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.


The ‘tour’ and the buzz – Utrecht

Even on the other side of the country (almost), here in the Netherlands (admittedly, a very small country), one can feel the buzz of the Tour de France that will be starting in Utrecht on Saturday.

The tensions between sport cycling and city cycling still persist in Holland, but in a different way that is difficult to pin down. Either way, here is yet another attempt for Utrecht to put their stamp as the ‘capital of the bicycle kingdom.’ Its all good (love the sarcasm), though a bit overdramatic.


Travel connections, eyes, and wool

It was interesting to see a blue KLM on the streets last night here in Holland. The Dutch airline apparently now provides complimentary bus service to more regional cities—cities that lack an airport. In the land of convenient and ubiquitous rail, the reasons for this seam unclear.

I fully understand that connections are widely considered to be an important bane of travel behavior. People may prefer longer bus or train routes at the expense of having to switch vehicles. Internet sites offer toggle buttons to search only for flights with direct routes. When a transfer involved, regardless of mode, a sigh usually follows. When a transfer is accompanied by the need to wait the sigh turns to grumble. The value of time is weighted even more so when uncertainty is introduced.

The Royal Dutch airlines (KLM) used to fly into Eindhoven, Rotterdam, Maastricht, and Amsterdam (Schiphol). Now they fly only to  Schipol. But apparently they want to claim that they serve a broader array of Dutch cities, seemingly without a major connection or train transport. For example, you buy a ticket directly to Nijmegen (a town lacking an airport). You land in Schiphol and a pimped-out bus will take you the central station in two hours.

But here’s the catch. The bus takes 2 hours; and it only goes 2 times per day (it leaves at 9:00 and 20:00; you might have to wait 12 hours?). The train, the other hand, takes 75% of the time (90 min) and runs, on average, on 20 minute headways.

My guess is that KLM is trying to: (1) play mind-games with customers, encouraging customers to think they are purchasing a seamless connection (i.e., pulling the wool over their eyes), (2) creep into the train market or (3) cater to a higher end customer, who possibly is train adverse but has spare time?  Am I missing something?

City versus sport cycling

CIK5973W8AAqGW2.jpg-largeFew events draw as much attention to cycling as the Tour de France. Lance Armstrong—love him or hate him—did wonders for bringing Americans from all walks of life into cycling; the lure included more people cycling in lycra, but also for city (utilitarian travel) purposes. A rising tide for all (of cycling) usually buoys both sport and city cycling. In many conversations, the two are undifferentiated, even though they demand wildly different infrastructure and (often) draw from different cultures.

But there are conditions when the two clash or  don’t exist harmoniously. I am thinking of: (1) cycle ways with speed restrictions (slower cyclists don’t like the fast ones whizzing by), (2) image issues (at least in the US) of “requiring” lycra to bike to work, (3) excessive gear requirements (e.g., special shoes, coats, types of bikes); and of course (4) the helmet debate (considered imperative for cycling for sport—even in the Netherlands—but never for city cycling). There are other examples where the two clash.

Utrecht (the Netherlands) will be hosting the first stage of the Tour de France on July 4 and one dimension of the clash between sport and city cycling is front and center. The city is banning all bicycles along the route for safety and other reasons (i.e., parked bikes or other, apparently).

Cycling for sport trumps city cycling, even in the Netherlands; at least in this instance.

Safest bike ever built

Yet another derivation of the bicycle was unveiled today, the Babel Bike, claiming to the safest every built. The prevailing worldwide research suggests that a huge impediment to spurring more cycling stems from the safety concerns of current (or potential) cyclists.  These populations are, rightfully so, worried of getting hit by autos. Reducing this psychological fear via any measure to—better protection via infrastructure planning or vehicle design—would likely go a long way.

But an outstanding question is how to retain historical, cultural, or efficiency qualities of the bike while making safety improvements. Newer better forms of bikes are emerging all the time. The protective quality of the Babel bike is a distinguishing feature of such, particularly the role bar.  Over the past two or three years, the cycling industry has been witnessing developments and innovations where bicycles are becoming more like cars and vice-versa. The two modes are migrating toward one another providing new transport opportunities and challenges.

