We Are Not the Netherlands (or why I hate dumb arguments)

Oh lordy, have I grown tired of stupid arguments. I’m not just talking about those two guys on TV tonight, but about the arguments that make up much of the conversation in biking communities.

I just read this article in The Atlantic, and commented on it. What I didn’t say, though I know I’ve said it here before, was that the whole premise of about 90% of the argument around getting more women on bikes, or getting more Americans on bikes, is dumb. Let me explain.

The argument seems to go like this: people in Europe do X on bikes (ride without helmets, wear dresses, ride to work, bike with their children, wear skinny jeans, eat bagels…), so if we just got more people to try biking like Europeans do, we’d have a great bike culture too!

Some of the things people say would magically transform us into those uber-stylish Dutch cycling people:

  • More bike lanes
  • No helmets
  • Better bike shops
  • More upright bikes
  • More women on bikes
  • Higher gas prices
  • Higher car prices
  • Higher bike prices 
  • Lower bike prices
  • More “girly” bikes
  • Fewer “girly” bikes
  • More bike laws
  • Fewer bike laws
  • Better driver education
  • More tulips (okay, that’s just me)

And yes, all of that would help (especially the tulips). But here’s the thing: America is large, and it’s not flat. Amsterdam is small, and it is flat. So is Copenhagen. I am leaving out the mega-cities of Europe, like Paris and London, because while they have successful bike-share programs and other signs of progress, they aren’t being hailed as biking meccas in arguments they way Amsterdam and Copenhagen are. Put it this way: about as many people bike to work in London as do in Portland or Seattle, so London isn’t hugely relevant. When people talk about “bike culture,” they mean Amsterdam and Copenhagen, and for good reason: about 35% of people there bike to work frequently (as opposed to 5% or less in most other cities).

But here’s the thing: the average commute in Amsterdam is under 8 miles, on totally flat terrain. I can do 8 miles on my Dutch bike on totally flat terrain in about 40 minutes without even breaking a sweat.

But in Seattle? Well, the average American commutes 16 miles each way to work. Assuming we’re pretty average (and that certainly would be true of my old job, which was about 12 miles from my house), that’s nearly double the distance of the Dutch commute.

For another way of looking at this, think about square mileage and population (all these are rough round-offs from Wikipedia):

Amsterdam: 84 square miles and 820,000 people

Austin: 296 square miles and 820,000 people

Indianapolis: 372 square miles and 820,000 people

San Francisco: 231 square miles and 810,000 people


Copenhagen: 34 square miles and 550,000 people

Boston: 89 square miles and 600,000 people

Baltimore: 92 square miles and 620,000 people

Seattle: 145 square miles and 600,000 people

We are a spread-out country, and I don’t see that changing any time soon. Suggesting that people in the US can just chuck their cars and bike to work like people in Europe is not really acknowledging the reality of the distance involved in US cities. We can argue for hours about how this could be changed through better city planning, but I’m talking about the reality of cities as they already exist. The US has enormous cities! It just does. Putting in more bike lanes or chucking helmet laws or selling more/fewer pink bikes or whatever will not change the fact that we got ourselves a big honkin’ chunk of land here, and we intend to use it!

Also, the last time I checked, most of the big cities in the US are not flat as a pancake or built on reclaimed flood land below sea level (you know who you are, New Orleans). That difference in topography is a big deal, if you also add in longer commutes: now the folks cycling to work in the US are all sweaty, requiring changes of clothing and showers and other stuff we hate, while those Dutch folks are skimming by in skinny suits and heels (and no helmet hair). Nor are those heavy Dutch bikes, which are ostensibly safer and more commuter-friendly, as applicable to the US geography.

So though the city planners in Seattle’s history lowered some of our hills, we still have some whoppers to contend with. Not to mention San Francisco’s hills! You people have see this, right?

Unless we also change the geography of American cities, and the nature of how we build those cities, we can’t bike like the Dutch. It can’t happen. We need to stop basing arguments around this, and talk about how to help Americans bike in the world as it already exists. We are not going to magically turn into Europe.

My thoughts on what WOULD help Americans ride more will come later.

There. I feel so much better for having said this.


About rideblog

Love to ride my bikes!
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10 Responses to We Are Not the Netherlands (or why I hate dumb arguments)

  1. adventurepdx says:

    I’m not going to comment on your argument about the argument, not at least until you do Part 2. (And that’s if I comment.) But your figures about San Francisco are um…off. While you got the population right, you got the area wrong.

    Okay, looking at Wikipedia, you are technically right about the area. But you are looking at the total area of San Francisco county which includes a heck of a lot of water. Look below the total area figure and you’ll see the total land area is 47 square miles, which puts the population density on par with Amsterdam. In fact, if you look at the Wikipedia figures, SF is denser than Amsterdam. SF is at 17,179.2 people per square mile, while Amsterdam is 9,080 people per square mile.

    Of course, there is that difference in topography…

  2. rideblog says:

    Ha, Adventure, I was thinking that same thing about Seattle, actually (we’re denser than we look too!). But that said, I decided to stick with the bigger figures for a simple reason: suburbs. You know, as well as I do, that many SF workers actually live in Marin or Oakland or all the way up in Petaluma (horrors!). Same thing here in Seattle. People commute for ridiculous distances here (my ex commutes 26 miles a day EACH WAY in horrendous traffic, as did I for nearly four years. My mother-in-law commuted for 45 miles each way every day for years in Florida). People don’t commute like that in most European cities. They think we’re nuts because we do. So if I started including the real commutes many people in the US face, the argument got even worse. I decided just to use the straight figures across the board, and they’re pretty illustrative of the point, I think, either way. Austin, I guarantee you, is not losing ground to water!

