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Lessons on How to Create a Cycling Culture in Northwest Arkansas

January 7, 2020
Aubrey Patterson
As the region grapples with how to build safer, accessible cycling infrastructure, the Dutch provide a blueprint for success.

I am not a cyclist. I own a bike and I ride a few miles with my kids on the weekends, but I would not be considered a regular cyclist.

For this reason, I was initially hesitant when asked to join a study tour in the Netherlands to examine the local cycling infrastructure and culture.

I’m a mother of four tween/teenagers and a history teacher who happily drives an SUV with remote start for cold mornings.

I thought, surely there is someone, somewhere in Northwest Arkansas (probably wearing spandex) more qualified to investigate what we might learn from Dutch cycling habits.

Aubrey Patterson, the author, with the red bicycle she rented in the Netherlands.

That said, I also have the privilege of serving on the Bentonville City Council – as a voice for all families.

We live in an amazing place. It’s safe, family-friendly and abounds with opportunities and activities. But we’re one of the fastest growing metro areas in the country – our population has more than doubled over the last 25 years.

As we grow, diversifying transportations options could help alleviate challenges that come with rapid growth. I love Bentonville and believe it’s important to learn how safer and more accessible cycling infrastructure might fit with the future of our city.

My first lesson upon arrival in the Netherlands is that the bicycle is a tool to get from one place to another. There are no ‘cyclists’ or ‘non-cyclists.’ Almost everyone rides a bike.

They ride old (and often rusting) bikes, not the fancy, specialized models we favor in the United States. They have covered chains, fenders, integrated locks and an upright style that is conducive to a nice leisurely ride conversing with a friend. They are practical.

Cycling in the Netherlands is not reserved for only those who are young, healthy and brave enough to dodge traffic. At home, I don’t feel comfortable riding a bicycle in traffic alongside cars.

But cruising down protected bike paths in the Netherlands, through quiet neighborhoods, got me instantly hooked – and piqued my curiosity about how the Dutch have made cycling such an integral part of their daily life. I spent a week studying everything related to Dutch cycling. The roundabouts, traffic lights, neighborhood planning, consistency in design and quiet bike paths were intriguing. But what was most remarkable was the diversity of people on bikes.

Senior citizens ride to the grocery store:

Young children ride to school:

Professionals commute to work:

Teenagers ride alongside their friends while socializing:

Parents ride with multiple babies and children in tow:

Cycling has become a way of life in the Netherlands because it is easy, fast, fun, convenient and safe. Can the same things be said of cycling in Northwest Arkansas? We certainly have a strong mountain biking culture and recreational cycling culture. Our mountain bike trails and paved paths are amazing.

But relatively few cycle to work, school or the store. In order for cycling to become a legitimate option for transportation in Northwest Arkansas, we need a shift in the culture and an investment in the infrastructure.

The question is: “Which comes first?”

Cycling as a method of transportation isn’t an option for average people (like me) if there aren’t safe and efficient routes to the places we want to go. So start with infrastructure! But it’s hard to justify large-scale infrastructure projects if we can’t prove that residents will use it. So start with working to shift the culture!

The answer, of course, has to be both.

We can help residents experience the sense of community and peacefulness that comes with a daily ride.

Students learn about cycling in Dutch schools. It’s considered an important aspect of the physical and emotional health of residents in the Netherlands.

Here at home, we can shift the culture by encouraging students to cycle to school and we can teach them the skills needed to ride and maintain their bicycles. Businesses can shift the culture by incentivizing the healthy aspects of cycling to work. We can help residents experience the sense of community and peacefulness that comes with a daily ride.

Our Dutch hosts repeatedly told us that they are “pro cycling,” not “anti-car.” They offer a complete mobility plan that includes pedestrians, cyclists, public transportation and private transportation.

They have intuitive design features, like separation, that make cycling safe and accessible for everybody. Their routes are direct. The use of tunnels and bridges make the routes attractive to Dutch commuters.

Rush hour in the Netherlands.

We are beginning to integrate some of these ideas into Northwest Arkansas. We can continue to improve our infrastructure if we try new things and continually get feedback from our community about the things they need to make cycling work for them.

The future of cycling is bright in Northwest Arkansas. Our rush hour may never look like the one in the Netherlands, but I’m confident more and more people will begin to reap the physical, mental and financial benefits of cycling.

Comments (4)
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juergen czwienk
Well written! In general there is a huge advantage Netherlands is a flat country! To build up an infratructure in cities will be the future. Those with students are the leafing ones in Germany!
Devo Johnston
I would ride my ebike for shopping if I could access the stores safely. I live on the west side of 49 in BELLA Vista, with no way to cross the freeway. Perhaps there is a way, or will be a way for MTBs, but I would need a less hazardous route. I would love to see a greenway path all around BELLA Vista. Would get more non MTBers out riding.
Ellen Hawkins
I’m a former NWA resident now living in Golden, Colorado. Cycling in Golden is integrated into our infrastructure and culture, both recreationally and for transportation. The biggest risk to cyclists’ safety is the lack of knowledge among drivers of how to operate a motorized vehicle on the road with cyclists present. Cyclists also need to know the rules of the road and use them. Golden’s police department recently released a great series of 20-second videos that address the rules of the road for drivers and cyclists. They’re still up on the Golden FB page. As a cyclist, I’m looking forward to coming back to NWA and enjoying the growing biking opportunities there. Come out to Golden and see how a smaller US town makes cycling great for the rider and the businesses in the community.
Aubrey Patterson
Ellen, Thank you for the tip about the videos! I will definitely check them out. I visited Golden several years ago, but I regret not paying more attention to the cycling. It’s a beautiful place, and I can see a lot of similarities between the two towns. I will certainly plan another visit soon.
John Wilson
I am organizing the development of a bike patrol for the Washington County region which will operate similar to the Oz MTB patrol in Benton County. Originally we were going to be MTB focused,but I have always thought we might have an opportunity to extend our reach in efforts of fostering active transportation. I see that the city of Bentonville partnered with the Safe Routes to School program in 2012. Is the SRTS program still active? How can I get involved in the planning and strategic discussions so that we may tailor our patrol to meet the current need but yet be positioned to meet future needs? Thanks, John Wilson
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