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Americana (school buses), stigma, and scooters

In honor of July 4th, here is something that highlights a piece of Americana:

Last week I delivered a talk to Kadinsky College, a middle / high school in Nijmegen (the Netherlands) on the perspectives between Dutch and American school travel. There were the standard and expected differences to highlight (e.g., availability of ubiquitous safe routes for cycling to schools, teaching cycling as part of 2nd grade education, being brought up in a culture where cycling is an integral part of the culture).

But the opportunity to reflect on these matters reminded me of a huge difference that affects how kids get to school; it revolves around something distinctly American: the yellow school bus. In contrast to public school districts in the US  (who spend, on average, 5% of their budget on transport ), schools in other global settings devote little to nothing on transport. Americans often forget how “American” the yellow school bus is. Since its induction in the early 1940’s, it has played a critical role in framing transport options for U.S. school trips more than a few kilometers. While other forms of public transport are more widely available in European settings, their use for school travel tend to be context dependent and limited.

However, the biggest revelations and differences came in the discussion and answer following my talk.

  • Several boys–as young as 12 years old–reported cycling more than 15 km to school, one way, in all seasons. Clearly, there’s something in the water (or the culture).
  • But even here (in the Netherlands), competitive schools have issues with students being chauffeured longer distances to school in cars by parents (i.e., thereby causing congested drop-off zones and the sort) and from nearby auto traffic. See below vid from the entry to school.
  • When the students were asked if they would welcome an electric bike (or a pedal assist), the reaction was luke-warm. The pride of standard, human-propelled cycle holds strong among these kids who were polled.
  • When the students were asked if they would welcome a motor-scooter or moped, the reaction turned even more interesting. The responses from the few vocal students were not interested whatsoever. The reason was attributed to image and stigma.

This notion echoes what I have detected from other sources. In Holland, riding a scooter (or moped) carries a stigma similar to smoking: it is seen somewhat as a behavior reserved for the last strata of the Dutch education system, often referred to in colloquial language as being (VMBO).⁠1

Cultural implications are apparently important. Motorized two wheelers are the most rapidly growing form of urban mobility in many sectors, especially in rapidly developing cities of Asia and increasingly Latin America and Africa. In these developing cities, it appears as if they are stepping stones to eventual full-blown automobility—possibly even seen as tokens of pride. But here in Holland, the land of traditional cycling, the opposite holds true. At least for now. Admittedly, pedaled 2-wheelers (pedelecs) are a different breed.

1 In the current Dutch educational system, following an educational assessment prior to 7th grade, students are roughly routed to one of three schooling options: (1) VWO (the highest level, pre-academic schooling, who usually advance onto the highest form of schooling: ‘university’, (2) HAVO (second highest level, who go on to a ‘ high school’ followed by a Bachelors degree (closest to a usual American college), (3) Vmbo (lowest level of education) which has 4 levels within it. VMBO-T is the highest level within the VMBO, and is often included in secondary schools that offer the highest levels. But, they are apparently all referred as being VMBO.


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