All about cycling in the Netherlands
The Minister of Transport, Tjerk Westerterp, opened the Netherlands’ first so-called Demonstration Cycle Route with a cycle tour and “some festivities” on Thursday 21 April 1977. Only 19 months after he announced he wanted to build such routes at the opening of the parliamentary year in September 1975. Two cities accepted the offer of getting a “free” modern cycle route: Tilburg and The Hague. Tilburg was the first to officially open it. The minister was in a hurry. This was weeks before the elections for a new national government. The minister wanted to show the voters that he cared for cycling and that he acted to get road casualties down. Not everybody was pleased with this cycle route though.
Tilburg and The Hague are the two cities in the Netherlands that got a Demonstration Cycle Route in the 1970s. A showcase of what modern cycling infrastructure would have to be like. Why were they built? And what did it mean for cycling in The Netherlands? I went back to the original route in Tilburg recently and in the video with this post I compare what I filmed now with images of the newly built route that were taken in 1978.
A newspaper at the time of the opening (Volkskrant, 19 April 1977) noted that the Minister of Transport jumped to the opportunity to show the public that he really cared for cycling, a month before the general elections. He had taken money from the national road building budget: 25 million guilders of the budget for 1976. This was called a lot of money but to compare; that same year 889 million guilders were reserved for roads and their maintenance. At first some legislators protested that the national government would spend money on cycling infrastructure that was up to then considered to be a municipal affair, but this bold decision to use road money for cycling infrastructure was taken shortly after the absolute low point of cycling in the Netherlands in the 1970s. In 1971, 400 children died on the roads in the Netherlands in all crashes combined. A high percentage of these children died cycling to school. Politicians of all parties eventually agreed something had to be done to make cycling safer. In 1975 the Cyclists’ Union (Fietsersbond) was founded and that same year the minister came with this plan. But even on the occasion of the opening the journalist noted: “Real cyclists know that the minister tries to have his cake and eat it. He tries to stimulate cycling but does not really want to cause too much pain to car traffic. A clear choice could be disadvantageous.” That the word “real” was used is no coincidence. The Cyclists’ Union used that word “real” in its name at the time. The Cyclists’ Union was very critical of these demonstration routes. It did not like them at all. Union representatives thought this was a solution that was especially too expensive. In the newspaper “Het Vrije Volk” of 21 April 1977 a spokes person is quoted: “This is an example of what not to do. This way it will take until long after the year 2000 before things to improve cycling are done in every city.” This article doesn’t say what the Cyclists’ Union wanted instead, but from other sources I know they wanted simpler solutions that were cheaper and quicker to implement at a larger scale.
In 1978, a year after the route was opened. The ANWB urged the national government to come with a fund for the years to come, to cover the costs for more cycle routes like the one in Tilburg. Because it proved to be so succesful. In an editorial in their magazine Kampioen they write that in Tilburg ridership had increased with a spectacular 75%, “it is clear that the critics who claimed this was all too much were wrong” they add triumphantly. Unfortunately that fund never came. In fact just last week the appeal to the government to spend more money on cycling infrastructure was repeated by Carlo van de Weijer, the Director Smart Mobility of the Technical University in Eindhoven in a column. The return on investments for the bicycle is so good that it is incomprehensible that we spend so little on it.
In Tilburg an east-west route was chosen to be built. That in itself already caused controversy. A lot of people in Tilburg would rather have had a north-south route. But the east-west route connected the university in the west to the city centre and gave workers in the villages of Oisterwijk and Berkel-Enschot in the east a quick and safe route to take the bicycle and the moped to their workplaces in Tilburg. The authorities thought that was a better choice. They also said there was no time for public consultations, which apparently was something they could legally do at the time. To make it a real demonstration of possibilities the route had many different types of infrastructure. There were painted on-street cycle lanes and lanes with only a different colour and type of surface. On the other end of the spectrum there were completely separate protected cycleways, sometimes even with two separate carriageways. The width of the cycleways varied too. Some bidirectional parts were 4.5 metres wide. Some of the dual-carriageways were only 1.8 metres wide. Also the intersections with other roads were constructed differently. Two major road crossings got multi-level solutions. One overpass and one tunnel. The route in Tilburg also included a new bridge over a canal. This broad variety was deliberate to test all the different solutions. Even the surface was different, sometimes tiles and sometimes asphalt. The colour red of the surface was the one thing that tied everything together. The city wanted one colour to make it a recognisable route, but that it became red, that seems to have been a random choice.
