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Why is cycling popular in the Netherlands: infrastructure or 100+ years of history?

Imagine, if you will, War of the Worlds in reverse. Imagine not a destructive alien invasion, but a constructive one. Imagine giant space-ships sucking up all of the wonderful bike paths in the Netherlands and depositing them in the UK, creating ready-made bicycle infrastructure, separated from the road network, protected, connected. Once they’ve got used to having aliens as town planners, do you think car-mad Brits would become bike-mad? Would the instant installation of near-perfect infrastructure lead to an overnight explosion in bike use?

Yes, there would be an uptick but how much of an uptick? How much latent demand is there for cycling in the UK? I’d like to think lots, but I’m mostly an optimist. The pessimist side of me reckons that infrastructure provision, vital though that is, is not a magic pill. In the 1970s, the New Town of Stevenage had an excellent, inter-connected, Dutch-style cycleway network, designed by a cyclist (the network is still there, but was not improved or updated and Dutch infra *was* updated and improved, big-time), but cycle use did not explode there, far from it. It will take more than infrastructure to make Brits get back on their bikes.

Chicken and egg time: in the Netherlands, what came first, lots of people riding bicycles or infrastructure so lots of people would ride bicycles? The Netherlands has world class bicycle infrastructure, much of it built since the 1970s, but why was the modern stuff built? It was built partly because of effective tame-the-car campaigns putting people before motors, but it was also built – or, rather, extended and modernised – because so many people in the Netherlands already rode bicycles.

This clearly has implications for nations, such as the UK, which largely lost the bicycling habit in the 1950s and 60s. If, alien invasions aside, national and local government invested in Dutch-style infrastructure would Brits get back on their bikes? Some would. Many wouldn’t. As sociologist Dave Horton shows on his excellent and thought-provoking blog, cycling is not even considered as an option by many groups in British society. For instance, bike paths built to and from a white working class estate wouldn’t persuade residents to ride bicycles: bikes, for them, are toys, cycling is for children not adults or incredibly low status (unless you’re a drug dealer). Those who want to ride bikes on routes protected from motor vehicles are already doing so: youths on mountain bikes terrorise pavements, especially in working class neighbourhoods.

When ranters shout about yobs on bikes, they don’t always mean “us”, they often mean “them”. We look at their clothing, their riding styles and their bicycle-shaped-objects and we instinctively know they’re “not cyclists”; not cyclists as we tend to think of cyclists.

It’s not the same in the Netherlands. People of all classes ride bikes. It’s not just because of the joined-up bike paths. The Netherlands isn’t a country of cyclists, it’s a country where people ride bikes a lot. It’s Europe’s top cycling nation. And it’s been top of the pile since 1911.

Just as cycling decreased in the UK and America from the 1930s and 1940s so it decreased in the Netherlands but cycle use was so high, the baseline was so elevated, that the numbers of people cycling still remained relatively high compared to other countries. Because the Netherlands is a “cycling country” a great many Dutch drivers ride bikes regularly, too, so even where there are no protected bike paths, drivers know how to behave when propelling their potentially lethal machines through streets thronged with people.

Segregated transport infrastructure in the Netherlands has a long history. Harper’s Magazine in the US reported way back in 1880 that

“there is a little town in Holland in the streets of which no horse is ever allowed to come. Its cleanliness may be imagined, and its quiet repose.”

And in The Spectator of 31st December 1898, the Dutch love of separate tracks for different road users was described with an animal metaphor:

“Beavers, the only warm-blooded animals which habitually do heavy transport by land, provide for all contingencies by cutting ‘rolling ways,’ biting off all stumps and obstacles, and do their log-rolling along these towards the water…Thus beavers have three kinds of roads, their ordinary tracks near the water, their canals, and the log-rolling roads…Variety of roads is a mark of progress among the beasts as among men. Even in Europe there are many degrees of this exhibition of civilisation. The Dutch are the representatives of the beavers among men. On the route from the Hague to Scheveningen, for instance, there lie parallel to each other a carriage road, a canal, a bicycle track, a light railway, side-paths regularly constructed…”

Yet Dutch experts of the modern era realise that infrastructure is not all. In 1995, Ton Welleman, project manager of the (world-famous) Bicycle Master Plan at the Dutch Ministry of Transport, wrote:

“Since 1990, the total length of cycle paths has increased to almost 19,000 km, generally speaking double the length in 1980. Besides cycle paths, there were also investments in roundabouts, reconstructions of junctions and pedestrian/cyclist crossings, cycle tunnels and bridges and parking facilities for cyclists. Results: In 1994, the total distance cycled was 12.9 billion km, compared with 12.8 billion in 1990. Expansion and improvement of the infrastructure does not necessarily increase the use of bicycles.”

