Streetfilms: More Incredible Bike Porn from Holland!

Happy smiling (Dutch) people riding bikes. Photo: Clarence Eckerson Jr.
Happy smiling (Dutch) people riding bikes. Photo: Clarence Eckerson Jr.

This is the second in Clarence Eckerson Jr.’s series of films about how the Dutch reclaimed their streets from the automobile. Today’s topic: The low-lying nation’s busiest bike path: The Vredenburg in Utrecht.

In Utrecht you’ll see the most mesmerizing site: Vredenburg carries 33,000 cyclists on an average day! Sixty percent of trips into the city are by bike. Private cars are banned from the road, so all you will see is scores of people on bikes, plus pedestrians, many buses and the very occasional taxi (taxis aren’t very popular in Utrecht, a classic second city).

On the plane ride home, I went through nearly 2,000 shots from Amsterdam and Utrecht and realized so much of this good footage will not figure in the final product of my mega-documenary from Utrecht. So I created a fun montage using some of the best shots and figured plenty of you would love to just sit back and watch the bicycles flow by — often in tandem, thanks to properly wide lanes.

It’s funny to think that this roadway was for decades the sole domain of cars. But in the last few years, Utrecht officials turned the major roadway into a bike- and bus-only conduit — something most Americans simply think can’t be done “here,” even though Amsterdam and Utrecht had car cultures just as strong as we do.

As reported by the Bicycle Dutch website:

Up until the 1990s, private motorized traffic had been allowed to use this street on the north side of Vredenburg square. In the 1960s, it was a big arterial road with at least four and sometimes six lanes of traffic, including bus lanes. Nowadays only buses use the street and the many people cycling. An estimated 20,000 people pass here every day on their bicycle. Motor traffic was relocated wide around the old city centre. Not to one particular new route, but it was dispersed over a large number of other routes.

The Vredenburg in 1961 (above) and in 2014. Photo: Bicycle Dutch
The Vredenburg in 1961 (above) and in 2014. Photo: Bicycle Dutch
  • Windshield Perspective

    “Clearly these people aren’t going anywhere important like an office, school, a hospital or to the gym.” – Bill de Blasio, presidential candidate

  • Danny

    Silly question here, but how do you explain what “bike porn” means to people who don’t know what porn is?

    Or to put it more bluntly, perhaps you can think of a better headline, especially when the actual (and quite nice) video makes no mention of the headline.

    Feel free to delete this comment if you ever do change the headline and URL to something appropriate for all ages.

  • Seth Rosenblum

    “watch the bicycles flow by — often in tandem, thanks to properly wide lanes.”

    that’s the opposite, I think you mean “abreast”

  • Ted_T

    Notice that not a single person is wearing a helmet!!!! Biking is safe with protected bike lanes

  • qrt145

    For a website that often discusses people getting killed in graphic detail, I don’t think this headline is the most age-inappropriate part of its content.

    Bike porn: media made for people who get excited by looking at bikes. 🙂

  • thomas040

    Did he actually say this, or are you paraphrasing or making a sarcastic comment?

  • The overall effect of this is uplifting.

    But one thing that I did not like seeing was the scooter/moped that passed by at 0:27. I hope that this was a lone scofflaw, and that these types of vehicles — whether gas-powered or electric — are not permitted to use bicycle infrastructure.

    More generally, a lamentable sight was the irresponsible lack of helmets. When you remove cars from the scene, helmets become still more important.

    The awful truth is that there are plenty of violent encounters between bikes and cars in which a helmet will not do much for a cyclist. By contrast, every conceivable fall involving bicyclists alone (such as a bike-on-bike collision or a fall due to a flaw in the road) produces a scenario in which a helmet would help protect the rider against injury caused by his/her head striking the ground.

    It would be most unfortunate if an American bicyclist were to see films of people riding in the Netherlands and decide on that basis to ditch his or her helmet. The Dutch get a great deal right in their street design. We should be able to replicate these good ideas in American streets without also importing their faulty cultural practices.

  • AJ

    Every once in a while a discussion about helmets is started in the Netherlands, but the general agreed vision is that making helmets mandatory won’t have a positive effect.
    – It would give people the idea that biking is unsafe, so less people will bike.
    – Less people on a bike results in “reduced safety by numbers”, less bike riders will result in less investments in safe bike infrastructure.
    – On a population level it will also have a negative effect on the overall health, because people will be less active.

    So on an individual level it might help to wear a helmet, on a population level it can have a negative effect. However, this is of course hard to proof.

    I did see a publication by Canadian researchers, comparing injury rates of bikers throughout Canada (http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmjopen-2015-008052). They observe “For traffic-related injury causes, higher cycling mode share was consistently associated with lower hospitalisation rates. Helmet legislation was not associated with hospitalisation rates for brain, head, scalp, skull, face or neck injuries.”, so making helmets mandatory doesn’t have an effect.

