Monday 14 February 2011

All those myths and excuses in one post

Cycling is safe for children in this residential street
because there is no through traffic at all

For some time I've been using the tag "excuses" on some posts on my blog. However, it's a bit ambiguous and even though I've explained what I mean a few times, some people still think I mean something else.

So, here I am trying to set the record straight. To me, these aren't so much excuses that individuals use to explain why they don't personally cycle, but excuses made even by existing cyclists for why it is that they think their country is different to the Netherlands. It seems rather odd to me that even people who campaign for cycling in their own country would prefer to make an excuse for why it doesn't happen rather than work towards a higher level of cycling, but that's how it is. It's easy to fall into a trap of believing that there is a fundamental difference in the people, the geography, the weather, or whatever.

Busting these myths is a part of what needs to happen if cycle campaigners elsewhere are to start to campaign more effectively. Asking for half measures won't do it. You need to ask for the best possible conditions for cycling if you want cycling to become a mass activity as it is in the Netherlands.

Recently I've started to refer to these as "myths and excuses", and included links to each type of "excuse" on the right hand side of the blog.

Here they are again, with longer descriptions. Click on the provided links either in or after each topic to find the references for each statement made here.

The Netherlands also once had "not
enough space" for cycle-paths. Click
to find out how this street looks now
Our streets are too narrow. This one comes up all the time. From tiny villages in the UK, which really do have narrow streets, right through to places like Los Angeles where generally speaking they have enormously wide streets, a lot of people honestly believe that the place they live in somehow has less space for cyclists than the Netherlands does. It's a myth. The Netherlands has town designs from the medieval right through to the 21st century, and in all of these, space can be found for cyclists if the roads are (re)designed accordingly.

Providing for cyclists is too expensive. It's simply not true. Providing infrastructure for cyclists is actually incredibly cheap in comparison with providing infrastructure for the same people to make all their journeys by car. In the Netherlands it has been shown that even the relatively lightly used intercity superhighways are cheaper to build than not to built. What's more, it leads to other savings. For instance, in the health service, and even gives companies a competitive advantage over those from other nations.

Our population is too spread out. This is a favourite of Americans and Australians, who believe that their large countries lead to their population making far longer journeys. Thje maximum distance you could travel is of course larger in a larger country. However, average (median) journey lengths don't vary very much. The reason why is that practical everyday journeys (to school, shops, work) are constricted more by time than by distance in itself. Even in America, 40% of urban journeys are 2 miles under.. If you compare the whole of the country of Netherlands with cities in other places then the population density argument completely reverses, yet the Netherlands still has a much higher cycling rate.

We have hills. This is a plea heard often from people who imagine that the Netherlands is completely flat and that that is the reason for people cycling. It's not as simple as that. In a flat country, headwinds are phenomenal, so it's not really so big a gain for cyclists as is often imagined.

Headwinds are something that people who live in the area of the UK called Holland, which is just as flat as the Netherlands, also know. However, they don't cycle any more than people elsewhere in the UK because they don't have cycle-paths and their towns have been developed to exclude cyclists.

What's more, not all of the Netherlands actually is that flat. In fact, the Amstel Gold cycle race is held here and that race is famous for its vicious hilly course. It takes places in Limburg, a hilly province in the Netherlands. Elsewhere in the Netherlands, it's not unknown for artificial hills to be constructed because cyclists like to ride over them.

Also bear in mind that Switzerland achieves a much better cycling rate than many other countries despite the fact that it's rather mountainous. Switzerland's cycling infrastructure is good, but not wonderful. If it had better infrastructure then it probably would also have more cycling.

It's quite reasonable to assume that people will cycle less in truly mountainous places, but if your area is less hilly than Switzerland and you have less cycling than Switzerland, think about the reason for this. It's not the hills.

Trondheim in Norway is a very hilly city. In fact, it's the only city in the world where a permanent mechanical lift has been installed to help cyclists climb a hill. Trondheim is also a very cold place in winter. Nevertheless, Trondheim is investing heavily in cycling and plans to double its existing 8% cycling modal share in the next few years. Growing cycling requires good infrastructure. That's the same anywhere.

Finally, if you're making this excuse from the UK, bear in mind that in Britain in 1949, over 30% of total road distance travelled was by bike. That's a higher proportion than is the case here in the Netherlands now. The geography of Britain hasn't changed, but the road conditions have. That's why people no longer cycle.

Our distances are too great. Actually, as I mentioned before, they're not. It often surprises people to find out that the Dutch have the longest commutes in Europe. Of course, sometimes shorter distances elsewhere can feel like they are too long to cycle if the conditions that cyclists face are unpleasant.

It took decades in the Netherlands. Actually, it took about 15 years. However, what's your point ? The problem is not actually making a proper start. People have been making this excuse that it takes too long for far more than 15 years, when they could instead have been working towards making real progress and now have something similar to what the Netherlands has. Catching up requires starting the process of building good cycling infrastructure, continuing the process rather than viewing it as something for the short term, and improving the standards over time so that the experience of cycling continues to improve. That's what The Netherlands has done. Any other could do the same, but it does require commitment.

It's because of the price of gas. Yes, running a car is more expensive here than in America or Australia. However, it's not much different at all from the UK. America, Australia and the UK have the same 1% modal share for cycling. So don't wait for higher petrol prices, or higher car parking charges, in order to make people cycle. Cycling should be made into a more attractive option for everyone and then it can be a positive choice that people make. The Netherlands is absolutely not anti-car.