However, in the Dutch Bicycle Master Plan of 1999, Welleman wrote:

“expansion of the infrastructure for bicycle traffic is undoubtedly a contributing factor to the revival of bicycle use since the mid-1970s. People are quicker to choose the bicycle because they generally experience less delay when cycling on bicycle paths and feel safer there than in situations in which they need to share the space with fast moving car traffic.”

But he added:

“…the construction of a network of bicycle routes is insufficient in itself for bringing about a sustainable increase in bicycle use. The simultaneous execution of a policy discouraging car use is deemed necessary, as is attention to good bicycle parking facilities and informing people of the route network on a continual basis.”

What Welleman makes clear in the history section of the Bicycle Master Plan is that politicians felt able to support cycling. Cycling might have been in decline in the 1950s and 1960s but it was still the transport choice for millions of people. In the 1930s, cyclists in Dutch cities made up 70-90 percent of the traffic. In comparison, in 1930s Manchester, when cycling was at the peak of its popularity as a mode of transport, cycling had a 25 percent modal share.

Social historian Anne Ebert believes the bicycle is an “important object for Dutch national identification” and that:

“The tremendous success of the bicycle in the Netherlands can be at least partly explained by the particular way in which the bicycle was constructed and conceived as a promoter of Dutch national identity. To be Dutch meant to cycle, and this viewpoint remained prevalent until the Second World War, and – arguably to a lesser degree – remains so to this day.”

Today in the UK, the provision of bicycle infrastructure is rising up the political agenda, especially thanks to the campaigning clout of The Times.

Politicians – of all stripes – are slowly waking up to the fact that much more needs to be done for cyclists.

In the Netherlands the same realisation came in the mid-1970s. According to the Dutch Bicycle Master Plan of 1999, “From 1950 to 1975, the bicycle was almost entirely excluded from the government’s vision.”

In 1983, the Ministry of Transport admitted it had neglected cycling: “until the early 1970s, attention to bicycle traffic was minimal. The prosperity expectations were such that within the foreseeable future bicycle traffic would decrease, certainly for commuting, to a negligible share compared to car traffic. In the period between 1960 and 1975, the construction of bicycle facilities lost much ground due to the increase in car traffic, which resulted in greater emphasis being placed on constructing facilities for cars.”

Cycle use was in decline and the Dutch planners and politicians arrested this decline, by taming cars and providing more for people on bicycles. But such policies worked because there was still a cycling culture in the Netherlands.

In the Bicycle Master Plan, Welleman said the city of Enschede put in place pro-cycling infrastructure in the 1960s:

“Although policy makers in the 1960s expected the bicycle to vanish from the traffic scene in Enschede, the city resolved nonetheless to continue taking the bicycle into account until thal time came. Bicycle lanes of 2.5 m in width were allocated on both sides of arterial roads, one of the reasons for which was certainly the promotion of the flow of motorized traffic on the main roadway. An incidental advantage was that the bicycle lanes could serve as parking lanes for car traffic following the anticipated disappearance of bicycle traffic.”

In 1961, German transport planner Karl Schaechterle proposed that motor traffic should be diverted away from the centre of Eindhoven on a system of connected motorways. Cyclists would benefit from this, thought Schaechterle:

“This development makes it necessary to create new space for traffic in order to relieve the arterial roads, which contain insufficient capacity, particularly around the city centre. In doing so, attention should primarily be paid to bicycle traffic, which has not yet lost any significance here. The relief of the present streets around the city centre that we are pursuing will lead to better traffic conditions for two-wheel vehicles.”

It’s important not to underestimate the popularity of cycling in the Netherlands before the 1970s. The Netherlands hasn’t had 40 years of being pro-bike, it’s had 100 years of being pro-bike, as shown by David Hembrow and Mark Wagenbuur.

Provision of modern bicycle infrastructure from the 1970s onwards didn’t magically make the Netherlands into a cycling nation, Dutch people have considered cycling to be an intrinsic part of their national identity since the 1890s, when the first bike paths were built. These paths were provided not just as a form of separation but as a way to provide routes for the fastest vehicles of the day: bicycles.

This has been a long introduction for a guest posting. Please let me introduce you to Kaspar Hanenbergh. Kaspar is a bicycle historian and is writing a book about Dutch cycling history. He’s also Controller of the real estate and facility management department at the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Below, Kaspar argues that when Brits and Americans stopped cycling in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, Dutch people did too, but not to anywhere near the same degree.

Cycling was slow to catch on in the Netherlands. While Britain and America had ‘bicycle booms’ in the 1890s, sales of bicycles in the Netherlands were comparatively low. Just 94,370 fiets were in ownership in 1899.

