Can the Dutch Strategy for Cycling Work in North America?


Building the Cycling City: The Dutch Blueprint For Urban Vitality is a new book by Chris Bruntlett and Melissa Bruntlett aimed at sharing the successful strategies The Netherlands has used to build cities at a human scale. From the availability of certain bicycle styles to resisting post-war, auto-oriented planning, the chapters of Building the Cycling City cover every aspect of what has made the Netherlands the world’s cycling mecca. After spending five weeks in the five largest cities in the Netherlands— Amsterdam, Der Hague, Rotterdam, Utrecht, and Eindhoven— the husband and wife team has created what they hope to be a resource for politicians and planners alike on how to recreate a method of urban vitality in North America.

The tone of the book has steered away from being prescriptive in favor of observational, presenting what has worked and how, rather than a formula of to-do’s. Some themes of the book cover long acknowledged strategies of making cycling a more viable form of transport in North America, but among them are surprising incremental ideas on how the Dutch overcame the post-war model of development, subsequently becoming one of the safest countries for cyclists and pedestrians alike. It’s the way the Dutch view cyclists— as pedestrians with wheels—that has helped them create better infrastructure and street design than any other country.

To learn more about the goals and context of the book, I sat down with co-author Chris Bruntlett to learn more. Read the full conversation about what North America can learn from the Netherlands about building cities to scale. (This conversation has been edited for clarity and condensed.)

Aubrey Byron (AB): Can you start off by telling me a little about your background and how you and your wife came to start Modacity?

Chris Bruntlett (CB): Absolutely. So Melissa and I actually grew up in Southern Ontario, in the Toronto area. We moved out to Vancouver about 11 years ago for a job I was driving to probably about 45 minutes each way for a couple years. Then the stars kind of aligned, and I got a job in the city and we got an apartment in a pretty walkable neighborhood. Melissa was also working in the fashion industry at the time. I was working in architecture. We made the decision to sell our car, knowing it was not getting the use that it used to; it was collecting dust in the garage. From there, that led us onto this adventure where we were sharing our day-to-day experiences getting around by bicycle, getting around by public transit, getting around by foot. The social media and Instagram posts evolved into blog posts and short videos. That’s evolved into consulting with various cities and sharing stories from other people we know that are finding other ways to get around and pushing the cause for more human-centric cities. It’s kind of an evening and weekend passion project that over the course of five or six years has evolved into a full time job for me and a part time job for Melissa. We’re now traveling around the world sharing stories and hoping to inspire people to think differently about their streets.

AB: And you have two small children, is that right?

CB: Yeah they’re not so small now. I mean, they’re 9 and 12. When we sold the car I guess they would’ve been two and five.

AB: I get questions a lot as far as cycling advocacy from people who have kids because there are safety concerns and then there will likely be a third point on your commute, be it school or daycare. So do you have advice for parents trying to transition into a car-light lifestyle and how to make that work?

CB: I think people’s choices are a product of their built environment. So we can’t really begrudge parents who are having to shuttle their kids around by car if they’re traveling long distances and the streets are fairly hostile. I think what we learned over the course of this that kids are pretty resilient creatures and the rewards of getting to move around in a more socially connected way, in a healthier way, in an ultimately more rewarding way—those benefits outweigh perceived negativity. We always hear the same things—every city has its challenges whether it is geography or climate—but you know, there’s no reason why we can’t, with a little bit of resilience and forward thinking, at least give people options to leave the car in the driveway if ultimately that’s what they want. From what we’ve seen, that latent demand is pretty big in cities. Families do want other ways to travel around. They just haven’t been afforded a choice by the way we’ve designed our streets and our cities.

AB: So in the book, one thing you talk about a lot is post-war planning. That’s a pretty large part of our core focus on why cities are going broke. So you can tell me a little more about how that design plays into the challenges specifically of building a cycling city?

