A cycle-first society

The way we design our cities is the way we live our lives.

The Netherlands is a unique country in several respects. When most of medieval Europe was a string of warring monarchies, the Dutch chose to be a neutral republic. Large tracts of their land is below sea-level, reclaimed from the water from as early as the 11th century. But what is most striking to me is how they have designed cycle-first cities.

In Dutch cities, the cycling lane is always separated from the roads by a thin stretch of pavement. Cycles always have the right of way on these lanes – above cars and even pedestrians. As a local, you can rent a good bicycle for a whole month for about €20 – the average price of a meal at a restaurant. Most Dutch people own multiple bicycles – a bike to commute in their city or residence, one to commute bike in the town where they work and perhaps a speedy road bike for a weekend getaway. Every town has railway terminals with multilevel parking lots where one could leave a bicycle behind for several weeks. Standing in one of these lots, amidst a deluge of bikes, helps you appreciate what cycling means to the people of the Netherlands.

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Through careful and thoughtful design, the Dutch have built a cycle-first society that is perfectly suited to their flat, small and crowded nation. All that cycling keeps the average Dutch person active for about 25 minutes per day – more than 50% greater than the minimum recommended level.

Every country can be purposeful about urban design. Every individual could be just as purposeful about their living spaces. In the absence of purposeful design, as in most cases, chaos takes center stage.

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