In a population of just over 5 million at the time this represents 19 bicycles for every 1,000 inhabitants. This is below the 35 per-1000 estimate for Britain in 1896 (1 million bicycles for a population of 28.5 million), and also below the American ‘boom’ figure of 41-per-1000 estimate in 1896 (3 million bicycles for a population of 72.5 million).

But by 1911 the number of bicycles owned in the Netherlands had jumped to 600,000, an ownership ratio of one in ten. Bicycles were now more popular in the Netherlands than in any other European nation.

There are many theories on why this should be the case.

Adoption of the bicycle as a national symbol
At a first glance, this appears a highly unlikely factor. Those Dutch, they did nothing that contributed to the development of the machine. You will not find the name of any Dutchman or Dutch company in the list of ground-breaking patents surrounding the bicycle’s stepping stones of development, although they were quick to adopt improvements (until 1912 there was no proper patent law in the Netherlands).

They did not establish a large scale industry that exported large numbers of bicycles to the world, creating an important flow of foreign currency that would bring some sort of national pride. Until 1920 imports from abroad continued to dominate the market in the Netherlands.

Then how can such an object become a national symbol? The answer is not in the noun but in the verb: cycling is the activity that quickly became a national activity, not the bicycle itself.

Policy of constructing separate bicycle paths
We have to realise that this separation is nowadays often understood as separating slow traffic (bicycles) from fast traffic (cars). In the 1890s the construction was undertaken for the same reason (safety) but with the bicycles being the fast traffic, and all other kinds of traffic being slow (and inattentive). Arguments between cyclists and pedestrians, horse drawn cart drivers, or people just playing on the road were common in all countries. Another reason was the bad quality of roads in general.

'Permis Libre', 1890s postcard, published by the Dutch ANWB

From very early on, pressure groups, like the ANWB (Royal Dutch Touring Club, founded as a cycling club but which later morphed into a bicycle-and-automobile organisation) used their power to lobby for separate roads. Very reluctantly, local government took up this role, but in the early years private initiative was far more effective. The ANWB supported local rijwielpadverenigingen, or bicycle path societies. Because the ANWB really invested in a grass roots power base this was quite an effective strategy. ‘Grass roots’ did not mean local working class heroes, but well-connected consuls, often with double names (indicating nobility) or in other ways in a good position to obtain support for change.

Bicycle paths of this kind were usually constructed for recreational purposes only. In Radelnde Nationen (Cycling Nations), Anne Ebert recounts the arguments around the affluent village of Baarn where such paths meandered through the forests to create the longest path possible. When local workmen argued that a direct A-to-B path was faster to go to work it was made clear that recreational cycling was more important. However, paths alongside main routes were also constructed, as was done in The Hague, when around 1898 the connection along the Laan van Meerdervoort between a new part of the city and the city-centre was enhanced by separate cycling paths.

'The Travel guide and the atlas', 1890s postcard, published by the Dutch ANWB

Policy of ‘classlessness’ by lobby groups
At no time in history was cycling considered poor man’s transport in the Netherlands. Just as elsewhere in Europe, consumers in the Netherlands followed the established path of ‘moving up’ to a motor cycle and, after WWII, a motor car. But this did not lead Dutch people to give up cycling.

The most important contribution to maintaining the perception of a classless means of transportation comes from the ANWB. The organisation continued to grow, but not at the rate the number of cyclists grew. Interestingly, they avoided some of the pitfalls made by cycling lobby groups in other countries: In 1891 the ANWB stressed the usefulness of bicycles for professional/utilitarian purposes.
In 1898 they moved away from cycling sport and from discussions over professional cycling. In 1905 the ANWB specifically included other means of recreational transport, like motorcycles and cars. In 1905 they reframed themselves a tourist organisation, focussing on recreational cycling (but in fact implicitly promoting good roads, signs and support for the growing legion of working class cyclists).

As a result, the ANWB remained the largest promoter for all types of road transportation and for recreation in general in the Netherlands. Not until the 1960s and 1970s did they forget about the separate and conflicting demands of cyclists versus motorists, and in 1975 the Fietsersbond was founded (originally, teasingly, called ENWB, ‘REAL Dutch Cyclists Association’) .

“There are no hills in the Netherlands”
When stages of the Tour de France pass through the Netherlands strong headwinds in the polders seem as insurmountable as the French cols tackled later in the Tour and create considerable time differences between riders. A popular cycling game (Stap op!) punishes you with Tegenwind (headwind) cards to slow you down.

The level of utilitarian cycling in the hillier parts of the country (for instance, in Limburg) is still high.

In 1910 there were some 450,000 bicycles owned in the Netherlands. Nine years later ownership had doubled. Much of this growth was due to the style of bicycle that became the top seller, what’s known in Germany as das Hollandrad. By 1919 the ‘Dutch bike’ had been perfected and incorporated features – sit-up-and-scan riding position, sturdy frame and components, robust luggage rack and mudguards – that allowed for practical, everyday transportation.