It's the weather. What amuses me about this one is that people use it in all directions at once. Either it's too cold in their country, or it's too hot in their country. In at least one example, the complaint was that their city was too cold relative to the Netherlands, even though had on average warmer winters than the here. Our weather varies by a surprising extent. In the three years that we've lived here, daytime temperatures have varied between -12 C (10 F - much worse if you include wind chill, which I don't) and +38 C (100 F). People don't stop cycling in either extreme. Commuters still go to work, all sorts of people still go shopping and the children still cycle to school. However, recreational destinations do change. People are more like to cycle to go skating when it's cold and to the beach when it's hot.

Actual professional cycle-race on the
television in The Netherlands.
Yes, this is a cycle-path.
And yes, that's a genuine Dutch hill
Cycle-paths are slow. Yes, this one keeps coming up. I tried pointing out how much quicker my commute is here than it was in the UK, and even showed someone riding along a cycle path at over 60 km/h, but people still cling to this belief. It's nonsense. Well designed cycle paths prioritise cyclists on them over cars on the road. Here we have traffic lights which default to green for bikes, others which allow only cyclists to make a right turn on red, and many which allow cyclists to cross diagonally and give then green lights twice as often as drivers, a growing network of intercity bicycle superhighways for long distance commuters, journeys within town which take a more direct route from the roads and avoid traffic lights. And yes, racing cyclists really do use cycle-paths in the Netherlands. The infrastructure is that good.

So, why is it that so many people choose to cycle here, when they wouldn't if they lived elsewhere ? That's simple. The Dutch did all of this. And in particular, took care of this.

Update 15/2/11
Quite a few people pointed out other "excuses" in the comments, and I made a comment answering some of them. Here's a slightly edited version of that text:

"Our streets are too wide" and the closely related "You can't drive in medieval cities in the Netherlands". This is about claiming that cities elsewhere are too new to incorporate cycle infrastructure. It's exactly the opposite of what the "too narrow" people claim. The latter, "medieval", variant can be credited to a strange chap whose only experience of the Netherlands was on a train journey in the 1930s. Anyway, again it's nonsense. Some cities in the Netherlands do indeed have centres which date from medieval times. However, other cities and towns have been established right through history, including one of the very newest cities in the world which was established in the 1970s on land which had been sea bed until a short time previously. Plenty of space for wide roads there. However, all Dutch cities, no matter how old or new, are great for cycling in.

"You'll have problems at intersections". Not if well designed. I've examples of quite a few.

"Mass cycling is for poor countries"? Try looking here. Propelling yourself by consuming imported oil is detrimental to the economy. Cycling makes your country's economy stronger.

"Segregationists are splitters". What is this ? A playground squabble ? What I find most amusing about this accusation is the idea that cyclists haven't been split on many issues for ages. What's more, cyclists in low cycling countries are about as split as they possibly can be from the mainstream. Achieving a higher cycling rate re-integrates cyclists into society, which is what you need if you want to see cyclists being taken seriously on all levels, including in the event of crashes between motorists and cyclists.

"It doesn't matter what non-cyclists think". Hilarious. If that's what you believe then don't expect ever to grow the cycling rate. Growth can only come by convincing non-cyclists to take up cycling. If you don't take into account why people don't cycle (this is the reason) then you won't ever grow cycling.

If cycle paths are built "we'll be banished to dangerous crap forever". Isn't that the problem now ? That the roads which "cyclists" ride on are "dangerous crap" so far as everyone but very enthusiastic cyclists are concerned ? Cycling has reached its lowest possible ebb in the English speaking world. Whatever direction campaigning takes, to end up with a worse situation than a mere 1% of journeys being by bike, as at present, is rather unlikely. There is, almost literally, nothing to lose.

"Weren't the Dutch government always supportive of cycling" ? Actually, no. In the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s cycling in NL declined rapidly while the government prioritized road building and cars. I've several examples on the blog, also before and after photos of Dutch cities. In the 20th century, Dutch cities followed the same path as those elsewhere, transforming themselves to be ever more car centric. This was followed by a second revolution in which much of the harm was undone. Copy from successful Dutch city centre transformations.

"There's a lack of political support". I have a lot of sympathy with this. Of course there is a lack of political support in countries where cyclists are a minority. This is why it is a mistake to campaign only for "cyclists". Take note from the Netherlands. Successful campaigning here started by pointing out the deaths of children, not merely "cyclists". This removes the problem of cyclists being a minority. Everyone is concerned about children so it makes a lot of sense to campaign for children. This blog includes a number of articles about campaigning.

"Where there are no children cycling there is no need for this concern". Nice counterpoint, but children also die when walking, and in cars due to the way roads are developed and used in many countries.

What's more, car centric road design harms the development of children. Dutch children have an extraordinary amount of freedom of movement. That's all part of the reason why Dutch children are the happiest in the world. In fact, the top four countries for child well-being in this list from UNICEF just happen to also be the top four countries for cycling.

So, as it turns out you need cycle paths not only to stop children from dying when cycling, and not only for the sake of but also to help their development into healthy, happy adults. Personally, I find that quite a compelling argument.

There are a lot of stories about children on this blog precisely because children are important. Quite apart from anything else, they're the only source of future cyclists. If children aren't riding bikes, what chance does cycling have ? One of my favourite photos of local children is this one, of a girl riding home from school and with a few wobbles practising riding no hands as she went:
If you've not seen it before, take a look at the video of what our local primary schools look like.

I think "John in NH" makes a good point in the comments about wanting manuals and standards to be improved. Most road engineers in the Netherlands are just the same as those in the USA or anywhere else. They're not mavericks, they're simply competently doing their job, and following all the relevant guidelines. Most of the infrastructure exists simply because the standards have been followed.

