Finding Cycling Inspiration From the Dutch
Ubiquitous on Canadian streets for the first half of the twentieth century, the humble bicycle is currently enjoying a twenty-first century renaissance, as cities of various sizes (and climates) invest in complete, comfortable networks of physically separated cycle tracks, traffic-calmed boulevards, and off-street trails. But when viewing this reallocation of street space through the lens of the local media—accompanied by predictable “bikelash”—one can’t shake the feeling these politicians and planners are attempting to reinvent the wheel, rather than learn from the past mistakes and successes of their peers in cycling cities around the world.
And when it comes to embracing—and maintaining—the bicycle as a legitimate form of transportation, no other nation on earth could be considered as triumphant as the Netherlands. It is, after all, the only country in the world where the number of bikes (22.5 million) exceeds the number of people (18 million); a country where citizens take 4.5 billion bicycle trips per year, during which every man, woman, and child pedals an average of 1,000 km. Bicycles now outnumber cars in a staggering 202 different cities and towns across the Netherlands, a testament to how Dutch planners have applied these ideas to a variety of contexts, scales, and urban fabrics.
Bring these accomplishments up in conversation, though, and one is immediately greeted with the dismissive assertion, “That would never work here,” followed by a number of other misguided claims. But the Dutch don’t cycle because their country is flat (if it were that simple, then Winnipeg would be the biking capital of Canada). The Dutch don’t cycle because the weather is nice (and anyone caught in a brutal wind- or snowstorm blowing off the North Sea will refute that idea). The Dutch don’t cycle because they’re morally superior to the rest of the globe (their electoral flirtations with far-right candidate Geert Wilders should put that myth to bed).
No, the Dutch cycle because they’ve built a dense, 35,000 km. network of fully separated bike infrastructure, equal to a quarter of their 140,000 km. road network. The Dutch cycle because they’ve tamed the motor vehicle, with over 75 percent of their urban streets traffic-calmed to a speed of 30 km/h or less. The Dutch cycle because their government spends an astonishing €30 ($45 CAD) per person per year on bike infrastructure—ten times the amount invested in most Canadian cities.
By adapting a systematic, safe streets approach from Sweden (the same “Vision Zero” policy gaining traction across Canada), Dutch road managers established three road categories—and corresponding bicycle infrastructure—all prescribed in the CROW Manual. These five “Sustainable Safety” principles succinctly summarized their focus on engineering over enforcement and education; but none are as clear and concise as this: “Humans make errors and willingly or unwillingly break rules. This is a given that cannot be changed. So roads and streets should be designed in such a way that this natural human behavior does not lead to crashes and injuries.”
The returns on these investments are myriad and well documented. Safer streets result in far fewer traffic fatalities, with just 3.4 annual deaths per 100,000 inhabitants (versus 6.0 in Canada), a rate that—if successfully transferred across the Atlantic—would save 1,000 Canadian lives per year. This intelligent and intuitive street design doesn’t just preserve human life. It adds years to it. A 2015 World Health Organization report predicted the Netherlands would be the only European Union country to reverse its rate of obesity in the coming years, projecting an 8.5 percent rate in 2030 (versus almost 30 percent in Canada), largely because they’ve incorporated physical activity into how people get from A to B. Current Dutch cycling levels are estimated by Utrecht University to prevent 6,500 premature deaths per year, saving the economy €19 billion ($29 billion CAD), about 3 percent of their GDP. Similar cycling rates in Canada would save 14,000 lives each year.
Then there are the immense quality-of-life improvements that come with prioritizing the bicycle as a mobility device, especially among the young and elderly. A 2013 study conducted by UNICEF found that Dutch kids topped the list for overall well being when compared to children in the world’s 29 wealthiest countries, in part because of their ability to roam freely without parental supervision.
The final—and perhaps most compelling—piece of this puzzle is the fact the Dutch have proven that a place that works for cycling also works better for driving. For three consecutive years, the navigation app Waze’s Driver Satisfaction Index named the Netherlands as the most satisfying place in the world to drive a car, referencing its “smooth traffic conditions” and “solid road quality.” It may seem counterintuitive, but a key ingredient in creating the world’s most enjoyable driving conditions is providing the freedom to leave the car at home. With the ability to walk or cycle for short trips, take a tram or bus for longer trips, and use a fast, accessible national rail system for inter-city trips, the car is viewed as a last resort by many Dutch families.
And so, and Canadian planners look to the Netherlands for two-wheeled inspiration, they’ll find a number of critical takeaways, but none more important than this: Every location is different, and it’s never as simple as copying-and-pasting their methods.
Rotterdam’s postwar transformation offers up inspiration for other car-centric cities trying to tame their mean streets. In Groningen, courageous political leadership has been paramount in taming the car, and similar bravery is now manifesting itself in an “all ages and abilities” bike network in the emerging cycling city of Vancouver. In Amsterdam, citizen intervention persisted, narrowly saving their bicycle infrastructure from burial under freeways. In Utrecht, residents realized the goals of a human-scale city and car-first city are mutually exclusive. And in Eindhoven, leveraging cycling has reinvented their city from one of industry to one of technology, and the Prairie City of Calgary now hopes to follow in its tracks.
Knowing the work of the world’s foremost cycling nation is never done, the Dutch are looking even further afield, embracing new ideas and technologies to continue decreasing the number of cars, vans, and trucks on their roadways. Electric-assisted bikes, cargo bikes, and cycle superhighways are being implemented and incentivized, as well as parking solutions that better connect bicycle and public transit (an amazing 50% of all train trips in the Netherlands begin with a bicycle ride), all in the hopes of making the single-occupant vehicle a thing of the past.
But one size won’t fit all, and—like Rome—the Dutch cycling utopia wasn’t built in a day. It took decades of incredibly hard work, some good fortune, and many forward-thinking decisions that extended far beyond the current political cycle. Only because of these factors do residents of the Netherlands enjoy a society that runs on the power of the bicycle, and the countless benefits brought to everyone, whether they ride or not. By building superior places to cycle, the Dutch have also built superior places to live. And the entire world has a great deal to learn from their story.
Melissa and Chris Bruntlett are the co-authors of the book Building the Cycling City: The Dutch Blueprint for Urban Vitality, which is now available from Island Press.