Kaspar Hanenbergh is Controller at the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs, based in The Hague. He is a member of Historische Rijwielvereniging de Oude Fiets, the Dutch veteran cycling club. He is writing a book on Dutch cycling history, Ons Stalen Ras, due for publication in Autumn 2013.

34 thoughts on “Why is cycling popular in the Netherlands: infrastructure or 100+ years of history?

  1. Ian Brett Cooper / Reply December 8, 2012 at 8:01 pm

    I think, if Netherlands bicycle infrastructure, as well as the laws that make them work there, were instituted in Britain, a lot of what makes Britain’s cycling culture unique would be lost. Let’s not forget that, unlike Britain’s cyclists, cyclists in the Netherlands do not have the ‘right’ to operate on that nation’s roads. Many Dutch roads that ought to be available for cycling are off limits to cyclists and bike lane use is mandatory in many places. The Netherlands is by no means a cycling utopia, and Britain’s cyclists have more rights than any Dutch cyclist. Let’s keep it that way.

    The right to cycle on the road is essential to British cycling. The last thing I would want, as a British cyclist, would be to turn Britain’s cycling infrastructure into that of the Netherlands. I have cycled extensively in the Netherlands and I found the experience quite frustrating. Dutch infrastructure is by no means the utopian ideal presented in tourist brochures: many Dutch bikeways are slow, narrow, hazardous, crowded and poorly maintained, just like those in the UK.

    • carltonreid / Reply December 8, 2012 at 11:01 pm

      As we’re starting after the Dutch, we could actually *improve* on what they’ve got. We can avoid some of their mistakes.
      For sure we mustn’t lose any road rights whatsoever. Infra should be superlative, but never mandatory.
      But there are certain locations where protected bike infra is very much needed.

    • Richard Adamfi / Reply December 9, 2012 at 5:18 pm

      You are, of course, talking from the point of view of a cycle enthusiast. You identify yourself as a ‘cyclist’. The vast majority of the Dutch cyclists are not cyclists, per se, they just use bikes to get around. These people will not cycle on busy roads and are quite happy to cycle at low speed. Take a Dutch person to the UK and they will stop cycling.

      Despite enormous investment, there is still variability in Dutch cycle infrastructure. The west of the country, even including Amsterdam, is notably worse than the north-east, for example. If you look at Hembrow’s blog, you don’t see narrow or poorly maintained paths in Assen

    • Arjen Haayman / Reply December 10, 2012 at 8:04 am

      I always find these remarks surprising. It is so obvious you’ve never been in the Netherlands. We don’t WANT to have the right to ride everywhere. You can read this David Hembrow article to see why:

      Yes, there is separation (by no means everywhere though) and both the cars and the bikes are obliged to drive/ride their own lanes. But just as a biker is pissed when he finds a car on the bike path, the same holds for the cars finding bikes on the car-lanes, because it is dangerous and it slows the cars down.

      Everyone is just happy to be rid of the other type of traffic and no-one feels he doesn’t have the “right” to be on the other street.

      • carltonreid / Reply December 10, 2012 at 8:44 am

        Such remarks are not at all surprising. Motorists want UK cyclists to use the bike paths provided but the bike paths provided tend to be rather famously crap.
        Brit cyclists are very well aware of what Dutch folks get to ride on, whether or not we’ve been there (I have). Netherlands has been Europe’s top cycling nation since 1911, as is pointed out by this posting.
        Any new bike path provision we get is very likely not going to up to Dutch standards but there’s a fear we may be forced to use such inferior infrastructure anyway.
        If, by some miracle, the UK got great bike paths (it may take an alien invasion), I don’t think cyclists would be demanding to also use the parallel, traffic-choked roads. Cyclists don’t *want* to mix with thundering lorries.
        As David Hembrow points out, the Netherlands has 29,000kms of bike path. But the country has 135,000kms of public roads. Clearly, if Dutch folk want to get places they sometimes have to use roads. As David also points out, the Dutch service roads are different to ours in the UK. David also lives in a part of the Netherlands famous for its dense cycle path network; not everywhere in the Netherlands has such great conditions.
        The UK has a lot of catching up to do but provision for the cyclists of the future should lead to new rights and never loss of existing ones for the cyclists of today.
        Some folks may say this is the same “failed” opposition put forward by the CTC in the 1930s when the Hangar Lane bike path was installed in London; that somehow Britain would have had Netherlands-style bicycle provision by now if CTC had only asked for more such bike lanes. This point of view doesn’t take into account the very different levels of cycle use in the Netherlands and the UK in the 1930s.

