Riding Bikes with the Dutch

Riding Bikes with the Dutch is a documentary about the positive effects everyday biking has on cities. The film weaves through the beautiful streets of Amsterdam to show the diversity of people who use bikes as their primary means of transport. LACMA will be screening the film this Sunday at 2 pm as part of our Earth Day celebration. Unframed’s Alex Capriotti spoke with filmmaker Michael Bauch about how this film developed and how visiting Amsterdam changed his perspective on the possibilities of bike culture in American.

Commuters biking, Amsterdam, Riding Bikes with the Dutch (film still), 2010

Alex Capriotti: How did the idea for this documentary come about?

Michael Bauch: I have family in western Germany, near the Dutch border, whom I’ve been visiting often since I was a kid. In 2003, I was flying through Amsterdam to meet them. We were originally scheduled for a one-night layover, but we ended up enjoying it so much that we spent four more nights there. I was amazed by cycling there. The infrastructure was better suited for bicycling, but what really impressed me was how widely accepted bicycling was in the culture. Nearly everyone rode a bike. I had my camera with me and shot footage of the cyclists, which I turned into a short film called Amsterdam: The Bicycling Capital of Europe. I enjoyed Amsterdam so much that in 2007, my family and I decided to do a home exchange with a Dutch family. We lived there for a month, and eventually we began to feel like locals. My wife was working long distance and also helping to gain contacts in Amsterdam and arrange interviews.  We were also juggling a ten-month-old baby, and I still got some amazing footage for my film, Riding Bikes with the Dutch.

The very popular box bike, Amsterdam, Riding Bikes with the Dutch (film still), 2010

AC: What were the most fascinating parts of cycling culture in Amsterdam?

MB: The most fascinating part is how well integrated bikes are in the locals’ daily lives.  You see them riding a bike while smoking a cigarette, talking on a cell phone, putting make-up on.  These are all things that people do here in the U.S. while driving and the Dutch are doing it on two wheels and pedaling and balancing at the same time . . . talk about multitasking! To them a bike is as integral as a cup of coffee in the morning.  They don’t even really think it is special any more—it’s just part of life.  They were fascinated by how interested I was in their bike culture. Most people in Holland ride with normal clothes on—women even wear high heels.  It is so normal to them, why change into special cycling clothes? The biggest visual in Amsterdam that blew my mind was the three-level parking structure filled with bikes by the central train station.  I couldn’t believe it at first.  When I saw that, I knew I had to make a film.

Bike parking structure, Amsterdam, Riding Bikes with the Dutch (film still), 2010

AC: How does the city of Long Beach become part of the movie?

MB: Truthfully, when I started filming in Amsterdam in 2007, I had no idea that my home city would be part of it.  When we came home to Long Beach, the footage sat on the shelves for a while because I didn’t know exactly what shape the movie would take. When I set out to make this movie, I wasn’t intending to find the most bike-friendly city in the U.S. In fact, initially I was going to portray Long Beach as a typical example of the car-dependent American city. But as it turned out, I came back to Long Beach just as the sharrows were opening and other bike programs were being launched. A lot was changing and it was happening fast. Sometimes, timing is everything. So the direction of the American portion of the movie went from showing a car-centric dystopia to a place where cars still rule but there’s hope for the bicycles.  And if this can happen in car-centric Southern California, it can happen almost anywhere.

A family rides on the Sharrows in Long Beach

A family rides on the sharrows, Long Beach, Riding Bikes with the Dutch (film still), 2010

AC: Have you always been a cycling enthusiast?

MB: Not in the normal sense.  I was never into racing bikes or even having a nice bike.  If someone asked me what brand of bike I have, I would really have to think about it. I’ve just always enjoyed the freedom and the simplicity.  I remember that in third grade it was a big deal because I was finally allowed to ride my bike to school. Later in life, especially after moving to Long Beach, I found it was so much easier and enjoyable to run errands on two wheels than to drive.  Most of my trips are fairly short, one to three miles, so why fight parking and traffic when I can ride a bike?  Besides, I find that I can actually get some places faster on two wheels than on four.  With a simple $40 basket on the back, I can easily carry several bags of groceries, or make that last-minute delivery to FedEx.

When we returned home from Amsterdam, I splurged.  I bought a bakfiets or box bike.  It is a Dutch cargo bike and it is amazing what I can carry in it–two kids to school, a week’s worth of groceries, the dog . . . you just have to try one to believe it.  They are very common in the Netherlands but still very new to the States, but they’re becoming more popular.

AC: What advice do you have for people who want to swap their cars for bikes but may not have experience with biking in the city?

MB: Grab the bike that you probably already own (you know, the one in the back of the garage or up in the attic), pump up the tires, and get started riding short distances.  Ironically, the U.S. has some of the highest bike ownership in the world, but some of the lowest ridership.  In other words, we already have the “stuff,” now we just need the new mindset.

When someone says, “I am going to run to the store,” you can bet they are not going to actually “run” to the store.  They are going to instinctually grab their car keys and drive the two miles or less and grumble about parking and traffic all the way.  These short trips are the ones we should tackle first.  They are the ones where the bike blows the doors off a car in almost every way—it’s cheaper, more efficient, healthier, better for the environment, and probably faster in many cases. The amazing fact is that 35 percent of all trips in the city of Amsterdam are done on a bike. Since 40 percent of car trips in the U.S. are 2 miles or less, I think this is where the real opportunity to use bikes is.  You don’t have to be athletic to cover a short distance like this and it opens the door to a lot of opportunities.

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