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A Dutch woman's take on biking in the U.S.

Most anyone reading these words is well aware of The Netherlands’ reputation as a haven for biking. An estimated 30 percent of people in the country count the bicycle as their primary mode of transportation to work, a staggering figure compared to American standards, even amid recent bicycling gains. In this country, fewer than 1 percent of Americans commute on two wheels.

The first and only time I traveled to The Netherlands was a couple years ago, when my husband and I spent an idyllic and mind-blowing week biking the streets of Amsterdam. The experience left me inspired by the possibilities for other cities to follow suit and my husband threatening to pack up and move. Because many of us in this country would like to mimic our Dutch counterparts, I thought it could be instructive to talk to someone with lots of experience pedaling around both places.

Janneka van der Molen is a native of The Netherlands who moved to the U.S. in 1996 for work as an occupational therapist. She first arrived in Florida and is now living in New Orleans, where she works at a local hospital, serves on the board of the city’s bicycle advocacy organization, and hosts the bicycle-themed radio show Outspoken, which airs on the station WHIV, 102.3 FM.

Below, van der Molen weighs in on what her adopted country is getting right, what it’s still missing, and what it feels like as a Dutch person to bike in a place that is only starting to embrace the idea that the streets are not the exclusive domain of two-ton steel vessels.

This interview has been edited for space and clarity.

van der Molen. Photo courtesy Edward Carlson.
van der Molen. Photo courtesy Edward Carlson.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Groningen, a university town where the average age of people is very young. In the late 1960s and early 70s, they implemented a traffic circulation plan whereby if you needed to get to a place by car you had to leave essentially to get back in, unless you were traveling by bus, bike or walking. If you used those modes, you could get from place to place much more directly. Everybody hated it at first, but the whole idea was to stimulate biking in the inner city. It’s a small city and it really worked there. Within the city center now, trips done by bike are super high. Biking is the primary mode of transport.

The town of Groningen. Photo courtesy of The Guardian.
The town of Groningen. Photo courtesy of The Guardian.

What’s your earliest memory of riding your bike alone?

I don’t really remember that at all. I have some pictures of me biking when I was maybe four. I remember that my aunt tried to teach me. I must have been even younger then. My sisters helped me out a little bit. We also did a lot of walking. I would walk to school because we lived really close. My mom didn’t drive, so if we had to go to the dentist and stuff like that, I would go on the back of my mom’s bike because I didn’t go fast enough.

In The Netherlands kids often get a new bike when they go to high school when they’re about 12. But I lived so close, I never really got a bike with gears. Growing up, high school was when people typically got a bike with gears because that’s when they might ride from the suburbs to the city for school.

What is your experience with car ownership and driving?

I didn’t get my drivers’ license until I was 22 to be able to go to the United States. I’m on my third car now. I got the first when I came to the U.S. My parents (who still live in The Netherlands) don’t have a car. And one of my sisters doesn’t have a car. Even when we did have a car, we would go to the grocery store and most other places on the bike with my parents. We never really used a car except to go on holiday.

In The Netherlands, before you go to high school that’s when you usually have to take the exam to ride your bike on the street. It makes sure you’re giving proper signals, right of way, making turns correctly. It’s part of schooling, part of the curriculum. They start teaching bicycling in elementary school.

What’s your daily commute like?

I bike 98 percent of the time. I sometimes take my car in when they have the car wash here at work (a service offered to employees) or if I have a meeting elsewhere. Normally it takes me like 8 minutes to get here. I have to cross (a major intersection) that can get complicated. I stand there quite a lot looking at cars driving by and I try to look to see who is on their phone in the mornings. I think the number of people on phones has decreased over the past year.

What are the biggest differences you experience riding a bike here as compared with back home?

The last time I went there, I realized I have never thought about getting doored in The Netherlands, or three feet passing space. So now because I’ve been here, riding in The Netherlands is almost kind of scary because I could reach out and touch the bus passing me by at high speed, but staying in its lane.

In the Netherlands, you have so many more bike paths (separated from motorized traffic) that you’re just away from everything. In certain areas, you’re just riding and people are zooming past. But they’re aware of you and you know as a cyclist cars are aware of you. Here nobody is even looking. I don’t think people are really aware and I think that’s the biggest difference. People are aware (of all types of traffic) in The Netherlands because they have to be aware. It also drives me nuts how many stop signs there are here.