CB: For sure, and I think when people talk about the Dutch being different and the Netherlands being a different context, one thing they can be credited for is resisting this post-war mindset that was in the minds of everybody—from the politicians to the engineers to the planners to even the business community. They all thought that by accommodating the car, by building our cities around the car, by putting housing out in the suburbs and by leaving the city center for business and commerce, we were creating light and space and air and freedom and economic opportunity for everybody. I think 60 years into this Suburban Experiment, we’ve kind of hit a wall in terms of how we can keep planning our streets and make the cars flow freely. We’re also starting to understand the negative consequences on our economy, on our happiness, and on our freedom and well being.

So it really gets to the crux of what we write about in the book, that so many different Dutch cities resisted the urge to do this. It was in part through citizen activism, and it was in part through political will. They definitely started off with an advantage in that they kept their land uses closer together and they kept their streets at a more human scale. In that environment, cycling becomes much easier than doing it on the perhaps sprawling cities such as Los Angeles  or even mid-sized cities across North America.

 Bike parking at a train station in the Netherlands. (Photo courtesy of Chris and Melissa Bruntlett)

Bike parking at a train station in the Netherlands. (Photo courtesy of Chris and Melissa Bruntlett)

AB: Another thing I liked that you noted in your book: at least in my conversations, I think that people tend to assume that cycling infrastructure sort of needs to be in competition with public transit, and you talk a lot about how that should be a symbiotic relationship. Can you describe what you found and how that works for the Dutch?

CB: Yeah. I mean, that was kind of one of the more intriguing chapters to write because when we went to the Netherlands, we spent five weeks there, and we were just kind of blown away by the sea of bicycles at their transit hubs and their train stations. It wasn’t until we got back and started to have conversations with planners there that we realized it was a product of their, as you said, “symbiotic,” relationship between their cycling infrastructure and their public transit networks.

Planners there really use the bikeways and put up secure bike parking facilities at a lot of the train and bus hubs to encourage people to cycle to the train station, because it widens the catchment area of a given transit hub. It feeds more customers into the system. Then as a result, you have more people using the bikeways. The stat is 50% of train trips in the Netherlands begin with a bicycle ride. That is really a testament to how they made cycling to the train station comfortable and convenient. That is where you really see a reduction in congestion and people leaving their cars at home, it’s not through the bicycle alone and it’s not through the transit system on its own. It’s the combination of the two that really provides this door-to-door mobility option that competes with the car in terms of convenience and range. And through that, their cities become less congested and more pleasant places to live.

AB: I thought it was interesting you spend quite a bit of time in the beginning of the book talking about bike style. I’m curious why you think that the Dutch bike—which is an upright, steel, classic looking style of bike—why you think that’s such an important key to building the cycling city?

50% of train trips in the Netherlands begin with a bicycle ride.... It’s the combination of the two that really provides this door-to-door mobility option that competes with the car in terms of convenience and range.

CB: Yeah this has been kind of a pet peeve of ours for a number of years. We see the bike industry and the bicycle retailers still focusing on sport rather than transport in a lot of places. The Dutch really haven’t changed their bike design for almost one hundred years. It’s remained this heavy, upright, utilitarian machine with all the accessories built into it. It makes being on a bike much more accessible to the broader segment of the population, because biking no longer becomes about fitness, it’s no longer about speed—it just becomes a slightly faster way of walking, albeit with wheels. So if cycling is really going to take off as a mode of transportation here in North America, I think we really need to kind of distance it from sport cycling and recreational cycling, because that’s really what people think of when they think of bikes here for the most part. That’s slowly starting to change as these bikes become readily available in the bike shops and with the bike shares popping up. For the most part, people just don’t have access to these types of bicycles so cycling remains a very narrow and exclusive activity for the fit and the brave that are willing to hop on carbon fiber bikes and mountain bikes.

AB: So speaking of sport, I think the tone at times in the book almost struck me as contemptuous toward sport cyclists. In my life, the two are a lot less mutually exclusive—commuters and faster cyclists. Do you think those riders do play a role in the advocacy of cycling?

