Minneapolis: a bike paradise?

We could learn about bike safety from the Dutch.

by Martin Jaakola

I am a new columnist for the Minnesota Daily, having just come back to Minnesota from a year of living outside Amsterdam. Though Bicycling Magazine recently ranked Minneapolis as the best city in the United States for cycling, we could learn something from the Netherlands, the bicycling capital of the world.

Minneapolis’ vast bike infrastructure allows everyone to bike, from wannabe Tour de France riders to occasional commuters. With projects such as the Midtown Greenway, split walking and biking lanes, and even designated bikeways, there’s a reason we have our first-place rank.

However, as a former road racing cyclist, there is one main problem apparent for those of us who prefer spandex to khaki shorts in the summer. While there are bike lanes throughout the Twin Cities, those of us riding primarily in the streets find ourselves interacting with irate drivers more often than we’d like.

One potential solution to this problem comes from the Netherlands. Having lived there, I discovered that the Dutch separate cyclists from cars through raised lanes or through completely separate streets for cyclists called segregated cycling facilities. In Minneapolis, we have separate bike lanes, or cycle tracks, but the segregated cycling facilities may add an extra level of separation. Admittedly, they’re an expensive option, but safety is important.

But errant drivers shouldn’t hold all the blame for accidents. There’s a bigger problem at work: a culture of fear that touts helmets and ridiculous reflective vests over learning basic bike handling skills. For many bike safety advocates, such as Olympic cyclist Chris Boardman, helmets are a “red herring” that distract people from the real causes of accidents.

There are far more important ways of keeping safe than wearing a helmet, such as taking your headphones off while riding, being able to look over your shoulder without swerving and knowing basic bike repair.

The evidence for this once again comes from the Netherlands, where less than 1 percent of cyclists wear helmets. Yet the Dutch still have one of the lowest rates of cycling head injury — thanks to segregated cycling facilities, in addition to a culture where young people learn basic bike skills.

While we are lucky to live in an area where cycling is thriving, it’s important to remember we’re all just trying to get somewhere safely.