The Dutch did to cycling what they once did to football: they provided a revolution, which, even if it wasn’t flawless, created a template that the rest of the world aspired to. For years, they have been the first thought and the final word in cycling infrastructure; other countries’ mums wanted to know why they couldn’t be more like the Dutch.
It’s unusual for someone in Western Europe to visit a Dutch city, let’s say Amsterdam, and come away without remarking on the impact of cycling. Bikes festoon every rail and bridge; commuters trundle along free from that harried battle-scarred look of mania and determination that you see in the eyes of a commuter in, say, central London; car drivers appear understanding, even, if you watch carefully, respectful of other road users.
Trace it back and you’ll find that it wasn’t simply the rich cycling culture that made this possible. Rather than thinking of the Netherlands as a cycling Utopia, it’s more useful to try and understand the development and innovation that have something of a parallel in the Dutch football team. In the early 70s, the Oranje, following a template laid down by Ajax football club, completely rethought what it meant to be a player in a football team. Total Football, as it was known in English, was a unique way of playing that, in more than one way, took the Dutch football team to the very peak of the world game. Today, there are strong arguments that current giants like Barcelona owe much to this revolutionary system and that world football still draws influence from that era and those players.
Cycling in the Netherlands and, indeed, cycling round the world, owes much to a period where people changed how they thought, not just about cycling, but about their roads, their laws and their cities.
“We limited the space for cars on the roads. The outcome was that we created better traffic flow, because people were encouraged to use bicycles, which occupy much less space than cars. Our cities became more livable in, we got better quality air, and the local economy was growing as there were a lot more people on streets”- Roelof Wittink – Director of Dutch Cycling Embassy
The decisions made by the Dutch government in the 70s deserves attention because they were the decisions that others didn’t make. If that sounds simplistic, it’s perhaps because its important to dispel some preconceptions about why the Netherlands is the way it is.
The story that’s often told is that cycling has been so much more a part of the wider culture of the Dutch, so well embedded in their DNA, that they built cities that were naturally cycling friendly. That does some disservice to other countries heritage – try telling the French that the Netherlands is the home of cycling. More than that, it ignores the more mundane truth that in the middle of the 20th century, the motor car shaped the development of cities as they grew in the post-war boom period.
Tom Godefrooij, senior policy advisor at the Dutch Cycling Embassy, tells &Bike that the smart decisions made by urban planners are still integral to how the transport networks function today. “The concepts they pioneered then shaped the culture and the appreciation of the bicycle today,” he says. “The Dutch people would not allow things to stay as they were and the only real way to change things was to think about how cycling should be in relation to other road users.”
Mike Cavenett, communications manager for the London Cycling Campaign shares a similar view. “What they came up with was safe and convenient and allowed them to integrate various modes of transport together,” he says. “It wasn’t just a cycling plan, it was finding a solution which gave both social and individual benefits to everyone using it.”
Whether through political inclination or perhaps the strength of character of some of the individuals involved in urban planning, city authorities and Dutch Parliament, as soon as cycling was on the agenda, action followed. “The Government must help eliminate cars so that bicycles can eliminate government,” ran one advocacy slogan and it’s difficult to entirely separate leftist and even perhaps anarchist sympathies and ideals from the will that gave impetus to the change. But the campaign for change wasn’t without a mind or a talent for invention.
One such individual was a transport engineer called Joost Vahl who helped pioneer the idea of a ‘woonerf’ – a Dutch concept of shared space which gave other road users priority over the car. Using strategies including traffic calming, lower speed limits and restricted access, these areas spread across the country.
Another important element was creating space for cyclists. One of the driving forces behind the investment and legislation that occurred in the Netherlands in the 70s was a campaign, the name of which translates as ‘Stop the Child Murder’; a call to arms by the cycling community to combat the the distressing figures of children killed by cars on Dutch roads. The movement gained wider support and, before long, the recognition of the Government, including the prime minister of the time, Joop den Uyl.
“One of the first and most important things you notice about cycling in the Netherlands is the range of people that cycle,” says Cavenett. “Especially children – in some areas its even unusual if a child doesn’t cycle to school.”
Cycle paths were designed not just to give riders the space to jostle in a peloton, they were designed to make roads more usable for everyone and encourage people to feel safer on their bikes. That priority isn’t that surprising when you look at campaigners like Maartje van Putten, a young mother and, reportedly, a tough and influential voice who worked hard to get the Government to put the safety of children at the heart of any redesign.
