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How The Dutch Got Their Bike Lanes (And How We Will Get Ours)

Written by Boston Biker on Nov 03

People think that the Dutch just sort of happened into having amazing bike infrastructure. They didn’t, it was a deliberate process leading to the highest cycling rates in the world.

New studies show that well designed cycling infrastructure does more than anything else to improve health and safety.

A major city street with parked cars and no bike lanes is just about the most dangerous place you could ride a bike. All the big threats are there: open car doors, bad parallel parkers, passing cabs and public transit. This is not a particularly novel scientific revelation, although research has found it to be true. Things get more interesting when we compare this bad-biking baseline to infrastructure actually intended to accommodate cyclists.

New research out of Canada has methodically done just this, parsing 14 route types – from that bike-ambivalent major street to sidewalks, local roads with designated bike lanes, paved multi-use paths and protected “cycle tracks” – for their likelihood of yielding serious bike injuries. As it turns out, infrastructure really matters. Your chance of injury drops by about 50 percent, relative to that major city street, when riding on a similar road with a bike lane and no parked cars. The same improvement occurs on bike paths and local streets with designated bike routes. And protected bike lanes – with actual barriers separating cyclists from traffic – really make a difference. The risk of injury drops for riders there by 90 percent.

Vehicular cycling was an idea that had its day, and is now functionally dead. The future of cycling involves high quality bicycle infrastructure, in many cases separate from automobile infrastructure. The dutch did it 40 years ago, and we can do it today.

In many ways Boston is at the same spot the Dutch were in the 70′s. We are facing similar economic, environmental, and health problems. We even share a similar climate and “old world” city layout to many cities in Northern Europe. This town could be rebuilt into a cycling paradise, combined with a state of the art public transportation system we could be ready to face the challenges the next century will bring.

And there will be challenges. Boston’s population is going to grow, and even at current numbers there is a lack of space for cars. We have to take back the space we are currently wasting on things like parking cars, and put it towards more economically useful endeavors like housing and business.

There will also be problems with the climate. Hurricane Sandy not only showed that having a bicycle is the best backup in a natural disaster, but it actually got politicians talking about climate change for the first time in this election. What happened to NYC could have easily happened to Boston.

Cycling makes us healthier, reduces pollution, and is good for business. Cycling infrastructure makes us more resilient to natural disasters, and makes the city more enjoyable to live in. Its time we start getting serious about remaking Boston’s infrastructure to create a city that works for its people, not for its cars.


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