Recently Herbert Tiemens took part in an exchange project. He is a cycling expert working for the province of Utrecht who does a lot of internationally visible work. He swapped his workplace for 6 weeks for one in Copenhagen at the bureau “Super Cykelstier” (Cycle superhighways). One of his new colleagues there, Ulrik Djupdræt, had a surprise for Herbert; a Danish film from 1989 showing cycle developments in Copenhagen. The 21 minute film “Cykelmagt 1+2” compared the Copenhagen streets of 1978 to those of 1988. But the film also contains a very interesting section that shows Danish filmmaker Leif Larsen visited the Demonstration Routes in The Hague and Tilburg in 1978. Moving images of these cycle routes shortly after they were finished are rare and Herbert had the idea that I could do something with these images. I used snippets of the film to compare the original state of the route in Tilburg with how it is today in this week’s video.
A magazine for traffic experts (Verkeerskunde) published a story about the route in Tilburg in 1977. They had sent two gentlemen from ANWB to visit the route before it was even officially opened. The traffic experts tested the route for general comfort, safety and quality. The list of things they noted is familiar looking back with today’s knowledge. They didn’t like the narrow dual-carriageways and they preferred the asphalt surface over tiles. But apart from these now open doors, they also posed the important basic question: Why was a back route chosen and not a route next to main arterials that everybody knew?
The route went through the shopping heart of the Tilburg city centre. Shop keepers had protested the route but couldn’t stop it. In the shopping centre – on Pieter Vreedeplein – the ANWB experts thought the separation between the cycle route and the people on foot was inadequate. When you go to this square today you will find that things got far worse. In their time there was a colour difference in the surface, now even that disappeared; cycling is guest and the space is shared. You have to cycle between people shopping who do not look at all for people cycling. The square has a lot of outdoor café’s and you have to zigzag your way around the tables and chairs as well.
It is interesting to see that most of what the two experts disliked, in 1977, has now disappeared. On the other hand, most of what they liked is now common practice all over the country. That is not the case for the experimental speed bumps; they were deemed too high and too dangerous for cycling. You won’t find any left today. They’ve been removed or replaced by constructions which are standard now. The cycleway in Tuinstraat is another example. There, a tiled cycle path ran directly next to a carriageway for cars. But there was no barrier at all, not even a level difference with a kerb (curb). The 1977 experts were surprised by this solution, because it was even then already known that tiles were disliked by many cyclists. Also, to have no physical separation seemed very odd for a main cycle route. When you go to Tuinstraat today that strange cycleway has completely disappeared. The entire roadway now has a brick surface and the street is in the middle of a 30km/h zone. In a 30km/h zone separation is not needed, although a main cycle route can be an exception. Sometimes those main routes will be on a separated cycleway in such a zone. That underlines the fact that the former demonstration route is no longer a main cycle route for Tilburg. You will not find it on the map of current main cycle routes.
Angela van der Kloof, mobility consultant at Mobycon and long-time resident of Tilburg, regrets that. She told me: “The ‘red cycle path’ was a phenomenon. When I arrived in Tilburg to study here, in 1985, people were proud of it. A lot of people still remember it but that knowledge is lost in a whole generation of younger people in Tilburg”. In 2013, Angela said at a public meeting that the route was still the best thing Tilburg had to offer for cycling. She hasn’t changed her mind about that, even with the interruptions and the bad situation in the city centre. “I still like to use the red cycle path. Compared to other countries we are of course doing great things here, but as far as I am concerned Tilburg still does not yet really dare to fully choose for cycling. The city still is too afraid to make decisions that would hurt the car.”
I personally used the route for the first time around 1990 when I visited a friend who studied in Tilburg. I stayed the night in his flat near the university. In the evening we went to a bar in the city centre and he lend me a bicycle to cycle with him. I remember we talked about this phenomenon: having priority on your bicycle at almost every intersection. This was something that was still very special in the Netherlands in 1990. Now you see it everywhere but at the time I remember it empowered me too.
Angela agrees: “People take it for granted, they have no idea how special this route was and still is. But it is not too late to give this monumental cycle route the recognition it deserves!”
The Tilburg demonstration route, 1978 vs 2018.
A ride on the former Tilburg demonstration route in 2018.
In creating this blog post I got a lot of help from Herbert Tiemens and Angela vd Kloof!