Why do the Dutch ride lousy bicycles?

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.

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.