Choosing to travel by bicycle is rewarding both at individual and societal levels. Physical exercise contributes to the cyclist’s health, focus, workplace productivity and social interactions while eliminating the travel cost of fuel and the associated air pollution. Most importantly, bicycles require only a tiny fraction of the space needed for the use and parking of cars and they reduce aggregate traffic congestion, thus saving valuable collective time.
The Netherlands has the highest modal share of bicycle trips in the world and it is not because the Dutch don’t afford other modes of transportation. In the culture of Pays-Bas, cycling is viewed as a convenient and practical way to get around. The trip’s purpose is not mainly for recreation, but for ordinary commuting to work, school and shopping. And unlike in many countries where urban commuting between the daunting traffic is limited to adult males, in the Netherlands bicycle use is surprisingly inclusive: all ages, genders, economic groups are equally represented on the same streets.
The explanation of cycling’s popularity in the Netherlands lies in a mix of policies, education, infrastructure and land-use aspects which analysed separately may seem unrelated, but which together join forces to prioritise walking, cycling (slow modes) or public transportation (be it buses or rail-based). Here’s the story of how the present came to be and how other cities can follow the lead.
Changing Narratives in Land-Use and Transportation Planning
Our faculty’s Bachelor of Spatial Planning and Design features the course Mobility and Infrastructure Planning (MIP), which is centered around the “Land-Use Transport Feedback Cycle”. The transport system deals with infrastructure provision (new or larger roads, bridges, tunnels etc.), technological innovations (subways, trolleybuses, electric buses fleets etc.) and general mobility policy (local travel demand computer models, frequency and schedules of public transport etc.). Spatial planning of land-use tinkers with building regulations (zoning of functions, height limits, green and open space minimums etc.), for example to pursue Transit Oriented Development (TOD) through inner-city regeneration schemes close to existing public transport corridors. This conceptual framework states that transportation is only a derived demand with no intrinsic use, but instead its value springs from the need or activity one wishes to perform. Therefore we seek to minimise costs and externalities such as fuel, energy, effort, time and distance, and an urban cycling culture can solve these criteria. But while the goal of both transportation engineers and spatial planners is accessibility to people and places, the ways these two professions approach this can be contradicting.
Historically, transportation engineers have been accused of having a bias towards cars when dealing with traffic congestion. That is to say, their solution was traditionally to build more roads for cars, like when Utrecht drained its old town moat in 1973 to construct a 6-lane motorway. This expansionist modus operandi may not only be costly and unnecessary, it may in effect incentivise further car travel in the population by syphoning off former cyclists or public transport users – the so-called “induced demand” effect. In this regard, technological innovation and spatial growth in the West after WW2 witnessed several self-reinforcing developments detailed in the diagram above/below; a vicious circle of sorts, characterised by ever-faster cars dominating public space, horizontal urban sprawl and the decline of public transport and slow transportation modes. Reversely, we can identify mirroring counter-strategies and policies that reverse the car-centric trends in our cities, so as to re-accommodate pedestrians, cyclists, public transport and vertical densification of cities. Concrete measures are to reduce traffic speed and street capacity, to pedestrianise, remove surface parking, lay out dedicated bus lanes or light-rail, perhaps accompanied by TOD housing, and, for the purpose of this article, make cycle lanes separated from traffic.
Fortunately, the history of city mobility reveals both path dependencies, as well as drastic turning points. In the beginning, people happily (sic) made use of a street’s entire width, being bothered only by horse-drawn carriages. Then, ever since the 1880s, electric trams and underground subways were introduced worldwide, revolutionising public transport in an inclusive way. Soon, the dawn of the Ford Model-T in 1908 heralded the personal automobile era, which first spawned highways in the countryside, but not too long afterwards targeted the old city centers for fast vehicle throughput. This was the case in the Netherlands too, where Amsterdam barely escaped a North American-style downtown highway (see Plan Jokinen, 1967). By this time, cars were becoming widespread and so were Dutch cyclist casualties, particularly among children. Then, a global oil crisis was the shock event required for a critical mass to demand change. In 1973, there were ample grassroots street demonstrations in the whole country called “Stop de Kindermoord” or “Stop the child murders!”, which constituted a watershed in Dutch transportation planning. This was the beginning of people reclaiming their streets by pushing back on cars and reviving cycling.
How to Make Cycling Irresistible
Valuable insights can be taken from the 2022 Deutsche Welle documentary “Cities for people”, which, curiously, showcases Groningen as a pioneer in transportation policies and an inspiration for big European metropolises like Paris and Barcelona. One professor of cycling and urban mobility futures interviewed here has said that “the best time to reclaim our streets was yesterday, but the second best time is today”. So how exactly do city planners or interested citizens proceed in bringing about bicycle infrastructure?