However, even the very good CROW manuals from the Netherlands don't tell all that you need to know. In the Netherlands they are interpreted from within a Dutch context. Minimums really are treated as minimums. Different types of infrastructure described in the CROW manuals quite passively and without preference are not equally popular. This is why it's important not only to read the manuals but also to see what is really done on the streets.

Update 19/2/11
The excuses keep piling up, including a hilarious one which appeared in a comment on Dave Warnock's blog. Apparently, "it is a historical fact that the Nazis invented segregated lanes." Unfortunately for this "fact", Adolf Hitler wasn't born until four years after the creation of the first cycle path in the Netherlands. Also we should note that in the Netherlands "bicycle use declined considerably during the occupation". This was the result of tyres being rationed and in short supply: "Anyone wanting a new tyre needed to turn in the old one and demonstrate that he lived at least 5 km from his place of employment and needed the bicycle in order to cover that distance on a daily basis".

Besides, what kind of argument is this anyway ? Allegedly, Mussolini "made the trains run on time", but does that mean that all "right thinking" people should now prefer that they don't run on time ?

Now if these people used the same argument about motorways and cars then it might actually make sense. It's a matter of historical record that Hitler "enthusiastically embraced" the building of motorways as well as "demanding the production of a basic vehicle" so that as many people as possible could drive on them.

Update November 2011
The excuses keep rolling in:

"But we have driveways". Believe it or not, The Netherlands has driveways too. They are just designed differently.

"Cycle training will increase cycling". Sixty years of evidence tends to suggest that it won't.

"Cycle-paths would cause flooding / light-pollution / removal of trees". Next to the damage caused by building roads, these considerations are trivial for cycle-paths.

"I cycle so you could cycle too". People often think that because the conditions are good enough for them to cycle that everyone else would too, perhaps after a bit of training. Actually, this is not remotely true, and training has been shown to have little effect on its own. The reason is simple: training does not change conditions on the streets, and therefore does not improve subjective safety to the point that people want to cycle.

Update December 2011
"It's in the genes / blood / veins of the Dutch". Like many of the myths, this one is believed by some Dutch people as well. However, a survey on a Dutch website for expats revealed that when Dutch people leave the Netherlands one of the things they miss most is cycling. It has also been shown that when people of other nationalities come to the Netherlands they cycle far more than they would have if they had stayed in their country of origin. England has a region named "Holland" which is strikingly similar to the Netherlands. It's flat, they grow flowers, there are a lot of windmills and dykes. Many of the people who live there are the families of Dutch immigrants who helped to drain these low lands and turn them into fertile farms - the same process as happened across much of the Netherlands. However, almost no-one cycles in "Holland" despite having the same blood. Why ? Because conditions for cycling are terrible. There are no cycle-paths to speak of. The reason why both native Dutch people and other nationalities cycle more when they live in the Netherlands than when they live in other countries where cycling is less pleasant isn't "in the genes", the "blood" or the "veins". The reason is that the infrastructure here makes it possible. Subjective safety.

"Journeys are short in the Netherlands". It was also revealed recently that Dutch commutes are the longest in Europe, somewhat defeating the argument that the Dutch only cycle because their journeys are short.

Update January 2012
"Strict Liability makes the Dutch safe to cycle". Some people think that high levels of cycling in the Netherlands are due to "Strict Liability" or that "Strict Liability" must be in place to make cycle-paths safe. Another way of saying this is to express opinions that the main reason that cycling is safer in the Netherlands than in any other country is because laws are different. None of these things is actually true and this view is based on a misunderstanding . The policy which has lead to more and safer cyclists is called Sustainable Safety and it's about creating fewer dangerous conditions on cycle-paths, streets and roads.

Update January 2013
Another suggestion which I've been sent was "why should traffic grind to a halt to indulge your hobby". That bicycles get in the way of cars and slow them down is not a new claim. However, studies have shown that more cycling leads to fewer traffic jams. In the Netherlands, driving is not actually difficult at all. An IBM study of "commuter pain" showed that Amsterdam is about as annoying for commuting by car as is Los Angeles and Berlin. Amsterdam is a better place for driving than London, Paris, Madrid, Milan or Moscow, all of which are dominated by cars and don't have nearly so many bicycles as down Amsterdam. There are few truly anti-motoring policies in the Netherlands and no reason for cycling campaigners elsewhere to be "anti-car". If it is attractive, cycling sells itself. People cycle en-masse in the Netherlands because cycling is very attractive indeed, not because they are punished if they drive. Given decent conditions for cycling, even free car parking isn't enough to make Dutch people drive.

Another myth which seems to have gained popularity of late is that lower speed limits are all that it will take to make people cycle. There's nothing wrong with reducing speed limits in and of itself, however, the effect of this should not be overstated. The Dutch found that reducing speed limits was not effective enough on its own. Low traffic Dutch streets which have 30 km/h (18 mph) speed limits are attractive to cyclists not because they have a low speed limit, but because they have almost no cars on them. The Dutch not only have the most extensive network of low speed limit streets in the world, but also have unravelled routes for motorists from those for cyclists. This removal of cars is what makes streets subjectively safe and leads to cycling being an easy choice for people to make.

Update July 2013
People continue to promote the myths which are addressed above. This post is but a summary, but if you follow the links above you'll find the individual references for each statement made here.

Again I've seen comments about how supposedly unfriendly the Netherlands is for drivers. This is simply not a fact. Driving here is a pleasure and it's also very affordable relative to peoples' salaries. Policies which are "anti-car" are extremely difficult to find. The Netherlands is one of very few countries which actually offers tax incentives to commute by car. In how many other places do drivers have such a perk ?