      • John_the_Monkey / Reply December 10, 2012 at 9:17 am

        Try to bear in mind that we have very, very few “facilities” that are worthy of the name. Even those that aren’t so poorly designed as to be dangerous are badly maintained (my local ones have been dangerously slippy since Autumn, with rotting leaf mould being supplanted by a coating of ice – that will be succeeded by snow). And they get parked in, are inconvenient and meandering, and so on.

        Skepticism about compulsory use of cycle paths is an entirely reasonable position for a British cyclist to hold.

      • Ian Brett Cooper / Reply December 10, 2012 at 1:54 pm

        “It is so obvious you’ve never been in the Netherlands.”

        I’ve cycled over a thousand miles in the Netherlands, from Vlissingen to Enschede and from Weert to Amsterdam. So there goes that theory.

        “Yes, there is separation (by no means everywhere though) and both the
        cars and the bikes are obliged to drive/ride their own lanes.”

        Yes. Why can’t you see that this is a bad thing?

        “Everyone is just happy to be rid of the other type of traffic”

        I share the sentiment of desiring fewer cars to deal with, but I’m not willing to give up my right to the road in order to achieve it. Surrendering the road to cars is not a victory, and it will just make roads harder to negotiate if we give them up in favor of bicycle infrastructure.

        “and no-one feels he doesn’t have the “right” to be on the other street.”

        Which is strange, because you don’t. I detect the whiff of Stockholm syndrome.

        • Arjen Haayman / Reply December 10, 2012 at 5:42 pm

          I can’t see it as a bad thing, since I’ve hardly ever felt the need to ride between the cars whenever there’s a bikepath.

        • Arjen Haayman / Reply December 11, 2012 at 11:30 am

          You see, you can’t have both ways. The separation if beneficial for both modes. In exchange for getting peace of mind and safety you give up the right to ride on the road. The same goes for the cars. Why should the bikers get extra infra ánd keep the right to use the other infra, diminishing the safety of the cars (and yourself of course)? When I drive a car I don’t want any bikers on the road either.

          But what I’m surprised about is that you are bothered about this. In NL it’s just like saying “I’m fighting this law that forbids me to eat horse-shit”. There’s no use about fighting against a law that forbids something you don’t want anyway.

          I’m speaking from experience. I’ve been commuting by bike for the last 25 years, 10.000 km per year at speeds up to 45 km/h (in a velomobile) and still I don’t feel the need to ignore the bike path.

          • carltonreid / December 11, 2012 at 11:52 am

            If ‘Going Dutch’ *really* meant there would be a fair exchange – with cyclists and pedestrians getting great, wide routes, and motorists getting much less space – perhaps your arguments wouldn’t sound quite so scary. Thing is, there is precious little evidence to show that UK cyclists and pedestrians would get any sort of fair exchange.

            As John_the_monkey has pointed out, there’s a long and inglorious history of fantastic promises being made to cyclists and pedestrians in the UK, and then the actual infrastructure provided truly sucks.

            Default position has to be: show us the routes, the real routes, and then we’ll consider whether the “separation” provided is actually going to be any good. Far too often, and famously, it’s been crap.

            We don’t want more of the same, and certainly shouldn’t even breathe a word of mandatory use by UK cyclists of ‘Dutch-style cycle routes’ until there’s a full and brilliant network of such routes.

          • Dr C. / December 11, 2012 at 12:14 pm

            I can understand your position, but it seems ultimately self defeating to talk down that which is the foundation of mass bicycle use in a developed country because of fear that it might be done badly and that at some future point its use might become mandatory. Perhaps it would be wiser to embrace it and steer it in the right direction, rather than keeping it at arm’s length whilst ‘Facility of the Month’ fodder spreads.

            Whilst it is certainly not perfect, pedestrians have their own separated infrastructure, which is fairly coherent and has existed in more or less its current form for quite some time. However, should you wish to do so, you may still walk on the carriageway instead. Why should we expect a network of cycle infrastructure would be unique in this regard?

          • carltonreid / December 11, 2012 at 12:25 pm

            I support Dutch-style infrastructure and have even been on BBC News 24 saying so!
            However, I want the real deal, or perhaps even wider, better infra than common in the Netherlands. It’s important to keep stressing that we must fight against any suggestion that infra provided *has* to be used.
            I can want Dutch-style provision *and* maintain all existing rights.

            One of the ways of doing this would be to partner with pedestrian and disability groups, to tame the car. By acting together we’d be stronger. It will be easy for planners and politicians to throw cyclists a few scraps, but far harder to ignore a widespread campaign seeking to reign in King Car.

