If You Build It, They Will Ride (Part 1)


“If you build it, they will come”. It is a familiar phrase, though actually a misquote from the 1989 film Field of Dreams. The actual quote is “If you build it, he will come”.


But I like the misquote better. It conveys a very simple but important principle: when it comes to individual choices and behaviours, supply induces demand in important respects. Because we tend to place so much emphasis on individual freedom and choice, our inclination is to think the opposite.


There is typically a complex and interactive relationship between the choices people make and the context in which they make them. This is not to deny that people make choices, or that those choices have consequences, including environmental ones. Choosing to fly in an airplane really does increase one’s ecological footprint, as does eating meat produced on factory farms, all other things being equal. But these individual or behavioural choices are made in a context, within a landscape of available options. If the context changes, then the available choices change.


Simple enough, right? And yet, this idea has far-reaching consequences when we think about the intertwining of individual behaviours, urban and other forms of infrastructure, and the social and environmental implications of the choices people make.


Take, for instance, cycling infrastructure. Many people I have spoken with over the years regarding cycling report that the availability and quality of cycling infrastructure (e.g., bike lanes, bike routes, bike paths, bike racks on buses and trains, bike storage locations, etc.) is a key influence on their decision to ride their bikes or not. Some cite fear, but then fear of cycling in the city is in turn a product (in part) of the availability of infrastructure that reduces the risk involved. More formal studies confirm this. If the infrastructure is better and more ubiquitous, then choosing to cycle is much more likely, particularly when coupled with other cycling-friendly policy measures.[1]


In the Netherlands where I spent 2016-2017 as an academic visitor at Wageningen University, the notion that “if you build it, they will come” is expressed in the landscape.  Just about everywhere you turn, in almost any location in this country, particularly in towns and cities, you will find dedicated cycling infrastructure.


Consider, for instance, the bike path in the northern city of Groningen pictured above. The bike path is the paved part! This specific section goes through a park, but it is integrated into a network of routes that criss-cross the city in all directions, including numerous segments that are physically separated from or wholly independent of automobile routes, as depicted here. Note also the segregation of bike and pedestrian tracks, a very common feature here.


There are also ubiquitous cycling-specific direction signs in the cities and towns as well as throughout the countryside. Many of them are differentiated by colour and style appropriate to local or inter-urban routes, longer distance regional traverses, and recreational routes. The direction sign post pictured above is in Maastricht.



And you will find dedicated bike lanes separate from automobile routes along national highways between town and city centres. I shot the video below, enraptured, soon after arriving here last September.


Yes, this is quite typical in the Netherlands. Watch and weep ye long suffering North American cyclists.


But best of all (for me), one finds here paved cycling paths (“fietspads”) in places where there are no accompanying roads, e.g., through open heath and forestlands, as captured in this image.



[1] See for example: Akar, G., & Clifton, K. (2009). “Influence of individual perceptions and bicycle infrastructure on decision to bike”. Transportation Research Record: Journal of the Transportation Research Board, (2140), 165-172; Mitra, R. Ziemba, R.A.  and Hess, P.M. (2016) “Mode substitution effect of urban cycle tracks: Case study of a downtown street in Toronto, Canada”. International Journal of Sustainable Transportation 11:4, 248-256; Pucher, J., Dill, J., & Handy, S. (2010). “Infrastructure, programs, and policies to increase bicycling: an international review”. Preventive medicine, 50, S106-S125.