“Problems all-too familiar to car drivers the world over, from traffic jams to road-rage and lack of parking, are now also threatening to turn the Dutch dream of bicycling bliss into a daily hell. In a small country where bicycles outnumber people by 1.2 million, the Dutch have simply run out of space to accommodate the five million cyclists who take to the road every day, turning commuting in major cities into a nightmare.”
“What is this?” Asked people all over Twitter when a wave of identical news items swept the world, from the Philippines and China to Australia and France. Is there trouble in paradise? Is the Dutch cycling utopia really a utopia in the sense that it is a non-existing phantasy?
Well no, of course not! This article was clearly written by someone who has heard some quotes, has taken them out of context and exaggerated the rest of the story to get a juicy news item that sells well. Of course the Dutch themselves know better, but the down side of a story like this could be that politicians and planners around the world can point to it and say: “see, this is not what we should strive for!”
So where does this all come from? It may surprise you, but the source of the quotes is the Dutch Cyclists’ Union. So what is this all about?
The Cyclists’ Union has several tasks, some of which are almost contradictory. On the one hand they need to promote cycling by telling everybody how great it is to cycle. It is fun and safe! On the other hand they need to focus on things that are not (yet) good enough (even in the Netherlands) and lobby for improvements.
In recent years cycling in the Netherlands grew in an unexpected pace. Investments in infrastructure, both for the riding bike as well as for parking your bicycle did not keep up with this pace, at least not everywhere. At some times of the day in certain areas with a lot of cycling the paths have therefore become too crowded. I have shown you examples of that in the past. People cycling in such areas have to lower their speed and they may sometimes even have to wait twice for the light to get green before they can cross a junction. The situation has unfortunately also led to more injuries. Secondly it has become apparent that there is no adequate bicycle parking space anymore in city centers and near the central railway stations of the larger cities. As I have also shown you before, especially Utrecht and Amsterdam experience both these phenomenons.
To address the situation in the best possible way there was a symposium recently in Utrecht, (27th Sept. 2012) where experts from different fields of expertise (road management, city planning, human behavior, etc.) exchanged ideas. The conclusion of this conference ‘Meer Fiets, Meer Ruimte’ (More cycling, more space) was that the bicycle has become so important in the Netherlands that it should take over the position of the car as the dominant means of transport when it comes to city planning and everything related to it. A so-called ‘leap of scale’ is needed and the Cyclists’ Union takes every opportunity to make Dutch municipalities aware of that.
Most of the Dutch media picked this up and brought the message in a well-balanced way and with all the nuances. These nuances were unfortunately lost in the foreign article. It is absolutely not true that cycling in the Netherlands has become hell on earth. There is no question of large-scale road rage, nor has cycling become particularly dangerous. The most ridiculous claim in the article was that cycling would cause congestion. On the contrary, if these five million bike rides per day would be journeys made in a car, then the Netherlands would have a major problem! Cycling is not a problem, it is a solution to keep cities livable and healthy on many levels.
Some municipalities in the Netherlands have to be made (more) aware of that, but there are signs the message is coming across. In one of their latest transport policy plans, released in September 2012, Utrecht proclaims the bicycle ‘the primary means of transport in the city’ in one of the seven policy principles. Amsterdam has also announced a big investment plan to catch up and to get the cycling infrastructure up to standards. With the help of all the experts working together the rest of the Netherlands will follow these examples, I am sure. The challenges the Dutch municipalities face will be tackled. There is more than enough room for the bicycle in the Netherlands.
Sometimes the message seems too far-fetched. In a recent article in their magazine the Cyclists’ Union quotes an investigation that claims to know who causes the bicycle traffic jams: “In cities such as Utrecht, Amsterdam and ‘s-Hertogenbosch the traditional workers have left. The mobile, highly educated couples with a double income have taken their place. This group needs the bicycle for their way of life. [They] change their workplace so often, that they look for a central place from which both can easily reach many cities. The highly skilled double income couples use a centrally located city as a ‘base camp’ from which they use the bicycle in combination with the train to ‘swarm’ the country looking for interesting jobs and projects.” I must say, this explanation for the busy cycle traffic does not convince me at all.
Coincidentally I spend most of my time in those three cities, so I can easily give you an idea of what the situation is there. That means I have three videos for you this week. One from Monday morning rush hour in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, one from the middle of the day in Utrecht and one showing the beginning of evening rush hour in Amsterdam. What these video’s show you is that it is indeed very busy on the cycle paths, at some places at some times of the day, but it is far from hell on earth and the Dutch are already working on a solution.
Monday morning rush hour in ‘s-Hertogenbosch (November 12, 2012 8:00am). Busy streets but calm behavior of all road users. These are mostly children riding to school. Certainly no “double income couples”.
Wednesday afternoon in Utrecht (November 14, 2012 2:00pm). Busy streets but once the light gets green all the waiting cyclists can pass the junction. In morning and evening rush hour that can be different. This junction is clearly not constructed well enough for cyclists.
Very busy cycle paths near Amsterdam central station on a Friday afternoon (Sept. 30, 2011 4:00pm). Cycling here could improve a lot if one or more of the car lanes would be used for cyclists and pedestrians. There sure are a lot fewer people in cars who benefit from all that space than there are pedestrians and cyclists. It is challenges like these, the Dutch face at the moment.