CB: I think they’re an indicator species, and if we do come across as snobby or critical of people who are wearing lots of gear and riding faster bikes, they’re a product of their environment. Up until this point it has been fairly hostile streets, but as infrastructure improves you’re seeing a more diverse range of people riding bikes. I would just say that hopefully those early adopters that have been riding for a long time, they make the environment as welcoming as possible and make sure their behavior reflects well on cycling in general. But yeah, there’s definitely crossover, and a lot of people we know ride for sport and for transport. But if cities want to take cycling seriously, they need to almost forget about the sport cyclists you already converted and focus on the people not already riding bikes.

Something like 60% of car trips in North America are two miles or less. There’s no doubt that we travel long distances to get to work, but I think we forget about those shorter, more frequent trips we take in a day, whether it’s to the cafe, the supermarket, taking the kids to school, or the local transit stop.

AB: Something that comes up near the end of your book is the idea of traffic laws sometimes being less relevant to cyclists, talking about that kind of scofflaw tone cyclists earn. This is something I’ve written about before. You compare running a streetlight as being akin to jaywalking when you’re moving at a slow speed and no one is around. Do you think cities should be adapting their traffic laws for multimodal forms of transport?

CB: For sure, yeah. I think the tendency up to this point is to treat bikes like little cars, which is a mistake. That’s one thing we really took away from our time in the Netherlands. When you sort of take cars out of the equation, all these things we think of as indispensable in terms of stop signs, traffic lights, and heavily engineered streets become redundant. You see these beautiful shared spaces where bicycles, mopeds, and scooters are all coexisting without any kinds of signage or separate lanes, because they’re traveling at a slow enough speed they can negotiate each other through eye contact and hand signals and little gestures. It’s only when you have cars coming through at fairly high speeds that are wrapped in steel and glass, that you have to start engineering streets to accommodate it. So we shouldn’t by any stretch of the imagination be treating bikes like little cars. We should, as I was saying, be treating them like pedestrians with wheels. Unfortunately it’s not just the infrastructure that needs to catch up, it’s also the laws that prohibit a lot of behavior that is, quite frankly, benign, like riding side by side or rolling through a stop sign, or even some places have these mandatory cycling laws. They still see cycling as a dangerous sport instead of another way of walking around the city.

 A woman using a bike as transport in the Netherlands. (Courtesy of Chris and Melissa Bruntlett)

A woman using a bike as transport in the Netherlands. (Courtesy of Chris and Melissa Bruntlett)

AB: Do you think the expanse of North America puts a greater burden on trying to achieve some of the progress the Netherlands has?

CB: We hear this all the time and I don’t think that argument holds very much water. I mean, it’s something like 60% of car trips in North America are two miles or less. There’s no doubt that we travel long distances to get to work, but I think we forget about those shorter, more frequent trips we take in a day, whether it’s to the cafe, the supermarket, taking the kids to school, or the local transit stop. If we focus on those trips, we may not have the data for them and that’s why a lot of organizations may focus on the commute to work, we could see some success with relatively little work or controversy. The Netherlands really excelled by capturing those short trips from the car to the bicycle- 3 miles or less. I think if we went after that low-hanging fruit, we could see a lot of successes really quickly.

AB: Evolving infrastructure—this is something you talk about in the book a little bit—is more than just bike lanes. You discuss traffic calming, intersection redesign. How can cities think bigger than bike lanes?

CB: That’s what we hope to be one take away from the book is that one size doesn’t fit all and we can’t just copy and paste separated cycle tracks on every street in every city across the continent. It’s really much more nuanced and context specific as the Dutch show. They have a design manual called the CROW manual that kind of loosely categorizes streets and prescribes treatments, but the engineers and the designers and planners are given a lot of leeway. The look at the volume of cars, the speed of the cars, the surrounding land uses, and then they decide on a solution that works for a given street in that specific area, with an eye on the larger bicycle network. So sometimes it’s not separating the bicycles and cars. Sometimes it’s slowing the cars down by using different materials, bulge outs, or speed bumps. They really do have this entire manual of solutions that’s not really about just separating each mode every time, because not every street can do that, and certainly not every budget is able to do that. We hope that that’s the big takeaway for people from the book. The stat that we pulled out which was quite mind-blowing, was that three-quarters of all urban streets in the Netherlands are traffic calmed to 30 km per hour—that’s 20 mph or less. So it creates these conditions where you don’t have to do full separation one every street, and you have a lot of streets where you can cycle or walk there quite comfortably without worrying about your safety. In that scenario, almost every street becomes a de facto bike route, not just the ones that are painted green on Google Maps.

