The United States Should Go Dutch—In Roadway Policy and Design

Children in the United States learn to ride a bicycle between anywhere from age 3 to 8. But where a child lives can either encourage or discourage them to continue cycling. Children who live in a cul-de-sac may be more likely to play in the street than those who do not – and their parents often feel their kids are safer when doing so. My parents were a part of this group, but even though we lived a cul-de-sac, my parents trained me to watch out for cars. Other parents on my street did, and still do, the same. Rather than cars watching out for children, children must watch out and yield to cars.

This concept teaches children that cars are the kings of the road and possess priority even in neighborhood streets. Sadly, many children, including myself, stop riding a bicycle by the time they reach adulthood. Personally, I began to feel goofy wearing a helmet, and because of cycling’s perceived danger, my mom would not let me ride without one. And, once I had my driver’s license and a car, driving became more convenient.

Many American roadway designs promote car-centric streets. Wide, straight roads with no traffic calming allow for cars to drive at higher speeds. Instead of a shared space, neighborhood roads are borrowed; kids must always be prepared give them up whenever a car drives down – or even stay out of them altogether.

To break the positive feedback loop of car-centric culture through design, first we must adapt our design practice and standards. One way to spur this change is through adapting both federal and local policies. The Dutch proved that it is possible to implement such a shift. After designing a transportation network focused on fast and efficient mobility for cars after World War II, serious injuries and fatalities in the roadways skyrocketed. The Dutch found the number of vehicle fatalities, especially those involving children, to be unacceptable. When people protested in the streets to take back their cities for cyclists and pedestrians, the government listened – as a result, policies shifted to follow national design standards prioritizing safe and separated cyclist and pedestrian infrastructure, which became the norm in the built environment by the 1970’s.

But this shift in modal priorities for transportation planning and design did not happen overnight, nor did it solve all of the country’s transportation problems. In the face of increased congestion and poor air quality, the city of The Hague has continued to modify its priorities across the past two decades. The national government monitors health and safety with robust data collection including randomized air quality measurements along transportation corridors. This accountability forces municipalities to develop alternatives when health goals are not being met. To create a friendlier, healthier place for cyclists and pedestrians in The Hague, streets that used to be major throughways were cut off to vehicle traffic. This did not come without protests from citizens who enjoyed the convenience of traveling quickly and directly by car. But, while contentious at first, citizens now embrace these ongoing changes.

For a shift as drastic as the Netherlands’ to happen in the United States, our policies must be modified to influence standard design practice. Using the Netherlands as a model, the U.S. could implement policies that prioritize bicycle-friendly design to generate more public support and willingness to cycle by:

  • Adopting policies such as Complete Streets policies that prioritize multi-modal roadway design;
  • Increasing gas taxes to encourage other modes and fund public transit
  • Teaching elementary school students a class on cycling;
  • Citizens holding cities accountable to air quality standards;
  • Promoting dense land use that allows for trips by foot and/or bicycle; and
  • Making separated facilities the design standard

Like the Netherlands, change will only come when U.S. citizens embrace these changes and hold politicians accountable.

Through the Stop de Kindermoord (Stop the Child Murder) protests, Dutch citizens forced politicians to enact change and make roads safer. In 2013 in the United States, traffic crashes killed 1,149 children (age fourteen and younger). For children ages three through fourteen, traffic fatalities were either the first or second leading cause of death. Traffic deaths are a public health crisis that can be combated through commitment to better design, policies, and education, but people need to speak out for anything to be done.

Changing the current transportation paradigm for the United States will be difficult without big changes and creative ideas. Currently, U.S. policy and design promotes traveling in cars – and with that comes parking lots, strip malls, grocery stores miles from peoples’ homes, and high numbers of fatal crashes on our roadways.

While sprawling land use can be either an eyesore or inconvenience, the ongoing threat to health and safety is a tragedy. Through an emphasis on cycling and improved air quality, the new paradigm would promote activity and health without compromising economic growth. Cars would not be removed from streets, but rerouted in order to relieve congestion and ensure safety for all road users. A positive feedback loop that includes cyclists, pedestrians, and public transit in the mobility ecosystem would replace the car-centric one.

Like the Netherlands, these changes will not occur overnight or without their fair share of protests (from either side). While we may never reach the Netherlands’ level of cycling infrastructure, the United States still can, and should, take a giant leap towards safer, healthier, and more sustainable communities.

The views expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Eno Center for Transportation.

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