  • You don’t have to make helmets mandatory. We don’t have any mandatory helmet law; yet we have pretty good rates of people wearing them. Indeed, we have better compliance on the part of cyclists with the practice of wearing helmets than with some laws! People wear helmets simply because they can envision hitting their heads in a fall, and they wish to mitigate the damage that this would cause.

    I was once with a friend who fell off his bike while it was stationary, because his foot got caught in the pedal clip. Even in that event, his helmet made contact with the ground, and surely saved him from some kind of injury.

    Bicycling is not dangerous. Falling is dangerous.

  • AJ

    This is exactly in line with what I said. Lots of cyclists wearing helmets, others see that and think “all those helmets, biking must be unsafe” and they don’t start biking. On top of that, always those reports in the media after an accident about whether the cyclist was wearing a helmet, again implying that riding a bike is unsafe.

    It is a bit of a catch 22, because in the current situation there is definitely a purpose for helmets in the US. However, think you took it a bit too far to call it a “faulty cultural practice”. You could also state that biking in the Netherlands became a success because there hasn’t been such an emphasis on personal safety (wear a helmet!!!!) as in the US, but instead a focus on collective safety (better designed roads). As I referred to before, the latter has proven to be actually effective against injuries, instead of focusing on making individual cyclists wearing helmets.

  • Joe R.

    If everyone who biked wore helmets, at best it would save a few tens of lives annually in the US. Here’s the breakdown. There are about 800 cyclist deaths annually but over 90% of those involve a motor vehicle. We can pretty safely assume that wearing a helmet won’t change the outcome for those deaths. That leaves about 70 deaths involving solely the cyclist. Now if we assume none of those 70 people wore a helmet, and helmets would have been 100% effective, then that’s 70 people who might have been saved. However, the rate of helmet use hovers around 50%, give or take. Most likely then about 35 of those 70 were wearing helmets but died anyway. Now we’re down to 35 people not wearing helmets who died. That gives us an upper bound. However, helmets aren’t 100% effective. The latest numbers actually put their overall effectiveness at neutral to negative. They help sometimes, they have no effect sometimes, and they actually make things worse sometimes (i.e. they have caused broken necks and rotational injuries). Therefore, it’s really hard to pin a number on how many of that remaining 35 people might have been saved by wearing a helmet. It’s certainly way less than 35, and could even be zero. It’s most likely somewhere in the middle, around 20 or so.

    The Netherlands has a lower population than the US (17 million versus 327 million). However, their number of cycling deaths, at 206 in 2017, is proportionately higher. This isn’t surprising given how many people ride bikes there. It’s still an exceedingly safe way to get around. Also, the majority of these deaths are still caused by cyclists being hit by motorists, as in the US. Anyway, assuming the proportion is 90+%, as it is in the US, that means helmets at most could have saved about 20 people. Since mostly likely none of those 20 people were wearing helmets (compared to 50% in the US), that gives us an upper bound of 20, but the most likely number is around 10 or so.

    What you should take away from these numbers is that a massive campaign to increase helmet use in the Netherlands will be a major failure from a public health standpoint. You might save ten or so cyclists if the numbers riding stayed the same. Most likely they would decrease by 30% or more. Some safety in numbers would be lost, so there would be more collisions with motorists and more deaths. There would also be tens of thousands more deaths from the resulting decrease in exercise.

    Wearing a helmet (or not) should be an individual decision. Governments and cycling advocacy groups should remain neutral on their helmet stance. Sure, there are some scenarios where helmets are beneficial but many when they’re not. A lot also depends upon the individual cyclist. Some people are just prone to falling, and moreover are unable to learn how to fall properly. This is the group which benefits the most from helmet use. Others rarely or never fall, know how to fall properly, and/or ride at speeds well above those where a helmet is effective. These are the people who benefit least from helmet use. Not wearing helmets is a “faulty cultural practice”. Emphasizing their use for an activity which is statistically safer than walking is arguably a more faulty cultural practice as it turns people off to a great mode of transportation and recreation. I think it’s best just to remain neutral. I never even bring up the subject of helmets when talking to a new cyclist unless they do. When they do, I’ll give them the pros and cons, and recommend further reading. If they choose to wear a helmet, fine. If they choose not to, also fine. In the end one more person riding increases our safety more than whether or not that person is wearing a helmet.

  • Joe R.

    Your last paragraph essentially describes the hierarchy of control:

    https://www.healthandsafetyhandbook.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/heirarchyControlPyramid-graphic.png

    Note that PPEs (personal protective equipment) are dead last. The Dutch largely don’t wear helmets because their other engineering changes have decreased the number of incidents where helmets might help to virtually zero, making them largely pointless.