They really do have this entire manual of solutions that’s not really about just separating each mode every time, because not every street can do that, and certainly not every budget is able to do that. We hope that that’s the big takeaway for people from the book.

AB: One idea I liked from the book was raising the street where cars are to meet the sidewalks for crossings instead of vice versa.

CB: It’s quite brilliant. You see it everywhere. The cycle tracks and sidewalks are raised and carry up over through the side streets that cross it, so the drivers kind of feel like they are trespassing on the cycling streets, as they should be because [cyclists] are the more vulnerable users. We’ve almost got it backwards here in North America, where the sidewalks and the bike lanes are set down, and it feels like the pedestrians are encroaching on the drivers’ space. I guess with jaywalking laws, they technically are, which is completely backwards in our view.

AB: I wanted to ask who you idealize as the audience for this book. Is it for the city planner or the mayor or the citizen?

CB: That’s a great question. When we pitched this book to Island Press, we knew the bicycle advocacy community would read it because they’ve already drunk the Kool-Aid, so to speak. We wanted to write a book that our parents would read, that city counselors would read, that traffic engineers would read, that mayors and other elected officials would read. We really aimed to make the story very human-focused. The story isn’t really about bicycles at the end of the day; it’s about building better cities. It’s about making people happier and healthier. The bicycle just happens to be the means to accomplish that, but it could be what we’re seeing with electric scooters now. There are a lot of variations on the bicycle, and in our eyes, they’re all equally valid. At the end of the day, it’s about creating human-scale, traffic-calmed cities, where even people who don’t ride a bicycle feel welcome and like they belong, and they’re able to use their streets just as well as someone who owns an automobile and drives it around everyday.

AB: Do you have advice for a mayor who says, “I’m in an auto-oriented city and I want to make a change”? I know you said you avoid a prescriptive approach, but do you have a next first step for officials who may read this book and be excited by the idea?

CB: The example we always come back to and that has gotten the biggest reaction at our speaking engagements is Calgary’s downtown cycle track network. They ultimately decided they weren’t just going to build one protected bike lane, they were going to build half a dozen. They opened them all overnight with temporary materials and pitched it to the population as something to try for 18 months to see if people use it or if it impacts traffic. If it works, great. If not, we’ll take it out. No harm no foul. At the end of the day, it had little to no disruption. 1.2 million new bicycle trips occurred on this relatively modest reallocation of street space. We would just encourage people to try something. It’s not a matter of cost, and it’s certainly not a matter of finding space. It’s just cultural and political—the barriers right now—and if we can build something that’s even just temporary to get past those cultural and political barriers, I think people will find that they will like it and will use it, and it could very quickly change the city for the better.

At the end of the day, it’s about creating human-scale, traffic-calmed cities, where even people who don’t ride a bicycle feel welcome and like they belong, and they’re able to use their streets just as well as someone who owns an automobile and drives it around everyday.

AB: Is there anything else from the book you think is important to cover?

CB: One of the things we mention in the introduction that is a really counterintuitive selling point to making these types of changes is that they end up benefiting drivers a fair deal as well. The fact that the Netherlands was voted the most pleasant place to drive a car for the last three years, which specifically cites the smooth traffic conditions and the low levels of congestion, is a testament to how by building more space for cycling, they’ve inadvertently created more space for people who want to or need to drive. At the end of the day, it’s not really a zero sum game for road space. It can be a win-win scenario if we just approach it a little more intelligently than we have done in the past—and perhaps a little more bravely. As I was saying, the barriers here aren’t engineering-wise, they’re cultural and political. Hopefully our book sparks a conversation that encourages decision makers.