The ‘Go Dutch’ phenomenon
Eben Weiss’s most recent book, ‘Bike Snob Abroad’, is one of the latest examples of the worldwide crazy love with cycling in Amsterdam. The famous NY bike blogger and activist adds to a bigger list of engineers, planners and social scientists already having an affair with the Dutch city.
There are two official cycling paradises in the world of our days. One is Copenhagen, Denmark, the other is Amsterdam. They are the Mecca of cycling, for cycling-oriented planners, advocates, activists, as well as for almost any regular cyclist in the world. Britain want to ‘Go Dutch’ if we’re to listen to what the advocates at London Cycling Campaign are wishing for. Social scientists such as Vivanco use the Dutch city as an example to inspire similar bike revolutions in US. City planners, on the other hand, praise Amsterdam when advancing best practices of cycle friendliness or ever-effective concepts such as ‘safety in numbers’ (Pucher and Buehler 2012). ‘Bike Snob Abroad‘ is not innovative from this perspective. He does the same, but less systematically and in a very entertaining and ironic way.
‘We hate weak stuff’, laments The Bike Snob in regard to an American’s perspective on why its countrymen don’t embrace urban cycling more thoroughly. His third book, ‘Bike Snob Abroad’ (2013), is a tale of a New Yorker exploring some European cities by bike (Gothenburg, Sweden; Amsterdam, London and San Vito dei Normanni; Italy). Amsterdam and London are the main focus on Weiss’s book as he acknowledges that they are the ‘ historical parents’ of New York.
Yes, if there’s one thing Americans despise more than anything else – including dead children – and that’s weakness. Bicycles are weak and cars are strong. Therefore, we can live our children killed by strong stuff like cars and guns (which happen all the time), but the very thought of one dying because of some wimp on a bike (which happens basically never) is an affront to our sensibilities. It’s perfectly fine to die in America, just as long as you do it like a man.
Such ‘soft’ things as the bicycles, Weiss thinks, should be part of a city’s taken for granted infrastructure, the way electricity or WiFi are regarded. Something that is ‘basic’ and noncontrovertial. But is this possible in the US in the near future? he asks. In order to answer this not so simple question he goes to cycle on the Old continent, where the car hasn’t created the same amount of damage as it did in his home country.
His first destination, Amsterdam, is a family holiday (he’s accompanied there by his wife Sara and his little son Elliot), a city where cycling is a ‘natural’ thing for both women and men, children and older people. Weiss thinks that the final exam to be a trully cyclist citizen is to have a family and being able to ride with them: ‘This is the final frontier’, he says. The Snob is impressed by Amsterdam’s cycle friendliness: the iconic Amsterdam Centraal (photo – the main train station ‘surrounded by bikes’), the cargo bikes (‘flotilla of smugness’ that allow parents – himself included – to carry children and goods on the platform), the sturdy and heavy omafiets (renowned simple city bikes that most people use) or simply the seamless bicycle traffic in the capital.
He’s keen though to perform from time to time a reality check on himself and doesn’t get completely enchanted by this Dutch paradise: points at the gentrification phenomenon brought up by the bicycle in Amsterdam as elsewhere; notices the ‘abuses’ of the segregated bicycle lanes by scooter riders and finally the downsides of the separated bike lanes that tend to have apparently their own version of ‘rush hour’. Amsterdam is certainly not the bicycle paradise and not only because Weiss says so. I have visited the city (last time in 2010) and learnt about these problems as well as some others: bicycles overcrowding the parking spaces, theft problems and, for the record, even witnessed a bicycle accident! Amsterdamers themselves are aware about the troubles in their own paradise and do substantial efforts to cope with the narrow streets and overcrowded cycle racks.
But the Amsterdam spell will likely stay with Weiss, as he humorously admits it:
I could feel myself becoming unbearably smug, and I knew that when I did finally returned to New York I’d become one of those “In Amsterdam” types – you know, those annoying people who need to remind you how much better something is somewhere else. “You know, in Amsterdam people just ride in the rain without making a big deal about it.” “You know, in Amsterdam people don’t need fancy bikes”. “You know, in Amsterdam every day is ‘Bike to Work Day’”. And so forth.
During his two weeks or so spent in the Netherlands, he takes a two-day trip to London for some radio appearance on BBC, set up by his agent. It is a ‘smugness interruptus’ from Amsterdam for a solo ride in the capital of Great Britain, where cycling is more close to the one in New York. No dedicated bike lanes, no cargo bikes, no cycling rush hour, lots of high-viz and helmets. There are a few noticeable differences, though: at that time of his visit (2012), London had nevertheless a bicycle sharing system (Boris Bikes, that ‘had the aesthetics of a handicapped toilet’), while, he notices with some dismay, New York was still waiting for one (set only in 2013).
The bicycle (in the Barclays system) had been transformed into something totally practical and completely devoid of charm, like an umbrella or a shopping cart, and has been so divorced from materialization, fetishization, and customization that it didn’t even have an owner. You could now be a bike commuter in London without even owning a bicycle, and that was a beautiful thing.
On the other hand, the bike lanes in London are in worse shape that the ones in his city: ‘I’d try to follow them, and then they’d disappear as quickly as they appeared’ (something that I can confirm). The main difference between riding in London and riding in New York, he concludes, is a matter of intensity, with London ‘a bit shy’ of New York: ‘Riding a bike in New York is still a lot like what I remember a 1980s hardcore show to be – deafening volume, barely-controlled chaos, and no shortage of bodily contact’.
If you think that this ironic snob will be depressed once he gets back home to New York cycling, think again. He didn’t buy himself a cargo bike to carry his son, Elliott, on the platform, as he did in Amsterdam. But he doesn’t finish the book bitterly accepting that the bicycle’s ‘soft’ nature will never catch up with the United States. At least, not in New York, where cycling is booming. As he’s back from Europe, Weiss is happy to see that things are changing for better in New York. The Fifth Avenue in Manhattan is closed for a street fair and he’s able to freely ride with his family in their vicinity.
His activist optimism prevails in the final lines. This trip abroad left him with a feeling of inevitability – ‘that everywhere, people want to ride bikes. In some of these places they’re looking around and wondering how they can do it, and if they can do it, and what they need in order to do it, but it’s only a matter of time before they all turn to each other and realize that there’s really nothing stopping them from riding’.
Is Amsterdam the place to be for cyclists? Same as the Bike Snob, I sometimes wish I lived there, but I often think at the same time that I would get very very bored with so many bicycles around and so fast to see my cyclist identity simply vanish into the ‘natural’.
But bicycle utopias need to exist so that we can dream about them becoming possible.
Excerpt from Weiss’s first book, ‘The Bike Snob’.