The News-Press, September 26, 2019
by Ken Gooderham
What makes someone good at riding a bicycle? Confidence, and communication.
Not what you were expecting? Then you need to read “How I learned to cycle like a Dutchman,” published recently in The New Yorker magazine. Writer Dan Kois, on a three-month assignment in Delft, decides he and his family will ride like the local do – everywhere, all the time.
The results are enlightening, in more ways than you’d think.
The pedaling proclivity of the Dutch is well known… it’s what you’d expect from a country where there are more bicycles (22 million) than residents (18 million). It’s a practice that carries from birth (child seats galore) almost to the grave (e-bikes for those too pooped to pedal outsell adult standard bikes there).
And the abundance of bike infrastructure – bike lanes abound and roundabouts are often designed so that cyclists will not have to stop to traverse them – is also expected. The surprise? It wasn’t always that way.
|The eighteen million residents of Holland own, in total, more than twenty-two million bicycles.|
Image: The New Yorker
In the postwar Netherlands, car usage boomed and bike usage plummeted – from 1950 to 1970 the percentage of trips done by bike dropped from 80% to 20%.
As car use spiked, so did road deaths – especially among children. That sparked outrage, followed by protests, followed by action. Road projects (which usually involved razing old historic neighborhoods) were stopped, cycling activists were elected to office and a culture that valued bicycling was reborn.
As more people biked, more drivers became cycling sensitive – because they also rode, a lot. This changes the driving culture in dramatic ways (as chronicled by Kois):
“Most days, (the driver pass you on the bike lane) would be biking next to you, unprotected from cars except by custom, respect, and the forethought that comes from being able to think like a cyclist. In the Netherlands, drivers don’t turn right without checking their blind spots. They don’t park in bike lanes, not even just for a minute, to drop something off. And no Dutch cyclist ever half-waves at a driver for making a required stop—they assume that drivers will see them and obey the law.”
The Dutch also used the law to promote safety. After studies showed that a cyclist hit by a car traveling at a speed greater than 30 kph (that’s 18.64 mph) was unlikely to survive, the speed limit for motor vehicles in every living area of the country was maxed at 30 kph. That’s one reason why even though no one wears bike helmets there, the cyclist fatality rate is six times less than in the U.S.
The revelation Kois and his family came away from this experience with, however, may not be one you’d expect: Confidence and communication are key to safe cycling.
Confidence comes both from knowing that motor vehicle operators are not out to get you, and from knowing that your cycling skills are strong enough to carry you through any circumstance. That’s equally important whether you’re navigating a busy roundabout or getting in the flow of some serious cycling traffic.
Kois recounts the chaos he and his family – showing the shaky cycling skills you’d expect from a suburban U.S. clan – created among the skilled and swift Dutch riders (who clearly expected that if you were on a bike you’d know how to handle it without wobble or weave).
Communication? A Dutch cycling expert put it this way:
“If you are not able to anticipate what other people will do, you will have lots of small accidents, or near accidents,” he said. “You must be communicating with your eyes to the other riders in the street. Your decisions must be based on what is best for the flow of traffic, not what is best for your trip in particular.
‘“Think of it this way. Car drivers behave like a bunch of geese. They have the same distance from each other and fly at the same speed, and move almost in military formation.’ He put down his tea and made a series of regimented gestures with his hands. Then he moved them around together, in an elegant dance. ‘Cyclists move like a swarm of sparrows. There are thousands of them moving in chaos, but there are no collisions. They turn a little bit; they change their speed. You must do the same.’”
The lessons that Kois learned can be a guidepost for your cycling as well – even if the roads of Southwest Florida never reflect the skills and safety of the Netherlands. Working to build your confidence and communications over time will make you a stronger and safer rider, and playing by the rules of the road when you’re sharing the road can inspire drivers to treat you with the confidence you deserve. (This, however, does not eliminate the need to practice defensive cycling on the roadway or path.)
And if a car-crazy Netherlands can learn to embrace the bike… well, maybe, we can too.
Ready to ride or run?
Run? Fort Myers runners can lace up for the Busey Bank 5K on Oct. 5 or the Cops & Joggers 5K on Oct. 12 (both in downtown Fort Myers). Upcoming Collier events include the non-timed 5K Corporate Run on Oct. 3 and the Rocktoberfest 5K/10K on Oct. 6. Details at 3dracinginc.com, ftmyerstrackclub.com, gcrunner.org and runeliteevents.com, respectively.
Ride? Critical Mass has these regularly scheduled rides on tap:
- Friday, Sept. 27: Cape Coral Critical Mass ride. Gather at 7:30 p.m., start at 8 p.m. at the Southwest Florida Military Museum parking lot at 4820 Leonard Street.
- Saturday, Sept. 28: Saturday Slow Roll 8 a.m. meet-up at 2160 McGregor Blvd. Recommended for inexperienced/young riders. Distance is 6 miles, includes group ride instruction.
- Friday, Oct. 4: SW Florida Critical Mass ride. A family-friendly slow ride through Fort Myers gathering at 7:15 p.m. and starting at 8 p.m. Meet in the open field next to Publix at First Street Village, 2160 McGregor Blvd. Fort Myers.
Both? The lone local-ish event is the Longboat Key Triathlon/Duathlon, with both Olympic and sprint distances on Nov. 17; details at trifind.com or trisignup.com
TELL US ABOUT YOUR RIDE:Have a favorite route you like to bike, or a unique walk you’d like to share with others? Tell us about it at email@example.com, and maybe we can feature it in an upcoming column.
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Ken Gooderham writes this on behalf of BikeWalkLee, a community coalition raising public awareness and advocating for complete streets in Lee County — streets that are designed, built, operated and maintained for safe and convenient travel for all users: pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists, and transit riders of all ages and abilities. Information, statistics and background online at www.BikeWalkLee.org.