Through cycling circles, they heard stories and saw pictures of cycling in Dutch cities, so they went to the Netherlands to check it out, visiting five cities to study cycling infrastructure, talk with local leaders, and share pictures, videos, and articles.
They ended up gathering enough material for a book, which was released in August from Island Press: Building the Cycling City: The Dutch Blueprint for Urban Vitality. It’s a tour of Dutch bicycling culture that attempts to extract lessons that can be applied to other cities, including, yes, American cities.
I chatted with the Bruntletts by phone about everything from how the Dutch have taken the concept of the protected bike lane and applied it to the intersection to the amazing Dutch cycling skills courses for kids. We even covered why the right wing in the Netherlands has to support more spending on cycling. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
The American stereotype of the Netherlands is that they’ve got it all figured out; they do everything right. But your book makes it clear that everybody was not always on the same page. There were political battles.
One of the things we heard repeatedly when we got back was, “That would never work here, our city’s different.” We would always say, “well, every Dutch city is different!”
Rotterdam, for example, was completely obliterated during the Second World War and rebuilt in this post-war, modernist image — designing cities around the automobile, where people would live outside the city, commute by car into the city every day, and everyone would have more light and space and air. They’d be living happily in the suburbs.
It didn’t take long for Rotterdammers to realize this wasn’t the future they wanted. The spaces they were building were inhospitable to walking and cycling and public transit. Cycling rates were plummeting. There were more road fatalities.
So, not just in Rotterdam, but in cities across the Netherlands in the ’70s, there was a real rejection of this car-centric urban planning.
Some of them resisted better than others. In Rotterdam, they managed to reverse the tide and retrofit some of these spaces for other modes of transportation. But certainly a lot of Dutch cities made mistakes. In Utrecht, they paved over canals. In Amsterdam, they came just a single city council vote away from demolishing the Jewish quarter of their city to build a four-lane motorway.
So their status as a cycling nation wasn’t always a given. It took a lot of hard work, a certain degree of stubbornness, and forward-thinking politicians to get where they are. And even then, you know, the margins were really, really tight.