  • Joe R.

    Along those lines can we have a no clothes bike day similar to the no pants day on the subway? That would give us some real bike porn.

  • Driver

    To me it’s not so much about living or dying, but about doing what is possible to prevent a TBI (traumatic brain injury) in the unlikely event of my head hitting the pavement.

  • Joe R.

    OK, but there’s similar odds, even twice as great odds depending upon which statistics you look at, of suffering TBI while walking. That’s the great inconsistency which bothers me on this entire subject. Nobody ever advocates helmets for walking. Or for that matter, risk of TBI is similar while riding in a car, and yet nobody suggests helmets for motorists, even though that would easily save hundreds, if not thousands, of lives annually. Motorist helmets could also be made a lot more protective than bike helmets because there are fewer restrictions with regards to weight or ventilation. In fact, motorcycle helmets would do just fine for drivers.

  • USbike

    As of now, the Netherlands is probably the only bicycle-friendly nation remaining where the vast majority of cyclists don’t use helmets. But even here, that is slowly starting to change. Especially in Zeeland, I see quite a lot of small children wearing them these days; easily 1/3rd or more. It drops to almost none at the high school level, but it’s becoming more normal to use it even for normal cycling. For now, the Dutch are quite resistant to using it, but that will slowly decrease as more and more people get used to it (i.e., when the little kids now grow up having used them). It’s still quite a recent development here. But it’s going to be inevitable going into the future, partly from outside influence. A lot of Germans and Belgians like to tour around the Netherlands by bike because it’s so much nicer for that there, and most of them wear helmets. Whenever the topic of cycling comes up, the foreigners will almost always make remarks about how it’s strange that Dutch people don’t wear them, and how they really should because it would be safer, etc., etc. You start to hear these kinds of “recommendations” more and more and more.

    I would just hate to see the Netherlands become like Denmark in that respect, where the government has been fear-mongering about head injuries for well over 10 years now, and the rate of helmet usage has gone from the low single-digits to almost 40% of the entire cycling population now. I’m still baffled by the fact that my Danish friends, who have cycled 50+ years without helmets, now won’t even go to the local supermarket without one. It’s 2-minutes from their house by bike and on separated bicycle paths. They are also very disturbed that I refuse to use one whenever visiting them. The paranoia is a bit exaggerated to say the least, in my opinion.

  • Steve:O

    De Blasio does say and do unexpected things, and he was strongly against pedal assist e-bikes, and made them illegal in NYC for a while. That being said, like you, I question the accuracy of this quote. I can find no confirmation these words (nor similar words). I do hope Windshield Perspective can illuminate its remarks.

  • qrt145

    It seems clear to me that it was a sarcastic mock-quote, prompted by de Blasio’s actual statements (only paraphrasing here) that it is OK to block bike lanes when doing important stuff like going to the doctor. The gym was added, I assume, as a swipe at de Blasio’s habit of being driven to his favorite gym in Brooklyn.

  • Joe R.

    As an alternative, hopefully other countries will look at reason, realize the risk of TBI while cycling is lower than while walking (an activity for which we would never even consider recommending helmets), and end this silly helmet fetish for good. It would be nice one day if the only place you could see a bike helmet was in a museum, preferably in an exhibit about the paranoia of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

  • USbike

    I hope you’re right, Joe. It’s still in the very early stages here and the vast majority of high school-aged kids and adults still do not wear them. Even if the government were to suddenly become like the Danish one in promoting helmets, it would still take a longer time to reach the same level as the Danes due to cultural differences. The Dutch tend to ignore or bend rules when it is logical or convenient, whereas the Danes are much more rule-abiding and orderly (like Germans). It’s not that I’m against helmets, as any should be free to wear what they want. But as with too many other kinds of safety measures, there always seems to be unintended consequences such as the shifting of people’s perception about what is acceptable, etc.. The obsession by American authorities to put fences, warning signs and barriers around everything, everywhere is a good case in point. Once it starts, it never seems to want to stop. As time goes on, it also has a tendency to shift public perception and then anyone skirting the lines will be perceived as reckless whether it actually is or not.

  • Joe R.

    Here’s a great article on the subject:

    https://www.vox.com/2014/5/16/5720762/stop-forcing-people-to-wear-bike-helmets

    They even have statistics for the relative risk of head injury of walking and driving compared to cycling. That’s always been a major inconsistency among helmet proponents. How can you single out cycling for helmet use when it’s no more dangerous than either walking or driving? I tend to think perceptions are at fault here. Cycling may look more dangerous to a layperson, and laypeople are generally too lazy to bother finding out if it actually is. End result is these laypeople make their concerns known to policy makers, who also don’t bother to find out the facts. I think it’s important to keep policy makers informed. If you don’t, things take on a life of their own in the manner in which you described.

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