How did the Dutch get their cycle paths?

The title of this post could sound familiar. If it does, you may be one of the very many people who saw my video “How the Dutch got their cycle paths” that has been viewed well over 1.1 million times. To this day people still watch the now over 10-years-old video, but it was my 158th video, and I published my 900th video last week! I have learnt so much in the past ten years, that this old video doesn’t quite feel good enough anymore. I think it was high time for an update to celebrate the 10-year anniversary!

Billet en français

Utrecht in 1929. Cycling had become an important means of transportation for a lot of people.
Utrecht in 1968. Almost 40 years later the private car had taken over the streets of the city centre. So where do the cycle paths come in?

While the overall message of the video “How the Dutch got their cycle paths” is still okay, I am no longer happy with some of the details and emphasis on certain events. The dramatic style of music is not quite how I would make my videos nowadays either. Most importantly, I would never say: “build it and they will come” anymore, because it is much more complicated than that. I have learnt a lot in the ten years since I made that video. From the research for all my posts, from speaking with people who were active in cycling at the time and from simply reading a lot about it. I also found a lot more moving images of the early history of cycling. Dutch archives digitalised their material and published it. These archives are also very generous in allowing people to use this material, which I have now happily done in my remake. Right here:

New video: How did the Dutch get their cycle paths?

Just as I was finishing this long project, a paper was published. Researchers Matthew Bruno, Henk-Jan Dekker and Letícia Lindenberg Lemos, working at the universities of Eindhoven and São Paulo wrote a paper called: “Mobility protests in the Netherlands of the 1970s: Activism, innovation, and transitions” which is clearly about most of what I cover too. (I know Matthew Bruno. I interviewed him for one of my videos and he lives just around the corner from me. We greet each other every time we meet in the supermarket. The Netherlands is sometimes very small indeed!) The paper is publicly available and I recommend it to anyone who wants to get more in-depth information about the early history of the modern cycling policies in the Netherlands. I will quote the full conclusion here because it is so relevant.

Conclusion of the paper “Mobility protests in the Netherlands of the 1970s: Activism, innovation, and transitions

In the 1950s, the high rates of cycling in the Netherlands and other parts of Europe began to drop rapidly. The process originated in the growth of auto ownership and investments in policies for automobiles. The negative externalities – e.g., air pollution, traffic-related deaths, and city-altering infrastructure projects taking space from cyclists – mobilized local civil society to challenge this course of action. Our paper contributes to the understanding of the geographic and temporal dimensions of sustainability transitions by answering the question of how social movements can develop and advance sustainability transitions in the long term. By detailing the role activists in the 1970s played in stopping the steep decline of cycling as a form a sustainable transportation, our paper showed that the Netherlands maintained bicycle trip rates higher than the surrounding European countries through the support and development of innovations by social movements. The activists provided support for two car-restricting innovations – the woonerfs and the car-restricted city centers – and proposed the bottleneck memoranda – a social innovation that aided the planning process. These measures halted automobility policies’ advancement, countered its negative effects, and helped reclaim space from cars. By creating safe spaces to cycle, these innovations promoted cycling and contributed to the long-term stabilization of cycling rates.

Plans for a motorway in the city centre of Amsterdam. These plans were never executed, but the council almost voted in favour of roads like these.
The average driver did not think seat belts were necessary, but combined with drink-driving laws, tested technical vehicle requirements and speed limits, traffic safety improved a lot after 1972. The death rate dropped considerably.

It will be no surprise that I agree with almost everything the researchers found. I know the people they interviewed, some personally, and some even helped me to learn more about the history of cycling in the Netherlands. Notably André Pettinga who was instrumental for my post about the early cycling policies in Delft.

Protests against favouring the car over the bicycle often resulted in large cycle parades.
Minister of Transport Tjerk Westerterp speaks to children and representatives of the group Stop the Child Murder, who protested the high number of traffic deaths of mainly children.

One finding really stands out: “the Netherlands’ cycling rates are currently high not from a growth in bicycle use but rather from the halting of a substantial decline that ended in the 1970s. This is certainly true for the period the study covers (1970s-1995), but things have become a bit more complicated since then. In 2018, the organisation which advises the government about mobility published a report. It showed that while the average modal share for cycling in the country has been stable for many years, that seemingly stable figure hides considerable regional fluctuations. Cycling levels increased a lot in the cities while cycling in the countryside decreased. The study may not have included this fact, because this is a situation that started after 1995.