August 2013
The "bicycle" on the left has a number
plate. That's because it also has a
two stroke engine mounted by
the rear wheel
On a BBC Radio 4 programme, one of the people dialing in claimed that Dutch cyclists pay a type of "road tax" to use their bicycles. This is not true. There was once licensing of bicycles in the Netherlands, but that was phased out in the 1930s.

The modern myth may have roots in simple misunderstanding. There is a class of motorized bicycle in the Netherlands which doesn't exist in the UK. They look a lot like normal Dutch bicycles and these do have a number plate at the back, but they also have a two stroke engine mounted by the rear wheel. They're no longer produced, having been replaced by electrically assisted bicycles with the same 25 km/h assisted speed limit.

March 2014
Today a London Labour councillor tried to suggest that Hackney's low rate of cycling is due to 'diversity'.

As I've pointed out before, in the Netherlands, cycling is inclusive of all:

  1. Immigrants from non-cycling nations cycle in the Netherlands as if they were natives of the second rung cycling nations.
  2. Disabled people cycle.
  3. Older people cycle.
  4. Children cycle.

In the Netherlands, people cycle for all the same reasons as Londoners drive cars.

The same councillor also made a bizarre remark about how she believes cycling does not encourage human interaction. UNICEF think otherwise. Cycling gives people freedom. This is particularly important for children and is one of the main reasons why Dutch children are considered to have the best well-being of any children in the world.

2015 update
"Dutch railway and bus stations are full of abandoned bikes". I made this video nearly two years ago showing that in fact this isn't the case:

Note that at many locations the parking is just as busy on weekends as in the week. At some the parking is significantly busier at weekends than on weekdays. This effect cannot be so easily observed at all locations. However the removal of "abandoned" bikes is actually very efficient in the Netherlands. So efficient that people quite often complain of their non-abandoned bikes have been "stolen" by the local government.

We can't copy the Dutch because of something entirely unrelated.
A new one in late summer 2015. If there's no really good reason not to emulate what has made the Netherlands successful in cycling, why not just go for an ad hominem attack instead ? The "Nazis and Hitler" argument advanced earlier is actually very similar to this one.

In this case the author suggested that a photo showed that the Dutch had "insensitivity to a minority" and this meant that they were likely also to be insensitive to other minorities and therefore that's a good reason not to emulate what really works in the Netherlands. In reality, Dutch cycling infrastructure benefits the entire population. People with disabilities, older people, and children are amongst the main beneficiaries and immigrants to this country find that they cycle far more after moving to the Netherlands than they did in their country of origin.

Update 2019
Dutch car ownership over time. This graph could
just as well be about the US or UK or any country.
Sadly, all are still heading in the same direction.
"Many Dutch live car-free" - In reality, car ownership and use have risen dramatically in the last few years. 27% of Dutch families don't have cars, which is very similar to the 22% figure for the UK, and these figures are falling in both countries. To a first approximation, everyone in the Netherlands who can afford a car and wants one probably has one, which is much the same as elsewhere. The Netherlands has never pursued policies which act against car ownership and use. Indeed, this is a country in which you can receive a subsidy to buy a new car and in which there is a tax free bonus for every km of a commute by car. Both these things encourage ever longer journeys to be made. Very few people make the decision not to own a car for ideological reasons. For those who don't have a car, transport poverty is not as severe as in the UK because cycling is safe so this low cost form of transport is used by everyone for some of their journeys.

Rather than making things up about the Netherlands, let us show you how this country really is.

A few days ago, the bike in the photo at the top, which belongs to the grand-child of one of our neighbours spent most of the day either being ridden along, or parked in the middle of, the street that we live in. No-one drove into it. No-one came close to doing so. That's what is needed if people are to feel confident about letting even very small children play outside: a very high degree of subjective safety. You can also see the answers to these "excuses" all at once.


Bruce said...

As a Canadian living in Edmonton Alberta, I cycle in some real extreams. The temps can go as low as -50°C and go to maybe 35°C (on a good day). One morning when I jumped on my bike to get to work we were one of the coldest places on EARTH. Now at that temp the grease in my headset thickened up so much I could barely change direction. Completely dangerous cold. It's not always the cold or snow that makes it hard. The roads end up with a horrible mess that's like riding in brown sugar un top of rutted ice. And when this melts it ruins bicycles. All this is in a city of close to 1million people.

Denmark and such places may have winter but not as severe as up here. The snow starts in October and leaves the end of March. Six months of winter makes a diesel 4X4 four door truck look very apealing. I love the whole idea of getting rid of the car and just use the bike for everything. But, when exposed skin will freeze in under 30 seconds, the risks outway the benefits.

J.. said...


You mentioned the "our streets are too narrow" excuse, but forgot about the other argument: "our streets are too wide". Cycling is fine for the narrow, medieval streets of Amsterdam but blah blah blah....

You also left out the "cycle paths are dangerous" arguments: "It gives inexperienced cyclists a false sense of security" and "You can't make the intersections work". (Seriously, I actually get those)

And how about: "It only works for you because your drivers are so well behaved." Ever heard that one?

You also missed "cycle paths will be annexed by pedestrians, skaters, ladies with trollies, etc."

Your list is far from comprehensive, I'm afraid.

David Hembrow said...

Bruce: I've said it before, and no doubt I'll have to continue saying it. The point of this is not to list personal excuses and tell everyone to ride despite horrible conditions, but to demonstrate the falseness of "excuses" that even campaigners make for why they think that cycling isn't big where they live.

I have had people try to tell me that 30 C is too hot and 5 C is too cold. That's nonsense. Places with such a mild climate could easily have high rates of cycling all year around if they had infrastructure which made them attractive for cycling.