    And yeah, SF’s topography was the reason I picked it. People are familiar with those hills. When I say Seattle is hilly (I believe it’s actually hillier than SF, if I’m remembering correctly), people don’t have the visual for that.

  3. Neil Warner says:

    I don’t know where you got your rain figures from but in Amsterdam (Netherlands) precipitation happens on average 217 days a year or 18 days a month. (http://www.amsterdam.climatemps.com/#brief) 1.5 days a month? Maybe in Amsterdam South Africa

  4. disabledcyclist says:

    “(my ex commutes 26 miles a day EACH WAY in horrendous traffic, as did I for nearly four years. My mother-in-law commuted for 45 miles each way every day for years in Florida). “….granted I only commuted once per week (as a long haul trucker),but my commute was 150+ miles one way when I worked,but lets look more “everyday guy” from just my own circles…my Dad commutes 96 miles one way,SIX DAYS per week (though he’s paid VERY well at his job)….you’re right my friend,we DO have bigger areas in most cases,and longer commutes,especially in this economy (no,I’m not getting started on what they were bickering about on tv last night :P),the reality is,many people HAVE to commute greater distances than they do in those countries to make ends meet…and like y’all said,then there’s them thar hills….

    My 2 cents in agreement with ya both…
    The DC

  5. rideblog says:

    Sorry, Neil, that was Copenhagen, from their own city site: http://www.kk.dk/sitecore/content/subsites/cityofcopenhagen/subsitefrontpage/livingincopenhagen/cityandtraffic/cityofcyclists/cyclestatistics.aspx

    What discourages cyclists from cycling?
    Rain is the main reason why Copenhageners who normally go by bike every day decide not to. The average likelihood of being caught in the rain if you bike to and from work every day in Copenhagen is 1.5 times a month.

    I took it out, as I had it on the wrong city. You guys, apparently, get much more rain. This is what happens when I write a rant at 10pm. Dang Dutch vs. Danish!

  6. Neil Warner says:

    No problem. Looking at their quote they’ve done some “damn lies and statistics fudge” but at 170 days a year precipitation it’s not bad. http://goscandinavia.about.com/od/denmar1/ss/weatherdenmark.htm

  7. pushiepedlar says:

    In my opinion the more telling and relevant statistic is the number of trips of a cycleable/walkable distance that ‘we’ take in a car. I’m from Sydney Australia and I imagine, without looking at any statistics (even wikipedia ones) that the population density and hillyness is dissimilar to the US. I work with a guy who travels (and i’m not going to bother converting to imperial units) 143km one way to work, several others between 60 and 80kms, but these are outliers. The stats show in Sydney over 50% of car trips are less than 5km’s. Sure that probably consists of trips to shops where the car is used to haul a weeks worth of groceries, or to the local pool with kids in tow for swimming lessons, which once again makes a bike trip less attractive as an option. But on the trips where a bike would be feasible the vast majority don’t even consider the bike as an option. We aren’t conditioned that way. We rarely see bike infrastructure usable for these trips or ordinary people using the roads on bikes. Why? The roads and how they are used by motorists are, at best, unfriendly to bikes. If we do see a bike out on the road, more often than not it is an expensive racing bike being ridden by a lycra clad man. It has become ingrained within our psyche that to ride on the road you need to be a serious sports cyclist or crazy. Where I live almost all the bike infrastructure is designed and situated to be used on weekends by families out for a relaxing ride. They link park areas, follow rivers and bays and make detours to visit historically significant sites. All this is good and the facilities are well used, the ironic thing is the same people you say G’day to as you pass on bikes on sunday afternoons are the ones honking horns and cutting you off in their cars on monday mornings.
    In the end I agree and disagree. Although amsterdam and copenhagen are held up as cycling utopia, cloning their ideas and culture and transplanting onto our non-european situation will, in all likelihood, not work. That doesn’t mean however we should dismiss it as a dumb argument. There is lot we can learn from these places, personally, in business and in government. You are already doing your bit by riding to the shops occasionally in your jeans. The more people see you and others like you doing that, the sooner the thought ‘maybe i could ride’ will occur to them. More people who have that thought the better the situation will become. I just wish it wouldn’t take so long.

  8. pushiepedlar says:

    don’t you hate it when you post a long comment and then see a glaring error as soon as it is posted?
    i meant to say sydney would NOT be dissimilar to the US cities mentioned. Damn you double negatives, next time i’ll be more succinct.

  9. jerping says:

    It is nice that you can at least compare to Amsterdam or Copenhagen. Well, in my city, we can’t even compare to Singapore. Our government transport policy is so car centric that we don’t get to compare. Kuala Lumpur + surburbs is a city of about 6 million. I wonder if we have more than 100 people cycle to work regularly.

  10. rideblog says:

    I agree, pushiepedlar: it’s not that we shouldn’t aspire to be like Amsterdam and Copenhagen, it’s more that I tire of the “if we just did all the same things that they do, we’d have bike utopia!” arguments. It reminds me of when I was in college, and a girl was assaulted on a poorly-lit road near my school. We did a “take back the night” type walk. I went. But what I was really thinking was: “Can we get some more lights on the road?” I just wish there was more practicality in the arguments. 🙂

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