Encouraging a cycling habit

To the Editor:

Having recently returned from visiting family in the Netherlands, where we traveled only by bike and train (mostly bike), Nis Kildegaard’s column [Soundings : The view from the saddle, August 3] on bikes as viable transport resonates with me. The Dutch seemingly all ride bikes to get around — large upright ones with carrying capacity for kids, shopping, school books, legal briefs, plants, whatever. The older children ride to school on them in all weather. They tend to have 3- to 9-speed hub gears, fenders, chain guards and kick stands. Helmets are rarely to be seen.

This is all possible due to a truly comprehensive system of bicycle infrastructure that the government implemented after WW II. This enlightened planning has helped to mitigate a number of problems — traffic congestion and poor air quality in the cities, dependence on fossil fuels, and most importantly, health issues in the populace, the rate of obesity and heart disease being very low.

As Nis pointed out in his piece, bikes here tend to be used as fair weather recreational vehicles (he notes the lack of fenders) to take on vacation and as fitness machines by the lycra clad. Most of the time they simply hang in people’s garages. While there is nothing wrong with any of this, it does seem to ignore the potential for much wider use of them as efficient transport. In talking to people about riding their bikes to commute, shop, etc., they invariably say that they would like to be able to do so, but the roads where they need to go are much too dangerous. Here (down Island), we do have pretty good bikeways due to our desire to be known as pedal-friendly, in order to attract affluent recreational bikers, the Chamber of Commerce effect providing for their construction. The problem elsewhere seems to be both lack of desire (bike riding being considered mostly frivolously recreational) for them and the lack of funding to build them. Unlike highways, there is no user fuel tax available for their construction, so funding must come from general revenues. Vested interests (oil, automotive) also have no desire to promote anything that might have a deleterious affect on their bottom lines.

There are those who contend that Americans will never get out of their cars, so extensive bikeways would simply be a waste of money. I don’t think this is the case, as in the few cities that have implemented them riding has rapidly increased. In Europe the price of fuel encourages bike use, and as prices rise here, we could get the same effect. Holland also has a sleek and efficient railway system, with bike parking at the stations allowing for convenient bike-train travel. This combination goes a long way toward easing congestion in the cities.

The problem here is really how to change the mindset about bike travel. And to do that, it is necessary to provide safer alternatives to “share the road and wear your helmet” which have little effect on bike safety or encouraging riding. Creating cycling infrastructure is expensive, but the reduced environmental and fuel costs, and most importantly, the reduced suffering and the savings in health care should ultimately outweigh their cost.

Tony Higgins

West Tisbury