Is Your City Bike-Friendly?

Students explore the issue of creating safe city spaces for bicyclists and collaboratively problem-solve around this issue with respect to their own communities, or one with a similar climate change focus.

To the Teacher

This lesson consists of two readings highlighting the issue of creating more bike-friendly cities in the United States. The first reading highlights the well-developed biking infrastructure in the Dutch cities of Amsterdam and Utrecht as models of what a more bike-friendly city looks like, investigating the public policies that helped elevate biking in those places. The second reading explores efforts by U.S. transit activists to make biking safer and more common in American cities, with particular attention given to how young people have taken action. Questions for discussion follow each reading, as well as a post-reading problem-solving circle.

Photo by Christie Kim on Unsplash


Reading One — Biking Lessons from the Netherlands

As the United States adjusts to climate change, cities across the country that have long been designed around the needs of cars and their drivers will need to transition their transportation systems away from fossil fuels and toward greener and cleaner ways of getting people around. That transition may include expanding public transportation or replacing gas-using cars with electrical vehicles. But it could also include a simpler form of transit: bicycling. 

While the infrastructure to encourage biking in many U.S. cities has improved significantly in the past two decades, it still lags far behind urban areas in some other parts of the world. As a result, biking is relatively less common. For example, in New York City, bike commuters made up only 2% of those who commuted to work in 2022. That figure made the city one of the most popular bike-commuting cities in the United States, excluding college towns. However, it pales in comparison to bike-focused cities elsewhere—particularly cities in the Netherlands, a country whose urban areas are considered some of the best in the world for bicycling. 

As of 2019, people who use bikes as their primary mode of transport to get to work made up 27% of total commuters in the Netherlands. In a May 2023 article for Bicycling, outdoor-travel and cycling journalist Robert Annis described what makes the country particularly friendly to bikers. Annis wrote:


In Amsterdam and other Dutch cities, roads are designed to make it easier to get from point A to point B by walking or pedaling. What might be a 10-minute bike ride in the city center could take a car double or triple that time. Dutch cities create a “hierarchy of roads,” Bruntlett says, differentiating between local and through traffic and diverting cars from economic and residential areas…

Dutch traffic engineers design infrastructure to physically protect riders, lower speeds, and raise awareness of the surrounding road users, [Dutch transit expert Chris Bruntlett] says, increasing the safety of everyone. This includes creating raised, continuous cycle paths that are prioritized over motor vehicles. Roads with shared traffic are narrow, often textured or feature a traffic-calming device like a speed hump or table, and are capped at 30 kilometers an hour (18 mph).

If a crash between a vehicle and a bicycle occurs in the Netherlands, the driver of the vehicle is automatically considered to be at fault. Despite that, the Netherlands is also considered one of the best countries for drivers because the road design removes much of the uncertainty….

In Amsterdam especially, rows of racked bikes stand in front of most major buildings. But given the number of riders, that’s still not enough bike parking. Bike-parking garages can be found in city centers and surrounding the train stations. Utrecht boasts the world’s largest bike-parking garage at the central railway station, with room to store more than 12,500 bicycles[.]



Although the cities of the Netherlands are today regarded as some of the most bike-friendly in the world, they were not always this way. In the 1960s, many of the country’s cities had transportation systems focused on cars. That began to change in the 1970s, when growing numbers of pedestrians were killed by cars, a startling number of whom were children. In response, residents turned to activism to advocate for safer streets. 

In a 2015 article for The Guardian, Dutch journalist Renate van der Zee summarized tactics used by one of the organizations that arose, Stop de Kindermoord (“stop the child murder”). As van der Zee explains, “Stop de Kindermoord grew rapidly and its members held bicycle demonstrations, occupied accident blackspots, and organised special days during which streets were closed to allow children to play safely[.]”

The oil crisis of 1973 also helped push Dutch cities towards less gas-intensive forms of transit, and over time, the Netherlands began to enjoy more bike-friendly streets. In a blog post for the transit news outlet Bike Portland, local resident Jen Guzman shared her experience biking in Amsterdam and compared it to the biking infrastructure in Portland, Oregon. Guzman wrote:


Despite years of biking in Portland, it took me a minute to adjust to Amsterdam’s critical mass of bikes. I wasn’t used to navigating in such tight packs of bikes and the rules of the road weren’t always obvious. I learned quickly that a bike-centric city, while a huge improvement over a car-centric city, is not a utopia. Jerks on bikes will cut you off and curse you, much like some drivers on I-84. And also like many cars, very few bikes stop at crosswalks for pedestrians. In Amsterdam, cars tended to drive passively and slowly, yielding to bicycle and pedestrian traffic. I was in The Upside-Down World.