In the experiment in The Hague, a counter flow cycle lane required the complete reconstruction of the street.
In the later experiment in Delft, a counter flow cycle lane was much less invasive and cost a lot less too. It also worked (depending on the traffic volumes).

The three main reasons the research mentions for the fact that cycling remained at higher levels than in other countries are:
1. Home zones (the famous “Woonerf”, in combination with traffic calming measures such as speed bumps, which made residential areas safer to live and cycle in).
2. Car restricted city centres, (the historic city centres were traditionally the location of most shops and making these shopping streets car free proved very profitable for the shop keepers)
3. Social movements (giving the car more space in society led to demolition of buildings, taking away space from cycling and a decrease in road safety, all these things provoked protest by different groups in society).

The combination of these three things made cycling from the safer residential zones to the car free city centres a good option even for people who owned a car. I would like to add that in my opinion this was only possible because the main roads connecting the two did also get safe separated cycling infrastructure. Now secured in the Sustainable Safety policies. Home zones have since evolved and their role is now partly taken over by 30km/h zones. A common theme in all these findings is that the role of the private car was reduced. For cycling to flourish drivers of private cars need to relinquish some of their privileges. Something that was easier to accomplish under the umbrella of improving safety. These days it is politically harder to give cycling advantages over driving. The national government favours the private car a bit more, local governments (especially in the larger cities) seem to be more interested in improving cycling.

The Woonerf (Home Zone) was an important tool to reduce the amount of dedicated space for car traffic.
Car free city centre streets were a success. Once they existed it was not so strange to restrict car use in other streets as well.
Zones with a speed limit of 30km/h are now more common than home zones. They work really well to discourage through traffic from using residential areas.

Relatively newer developments are not part of the paper. The successful bicycle/train combination and the large bicycle parking garages that go with it for instance. Other developments which started after 1995 are the tendency to separate cycling and motor traffic at route level. The newest developments are bicycle streets and long-distance cycle routes between urban areas.

What I want to make clear in my new video (and on this blog in general) is that creating cycle paths is not a goal in itself, neither is building roads for transportation. People need to get from A to B to be able to do everything they need to live their lives in a comfortable way. The current traffic policies in the Netherlands make cycling a viable option for a lot of trips. For myself, living in a car free city centre and travelling to other car free city centres by train, that means that cars are things I mainly see when I go to the suburbs. Car ownership is similar to that of the countries surrounding the Netherlands, but many streets look very different, because cars are used at different locations and for longer journeys than in the neighbouring countries. That said, a lot of short car trips could (and should) be replaced by cycling, even in the Netherlands.

The Fietsstraat (cycle street) where cars are guest, works really well in areas where the volumes of cycling are higher than the volumes of car traffic.
One of the more recent developments: high quality cycle routes between towns and cities.

I wrote a lot of posts about all these topics. I would like to end this post with some relevant links.

The first cycle routes in the countryside:

Experiments with modern cycling infrastructure:

Car free city centres:

Taking away space from private motor traffic:

Why cycle lanes aren’t a good idea:

Separating motor traffic and cycling on route level:

Cycle streets:

Converting a neighbourhood into a 30km/h zone:

Sustainable Safety:

Some long distance cycle routes in the countryside:

Some examples of bicycle parking at railway stations:

6 thoughts on “How did the Dutch get their cycle paths?

  1. Thank you for this amazing overview and updated info. As for new developments not being included in current research and sentiment, I am curious to see how the widespread use of e-bikes will change things. I know many Dutchies who had all but stopped cycling to work now cycling again thanks to faster bikes. Also the more people who ride (and there are more with e-bikes) the more people who care about infrastructure. Will be interesting to see if there is an effect. Thanks again, Mark!

  2. Thank you for the update. Indeed policies and insights of all involved have changed a lot. Your final remark ” … creating an attractive and safe living space is.” puts the emphasis on what still has to be done on a larger scale. Your video could still use some more shots from the pedestrians perspective in, for example, the Voorstraat or the Reigerstraat. When cities are used more intensively, liveability is the final goal.

    1. I did deliberately include people walking in the final shot. But I usually do film from the cycling perspective, that is true. Both streets you mention did get (or will be) much better for walking after the reconstruction. Walking does get more attention now, which is good.

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