One of Groningen’s alderman responsible for spatial development gave us a tip in communication theory. Don’t begin your mobility reformation conversation in a combative, self-righteous rhetoric, but rather ask the car users:” What kind of streets do you want?” When you start with that question, your interlocutor will be more open to change. Another French architect featured in the DW documentary advised to tackle the problem scientifically and not ideologically: “We don’t want to pit car users against cyclists and pedestrians, instead we want to be very methodological.” Fortunately, two professors of spatial planning from the US, John Pucher and Ralph Buehler, already did the fieldwork research for us. In their 2008 academic paper “Making Cycling Irresistible: Lessons from the Netherlands, Denmark, and Germany” (2008), the two set out to categorise key policies and innovative measures used in Dutch, Danish and German cities to promote safe and convenient cycling. Here is the gist of it.
In principle, the most essential aspect of making safe cycling possible and popular is the provision of dedicated bicycle lanes, which do not make the cyclist share road space with neither dangerous cars nor with unwitting pedestrians on the sidewalk. The lane quality is enhanced by a raised track, green buffers and red-coloured asphalt. Well synchronised traffic lights (or none whatsoever like in Alexanderplein, Amsterdam), protected intersections and visible markings are also indispensable. But the arrival of this critical infrastructure more often than not requires claiming the space of something else: either a traffic lane, car parkings or a sidewalk segment or maybe even greenspace. Luckily, the streets of planned neighbourhoods not only in the Netherlands are wide and there is room to accommodate bicycles previously not considered – think of Zonnenlaan or Paterswoldseweg in Groningen.
A pertinent observation: for the majority of the population to adopt cycling, a city needs its bicycle lane network to have widespread coverage (it can take you from one city corner to another) and continuity (no gaps or dead-ends). However, it is impractical and unnecessary to create cycle lanes on every small street in your city to achieve good connectivity. It is enough to “tame the back streets”. When cycling in Groningen, you may have experienced that on secondary streets, the crossings are elevated at sidewalk level, that red-brick speed bumps are cleverly camouflaged in the middle of the street or that a small fluorescent “Victor Veilig” dummy is telling you to slow down. Zooming out to all street sizes, one basic traffic regulation used in the Netherlands is the white triangle paintings which signify “yield”. According to the Dutch Cycling Embassy, “«Shark’s Teeth» road markings are the unsung heroes of Dutch street design, indicating in a clear manner which users must «give way».” Another kind of symbology, used in the US especially, is a bicycle and arrow painted on the street, which may be accompanied by a sign on which is written “Share the road”. Hence the name “sharrows”, also known as shared-lane pavement marking – one ladder rung below the Dutch “fietsstraat” concept, where the cars are seen as guests.
Hypothetically, even if a city were miraculously furnished with all the materialistic bicycle infrastructure and traffic calming measures it needs, chances are the share of trips by bicycle mode would not skyrocket overnight. To catalyse this urban mobility revolution, behavioural policy instruments need to be employed. Do awareness campaigns, meetings, flyers, online advertisements and influencer promotion. Create websites with city-wide maps and a FAQ section. If needed, amend the law and the education curriculum in driving schools. Train school children to cycle prudently under supervision of traffic police. Perhaps impose a theoretical and practical cycling test for children aged 10-12, like the Dutch “verkeersexam”. It takes time and some pioneers for a cycling culture to form in cities without this tradition. A welcomed research finding is that once the trend has started in a city, cyclist numbers grow fast and exponentially. And so does safety.
Pucher & Buehler went on to identify some last pro-cycling measures that “make cycling irresistible”: extensive bicycle parking racks (on streets and in special garages), easily accessible rented bikes (see the Netherland’s single nationwide bike sharing program ‘OV-Fiets’) or coordination with public transport (trains and buses). In the end, there do exist objective reasons of why people may not be drawn to cycling, including sweltering or frosty weather, hilly topography (cities such as Stuttgart, Bristol or Cluj-Napoca) or fear for one’s very security (either due to dangerous men or traffic). But the above recipe for success must first be given a chance.
In conclusion, the sustainable future of urban mobility looks very Dutch. Cities which prioritise public transport, pedestrians and cyclists will be rewarded both on a societal and individual level. One only needs to advocate for the tried-and-true method of dedicated bicycle infrastructure to have cycling seem so irresistible. Because if you build it, they will come.