Sunday, June 9, 2013

Chat with recent Amsterdam resident

Amsterdam is considered a cyclist paradise. It's well known that cycling is there the dominant form of local transportation. Yesterday I had a chat with a guy who'd spent the last five years there, just recently moving to San Francisco.

The Dutch view on driving and parking is interesting. From 1992 to 2005 Amsterdam cut its ground-level car parking 3% per year to discourage driving. Taxes, according to Trey, are 150% the retail value of a car on purchase, or if you receive the car for work, 25% of the value of the car per year. Of course, taxes on fuel are well in excess of those in the United States, which are among the lowest in the world. These substantial taxes are invested in public transit, which is so good that there's little need for a car for city residents, in striking contrast to San Francisco where our bus system, inefficient and forced to compete for space on crowded streets with private automobiles, is virtually unusable for timely travel across the city.

An interesting aspect, though, of the ride with Trey was that at every intersection I'd lose him. I'd at least come to a brief stop at stop signs and red lights while he was blowing through without even a touch of the brakes. "Sorry," he said, "I need to get used to the local conventions."

I asked if people rode that way in Amsterdam. "Yes," he said, "but most of the signals there are cyclist-only".

In any case, the point is claim San Francisco cyclists are suicidal-homicidal-mutant-ninja-messenger-wannabes is really unfounded, based on a strong bias towards the risks of driving, rather than the realities of cycling. That isn't to say that people can't be selfish and stupid on a bike, but people are selfish and stupid however they choose to get around. It's just that strict adherence to rules designed specifically to auto travel isn't followed anywhere, including in the cyclist paradise of Amsterdam.

The difference is that here, cycling is still considered a fringe behavior, an "option only for a very restricted demographic" according to one contributor on a neighborhood forum. While there it's something everyone does. In driving, which here is something only social deviants like myself choose to not do on a daily basis, breaking of the rules is just part of daily life, and therefore the rules cease to apply. Nobody in their right mind thinks about following the speed limits on the highways or fails to take an important call on their cell phone when in a car. Yet we expect cyclists to follow road rules designed after the risks associated with driving rather than cycling. In science, we talk about "necessary versus sufficient" criteria. The road rules are neither. What's really important is to be courteous and predictable. Focus on that, independent of transportation mode, and we'd be all better off. It's the reality world-wide, including Amsterdam.

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