In The Netherlands, very few people wear helmets. Do you wear one now that you’re in the U.S.?

No. Only when I go road racing. My sister like six months ago got into an accident where somebody nicked her on the back of her bike and she got a concussion. She wore a helmet because she used to live in Paris. That makes me think I probably should wear a helmet, but I’m just not there. People yell at me all the time, definitely here at work, for not wearing a helmet. I pointed out to my boyfriend that you often see cyclists at night here wearing a helmet but they don’t have lights on their bikes. I think that’s a lot more important for safety. I am much safer because I’m wearing lights. Also, I don’t get distracted; I use the same roads, so I know where big potholes are; and I went through the (League Cycling Instructor) training.

People here often worry that they can’t bike to work because they’ll get sweaty and disheveled and won’t look professional. Do you find this problematic?

I mainly wear scrubs for work, but when it gets really hot, I wear shorts and a tank top to go to work and freshen up a little bit when I get there. I work in an office in the hospital seeing patients so I never really wear a whole lot of makeup, and what I do wear doesn’t really get messed up biking. Hair is more of an issue. They’re redoing part of
my hospital and I hear they’re gonna put in employee showers. I’m hoping that’s the case.

Europeans tend to wear a lot less makeup than Americans. There’s a lot of people here that wear a lot of makeup and have their hair perfectly done up, and that can be an impediment to biking. I went to the Zoo to Do (a local charity event) two years ago on my bike, and I remember thinking, ‘I can only bike on this side of my boyfriend so the wind won’t mess up my hair.’

van der Molen and her boyfriend on their way to the Zoo to Do. Photo courtesy Edward Carlson.
van der Molen and her boyfriend on their way to the Zoo to Do. Photo courtesy Edward Carlson.

I noticed in Amsterdam that bikes don’t tend to be very fancy. In fact, they seem built to blend in and take a lot of wear and tear. What kind of bike do you ride?

I am using this hybrid bike, somebody’s old mountain bike that I got after my bike got stolen. It was a gift from my coworker’s brother. It’s a little too big for me, so I ride it mainly without my hands on the handlebars. I really should get something different. It’s black. It’s nothing fancy. I decorate it with some flowers. My boyfriend thinks that I should get another bike. Something that’s maybe more stylish, but I don’t want it to get stolen. I had a fancy bike, which was not really even that fancy, but it got stolen. I would be afraid if I got a really nice bike it would get stolen. I would be worried about it.

The first bike that I ever bought for myself was when I lived in Daytona, Florida and it got stolen in the same week. It was some kind of cruiser. I bought it for Spring Break. I went to the pawn shop. It was green.

Do you think transportation culture here is changing here in any measurable way?

There’s definitely more people riding. People don’t seem as surprised that I ride my bike. It seems it’s becoming more mainstream. Drivers are also more accepting (of bicyclists on the road). On the other hand, I’m looking at people (bicyclists and drivers) riding around town that I think are doing stuff that is so stupid and dangerous. We have a lot more cyclists and bike lanes than when I first got here. But ten years ago, you didn’t have to deal as much with distracted drivers.

What’s one thing U.S. cities could do to significantly improve conditions for cyclists?

Apply more traffic calming measures in neighborhoods so that cyclists are able to enjoy easy riding. A woonerf is a good example of this.

Emilie Bahr is a writer and urban planner who lives in New Orleans. She is the author of the book Urban Revolutions: A woman’s guide to two-wheeled transportation. Follow her on Twitter @EmilieBahr.

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Thoughts on the contagiousness of biking ahead of National Bike Month

“Contagiousness is an unexpected property of all kinds of things, and we have to remember that if we are to recognize and diagnose epidemic change.”

-Malcolm Gladwell

A couple weeks ago, I had dinner with a woman I hadn’t met before who told me she’d recently started biking to work. My ears perked up at this news as they always tend to whenever bicycling is injected into a conversation. I knew this woman was a lawyer, but when I asked about the specifics of where she worked, we both broke into smiles. Shell, she told me. Yes, that Shell. She went on to explain that the offices of the Dutch-owned company in downtown New Orleans were filled with ardent bike commuters, many of them having moved from bike-happy Holland and having seen no reason to abandon their culturally-prescribed mode of choice upon their arrival in the much less bike-hospitable U.S.

