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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.

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