          • David Robjant / December 27, 2013 at 7:06 pm

            I think what you’ve identified, cartlonreid, is a positive strategy by the DfT & TfL planners. We ask for cream, they serve up semolina, and the idea is that we will go away with the notion that cream isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Well, don’t let the bastards confuse you.

          • Ian Brett Cooper / December 11, 2012 at 3:59 pm

            Segregating cyclists from cars is about as useful as segregating whites from blacks. It works to keep a corrupt system of inequality alive so that the powerful can continue to oppress the less powerful. What we need is to be supporting and maintaining our right to the road: we should not be undermining it and surrendering the road to a bunch of motorist thugs. If you want to be a second-class citizen in terms of your vehicle and your access to transportation facilities, that’s your problem. I don’t see why it should be mine.

            Cycling advocacy, it seems, is full of ‘Uncle Toms’ right at the point we need more people like Rosa Parks. I’m tired of people who pretend to be cycling advocates telling me I should be happy with a reserved place at the back of the bus. That’s what Dutch people have, and I’ll be damned if I stand by while Uncle Tom tells me to sit down and quit being ‘uppity’.

          • John Parkman / October 4, 2013 at 10:36 pm

            ?? You really biked in the Netherlands? I’m from New York and have biked in England and the Netherlands. I prefer to be Uncle Tom in the Netherlands, pleasantly and safely biking on separate roads. Be my Rosa Parks and get killed by a lorry on Oxford road. Ever heard of ‘false equivalences’?

          • carltonreid / October 5, 2013 at 6:31 am

            Yes, I’ve cycled in the Netherlands a number of times, including with small children on a cycle tour. The cycle infrastructure is world-class, obviously. But cyclists still get killed by cars and trucks in the Netherlands: the protected bike lanes aren’t everywhere.
            While I’d love to get Dutch-style infrastructure in the UK, and have been calling for it in magazine editorials for 20+ years, I don’t think we’ll ever get as dense a network. As the article shows, the Dutch are more than 100 years ahead of us and have had a strong bicycle culture all this time for many interconnected reasons.
            Protected bike lanes are increasing in the UK, and the US, but there will always be gaps in the network – as there is in the Netherlands – and I wouldn’t bet my house on US/UK car-centric politicians and planners suddenly ‘seeing the light’ and catering for cyclists. For a long time I have called for cyclists to align with pedestrian and other groups seeking to tame the car. Cyclists alone aren’t yet a big enough force to achieve large and genuine changes in the road network.
            Provision of cyclist-specific infrastructure will be patchy and not always up to Dutch standards. In certain areas of the UK, most especially parts of London, including Hackney, cycle use is increasing but it’s not always because of protected bike lanes. In fact, in Hackney, there’s very few protected bike lanes yet cycle use is booming. I was there the other day and can vouch for this growth. On a cycle safari conducted by the local campaign group – at midnight – I was surprised to see so many solo women riding around Hackney at such an hour. Not women in Spandex on sports bikes, women in normal clothes on standard bikes.
            While we can learn a lot from the Netherlands we can also learn a lot from places like Hackney. Increasing cycle use is something that occurs for a number of interconnected reasons, including but not exclusively the provision of infrastructure.

        • totobobo / Reply August 28, 2014 at 2:49 pm

          Ian, I used to live Eindhoven, the Netherlands, working as a designer in Philips for 7 years from 1989 to 1996. Just as many colleagues, I cycle to work everyday . I never heard that we are not allow to cycle on the road, and occasionally I did. The reason that I choose to cycle on separated bicycle paths is that it is and much safer and perhaps faster (at roundabouts). The Dutch cycling paths is not slower compare to riding on roads.

    • Steven Fleming / Reply May 2, 2013 at 9:42 pm

      Ian, I would like you to try a little mind experiment: image you have lost your right to ride on the road, and are forced on occasion to ride in a designated bike path surrounded by women and children on much slower bikes. There will be busy parts of town where no doubt you will lose time, but your chances of cycling into old age alive will be greatly increased, and the children under your feet will have longer and healthier lives. It seems you are putting your current rights before the greater good of people around you.

  2. Mad Cycle Lanes of Manchester / Reply December 8, 2012 at 8:13 pm

    You have fallen into the trap of thinking that there is no cycling culture in Britain. This is an error.

    Take Manchester; it has an overal 0.5% modal share… Now take Oxford Road in Manchester, it has a 20% modal share when the undergraduates are at the university. A 20% modal share on many days gives the Oxford Road area a bike culture, but the rest of Manchester is bloody awful.

    So, no there are islands of bike culture in the UK, and they cluster around the universities. These islands can be cultivated and can grow much larger.

    • carltonreid / Reply December 8, 2012 at 10:58 pm

      Sure. And Blackfriars bridge, London, has huge bicycle traffic, too. There are definitely pockets of high-usage out there. Agreed, it would be great to link them up.