Bicycles outside One Shell Square in New Orleans. Photo by Ben Kora.
Bicycles outside One Shell Square in New Orleans. Photo by Ben Kora.

My dinner companion (who, being quite socially-aware, drives a Prius to work on the days she doesn’t bike to the office) went on to concede the irony of the fact that she’d been inspired to bicycle by her colleagues at a multinational oil giant. Irony aside, I think her story is a prime illustration of what I have long believed to be true based on experience and empirical research: that there is a contagiousness at work in peoples transportation choices and this is true whether we drive, walk, take transit, or ride a bike.

Much is made, with good reason, about the importance of good infrastructure and policies in encouraging people to reduce their dependency on private automobiles. But I think it’s also quite important to acknowledge the vital role that good old peer pressure can play in shaping our transportation habits.

Bicycles parked at the ferry landing in Amsterdam.
Bicycles parked at a ferry landing in Amsterdam.

I’m hardly the first person to make this observation. Portland-based researchers Jennifer Dill and Kim Voros in a 2007 study found that people living in neighborhoods in which they frequently encountered other cyclists or who lived or worked with other cyclists tended to be more interested than those who did not in taking up the practice. Other studies on factors that promote or deter bicycling have similarly pointed to the importance of seeing others with whom the observer can relate in the bike saddle in encouraging similar behavior – perhaps one of the reasons the number of women who bike for transportation in this country remains so much lower than that of men.

A few years ago, while interviewing residents of New Orleans for my graduate research on factors that influence interest in transportation bicycling, I was struck by a comment made by a friend of mine. Although she’d only used her bike for recreation in the past, she said she found herself reconsidering her transportation choices in light of a recent change in neighborhoods. She had relocated to a part of town just downriver from the French Quarter called the By-water, one of the city’s bohemian outposts that happens to be swarming with bicyclists. “It makes me feel like an asshole,” Daisy told me, “living in the By-water and driving.”

bywater bike
The bicycle is a staple mode of transportation in New Orleans’ Bywater neighborhood.

To me, this contagiousness effect represents an exciting opportunity because while most of us have little individual control over city construction budgets or policies or direct lines to our city councilperson or mayor, the thing over which we have the utmost control is our own behavior. Just by getting on our bikes, we can all serve as cycling ambassadors, turning on our friends, family members, co-workers, and the frustrated driver stuck in snaking traffic as we happily roll past in the adjacent bike lane, to another way.

This is in part the idea behind National Bike to Work Week, commemorated this year May 16-20. (In New Orleans, we mark the occasion in April, when the weather tends to be more conducive to luring out first-time bike commuters.)

At my own office, the annual event has helped to inspire more than a few formerly driving-exclusive colleagues to – at least occasionally – opt for two wheels. And even among those who only tried it once and haven’t been back in the bike saddle since, I would say that the experience was quite meaningful. One coworker in particular told me the perspective afforded based on her short stint in the bike saddle has made her imminently more understanding and aware of the plight of others on the roadways and reminded her to always watch out for and be patient and careful around bicyclists.

rpc bike rack
The bike rack outside my office last Bike to Work Week.

So why not take advantage of the upcoming opportunity to encourage more bicycling at your office? You might be surprised at the response.To that end, I’ve come up with a few suggestions for making the most of Bike to Work Week, wherever you happen to live:

Sign up for a bike to work challenge if one is offered in your city. In New Orleans, the local bike advocacy organization encourages workplaces to sign up and compete for the highest levels of participation. You can also sign up at People for Bikes’ National Bike Challenge.

Create an inner-office challenge of your own. For last years Bike to Work Week, I set up a leaderboard in the office breakroom on which we tracked every day that someone biked, walked or took transit to work. (We included the three modes in the spirit of being as inclusive as possible.) Participants dropped their names in a bucket for every day they arrived by alternative means, with first-time non-drivers allowed to put in extra entries so as not to tilt the scales too heavily in favor of veteran active commuters. At the end of the week, we held a drawing and gave out prizes collected from local bike shops that were more than willing to offer up bike bells, reflectors, water bottles, and other freeb
ies for the cause.

