It’s time to get to know your bicycle a bit better

I’m noticing a lot more people riding bicycles lately.

It’s probably just the time of year. The warm months of summer when folks are on vacation with extra hours to while away pedaling no where in particular.

But even when it isn’t summer there are riders going places on their bicycles. Some carry a sack on their rack full of the day’s groceries. Others cart children, and still others simply have that determined look that says they’re off to some place important.

To these people at those times, their bicycle is their primary mode of transportation. And that’s a bit unusual in this car loving culture.

Which got me to thinking about the Netherlands.

The Netherlands have always been a bicycle loving country. It’s relatively flat and small, therefore easy to get around using pedal power.

But following the Second World War as the country modernized the population transitioned, like most of the Western world. Cars became more popular and highways were built. Streets and laws were changed to reflect the demands of these new, faster moving vehicles.

Over time bicycles became an afterthought, collecting dust in the garage. Until, by the late 1960s, the Netherlands looked pretty much like Nebraska in terms of automobile usage.

With more cars on the road deaths of pedestrians and cyclists soared. Rising to an annual rate of 3,250 in the early 70s. A great many of these deaths were children, leading to protests from parents demanding, “Stop the Child Murder!”

Then came the 1973 Middle East oil crisis, with its gas shortages and rising prices.

In order to lessen consumption, Amsterdam mandated car-free Sundays. Out came the old bicycles and onto the streets they went. The response was so positive that many city centers were permanently closed to car traffic.

And so began the resurgence of bicycle usage in the Netherlands.

Today 26 percent of commuters travel to work on bicycles, with many more using a vast public transportation network.

A whopping 70 percent of all travel within a 2.5-mile radius is on a bike. If the round trip is less than a mile, almost everyone walks.

Street design has changed, not so much to accommodate bicycles as to underscore their prominence. For example, bicycle lanes are not separated from car lanes by a striped line painted on the road, but by a physical barrier.

Traffic signals favor bicyclists, and they are expected to obey the law. Even at 2 am when no one is looking, they stop for a red light in the bicycle lane.

Adding to the safety of bicycle riders are lower speed limits for cars on city and town streets, encouraging bicyclists to use less congested roads, corner islands at busy intersections, and bike thoroughfares in more congested areas.

In primary business and shopping districts it isn’t uncommon to see large parking facilities dedicated to bicycles.

All this bicycle riding and adaptation of the bicycle as a primary means of transportation has led to a profound cultural shift in the Netherlands.

Children learn to ride a bike and get around on one at a very young age. Bicycle riding etiquette is taught in schools, where students learn how to behave and ride in traffic. By the time they are old enough to drive, many say, “Who needs a car?”

Of course, all this bicycle infrastructure costs money, which the Dutch willingly pay due to the increased safety, lower cost of transportation, and, yes, slower pace.

Most Dutch families still own a car, which they use for longer distances. But there isn’t the all-too-frantic worrying about letting their children out alone to get to soccer practice or a dance class. They make this trip by themselves, on their bike.

Sadly, the United States is light years away from the Netherlands’ nirvana of bicycling. But our behaviors are slowly starting to change.

Perhaps it is an attempt to lower one’s carbon footprint and not use the car quite so much. Maybe it’s an effort to downshift in response to the crazy busyness that infuses our lives.

Whatever your rationale, try this week to get out on your bicycle.

I like the guideline that if the trip is less than a couple miles, then get on the bike. Of course, our traffic system is vastly different than that of the Netherlands, and we all need to be thoughtful about safety.

Still, if the bicycle collecting dust in your garage has been an afterthought for too long, just pull it out and put some air in the tires and enjoy a leisurely ride around the neighborhood.

With that start you may well be on the way to slowing down and spending a little less time in your car and more time outside.

Really. Look around. Everyone is doing it!


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