Do Dutch women have more time to cycle?
In a puzzling October 3 opinion article published in The Guardian, Herbie Huff and Kelcie Ralph argue that Dutch women cycle more because they have more time than U.S. women. The authors say this extra time comes from different Dutch cultural norms and social policies — like generous paternity leave — along with better city planning that makes distances between errands shorter. They conclude that improved cycling and pedestrian mobility in U.S. cities will require deep changes to social policies, ideas with “far-reaching implications and [that] require serious value shifts.”
These are thin arguments with shaky foundations. The paper they cite looks at time use in American households only. They present no equivalent study showing how Dutch households allocate time, and no studies on whether different social policies actually give women more time to cycle. Without such studies, one could invent results out of thin air. Without research to tell us, for example, how Dutch fathers spend their paternity leave, why can we assume they actually use it to help out at home? Maybe, instead, they spend more time on non-family leisure pursuits — like playing more golf. Maybe paternity leave actually changes mothers’ lives hardly at all.
But even if we grant them their assumptions, Huff and Ralph haven’t shown why giving women more disposable time means more cycling. The implicit assumption is head-scratching, that somehow women use extra time riding bicycles instead of doing something else. How can we assume this about any person or culture? Would the opposite hold — would Dutch women ride less if they had less disposable time? Would time-rich U.S. women suddenly opt to cycle? How do we know that cycling is the go-to activity once women gain more time?
Huff and Ralph don’t tackle counterexamples like New York City, where more than half of households don’t own cars and yet somehow find the time to chauffeur their children around town, all without Dutch social policies. They also don’t address why U.S. women in child-free couples, and single women without children — both classes of women presumably with more free time than their child-rearing compatriots — are less likely to cycle than their Dutch counterparts. They discount surveys where women say straight out that they are afraid on the road, effectively belittling women and their opinions. They also don’t tackle the problem of countries with social policies similar to The Netherlands (Norway, Finland) that have low-ish cycling rates.
One of the subtle and insidious assumptions underlying this article is that cycling is primarily a hobby or non-essential activity. In the cited study, cycling comes in for a mild whipping with the unsubstantiated claim that errands are “easiest to do in a private vehicle, and hard to do on a bicycle or public transit.” That is, only those people with extra time on their hands undertake cycling, perhaps because it’s slow. This assumption came under some small scrutiny in a quick Twitter exchange I had with @JennyGoBike, a car-free mother-of-three in Seattle: “Don’t assume cycling harder til you’ve wrangled 3 tots into minivan. Challenges to both.”
The Dutch — in my experience more practical and as time-conscious as any American — have created the infrastructure that turns that assumption on its head. The Dutch don’t cycle because they have extra time; they cycle because they have no time to spare. They cycle because cycling is the fastest way to get around.
The way I see it, Huff and Ralph have worked a little too hard to find a link between Dutch social policies and cycling. It may be the case that such policies are superior to American ones in every possible way, but the essential lesson of Dutch cycling does not come from them. It comes, instead, from the city planning and infrastructure build-out that has elevated cycling to a first-class, time-saving, and normal way to get around.