Amsterdam is a bicycler’s paradise.
Motorbikes are ubiquitous in Bali.
Knowing your way around the subway or the Tube is essential in NYC or London, respectively.
People all across the world have a common need: to get from here to there.
Whether on foot, by bus, or aboard a gondola, the methods of travel in every nation or region are unique and practical to the culture born there.
Last week, we discussed traditional clothing and how clothing culture evolves with the times.
This week, we’ll take a look at transport and its evolution, a topic which falls under the same umbrella of basics – along with food, clothing, and shelter – as part of our series on the 10 Cultural Universals.
Practicality and Culture
Each culture has its own public and preferred methods of transport. These methods vary across regions, based largely upon two things:
1) Practicality – the most functional mode of transport, considering the landscape and infrastructure of the area
2) Social norms & values – the social norms and values that drive these transport choices
The favored method of transport is often chosen due to the type of transport culture that’s cultivated in any given region. It’s also chosen based upon practicality (which usually influences why society cultivates that type of transport culture, in the first place).
The Bicycling Capital
Let’s take Amsterdam, for example.
‘Bike Street: Cars are Guests’
Amsterdam is often called “the bicycling capital of the world,” and this is largely due to a social movement that happened in the ‘70s.
While prior to WWII, bicycling was already the predominant form of transportation across the Netherlands, car ownership exploded in the ‘50s and ‘60s and was soon so popular that roads were congested, and bicyclists were literally shunted to the side.
With more motor vehicles zipping around, the number of road fatalities sky-rocketed. 3,000 people – including 450 children – were killed by drivers in 1971.
‘Stop the Child Murder’ Social Movement
This is when a social movement formed, called ‘Stop de Kindermoord’ (Stop the Child Murder). The movement’s name was derived from journalist Vic Langenhoff’s article of the same title, which he’d written after his own child had been killed on the road.
The Middle East oil crisis of 1973 also informed the move toward reinstating bicycling as the primary form of transport. As the Dutch’s reliability on foreign oil was shaken, the motor vehicle seemed less sustainable than previously thought.
Thus, the Dutch government renewed their investment in bicycling infrastructure – with more cycling paths, smoother biking surfaces, parking facilities, bike-sharing programs, and clear signage and lights.
Biking is now a daily part of most Dutch people’s daily lives, which means that children grow up with this cycle-centric primary socialization. This makes for a homegrown biking culture, ever popular in a world promoting greener transport options.
In this way, Amsterdam’s traditional and revitalized biking culture is ahead of the pack, and forward-thinking “smart city” cultures are following in their bike tracks (see: Barcelona, Mexico City).
Next week, we’ll discuss transport culture further.