The A-Word and the P-Word

When talking about how to make conditions better for cycling in American cities, many planners and engineers (and the interested public) often dismiss the environment in Amsterdam (or other cities in The Netherlands, Dennmark, etc.) as completely inapplicable to conditions here. There’s something inherent about the government, or the people, or the cities themselves that is just not reproducible here. A friend told me that at the MPO she used to work for, the A-Word (Amsterdam) and the P-Word (Portland, which even though it is American, is somehow outside the boundaries of transferability) were banned from discussion about bicycle planning. Cities are complex organisms, and certainly there are many forces at work (political, social, economic, environmental, topography, etc.) which make some cities more inherently “bikeable” than others. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn anything.  There are cities who have already tested these ideas on the ground and there are many things to learn (even if we can’t create an exact carbon copy). 

The Netherlands hasn’t always been a bicycle paradise, as I previously mentioned, and here is a great video for visualizing examples of the massive changes it has undergone. 

Portland has a nearly identical story to other major American cities up until about the same point in time as The Netherlands changed their tact (1970’s). Here’s a great summary of the factors involved in Portland deciding to be “weird”. 

Maybe it’s the rugged, individualistic, patriotic brand of pride that is so prevalent in the American zeitgeist that makes it tough to learn from the efforts of others. I’m no sociologist, but I think something that is unique to the American culture is part of it. Let’s not reinvent the wheel. It’s okay to learn from the successes (and failures) of other places.

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