On building safe streets like the Dutch

IMG_0050At some point during Fred Young’s presentation on Dutch cycling infrastructure and safe street designs, the mood of the crowd packed into Wallingford’s Mosaic Coffee shifted from wonder to depression: Seattle has such a long way to go, it can be overwhelming.

But, having already gone through that depression phase some time ago, I got different lesson from the presentation: Cultural values guide infrastructure investments, not the other way around. Seattle may not be as far behind as it sometimes feels.

Young showed the video below at the start of his presentation, but I wonder if it would have been better at the end. After all, looking at Dutch streets almost feels like looking into the future. By looking into the Dutch past, we can see some streets that look a whole lot more familiar. And as the video explains, it wasn’t some transportation levy or bicycle master plan that changed Dutch streets. It was the people demanding that their government prioritize safety above all else.

Seattle has stated that safety is its top transportation priority, but policy investments have not yet followed suit. The Dutch, obviously, spend an enormous amount of money on road safety projects. But they did not start doing so until public pressure forced a dramatic change in the way the nation builds public spaces.

But what makes this journey to safe streets even harder is that while Seattle is ahead of the curve for US cities in this regard, we do not have the support of the state and the Federal governments. What struck me about the Dutch video is how their national government took a direct role in shifting transportation priorities and funding in its cities. Here, so much of the work is Seattle and others in the region swimming against the tide to fund bits and pieces of our hopefully someday sustainable and safe infrastructure.

Imagine if just a chunk of the many billions spent on highways in the nation went to constructing safe bikeways and sidewalks. What if the state government matched municipal investments in building complete streets?

Much of the the new energy behind the call for safe streets started in small neighborhood meeting spaces. It quickly grew from Beacon Hill and Wallingford to all corners of the city and the city’s transportation department. It has crossed the Seattle border and is starting to grow around the region (hello, Kirkland Greenways!).

But Seattle is not the only place in the state where families have been shattered and lives ended or altered due to senseless road violence. Every small town and city in our state has experienced tragedy due to unnecessarily dangerous streets that our state continues to blindly fund.

Seattle Neighborhood Greenways grew so quickly because it is an idea that empowers residents to actually do something about a problem that seems so much larger than themselves. And it grew quickly because, unfortunately, dangerous roads have caused so much pain that there are people on every block in the city who want an end to road deaths and injuries. Such people live on every block on the state, as well.

Will the calls for real investments in safe streets get loud enough to bring Washington State on board? It must.

About Tom Fucoloro

Founder and Editor of Seattle Bike Blog.
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9 Responses to On building safe streets like the Dutch

  1. Shirley says:

    Oh good. I will feel totally justified when I start painting florescent pink bike lanes down Rainier Ave. tonight. (See video at 5.52)

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  3. Mark J says:

    Absolutely inspiring words and video! Thank you.

  4. Hans Gerwitz says:

    Cultural values guide infrastructure investments, not the other way around.
    Perfectly stated.

    Living in Amsterdam has left me wondering, recently, about the chicken-and-egg evolution of the bike friendliness. You cannot understand this city without the experience of riding helmetless on narrow streets (often along unfenced canals!) without fear that any of the cars are going to endanger you.

    The cycling infrastructure has been built in response to demand. Having it leads to more bikes, leads to more demand, leads to more infrastructure …

    But did that virtuous cycle lead to social norms of tolerance for all road users, or was it made possible by an already-tolerant culture?

  5. Michelle Swanson says:

    Right now we’re on the cusp of a major cultural shift away from the car-centric cities of the last hundred years and toward a more human-scale, humane transportation system. It’s not going to happen overnight, but the relentless pursuit of all citizens toward rebalancing our transportation system is gonna make it happen.

    A lot of what has held this country back – setting aside the low-density sprawl pattern that has boxed us into car dependency (and that’s changing, too) – has been the vehemence of vehicular cycling “advocates.” With friends like that, we haven’t needed enemies.