Help coworkers find a bike to borrow or get ones they haven’t used in a while in working order.

-Set up a buddy system whereby more experienced riders can accompany the less experienced to and from the office.

Arrange a morning meet up at a local coffee shop or breakfast spot to get the work day started in a special way.

-Decide on a day to bike to lunch as a group.

-Give some advanced training on safe riding practices. Here’s a video that may be helpful, put together by my office a few years ago and featuring yours truly.

-Dont be surprised if you soon find more competition for use of the office bike rack.

Emilie Bahr is an urban planner and writer who lives in New Orleans. She is the author of the book “Urban Revolutions: A Woman’s Guide to Two-Wheeled Transportation.” Follow her on Twitter at @EmilieBahr.

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Yes, I’m pregnant. And riding my bike.

“You’re 8 months pregnant! Can you please stop riding your bike?” my concerned co-worker pleaded with me on a recent Friday. As we headed to lunch in her car, she’d spotted my bike glinting in the sunlight, conspicuously tethered to a signpost in front of our office. “Actually,” I corrected her, thinking back to my idyllic ride into work that morning, propelled in part by the most beautiful weather of the year, “more like 9.”

Being pregnant with my first child has caused me to alter lots of things about my lifestyle. I’ve given up alcohol (despite assurances from doctor friends that the occasional glass of wine is perfectly fine), Diet Coke, bean sprouts, sleeping on my back, most of my skincare routine, and dyeing my hair. Despite my pre-pregnancy fantasy of becoming a single-car household, I recently traded in my 20-year-old Honda for a new one with a functional air conditioning system and side airbags. I’ve set aside money once reserved for travel for a baby and maternity leave fund. I’ve obsessed over cribs, car seats and pricey organic baby mattresses, opting for those achieving the highest rankings for safety and the lowest for toxicity. All of this in the name of protecting the tiny resident of my womb. Still, one thing I haven’t changed is my willingness to ride my bike.

Emilie headed out the door to work.
Emilie headed out the door to work in December. Photo by Beaux Jones.

I should say that, as American bike commuters go, I’m among the lucky ones. The 5 miles I ride between my house and my office is a manageable distance rendered far more feasible by the bike lane installed a few years ago along the tree-lined boulevard that runs near my New Orleans home. That bike lane takes me directly into City Park, whose low-stress streets carry me most of the way to the office.

I benefit from a concerted effort on the part of city officials in the wake of Hurricane Katrina to make my city more bicycle-friendly. Thanks in large part to an influx of federal recovery money, New Orleans bikeway network has expanded from roughly 11 miles before the storm to around 100 miles today. My city’s pre-car origins also carry inherent advantages for anyone interested in getting around by non-motorized means, and the past several years have witnessed substantial growth in the city’s bicycling ranks to the point where we now stand among the top 10 large cities in the country for the rate of people commuting to work by bike. If I lived in the far-flung suburbs, or even in a less bike-friendly part of my own town, I would be far less apt to consider my bike a viable transportation mode.

Yet even amid recent gains that have made the streets much safer than they used to be for those of us who prefer to travel on two wheels, I recognize clear risks associated with biking in a place that remains primarily oriented around the automobile. (At the same time, I also think its important to acknowledge that driving is one of the most dangerous activities most of us do on a daily basis, the risks of which we’ve mostly been willing to absorb.)

Believe me: I have no death wish for myself or my unborn child. The dangers associated with biking are something that I think about every time I get on my bike. And actually, this is true no matter the condition of my uterus. Commuting by bike is, for most of us, an unfortunate trade off between what is clearly the most healthy, mentally-fortifying, economical and environmentally-friendly mode of travel and the reality that we are subjecting ourselves to a certain degree of risk by virtue of the car-centric composition of mine and most other American cities.

At this point, I’ve grown accustomed to raising eyebrows over my choice to bike while pregnant. At our recent baby shower, a gaggle of relatives staged a well-intentioned if misguided mini-intervention with my husband as I stepped unsuspectingly outside. “You have to get her to stop biking,” they urged him. To this, my wise husband astutely responded, “Have you met my wife? You think I’m really able to tell her what to do?”