    • John_the_Monkey / Reply December 10, 2012 at 9:12 am

      Oxford Road is awful, and such bike culture as there is exists despite, rather than because of what’s there.

      Although the bus driving has improved a great deal over the time I’ve been riding here (it’s rare to see drivers hassling cyclists, something that was commonplace from certain companies not two years ago) they still “compete” with bikes for space, and the classic overtake, then indicate & pull into the stop still happens. The standard of driving and parking from other vehicles remains poor, with mandatory lanes often blocked as people dash into Tesco Express, (or, on the other side, the chicken place) pick up passengers &c. The door zone lanes through Rusholme probably merit a weary, slightly disbelieving mention too.

      I ride it twice each day, and it’s one of the nervier bits of my commute (as are the traffic islands on Manchester Road heading into Cheadle, but that’s another story).

      • Tim / Reply December 10, 2012 at 11:34 pm

        The worst part of the buses on Oxford Road is the way you end up “leapfrogging” all the way into (or out of) town, so you spend sections of the journey repeatedly overtaking, and being overtaken by, the same one or two buses. Although you generally leave them behind after a while.

        • John_the_Monkey / Reply December 11, 2012 at 7:52 am

          Yeah. I turn off at Egerton Road, and it’s always with something of a sigh of relief. The good thing about Oxford Road is that the traffic is rarely moving quickly – the bad is that you have to be on alert ALL the way down. Cars turning through gaps in traffic, suddenly diving for parking spaces, busses pre-emptively blocking the bike lane on the approach to stops, pedestrians crossing through stopped traffic, trying to figure out if you can get ahead of three or four busses in line before they all start moving again… It’s stressful, even for the experienced.

    • Tim / Reply December 10, 2012 at 11:31 pm

      MCLoM, I like your blog and I don’t wish to offend, but I’m calling bull on your 20%. Where do you get a statistic like that?

      I’ve read that Oxford Road is the most dangerous cycle route in Manchester, which I could believe, although that figure apparently took no account of the fact it’s one of the busiest routes for cyclists in the city, which I can also believe. But 20%? Seriously? There are over 50,000 undergrads at the two main universities. Admittedly not all located on Oxford Road and not all commuting down it, but I think if 20% of all journeys were being made by bike (even just in term time) we’d know.

      And of course it’s often called the busiest bus route in Europe, which may or may not be true, but let’s go with your figure and assume all of the other 80% of journeys were being made by bus (which of course they aren’t). I’m pretty sure cycling doesn’t account for a quarter as many journeys as are made on the bus…

      I ride down it every day, and the other day in the rush hour I was in a group with four other cyclists as we made our way past Whitworth Park. Five whole cyclists all together! I nearly bought a bottle of champagne to celebrate.

      And there’s the tragedy. As a route for cycling it has so much to recommend it – flat, convenient distance, thousands of students – but as John_ the_Monkey points out, the cycling is grim. As someone from the University Cycling Club – many of whom are into the more extreme side of sports cycling – explained, when you cycle down Oxford Road “you take your life in your hands”.

      I regularly talk to people who live and work here who would love to cycle in but are too scared, so I quite agree that some decent infrastructure could turn it into a very busy cycle route, but I would suggest that calling it an “island of bike culture” right now is a bit of a stretch.

      • Dr C. / Reply December 11, 2012 at 12:28 pm

        As someone who used to live just off manchester’s Oxford Road, I’m afraid I have to agree that 20% is hugely optimistic; at peak times, 5% is a more likely figure. If that 20% figure has a source, rather than being an estimate, I’d expect it was from a single count on a non-typical day, such as a SkyRide day or a Critical Mass being taken through the count.

  3. David / Reply December 10, 2012 at 10:33 am

    Great piece, like the whole blog, thank you very much.

    Do you agree that the take up of bicycle infrastructure depends not just on the quality of the infrastructure, and the historical cycling culture, but also the pros and cons of cycling relative to other transport? For instance Milton Keynes has the best cycle infrastructure in the UK, but is the most car dependent city, because it’s a great place to drive. Central London (or central Manchester) is horrible to cycle in but has high modal share because driving is expensive, frustrating and slow (and public transport, while dense, is also expensive and unpleasant).

    I know you mention sticks and carrots in the piece, but have the Dutch actively done much to make driving less attractive as well as cycling more attractive?

  4. Tim / Reply December 10, 2012 at 12:45 pm

    I think it’s useful to consider the huge and overwhelming popularity of event days like the Sky Rides in the UK. The streets are packed to bursting with cyclists.

    In cities around the UK there are thousands of people who obviously already have bikes and are keen to cycle. I’m sure many of them can’t be found cycling on Britain’s streets on any other day of the year but close the roads for a few hours and just look at the place!