Only the absolutely hardiest crazy cyclists would try to ride at -50 C. But that's OK: when it warms up a bit the majority ought to be able to cycle. But do they ? By April, your weather is milder than that of Groningen in February, however summer levels of cycling in Edmonton never reach the winter level for Groningen.

We've a relatively tropical +3 C this morning. I'm not complaining.

David Hembrow said...

J..: You're right. I need to update the list with more "excuses" and nonsense.

I have indeed heard all those arguments as well.

town mouse said...

here's a new one for you: when we do try and start campaigning for decent infrastructure in the UK (as with the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain), the existing cycling campaigners accuse us of 'splitting cycling'. There seems to be a persistent (and seductive - I've subscribed to it myself in the past) belief that in the UK we're 'one last heave' away from mass cycling. Look at London, they say, where cycling has shot up to ooh, a few percent of all commutes. If only we could have more Sky rides, more posters, more training, more nagging, more 20's plenty signs and cars stopped parking in the ASLs, we'd be there. But by distracting the masses with our shimmering unattainable vision of cycling Nirvana over the North Sea, we're risking taking our eye off the ball and losing the tiny gains that we've made.

Severin said...

Thanks for compiling all the excuses, it will be helpful to reference to.

here are some anti-bike arguments in LA/USA

arguments against cycletracks/ separated bike lanes: "streets have too many driveways, there will be potential conflict every 10 feet with each driveway"

argument against infrastructure: "mass cycling is for poor countries"

against infrastructure: "nobody rides, why make space for 1% of people at expense of 75+%"

I like the "our streets are too wide" J mentioned. Gets mentioned from time to time, though makes absolutely no sense.

David Hembrow said...

Town mouse: That is indeed another good one.

One of the major problems with British campaigners is that they won't even ask for best practice. They don't even show members of their own campaign or people who live streets which need to be changed what could actually be achieved.

If you don't ask, and demand quite forcibly, you won't get. Cycling will continue to do what it's done for decades in the UK, which is to keep trundling along at about the lowest possible level, receiving no real investment. "Cyclists" will continue to cycle, cycle campaigners will continue to talk about their "successes", and the rest of the country will get on with driving more and more.

By and large, this actually suits all groups.

John in NH said...

@ David, I agree I think the first step needs to be to start advocating for the BEST that can be done, bringing these best ideas to hearings and meetings, ok no you wont get it, maybe you will be lucky with a bike lane, but if nobody knows what the best is how do we expect to even get anywhere close.

A big excuse, and its valid I feel, is that this type of infrastructure is not in the US Manual for Uniform Traffic Control, which means that anything built that is not in there can't get federal dollars, and in many cases won't even be built as many DOT's only look at the manual and if its not there will not even experiment.

Large cities or rich cities (NYC, Portland, Somerville/Cambridge, Davis, DC etc) can do it themselves, providing there are enough innovative folks in the city or state DOT, many have done tours of the Danish networks and the Dutch networks.

Until we get Dutch best practices into the manual and into the DOT (fed+states), proper cycling infrastructure will only be built in areas that can afford it, and it will be limited as each location has to fill out gobs of paperwork on anything deviating from the federal guidelines. That is the prime problem in the US, and one that is not focused on at all to the degree it needs to be.

kfg said...

". . .`each location has to fill out gobs of paperwork on anything deviating from the federal guidelines."

John, this is a half truth. The paperwork does not attach to the laws regarding street layout; only to the Federal monies used to implement them.

Any city that has the wherewithal and will to take back its own streets can do so - at will. I'm afraid it may be necessary to take back your city before you can take back its streets.

First we take Manhattan . . . then we take Berlin.

Unknown said...

Far too many people have become content with the status-quo over here.

Bruce, Whitehorse has a pretty decent network of cycle paths. No reason Edmonton or anywhere else in Canada can't do the same.

I along with anyone I know who cycles here in Canada doesn't believe in any reason/excuse as to why we shouldn't invest or promote cycling as a viable means of transportation.
There is a minority of cyclists in Ottawa who want a separate bike lane stopped because they don't want to contend with "slow moving cyclists".

I try to debunk those "reasons" you listed to people on a weekly basis. However it almost becomes a tiresome thing to do, because it goes in one ear and right out the other for most.

Even if you point out how little it costs to create and maintain a bike lane, people will say it's a waste of money.

Politics in Canada is completely different then in Europe.
You have right-wing Conservatives claiming that cycling is nothing more then a "leftist-socialist" thing to do. They play on the fear of people saying 'they want to take your car from you completely'.

In an interview I read with Marc, he even said campaigning against cycling in the Netherlands is political suicide...It's the opposite over here, campaigning against cars is political suicide.

The potential (conservative) Premier of Ontario said during Toronto's mayoral elections that he's tired of hearing about bike lanes and having car lanes removed. He is also the same person who intends on putting in a multi-billion dollar highway.
I've yet to read any out cry about that highway, however you mention putting in bike lanes or worse, a high speed train in this province, and people start crying about costs.

I'll continue to push my local government to invest in cycling no matter how bad the attitude is here. I'd like to think that the bike lane outside my house was thanks to me. When the road was being re-done there was no plan for a bike lane, so I pointed it out to the city planners who wrote down the idea and added it.

Simon said...

Here's an excuse you haven't mentioned: lack of political support.

In my country (Australia) there is very limited political support for the sort of cycle infrastructure you champion. In fact there is much to be gained by politicians in opposing anything seen to benefit cyclists. Advocating for high-quality separated cycle infrastructure is a sure way to be marginalised and ignored.

That's the unfortunate reality at the moment. Your blog, convincing as it may be to me, is not convincing to the majority of people here. A different strategy is needed to build the political support necessary to create the cycling infrastructure you propose. I don't really have any idea what that different strategy might be.

