Netherlands bicycles II

I received a lot of interesting mail in response to my speculations about the Dutch and their bicycles. Some important points, though the writers do not all agree with each other:

A. Commuting and errands are done at a leisurely pace over fairly short distances; that, with the flatness of the country really does make a good bike (in the US sense of fast, light, and efficient) much less worth having, or bothering to lock properly, than it would be in a place with some relief. Bicycle weight is much less important if one isn’t accelerating fast or going up hills.

B. Some actual facts: “Last year, 760 thousand bikes were stolen in the Netherlands. One in twenty bike owners lost at least one bike to thieves. With one in seven, the bike theft rate is even higher among young people. [Why would the age of the owner affect the probability of theft? Perhaps they’re careless about locking, perhaps they use bikes for three times as large a fraction of their trips? – MO] The risk of having one’s bike stolen is three times as high in urbanised regions as in non-urbanised regions. Only three in every ten victims report bike theft to the police [does this mean 2.3m bikes were actually stolen?].” Another reader says 50,000 stolen bikes in Amsterdam per year. These rates seem to be about ten times US incidence per capita, but probably about the same per bicycle, as ownership is two per person. .

C. One writer posits a social convention of semi-common ownership of bikes, whereby you mostly have your own bike, but every now and then someone takes it and you just take another. Another reports widespread belief in Polish gangs of bike thieves going around in vans taking poorly secured bikes. A couple report a brisk business in very cheap bikes everyone assumes are stolen. Generally, bikes are not as cheap as they appear; the average price of a new one is nearly $1000, which mystifies me: what makes a bicycle expensive is typically lightness; there’s no particular challenge in building these two-wheeled tanks. People have high-end bikes, but they tend to be specialized for freight (delivery or child-carrying tricycles, for example) rather than sport.

D. Good locks are rarely used. A solid U-lock is no guarantee of safety, in the US or anywhere, but it certainly improves the odds. I’m left with the hypothesis that technology could make a real difference here: public fecklessness about slowing down the thieves and pessimism combine to legitimate bicycle theft to some degree, and the resulting high theft rate discourages efforts (like good locks) that could actually make a difference, and demoralizes people so they accept a state of high criminality, even participating in it fatalistically by buying the stolen bikes back. The state of affairs remains puzzling; I bet it would support some interesting sociological research about social capital and trust. And some good publicized statistics on theft rates as a function of lock type might even move the system to a better equilibrium.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.