    Of course there’s the festival atmos and the marketing to consider, but these aren’t journeys which are going anywhere practically useful. These are just people who want to cycle for fun without fear of cars, often with families, generally kids but often older family too.

    Admittedly I’m not so keen on the idea that people need to drive their bike to an organised ride and wear corporate sponsored hi-vis tops and helmets when they get there, but I do think it’s a pretty good argument in favour of “if you build it they will come”.

    • carltonreid / Reply December 10, 2012 at 12:50 pm

      Agree. And I would to think so, too.

      But what if UK Gov’t spent a billion on bike paths (this is a fantasy, by the way, and perhaps not even as far-fetched as aliens creating the network) but the uptick in use was smaller than envisaged?
      It’s an experiment I’d like to see happen, of course. But infra alone won’t be enough, need much, much more, including many sticks.

      • Tim / Reply December 10, 2012 at 11:47 pm

        Well I’d like to think carrot might do quite a lot of the work, at least in the summer months. And once people are used to cycling and discover they can have a fast cheap independent commute with no parking issues and without living in fear a lot of it would carry over when the worse weather kicks in.

        Although I don’t actually see decent quality infrastructure as carrot – it just provides a reasonable opportunity rather than actively incentivising cycling any more than we talk about coaxing all the drivers onto the roads with roads.

        Admittedly, I already cycle in all weathers so maybe I’m a bit unrealistic on this.

        But of course at some point the space for cycle paths needs to come from somewhere, and I have no issue at all with downscaling the prioritisation of motor transport. Having seen time an time again how more cars appear to fill new roads, I have no reason to believe the same thing wouldn’t work in reverse. In particular, I don’t think on-street parking should be seen as some god-given right. Why do people feel like they should be able to park right outside every shop or cafe they want to visit?

  5. Tom Bailey / Reply December 10, 2012 at 11:28 pm

    I think the thing you are missing with this article is that in holland what you describe as the stick, is one of the pillars of the infrastructure. Most UK roads that need something doing to them would get traffic reduction under the Dutch model not bike paths (think every single “estate access” road in the UK). Your aliens would spend far more time erecting bollards, bus gates and one way signs than they would tarmacing.

  6. Anonymous / Reply December 11, 2012 at 5:22 pm

    Your point about high quality infrastructure being necessary but insufficient is true. The recently published NICE guidance on promoting walking and cycling (PH41) is very clear that multi-component programmes are required, which include making cycle routes more attractive, raising awareness, route maps and signs, adult training, led rides & ciclovias, bike safety checks and availability of hire bikes.

    The NICE guidance wasn’t allowed to consider the physical environment, however, it’s clear from the Netherlands that cycling has been ‘incentivised’ by providing greater permeability and more direct routes for cyclists than cars.

    US academic John Pucher is clear in ‘City Cycling’ that the cities which have rapidly grown the modal share of cycling have done so by implementing programmes which cover all aspects of cycling, provide lots of stimuli and remove all the excuses for the ‘potential cyclists’.

    At some point, it’s inevitable that road space will be reclaimed from motorised vehicles. The ‘when’ and ‘how’ is going to be interesting as the car lobby is powerful and vocal and will be able to mobilise the majority of voters in support of the status quo – look at the 3p fuel duty debate for evidence.

  7. makester / Reply December 11, 2012 at 11:15 pm

    The UK did have a thriving cycle culture right up
    to the second world war and the years immediately following it. My
    local city, Hull, was known as “cycle city” prior to the
    war, and still has a relatively healthy utility cycling culture today
    with some reasonably high-quality infrastructure (as well as some
    bad). With more and more motor traffic and the loss of what
    high-quality infrastructure existed in the UK pre-war (yes, there was some),
    cycling rates declined, as people’s wealth increased and their
    perception of feeling safe reduced.

    This debate seems to crystallise into different
    models of cycling i.e. utilitarian, everyday transportation cycling,
    and that more influenced by sport. There will always be those
    cyclists who want to preserve their “right to ride” on the road
    no matter what infrastructure is developed in the future. If people
    want to ride on busy roads as per the vehicular-cycling model, that
    should be our right and their choice. But I also think that many more
    will vote with their wheels for high quality Dutch-style
    infrastructure (“the real deal”) when they realise how safe they
    can feel and convenient it can be. This has already started with
    petrol prices rising, and will continue as the naysayers realise that
    all the arguments why Dutch-style cycling won’t work in the UK are
    shown to be false.

    Rather than making cyclists “second class
    citizens”, if anything, Dutch-style infrastructure has done more
    for equality and made cycling more inclusive for people of all ages
    and both genders, rather than the males up to the age of 50 whom are
    the main advocates and practitioners of vehicular-cycling.

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