By Matt Courtland
I recently spent eight days working in Amersfoort, Holland, a wonderful town full of historic sites and friendly people. During my visit I enjoyed discovering alleyways that lead to secluded courtyards, sleeping under a heavy duvet without a top bed sheet and strolling down cobblestoned streets lined with historic buildings. I also became very aware of bicycles. They are ubiquitous in the Netherlands and I often wished I had one when walking to and from my hotel each day. But the walk gave me a chance to get outside and think about how cycling is an integral part of the Holland’s transportation system and how it offers the US a model in which bicycles can help to decrease our country’s carbon footprint and increase our level of exercise.
It makes sense that so many people in Holland use their own energy to move around town. The landscape is very flat, turning the occasional small hill into a change of pace rather than a true obstacle. Many towns and cities are connected by walking/bicycle paths so most trips can take place on two wheels. Also, streets include bicycle lanes and bicycle traffic lights to help the cars, cyclists, and pedestrians move freely and avoid colliding with each other. The country is simply designed for bicycles.
One cultural difference that surprised me was that I never saw an adult or youth wearing a helmet while cycling. I occasionally witnessed children under three riding in a bike seat and sporting head protection but never anyone else. My initial shock was tempered as I noticed most people do not travel very fast and they do not “share the road” with motorized vehicles because bicyclists enjoy their own designated paths. I think the safety of this last point should be stressed. When I bike to work, part of my journey involves four miles on a two lane road with a 50 mph speed limit. Most of the time there is a four to five-foot wide shoulder and I feel relatively safe; however, the shoulder shrinks to two-feet and has a guard rail where the pavement ends for 50 yards on my trip home. I am not joking that I take a deep breath and envision myself moving through this “gauntlet” without incident each time I bicycle this route.
From my recent experience in the Netherlands and previous trips throughout Europe, cyclists in cities have their own lane and most bicycle paths between towns do not share the same road as cars, buses, and my most feared road vehicle, 18 wheelers. When I biked from Hildesheim to Bad Salzdetfurth in Germany a few summers ago to visit an elderly relative, my uncle, cousin, and I were either on a well maintained bike path or seldom-traveled back roads. In the US, I am adamant about wearing my helmet but I almost did not give it a second thought when we took off in the morning without head protection.
Providing a safe environment for cyclists provides the Dutch society with many benefits. Cycling allows people to spend more time outside. It decreases traffic congestion and reduces the use of fossil fuel. Bicycling reduces stress, gives people a daily workout, and makes it much easier to find parking. And cycling is the most energy efficient form of transportation in all of human history. I think Holland is onto something.
My wife and I bike several times a week in summer and I am familiar with biking culture in the US. By building cycling lanes equipped with bicycle traffic lights in cities and connecting towns with bicycle paths, many countries in Europe have taken this human powered transportation to another level. As the US prepares to invest millions in clean energy research and development, I suggest our nation take a serious look at bicycling, a proven method of carbon reduction with incredible physical and social benefits.
Matt Courtland of The Natural Strategy educates people on sustainable business practices while reconnecting them to the energy and inspiration found in nature.