Why Cycling Works in the Netherlands

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Tuesday, October 28th, 2014
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“You can go everywhere by bicycle easier than you can by car.”

So says cycling advocate and blogger David Hembrow in a video that highlights some of the tactics that have made the Netherlands the world leader in urban cycling.

The Netherlands has the world’s highest “modal share” of bicycling, with about 27 per cent of trips made by bicycle. The modal share is the proportion of travellers using a particular type, or mode, of transport.

Amsterdam counted 38 per cent of trips made by bicycle, compared to Melbourne’s two per cent, which is double Australia’s rate as a whole. As one of the world’s most urbanised countries, bicycling could help to alleviate traffic congestion and Australia’s high CO2 emissions, which were estimated to be 11 per cent of the world’s total in 2009.

Because bicycles are used for shorter journeys in the Netherlands, bicycling accounts for about 10 per cent of the total distance travelled in the Netherlands. Not all journeys cover short distances, however. The cities of Assen and Groningen are linked by a 28-kilometre bicycle-only path.

The country has embraced cycling over the past four decades, after prioritizing autos in the 1950s and 1960s, as most other developed countries have done.

In the early 1970s, however, the first oil crisis, destruction of infrastructure to accommodate cars, and intolerable number of casualties caused by cars led the Dutch to rebel and start to rebuild their country to favor bicycles. In cities, it’s now the preferred mode of travel.

But the country has achieved its high modal share by being “pro-bike,” not “anti-car.”

“People bicycle because it’s pleasant, not because they’re beaten with a stick to stop them from driving,” Hembrow said.

In a rapidly urbanising world with heavy auto-traffic congestion, the Netherlands provides an example of cycling infrastructure that’s safe and well-used. Safety is crucial, of course.

“The main reason why people do not cycle, regardless of where they live, is that the conditions simply don’t feel safe,” Hembrow noted.

Three safety benchmarks govern how readily people will travel by bicycle:

  • Actual safety: This is objective safety, or what can be measured. Compared with UK bicyclists, Dutch riders are three times less likely to be injured, and four times less likely to be killed, per kilometre travelled. Compared with US riders, Dutch riders are 30 times less likely to be injured and five times less likely to be killed. The UK, US and Australia all have a one per cent modal share for biking.
  • Subjective safety: People who feel safe on bikes, whether or not they’re aware of the safety statistics, are more likely to ride. The Dutch achieve a high degree of perceived safety by building high-quality infrastructure for bikes and by separating cars from bikes.
  • Social safety: This refers to the feeling of safety in the environment, such as being attacked by a mugger or angry driver. Dutch cycle paths are wide and built without blind curves, and tunnels are built so that cyclists can see through to the other side as they enter.

Building high-quality infrastructure ensures that people feel safe by all those benchmarks. Key elements of Dutch infrastructure include:

  • Unravelling cycling routes from city streets, which simply means that bikes have dedicated cycle paths on a reasonably direct route.
  • Nearly car-free zones, such as city centres; “The most effective way of civilizing town centres is to remove cars from them,” Hembrow wrote in his blog.
  • Turning older streets over to bikes when new roads are built, which maintains direct and efficient routes for cyclists.
  • Noise abatement; the Dutch have also addressed traffic noise by using special road surfaces and noise barriers.

The Australian Bicycle Council is charged with implementing the Australian National Cycling Strategy 2011-16, which aims to double the number of Australians who ride a bike by 2016. The group’s Implementation Report 2013, released last July, noted some progress as well as some setbacks. In 2013:

  • Cycling participation waned slightly from 2011.
  • Cycling-related infrastructure, education, and promotion received $112 million in funding from Australian states and territories.
  • Dutch-style development such as “20-Minute Neighbourhoods” are being built to increase short trips and improve livability.
  • Bicycle infrastructure is designed to separate bicycles from motor vehicles.
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