However, relatively speaking, in-trepidation varies by culture and setting. Cyclist safety is considerably lessened in the Netherlands, for example. While realizing that safety concerns largely motivated the initial focused attention toward bicycling in the 1970’s, the overall bicycling environment in Holland is relatively safe. The ‘helmet-free’ habits are testament to this. The Dutch are already protected by the cycle-centric rules of the roads and the way infrastructure is designed. Traffic and other safety concerns (faster moving cars, trucks) are simply less of a nuisance on most streets and intersections, though certainly not all. One can therefore expect the safety benefits of the Babel bike to likely  have less appeal in Holland.

On top of this, the Dutch have developed a passion for the so-called “grandma” bike—cycling in an upright and comfortable manner. This is distinctive and a appreciated part of the social fabric (e.g., cycling next to one another; cycling on the back of the bike). These are traits which have historic and cultural significance which the Babel bike will not be able to replicate.

Thus, one can expect its strongest effect likely to be in those places where cycling presence is strong, cycling conditions are percieved relatively unsafe,  and  where people still are ok being exposed to the elements. Are there such places out of 3 or 4 places in Northern Europe?


Bike sharing woes

From an intellectual or research perspective, there is room for me to support bicycle-sharing systems more than I do currently. But my perspective is strongly shaped by personal experiences. In four cities in four different countries over the past four years, I have tried to use four different systems. I have been denied on all accounts.

  • I tried to do use the system Paris. The machine would not take my credit card because it did not have the requisite ‘chip.’
  • I tried to use the system in Seville. The access machine for pod accessible from my hotel was not functioning at the time.
  • I tried to use the system in London. No bikes available at my pod.
  • On Tuesday, I tried to use Capital Bike share in DC. 24 hour memberships were not available owing to software system upgrades. Then, I read the below (thanks to Chuck Kooshian @ CCAP for sending).

Am I missing something?


Capital Bikeshare to offer limited service as upgrade gets underway

By Dana Hedgpeth February 3 at 9:54 AM Follow @postmetrogirl

The popular Capital Bikeshare program is expected to offer limited service as its operational software that powers the system goes through a major upgrade.

It is the first time in the Washington are program’s four-year history that it has done such a significant upgrade, officials said. It promises in an announcement that the upgrade will “improve the user experience for our members.” The new software is also expected to allow the bike service to “begin testing new equipment for future expansion.”

For bike riders who use the program, the upgrade process will cause some inconvenience. The software work begins at 7 p.m. Tuesday and is expected to last from 16 to 24 hours. During that time, there will be a “significant impact” on users of the system, Capital Bikeshare said. Those temporary changes include:

  • No credit cards can be used at Capital Bikeshare stations.
  • Users of the program who have annual, monthly or daily key memberships will not be able to rent bikes from the same station more than once when the upgrade is underway. Users can rent bikes from one station and drop them off at the same or another station.
  • New memberships and renewals will not be available on the bike share Web site,
  • There will be no updates for Web sites, maps and mobile apps on whether bikes are available.
  • Capital Bikeshare stations will not offer the “time credit” feature.

Users of the Capital Bikeshare program are encouraged to check on Twitter and Facebook for updates or changes in the process, according to the program.

The bikeshare program has become increasingly popular in the D.C. area. In Montgomery County, the program had about 35,000 trips in its first year, exceeding the expectations from county officials by almost 50 percent.

Help Cycling Scofflaw Science

In a project led by Wes Marshall and Dan Piatkowski, the Active Communities/Transport (ACT) Research Group is looking into the dynamics of the cyclist risk-taker who laughs at traffic laws versus the sucker who obeys them. The project was featured in the Washington Post,  picked up by MPR and mentioned in other places. More survey responses to help the research are always welcome by going here.



2014 EU BICI Series Exports |

IMG_6387-375x500My 2014 EU BICI series at featured reports, photos, and video accounts via personal observation of 13 cities within 8 different countries: Cambridge (UK), Berlin and Munich (Germany), Seville (Spain), Ferrara, Bologna and Padova (Italy), Zurich (Switzerland), Copenhagen and Odense (Denmark), Stockholm (Sweden), Houten and Delft (the Netherlands). Individual posts highlighted structural and policy peculiarities of cycling in each city. Looking back, here are key take-aways and elements other communities can learn across Minnesota and beyond.