on any given day they should hate lycra that much more. There should be Dutch broadcasters ranting that it is a Dutch patriotic duty to drive your H2 down the fietspad of Groningen.

The Dutch have so many more opportunities to experience the edges of cycling culture in a negative way. Why is this not their experience?

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