Not that their concerns fall entirely on deaf ears. My protective pregnancy hormones in full swing, these days I find myself tweaking my bike commute in an effort to minimize the dangers. I’ve cut back on my riding and feel good if I make it into work on my bike one or two days a week. I’m especially averse to biking after dark when I worry I’m less likely to be seen. I take low-traffic streets where possible, especially on the way home from the office when I find that drivers are much more impatient than they are on their way into work when they seem more than happy to obey the speed limit. I’m vigilant about my lights being charged in case I do wind up traveling in a dimly-lit situation, and, of course, I always wear my helmet.

But pregnancy has simultaneously heightened my commitment to biking. It has served as a source of sanity that has helped usher me through the pains and challenges of the past nine months. Although mine hasn’t been one of those vomit-laden slogs that I read about in friends’ Facebook feeds, there have been some hiccups along the way. I was forced to abandon my running routine after throwing out my back a couple months ago (an eye-opening experience that afforded me a brand new empathy for people with limited mobility). As someone quite addicted to the effects of regular exercise and who had been counting on an active pregnancy as a means to a healthier baby and smoother delivery, I spent a torturous few weeks wishing that crawling were an acceptable means of getting around the office and longing to be able to walk normally again. During this period, however, I discovered that biking, unlike walking, was doable with relatively little pain.

It’s also strengthened my resolve that we as a society have to do much more to reverse the transportation paradigm that has reigned for the past 100 years. More than ever, I believe that the roads should be safer for everyone: that every woman, man and child should be able to bike to work or school – or cross the street safely – without being strapped into a car. Believe it or not, there are places where this is already the norm.

A man transporting his kids in Amsterdam
A man transports his kids by bike in Amsterdam.

So how do we get there? It won’t be easy. One thing we can all do is take to the streets and encourage others to join us in the bike lane. More bicyclists on the roads make the streets safer for everyone. In places with strong levels of bicycling, drivers are more aware of and cautious around bicyclists and are more likely to be bicyclists themselves. Riding a bike, even occasionally, in my experience, has the effect of almost instantaneously turning drivers into far more aware, considerate and understanding motorists. City leaders, confronted with large bicycling ranks, are more likely to commit to providing the types of amenities that make bicycling safer and more attractive. And seeing more variety in the types of people biking the streets has to have a positive effect in influencing new people to take to two wheels. I hope that seeing a pregnant
woman on bike underscores to others on the road that those of us out riding our bikes are not just some inconvenient nuisance deserving of scorn but rather people who come from all walks of life and who are simply trying to get where we need to go.

Women are often said to be an indicator species as to the relative safety of cycling and tellingly, we make up only about a quarter of all bike commuters in this country. If women in general are an indicator species, it seems to me that women biking with children (or with child in utero) are the ultimate litmus test of a city’s cycling hospitality. Although I cant say I’ve encountered many (ok any) other obviously pregnant women out biking since the onset of my pregnancy, I do notice an increasing number of women on bike in my city, and a surprising number of women and men pedaling around with children in tow, which I think speaks volumes about the rapidly-changing transportation landscape.

A mom bikes her three sons to school on St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans.
A mom bikes her three sons to school on St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans.

I look forward to the day when I can tell my child about biking with him or her in my belly, and I hope he or she is surprised to hear that this wasn’t very common at the time. I also hope my kid will be proud of the fact that his mom wasn’t the lying-on-the-couch-eating-bonbons type of pregnant woman and in knowing that maybe, just maybe, the two of us helped to shift the public consciousness if ever so slightly in the right direction.

Meantime, as I bike to work lately I must admit some satisfaction in the surprised expressions of passersby as they notice my distended belly. “Yeah,” I think to myself, “I’m 9 months pregnant and riding my bike. Whats your excuse?”

The author biking home from work at 8 months pregnant. Photo by Meredith Soniat.
The author biking home from work at 8 months pregnant. Photo by Meredith Soniat.

Emilie Bahr is an urban planner and writer who lives in New Orleans. She is the author of Urban Revolutions: A Woman’s Guide to Two-Wheeled Transportation. Follow her on Twitter at @EmilieBahr.