As is well known, the Dutch have an extensive, pervasive, and very green bicycle habit. Big cities have four completely separate surface circulation systems with integrated signals (cars, pedestrians, trams, and bikes); tourists wandering on foot into the bike path get hit or yelled at. Bicycle parking is not a matter of a few posts on the sidewalk, or bikes chained to the odd parking meter, but enormous fields of racks that constitute important landscape elements in plazas, railway stations, and on campuses.
The Dutch are also prosperous, and they have a strong engineering and technology culture, so I was surprised on two visits in the last few years to see that their bikes are all junkers: poorly maintained, old, heavy, three-speeds. The word I used was all: browsing through many hundred bikes in several rack areas, I did not see a single respectable piece of two-wheel gear, just jalopies locked up with hardware a bit more deterrent than a shoelace. I can understand commuter-design bikes with few gears, medium tires, and high handlebars for daily use in a super-flat landscape, but surely some of them would enjoy their commuting time more if they had a good one? And a few jocks would rather zip around on a real road bike than plod on these jeeps?
I asked about this and everyone immediately said “if you had a good bike it would be immediately stolen.” On reflection, I’m not satisfied with the answer, for a couple of reasons. First, the Dutch are about as law-abiding as Americans, perhaps more. Second, the serious lock that has kept my pretty good bikes secure on sketchy streets in two US cities for decades is available for purchase all over the world.
Third, and most important, I don’t see how this belief could be justified by real data, because there were absolutely no bikes worth stealing anywhere I looked. I didn’t follow up to ask whether my informants actually knew anyone who had tried this and lost a bike to theft, but I can tell you if I tried to make a living, or even walking-around money, stealing bikes there, my business would never begin, owing to want of targets.
I think I’ve come upon a national urban legend illusion, perhaps initiated with facts before the era of proper locks, but maintained only by oral tradition and lack of data. I admit I would be a little nervous being the first one putting a nice bike into one of those parking areas, imagining it radiating concentrated “steal me!” homing signals to every malefactor within blocks. The psychology of the situation is probably a two-equilibrium process like the one Mark analyzes in his new book with the good guy and bad guy roles reversed. But a Kryptonite lock is not so easily opened, especially in daylight with people all around watching a semi-industrial activity (in that very densely populated, urbanized, country, people are always around) . If I lived there, I would risk it; lots of ‘well-known facts’ obvious to any reasonable person are actually not true, and I bet this is one.