But by my second day, biking in Amsterdam felt easy and often joyful. The city is a giant maze of well-maintained bike paths with excellent signage. It felt like riding on a race track…

My 18-year-old son… said something that struck me while we were biking through Vondelpark one day.

“Mom, when I ride my bike in Portland, I feel like there is a target on my back. As if it’s only a matter of time before I get hit by a car. Here, it’s just fun and easy.”

I understood exactly how he felt. While a small element of danger existed due to the sheer number of bikes in Amsterdam, getting clipped by another bike had far less consequences than anything a car would do to us.



Given the advances they have made in promoting environmentally friendly forms of transportation, the cities of the Netherlands offer helpful models for how the United States can create more bike-friendly streets. 


For Discussion:

  1. How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read? What personal connections, thoughts, or feelings did you have about what you read?
  2. According to the reading, what are some examples of street-level systems, or infrastructure, in the Netherlands that makes biking easier in the country’s cities? Have you seen any of these systems present in your neighborhoods or communities? 
  3. What forms of transit do you most often use—for example, to get to school, work, or friends’ homes? Are you happy with the transportation options available to you? Why or why not?
  4. In general, what forms of transit (such as walking, biking, driving, or public transit) do you see people in your community using? Does this change in different parts of town or during different times of the day? 
  5. Are there any changes to your community’s street designs that you would like to see? Why?
  6. What do you think are some of the benefits to biking where you live? What do you think are some challenges? 

Reading Two — Activists Push for Safer Biking Infrastructure in the United States


While the streets of America’s cities are a far cry from the streets of Dutch cities today in terms of bike safety and compatibility, some signs suggest that this could change. In recent years, several cities across the U.S. have furthered their efforts to make their streets more amenable to bikes. New York City, Washington D.C., Chicago, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and Seattle all have at least doubled the number bike lanes in their cities between 2000 to 2017. 

To further the trend, cycling activists in many places are calling on their local and state governments to deepen a commitment to making biking safer and easier. In an October 2023 article for the bicycling advocacy organization People for Bikes, Kiran Herbert summarized some of the ways that activists across the United States are pushing for safer streets for bikes and highlighted the story of Laura Keenan, a San Diego woman whose husband was tragically killed after being struck by a car while biking. Herbert writes:


Keenan was frustrated with a legal system that doesn’t hold drivers accountable ([the driver] got four days in jail for misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter, which is a relatively harsh sentence) but she was also frustrated with the safe infrastructure, or lack thereof, that directly contributed to her husband’s death. Keenan soon realized that she could break through and get people’s attention in a way others couldn’t. Just months later, she co-founded a local Families for Safe Streets chapter.

Families for Safe Streets (FSS) was founded in 2014 by the families of loved ones who were killed or injured in crashes in New York City…. In 20 chapters across the country, people like Keenan work with their cities, counties, and local advocacy groups to refocus the conversation to try and save lives. In San Diego, for example, FSS has hung signs at fatal crash sites that read “Your neighbor was killed here” and hosts a World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims in November, helping to honor loved ones lost while raising awareness. Crucially, the group’s biggest focus has been around budget and funding and in 2022, after a multi-month campaign, the city agreed to fund improvements at its more dangerous intersections.

“Everyday folk have to become advocates and have to become vocally involved in some way,” says [Thomas DeVito, national director of Families for Safe Streets.] “That doesn't mean necessarily throwing yourself completely into the work but ultimately, elected officials are the gatekeepers of what policies are prioritized at any given moment, and they are responsive to the input that they’re receiving at the ground level.”



In some cases, young people have taken leading roles in pushing for change. The National Youth Bike Council was founded in January of 2017 in Philadelphia to connect youth leaders in the cycling community across the country and to support young people using bikes as transportation. The organization has active chapters in Philadelphia, Seattle, San Francisco, and Atlanta, as well as in State College, Pennsylvania.