John in NH said...

indeed, and thus it comes back to the political will, which is the heart of the matter ;)

but for this country to truly move forward we cant do it city by city, it will simply take too long and waste too much energy(I think)
State by state is doable, but it is much harder to take back a state DOT, than working within an individual city...

Education is critical, as is starting to change political will for investments in the future of our communities.

Michael S said...

Thanks for summing this up again, David. It will help dealing with all these arguments when people use them. And it will help keeping up my work, when I sometimes have a feeling of demanding the impossible.

OldGreyBeard said...

To quote a reply on the subject of cyclepaths on a current CTC forum

"It doesn't really matter what the bulk of non-cyclists thinks. What matters is what the small percentage who really might cycle think."

Evidently the Dutch need to take lessons from the UK about cycle infrastructure!

ibikelondon said...

David; love your work and this post is a smashing idea. I've got another 'excuse' for you to refute though please, which is currently terrifying certain UK cycling advocates:

By building cycle infrastructure we are signing away our right to the road. Many motorists would like to see cyclists 'out of their way' and if we end up with a half-baked system of cycle paths, rather than Dutch-style infrastructure, we'll be banished to dangerous crap forever'

Looking forward to hearing your thoughts, and thanks for your comment on my blog earlier this week. It's certainly all kicking off in the UK at the moment!


trailsnet said...

The Netherlands is famous for their incredible biking infrastructure and for the huge percentage of people who bike there. But which came first? Weren't they always pretty supportive of biking? Which leads to another excuse...
Does the Netherlands have a political party that opposes biking infrastructure like the politicians in the U.S. who come right out and say, "Money spent on trails/bike paths is a waste of tax-payer dollars."?
It would appear that the "our politicians don't support biking" excuse isn't a big issue in the Netherlands since the biking infrastructure is so incredible.

kfg said...


"we cant do it city by city"

That's not stopping Portland, which serves as an example to others. Perhaps Manhattan will as well if it can get its act together a bit better.

You know the old saw, every journey starts with a single step. If you view that single step as too small and the journey too long, the journey never begins, even though there may be others who have shown the way by completing it.

"State by state is doable"

The state is still too big for much impact by individuals or small groups (which is all we have here) and the cities still have autonomous control of their streets which, at least to a degree, should not be removed from them.

Counties, however, are still nominally in the control of the people; if you can take back the mechanisms of control.

Take the counties and the state is taken by default.

David Hembrow said...

Many very good points have been made in the comments. I'll respond to a few here:

Streets too wide? Cycling works in NL because it's medieval ? Those ideas are really rather silly. NL has cities dating from medieval times, right through to some of the newest, including one city which was established in the 1970s on land which had been sea bed until a short time previously. They're all good to cycle in.

Intersections: Not a problem if well designed. I've examples of quite a few, especially these, perhaps.

Mass cycling is for poor countries? Try this. Unlike driving around burning imported oil, cycling makes a country's economy stronger.

"Splitting": What I find most amusing about this is the idea that cyclists haven't been split for ages.

Lack of political support ? Take note from the Netherlands. Successful campaigning here started by pointing out the deaths of children, not "cyclists". It removes the problem of being a minority. Everyone is concerned about children.

"It doesn't matter what non-cyclists think" ? Well then don't expect ever to grow the cycling rate.

If cycle paths are built "we'll be banished to dangerous crap forever": Isn't that the problem now ? That the roads are already "dangerous crap" so far as everyone but very enthusiastic cyclists are concerned ? Cycling has reached its lowest possible ebb in Britain. Ending up with a worse situation than a mere 1% of journeys being by bike is rather unlikely.

"Weren't they always supportive of cycling" ? Actually, no. In the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s cycling in NL declined rapidly while the government prioritized road building and cars.

Oh, and I think John has a point about wanting manuals and standards to be improved. Most road engineers in the Netherlands are just the same as those in the USA or anywhere else. They're not mavericks, they're simply competently doing their job, and following all the relevant guidelines.

kfg said...

"Everyone is concerned about children."

Where there are no children cycling there is no need for this concern. Yes, it has come to that in many places.

trailsnet said...

David –
I hope you don’t mind if I utilized your “no excuses” topic in today’s trails network blog. I added a list of “remedies” to the problem once people stop making excuses.

As always, thanks for being an advocate for alternative and human-powered transportation. Your blog is proof that you’re doing more than just making excuses.

Simon said...

Talking about the "deaths of children" won't work cos there are no deaths of child cyclists here - there are no child cyclists, at least on the roads.

David Hembrow said...

kfg, Simon: Children don't only die while cycling. Walking children, and children in cars also die due to the way roads are developed and used in many countries.

What's more, car centric road design harms the development of children. Dutch children have an extraordinary amount of freedom of movement, and that's all part of the reason why Dutch children are the happiest in the world. In fact, the top four countries for child well-being in this list from UNICEF just happen to also be the top four countries for cycling.

So, as it turns out you need cycle paths not only to stop children from dying when cycling, and not only for the sake of but also to help their development into healthy, happy adults. Personally, I find that quite a compelling argument.

I assume you've all seen the video of what our local primary schools look like ? There are a lot of stories about children on this blog.

kfg said...

"Walking children . . ."

They've been taken care of as well.

"children in cars . . ."

Are considered safe by definition. Go figure.

"I find that quite a compelling argument."

Neither you nor I are the ones that require convincing. As you rightly point out it is the mothers. Mothers whose concerns have little or nothing to do with traffic safety.

Here you present some of the excuses. If mothers in the UK and US who present these excuses are telling you that they would let their children cycle if there were safe facilities they are presenting you with one of the lies.

