Today, I was nearly killed no less than three times while biking from my apartment in Brooklyn to my office in Lower Manhattan. But don’t worry! This is pretty normal for America’s largest city, where a staggering 19 cyclists have been killed in just 2019 alone.
So you can imagine my bafflement when I finally sat down at my desk, sweaty and stressed out from my close brushes with death, and the first thing I see when opening up Twitter was this video of a newly finished bike parking garage in the Dutch city of Utrecht.
Serene images of row after row of double-decker bike racks, with space for 12,500 (!) bicycles, were technically absorbed by my retina, where they were converted into electrochemical impulses and transferred along the optic nerve to my brain.
But unfortunately, that’s where comprehension ran into a bit of a logjam, because my brain — enfeebled by almost four decades of car exhaust and brutish street planning that marginalizes and endangers pedestrians and cyclists — simply could not interpret the images that I was seeing.
How could this exist?
How could this exist? This gleaming, modernist space of concrete and steel with soaring columns and room for bikes of all sizes and colors? The sweaty haggis in my skull that calls itself a brain kept flashing a 404 error message. A city willingly built this? A structure just for bicyclists? What mad fantasia was this? Wherefore the drivers? Had the Netherlands no community boards of unelected cranks to kill these insane ideas before they could come to fruition?
I’ve heard that there are more bikes than people in the Netherlands. That sounds nice. I live in a country where there are more guns than people. So we’ve got that going for us.
“We are striving to make it a cyclists’ paradise and there’s still much to be done,” Stientje van Veldhoven, the Netherlands’ state secretary for infrastructure, told The Guardian. “I’d like us to make better use of what I call this secret weapon against congestion, poor air quality in cities and climate change that is also good for your health and your wallet.”
Now this bicycling nirvana isn’t new; I’ve seen a variety of photos and videos from inside this facility creep into my timeline over the years. But I always assumed it was a cutscene from some utopian video game I hadn’t heard of, not a real place. The garage first opened in 2017, with room for a mere 6,000 bikes. The second phase of the garage was just completed and now it has capacity for twice that number. Meanwhile, a bunch of wealthy people on Central Park West are suing to stop a single bike lane because it would mean less free car storage.
“But we’re not the Netherlands!” a lot of people feel compelled to shout
“But we’re not the Netherlands!” a lot of people feel compelled to shout, hoping to cast me and others like me off into the Phantom Zone of bad takes for the crime of attempting (but failing) to imagine a better world. The car is king in America. Our laws literally subsidize the act of driving. Our highway planning was borne from a shameful history of racial segregation. Bikes are seen as a hobby, a recreation, a sport, but rarely a viable means of transport. This is why so many will see these images from Utrecht and shrug them off as some crazy Dutch experiment with no chance in the US.
They may be right, but I can sense the tide shifting. Dockless electric scooters are introducing the concept of battery-powered mobility to more people every day. Climate change is forcing more people to reconsider their own transportation choices. Congestion pricing is suddenly a viable policy worth pursuing. The idea of banning cars from the densest parts of the city is gaining traction — by which I mean people are writing about it for mainstream publications and aren’t being laughed out of town.
Across the Hudson River in Jersey City, an opaque black box from a company called Oonee will soon be installed with the capacity to safely store 20 bikes — or 1/625th of the space in Utrecht. It’s a small thing, a trifle really, and kind of ugly (no offense Oonee), but it’s a step in the right direction. We’re not the Netherlands, but a guy can dream.