    It is because of vehicular cyclists’ lobbying that we have spent the last thirty years with wide outside lanes on multilane roads and highways passing for an acceptable bicycle facility. The standards established by AASHTO are exactly what the vehicular cycling crowd asked for, which is to say almost nothing at all.

    The vehicular cyclists’ time has passed. With the advent of NACTO and a new generation of bicycle planners who think systemically and holistically about our transportation system we are seeing a whole new approach to bike planning. It’s a shame we wasted a generation on an ideology that had zero basis in data or even common sense.

    On a practical side, we have got to change how we measure the efficiency of our transportation system. Right now the law limits us to the archaic “level of service” measurement, which just measures how fast you can get vehicles through a street or intersection. It does not measure safety, it does not measure the diversity of transportation options available on the street, it only measures throughput of vehicles. So long as we legally require transportation agencies to use this measure to the exclusion of all else, we will have a car-centric system. This must change.

    And if we all work together, it will.

    • Tom Fucoloro says:

      I should probably put this into a post of its own, but I think it’s past time for everyone to reassess this whole vehicular cycling vs bike lanes thing.

      First, there is no longer a debate over whether vehicular cycling ONLY makes for a good transportation policy. The data is clear that it does not work, either for safety or for increasing ridership.

      However, vehicular cycling folks have an important role to play in the future of cycling, especially in the US. While we work to build safer streets, navigating the city safely on a bike will continue to require basic knowledge of vehicular cycling techniques for a long time to come. Bicycle education is pitiful or nonexistent, and “biking like a car” is still the best way to navigate those missing links in our city’s network.

      As much as I will keep working so everyone feels comfortable biking where they need to go regardless of ability or age, I’m also realistic to know that we need to make vehicular cycling skills more available to folks who want to make the jump from biking some places to biking everywhere.

      Imagine if all the energy people put into fighting against bike lanes went instead to education programs or something. I would love to support an effort like that and help it grow rather than waste my time arguing the same thing over and over again.

      I know a lot of folks have made this switch and are on board with bike facilities. Maybe the remaining vehicular-only folks will simply never change their minds. But I wish they would! Because we really all want the same thing: More people biking more safely. We should be able to find common ground on at least some things.

      • Mike H says:

        I think it would do some help to step back first and see why the vehicular-cyclist crowd were/are so adamant in their hatred of bike lanes. As many of you know it came out of poor design of side paths along roadways and laws forcing cyclists to use them. They were nothing more than sidewalks, really.

        Now, I don’t think that we can dismiss out of hand all the ideas that vehicular cycling has done. For example, if you look at bicycle collisions, you will see that there is a substantial portion of collisions which are caused by wrong-way riding or riding on the sidewalk. BTW, I am not blaming the cyclist, I am just looking at the data I have.

        One interesting study that came from the conflict between vehicular cyclists and those who simply wanted bike lanes was a FHWA report comparing the safety of roads with wide lanes versus those with bike lanes. If I recall correctly, it pretty much leaned in favor of bike lanes.

        Both Michelle and Tom are right about the effort wasted on fighting any facility. What would have been better would have been an approach to say, “Yeah, that facility sucks, here’s why. Let’s try this.” But it appears that the easy fight was to simply say no bike facilities at all.

      • Nick Falbo says:

        Don’t forget that Neighborhood Greenways are a vehicular cycling facility. The vehicular cyclists are been adamant about how taking control of the lane is a safe riding style, and they are right. It just happens that while most people are not willing to do that on a busy street, they are overjoyed to ride like that on a calmed local street.

        In the quest to build better bikeways, you may be able to get the vehicular cyclists on your side for once.

      • Tom Fucoloro says:

        Nick, that’s spot on. I have actually encountered hardcore vehicular cycling dudes who liked the idea of neighborhood greenways because it could be a place for people to learn how to bike like a car on a safe and comfortable street. Like training wheels for busy streets.

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