The issue is; wait for it, wait for it . . .subjective.

kfg said...


"I assume you've all seen the video of what our local primary schools look like ?"

I assume you haven't seen the magazine article my step-father wrote. It started by showing a picture of a school and a prison and asked the reader to figure out which was which.

Might was well toss a coin.

David Hembrow said...

kfg: It's not easy, few things are, but for growth of cycling we've got to get through to those mothers. Society as a whole has to become a more friendly place, not only for "cyclists", who by definition in English speaking countries are risk takers who don't mind standing out from the crowd, but also for all the people who feel that being inside a car, or behind a wall when at school, makes them safe.

This goes well beyond a cycling issue. Such a lot of confrontation is not healthy for society as a whole.

On a related issue, Dutch prisons now have a shortage of criminals to imprison and are threatened with closure. They're having to think of all kinds of inventive ideas to keep them open so that the staff don't have to be laid off.

Meanwhile, over in the US you've got the highest incarceration rate in the world.

Something's gone very wrong.

kfg said...

""cyclists", who by definition in English speaking countries are risk takers who don't mind standing out from the crowd"

There are aspects of this with which I can agree, and aspects I don't (my mother is a rather risk averse little old lady who cycles, often in places I myself like to avoid); but I'd like to leave that for a better time when we might discuss it over a cup of coffee; and I wouldn't mind seeing more of the Netherlands than its airports.

"This goes well beyond a cycling issue."

Exactly. The helmet issue, for instance, isn't even a cycling issue at all.

"Something's gone very wrong."

I have to deal with it every day.

Glenn said...

I have to take issue with your flat country and wind arguements, David. I did cycle in Holland and Denmark in 1974, and in France, Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, the United Kingdom and Eire. A couple of thousand miles over the course of 9 months. I currently ride (sometimes) 4 miles (each way) to Boat Building School on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State in the USA.

Hilly places can have just as much wind as the Nederlands and Jutland; both in strength and frequency. So I deal with wind AND hills. My biggest challenge in Jutland were flats from all the flints along the roads. Here of course, I have wind, hills, narrow roads without bike paths or sidewalks and lots of cars. I just don't ride to school during the darkest months of the winter when it's dark both ways. It's too risky for me, even with good lights on my bike. My commute riding season started this week.

I would suggest that at least as far as the "English speaking Nations" are concerned, the difference is cultural. We've bought the automobile myth lock, stock and barrel.

The State Highway that runs by our land is 22 1/2 feet wide. It has a 60 foot right of way. There is room for good separation from car traffic, a two way (Dutch Standard) bike path AND a sidewalk. And still leave the OTHER side of the road. What we lack here in the U.S. is political will. As you might have noticed, our country is a corporate kleptocracy run by and for the plutocrats.

As for flat land? I think it's a feedback loop. Holland and Denmark are relatively flat, in general (The Swedes say you can stand on a soap box and see all of Denmark.) this encourages cycling. With more people riding, they have more political clout, and get better, or improved, infrastructure. Which leads to more people riding, and even more political clout.

Which is why I think that Switzerland's admirable cycling rate is still very small compared to the Lowlands or Denmark.

By the way, I am not an urban cyclist. I'm a rural homesteader. When I lived in the town 16 miles North of here on the mainland I rode my bicycle most of the time. I use my truck a lot more here. But we grow more of our own food and all of our firewood.

Marrowstone Island
Jefferson County
Washington State

kfg said...

Glen - I would only point out that the Netherlands are one of the great administrative centers of the "American" kleptocracy. When I was younger everyone was worried about the Japanese buying out America, but in fact one quarter of all foreign investment at the time was Dutch and a good many people in my neighborhood still maintained the "van" in their names.

So there's more to it than that.

John in NH said...

I like the counties thought, which goes along with regional planning commissions (for which I have worked) One of the notes I made to a planning commission in a job interview process around a bike/ped master plan is that we need to think on a general connective nature in terms of all the communities in the planning commission boundary, but we need to focus on each individual town at a time.

The focus in the US is mostly on commuting, and commuting trips, when I think that we need to really look at the pleasure/entertainment/civic/shopping/school trips.

Make them better and then we can look at providing good routes to and from communities to better facilitate commuting.

Maybe somebody does not commute by bike every day, but if its easy and convenient to go downtown to shop or to church on Sunday, that creates political pressure to work on the longer distance routes. I think so anyway...

I think there are more people out there that would like to bicycle (the 60%) and that have experienced it in Europe. Or folks that want their kids to be able to get to school safely, they have just been shouted down/ignored/ or are simply too busy. There are folks out there that want these things, but too often it is the nay-sayers out there that get their way.

It also does not help when in general you have one political party in favor, and the other opposed no matter the "benefits" to society.

kfg said...

John - And while police administration is by appointment, most county sheriffs are still elected, thus subject to direct political action.

". . .look at the pleasure/entertainment/civic/shopping/school trips."

Do these places run themselves, or do they require workers to work them? At least half of all commuting takes place along the same routes as those employed by the customers; within metropolitan limits.

I don't think the problem is in focusing on commuting, per se, but in making these sorts of distinctions in the first place. It's all just "travel," and before the 1950s there was no such thing as a "commuter" and we got along just fine. People just "went" places using whatever facilities connected where they were to wherever it was they wanted to be.

As a corollary, I don't think the problem with rush hour is facilities capacity, but rush hour.

Objects are separated in Space-Time. That's why we have traffic signals.

Peter said...

nice blog but I am sorry to report up here from the cold swedish winter that cycling is not particularly supported from the political majority today. I would love to have a bicycle infrastructure like the one the Dutch has (I rode my bicycle from here to Paris this summer and enjoyed the Netherlands alot), maybe somtime...

