Bicycle Facilities and the “Cargo Cult”

American bicycle facility advocates typically believe they can achieve the same bicycling safety and modal share as the Netherlands by blindly imitating Dutch facility designs. They assume the facility is what makes the difference when in reality it’s a complex set of physical and cultural differences that lead to both the greater safety and the higher bicycling modal share.

The differences between the the Netherlands and the USA include: more compact cities which result in shorter trips suitable for short bicycle rides; lower urban traffic speeds [30 mph maximum on urban surface roads with 75% of residential streets at 18 mph] and with speed limits strictly enforced; slower bicycling speeds [We call this “accelerated walking”, often on slow “omafiet” bicycles.]; flat terrain; disincentives to urban driving such as very limited parking; and very high gasoline prices [currently about $7.76/gallon]. There are many more differences, all which contribute to the Dutch situation. The bicycle facilities are just a secondary effect.

By ignoring these important cultural, environmental and legal differences, American bicycle advocates make cycling more dangerous, more difficult and less useful. The door zone bike lane shown above represents one of the ways that facilities make cycling more dangerous.

A similar mode of thinking was the Cargo Cult in New Guinea. During World War 2, the islanders observed Navy personnel sitting at desks and shuffling paper. Eventually planes and ships full of cargo would arrive. After the war, when the Navy left and the cargo stopped coming, they tried to revive the cargo by imitating these actions, building crude runways and mock airplanes as shown at right. They also set up alters where they would ritualistically shuffle paper. But the ships never came in.

American facility advocates seem to be following a similar cult. They copy form — like the crude copy of an airplane — without understanding function. That’s how we end up with door zone bike lanes and dangerous sidepaths.

Richard Feynman, the famous American physicist, discussed the Cargo Cult approach to making sense of observations and said: “[W]e really ought to look into theories that don’t work, and science that isn’t science.

Peter Rosenfeld

Collingswood, NJ

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