In a July 2023 blog post for the council, a member named Nora wrote about her experience seeing a “ghost bike” across from her high school and about the activism that followed. Ghost Bikes are bicycles that are painted all white to commemorate a cyclist who has been killed by a car. Nora wrote that on a recent trip:

[What] caught my attention was a white bike tied to a telephone pole at a crosswalk where the Beltline leads to Piedmont Park. I am familiar with this bike, it sits across from my high school. For a while I paid no attention to it, even when it was first placed there I didn’t really realize it until I learned what it meant.

This white bike is one of many Ghost Bikes. This Ghost Bike is for a student who in 2016 was struck by a car at this intersection and died on the way home from school. She was 3 years older than me.

A Ghost Bike serves as a memorial, to remind the world that a seemingly uninteresting corner completely changed someone’s life. They are usually a bike that is irreparable and unusable, so as not to take a bike off of the street.

Ghost Bikes are a reminder of the work that needs to be done and the work that has been done. In my case, we testified and worked with the City Council to install a HAWK signal, a scramble (when all the cars have to stop for pedestrians to cross), and cameras to create a safer environment for not only the Beltline traffic but for the students going to and from school. Still in 2022 a student was hit by a car near the intersection, she went to the hospital and is ok now but it is a reminder that more work needs to be done. Shortly after during the 2022 Youth Bike Summit, I led a group out to this crosswalk. We put flowers in front of Alexia’s white bike and discussed the intersection, and how the 4-lane thoroughfare meeting the 3-lane road was built for cars, not pedestrians. We discussed how we can change the intersection to focus on the pedestrian so that we can prevent any more accidents from happening. Now there are plans to fully rework the intersection by repaving the streets.



 The efforts of Nora and other members of the National Youth Bike Council are playing an important role in pushing cities to invest in safer and greener transportation infrastructure, and to make our streets more hospitable to bikers.

For Discussion:

  1. How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read? What personal connections, thoughts, or feelings did you have about what you read?
  2. According to the readings, what are some of the tactics that cycling activists—in the United States or abroad—are using to promote safer streets in their cities? Which of these do you think were more or less effective? Explain your reasoning.
  3. One of the safety issues raised by cycling activists is that car drivers are either unaware or disrespectful of the needs of people riding bikes. Based on your experience, does this ring true in your community? What do you think cyclists need from drivers so that both can safely use the road—and vice versa? 
  4. This reading talks about the presence of Ghost Bikes honoring the memory of those bicyclists who’ve died in traffic accidents. Have you ever encountered a ghost bike? How did it make you feel or what did you think about? 


Post-Reading Activity: Problem-Solving Circle

  1. Pose the Issue (1-2 minutes): After reading and discussing the two articles, reconvene the whole group in a circle. Explain that we’re going to practice problem-solving together as the National Youth Bike Council might around the issue of creating bike-friendly spaces in our community.* Let them know you’re offering this issue to the group. They will work together to better understand the issue and offer suggestions for a solution.

  2. Ask Clarifying Questions (5-10 minutes): Using what they’ve learned, and connected to, in the readings to guide them, invite students to pass around the talking piece and take turns posing clarifying questions about the issue. As facilitator, answer these questions to the best of your ability. Remind students that now is not the time to offer ways to solve the problem, but to get curious about it. 

  3. Offering Solutions (5-10 minutes): Now let students know it is time to offer up ways to solve this issue. Remind them to consider your responses to their questions in addition to climate change and the safety of drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians. Give them a few minutes to reflect, process and formulate their ideas, silently and independently. Pass around the talking piece and invite each student to share 1-2 ideas of how to solve the bike-friendly community spaces issue or the other issue you’ve selected. Model the problem-solving process by actively listening to each idea but not responding to it. Chart students’ ideas as they’re shared.

  4. Selection (2-3 minutes): Read aloud the solutions offered by students. By a show of hands, invite students to vote on the top 3 proposed ideas they think would most effectively solve the issue. Circle these ideas. Time permitting, have students share in a go-round, or popcorn style, how they could start to implement one of the selected ideas. Thank students for engaging in collaborative problem-solving.

*If there is another issue centered around the climate crisis or environmental justice that you feel would be more relevant or meaningful to you, your students and your community, choose this as your issue for the problem-solving circle.


–Research assistance provided by Sean Welch.