Daniel Sparing said...

"it is a historical fact that the Nazis invented segregated lanes."

That's awesome, as according to a corollary of Godwin's law, if you compare someone to Nazis on the internet you automatically lost the argument.


cocosolis said...

I'm reading the Bicycle book by Bella Bathurst ( and just came across her visit to Assen - alas, she sticks to the myth to a certain degree ("Netherlands... made for cycling... flat.. so no wonder").

David Hembrow said...

I don't know what she says as I've not yet read it. Bella appears in one of my videos. I took her to see the Azor factory.

TN said...

What about "there is inadequate cycling infrastructure, unsafe infrastructure, or good infrastructure given American standards, and none of it makes me feel particularly safe"? If you wait for it, it might never come.

Fred said...

Excellent article.

I'm responding to people who say "building bicycle infrastructure is political suicide."

If you look at the history of cycling in nearly every place that has excellent infrastructure, people thought it would be suicide to build it.

Once it is built, however, people love it.

Also, I find it interesting that people feel that "people in your city might like cycling, but people in _my_ city do not."

I wonder how people arrive at that knowledge.

If you listen to TV and the radio, you will think that cycling ought to be discouraged.

However, when you talk with people, they all seem like they like to cycle. Nearly everyone I know has great memories of cycling, and they recognize that it will benefit us all if more people did it.

This is in So. California where "everyone drives." Note, that in LA where "nobody walks", they make twice the number of trips on foot, on average, than the average for the rest of the US.

So in reality, in LA, you can say, "double the walking rate of the rest of the US."

Dig a bit deeper, and you'll find much support for infrastructure in even the most politically regressive city.

Gabriel Garcia said...

In Brazil Cycling paths are used to rip off public money and build path which link nothing to nowhere - This makes people frustrated and discouraged to claim for more infrastructure -

Geoff McLeod said...

Great post with lots of excellent examples. I also hear the excuse in Australia that cycling is too dangerous. Australians think they'll get a brain injury from just looking at a bike. 20 years of mandatory helmet law propaganda have created this belief. One day we'll grow up here.

Unknown said...

I would love to be only 4.5 km from work. If I was I would be riding my bike. Unfortunatly it is over 10 km one way, and uphill all the way home. To do the 18 km you talk of I wouldn't even be out if Toronto.
Mainly it is safety. We curently have a mayor who hates bikes. He has actually removed bike paths because he said they were slowing down the cars. He said people complained that they had to stop for bikes. I have actually had people in cars cut me off while riding on the street.
If we had the safe paths you do I would ride even the 10 km. We also do have the cold weather where your skin can freeze in 30 seconds. Not as often as other Candian cities but it depends on the year. The salt they use on the roads in the winter eats cars, I would hate to see what it would do to a bike.
Many of the people I work with travel 25-50+ km each way. It already takes them over an hour in a car because of all the traffic , that is an average comute in Toronto.

David Hembrow said...

Unknown: Actually, you're wrong about the average commute length. These are not nearly so long in Canada as you seem to think they are. According to official figures (which you can read here), Toronto does have the longest commutes in Canada, but on average they are just 9.2 km.
School children in the Netherlands often cycle longer distances than that each day. Including in winter.

If you find it too cold in Winter, that's no reason not to cycle in Summer. However, in the Netherlands people cycle all year around, including when it's -19 C, as it was this winter.

The answer to salt is a bicycle which keeps all the works protected.

Patrick s said...

Been look at this overall excellent and interesting blog.

As someone interested in cycling policy and advocacy for several years, I have to point out a key difference between Netherlands, UK and USA. From the Pucher and Buehler article 'Making Cycling Irrestible' and cited elsewhere on this site:

"From 1950 to 1975, the bike share of trips fell by roughly two-thirds in a sample of Dutch, Danish and German cities, from 50%–85% of trips in 1950 to only 14–35% of trips in 1975 (Dutch Bicycling Council, 2006)."

So: that is a fall from a _very_ high level of cycling, to a still very significant minority :- where that decline was arrested and partially reversed, thru motivated campaigning as per child safety, etc.

But I think the _political_ challenge undertaken successfully by the Dutch in the 70s is very different to the one facing countries like US, USA, Australia where mode-share for cycling is only 1-2%. Among other things is the sociological dominance of the car as status symbol and way of life.

So the focus on rebutting 'excuses' on this site is still useful, and drawing our attention to the Dutch example. It's just that I think in countries where cycling is totally eroded, we're faced with a need for a socio-technical transition that is even more politically and design-wise creative than the Dutch in the 70s.

André said...

I'd like to react to the "Which came first?" question by On The Move Tours above. The simple truth is: It works both ways, in a positive cycle. We got cycling infrastructure, which got people cycling, which got more political will behind cycling, which led to more money for cycling infrastructure, which got more people cycling more often, and so on.

JimWilcox said...

This is a really great collection of responses to "excuses" not to cycle or to not fund cycling infrastructure.
I have found that many people when confronted by facts that contradict their own excuses, will respond: You expect that cycling (or any other proposal) will create a utopian society. This straw man argument is true: cycling will not create a utopian society. But we are not after a utopian society. We are after a better society. Cycling is one small step toward that end, and one that is relatively inexpensive to achieve.

Multiparty Democracy Today said...

If the weather gets too cold to cycle, like -25 C, then take the bus. The Dutch have good and high quality buses and well designed infrastructure can make other cities' buses much more efficient and effective and reliable than other systems. Many bus stops have waiting time indicators, buses have traffic light priority and walking to the stop is safe.