I recently learned that the Netherlands has 21,000 miles of bike paths — in a country that covers only 13,000 square miles. Because many of these paths take more direct routes than the roads cars drive on, it’s now 10 percent faster to get to Dutch urban destinations by bike than by car.
You might think that the Dutch are just more sensible than Americans, and that we could never achieve their level of bike-friendly infrastructure. The truth is much more interesting. After World War II, cycling declined in the Netherlands just like in the rest of the Western world, and with the increase in auto traffic came a surge in road deaths. Hundreds of the victims were children.
In the early 1970s, a group of citizens organized themselves under the banner “Stop de Kindermoord,” (“Stop the Child Murder”) and challenged the government to fund the construction of separate bike paths. Children themselves joined in civil disobedience; a 1972 documentary shows kids blockading an Amsterdam street against cars and marching with banners demanding space for play.
The protests — coupled with the 1970s oil crisis — worked. The Dutch government invested in a network of connected, separate cycle paths, the number of people riding bikes skyrocketed, and pedestrian fatalities plummeted.
“What caused the changes in the Netherlands?” a video by the Dutch Cycling Embassy asks. “Public outrage over the amount of space handed over to motorized traffic. An intolerable number of traffic death that, again, led to mass protests.”
What will it take to change the United States?