The will for investment, hard fought for though it had been, had the right foundations in its quest to integrate safer cycling options into the wider scheme of transport. However, legislation needed to be precisely focused in order to enact the ideas that campaigners had ridden in mass protests in order to bring about.
Even today, the question of liability remains a thorny issue for legislators, but it had a key role to play in wresting power from motorists.
“There are quite a few people in the Netherlands who have been dismissive of the role liability played, but it was definitely a factor in how it got where it is today,” says Cavenett. In the 70s laws of stricter liability made sure that the greater priority that cyclists were receiving was matched with punishments to drivers involved in incidents with cyclists. “I think when we look at dispute liability as the sole goal, that can lead the argument down the wrong path – instead we should be putting in high-quality infrastructure and focusing on improving the behaviour of all road users. But, that’s nothing without the support of the law.”
For Godefrooij, that sentiment of improving behaviour has its roots in making cyclists a more recognised road user. “The laws that were brought about helped give cyclists security and less of an ‘us and them’ mentality. Ultimately, if you don’t feel safe you won’t want to use your bike and the protection the law provides is an important part of that.”
Lessons to learn
So, do the Dutch have an enviable cycling culture that they’ve managed to defend, or is it perhaps the other way round and by defending cycling and raising their children to be cyclists and making cyclists into respected road users, that the culture of cycling flourished? Either way, it’s a virtuous cycle in the sense that the fundamental aims are enshrined in law and preserved in a national identity that incorporates cycling.
The Dutch export bikes – often prettier, more expensive versions of the kind that you’re likely to find slumped lazily one upon another in towns around the country. Easily passed by, but it’s worth looking at the attitude evinced by those bicycles: cycling is functional and available to all. It’s not elitist; it’s not hobbyist; it’s not a challenge. Instead, riding a bike is a decision you might make like taking a bus. That’s not to say there aren’t keen riders and there isn’t a community that’s developed around cycling, but the basic understanding here is that some journeys are easiest by bike.
That mentality and the techniques that helped them reach that goal and the lessons they learned along the way now make the Dutch a special breed among urban planners. Godefrooij’s Dutch Cycling Embassy is a relatively young public private enterprise that aims to work with authorities in cities around the world to promote co-operation and share ideas that helped The Netherlands get to where it is today.
“People in organisations and governments ask us about ‘Dutch Cycling’ because at a basic level it’s a process and a culture that can work almost anywhere,” says Godefrooij.
The UK is among those that have been keen to heed the messages that the Dutch have to teach. In November, the fourth of the Love Cycling, Go Dutch conferences took place in Manchester mirroring events across the country which have taken aim at promoting the fundamentals of Dutch cycling culture.
In London, the London Cycling Campaign (LCC) has embraced the Go Dutch campaign. On a rainy day in April 10,000 people took to the road to ride in support of the campaign – the UK’s largest ever ride in support of safer roads. The group also succeeded in pushing the agenda into the spotlight during the mayoral elections.
“We challenged mayoral candidates before the election and now the Mayor to address key developments that we thought were important for safer roads,” says Cavenett. “Beyond that we left it open as to how they might go about it. Now we’re sitting back and waiting for the right response, to an extent and we’ll keep reminding the Mayor why it’s important. It’s not a lone voice though, British Cycling is calling for it, the [national cycling charity] CTC is supporting the idea and there’s a real momentum behind the Love London, Go Dutch campaign. The enthusiasm is quite stunning.”
For Cavenett, cities are constantly in a state of regeneration and if the right principles are placed as the foundations of that process, the results will undoubtedly follow. As he explains: “If we started now, it wouldn’t be that long before we started to see the benefits of major changes. At the moment, we’re hearing words, but not seeing change. If we started ‘going Dutch’ now, in 10 years we could be seeing 10-15% more journeys being made by bike.”
The Dutch don’t have it all figured out. Cycling jams – unusual as that might sound – have dogged some cities, like Utrecht, while there’s also concern that the investment on infrastructure in places like Amsterdam have fallen off and present a risk. The fuss, much of which was raised by the Dutch Cycling Union, created consternation and not the smallest bit of jest around the world. Australian newspaper The Age led with Dutch cycling utopia under threat, citing reports into the creaking of the current infrastructure under a surge of cyclists.
The average Dutch cyclist goes ten times further a year than the average Brit. The Netherlands is no Utopia, but the basic principles underpinning its culture are crucial to the safety of existing road users and the lessons it has to teach can provide the core of a culture that will help more people get around get around safely.
But Godefrooij is optimistic. “These ideas can work. If there is the desire, we know the way to make a cycling culture a reality.”
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