How did the pandemic influence cycling in the Netherlands?

Happy New Year to everyone! In this first post of 2023 I would like to share some updated figures with you. The last time I looked at the figures of cycling and mobility in the Netherlands was in January 2020 and that was before COVID19 changed the world. People changed their travel behaviour significantly and several times due to the pandemic. At the beginning of the crisis, we saw lockdowns that stopped almost all travel. Later, people picked up old habits as the lockdowns were lifted, but not everything returned to how it was before the pandemic. These subsequent changes have now been documented officially.

Of all age groups, the 12- to 17-year-olds cycle most in the Netherlands. How much exactly is a bit of a mystery, because in one article Statistics Netherlands (CBS) first mentions that they cycled 8.4 times and 33 km per person per week and that is also mentioned in a graph. But then in another paragraph they mention that this age group cycled 7 times a week covering a distance of (almost) 22km per person per week on average. The latter group is described as “students and pupils” apparently that is a smaller group than all children.

Compared to 2020 personal mobility in the Netherlands was higher in 2021, but still well below the level of 2019. The total distance travelled in 2021 was 23% less than in 2019. Not all modalities decreased similarly, especially public transport is used less than before COVID. The distance cycled was 15.8 billion kilometres in 2021, which is 972km per person. That was an increase of 4% compared to 2020 when the Dutch cycled 15.2 billion kilometres. However, in 2019 the Dutch cycled 11% more than they did in 2021. That means that since the Covid crisis the Dutch cycled more distance than they travelled by train. Considerably more: 15.8 billion kilometres cycled vs 9.6 billion kilometres by train. To compare, in 2019 it was 17.8 billion kilometres cycled vs 20 billion kilometres by train.

 TotalCar driverTrainCycling
2021 vs 2020+9%+6%+9%+4%
2021 vs 2019-23%-22%-52%-11%
Total distance travelled in the Netherlands for some modalities (in billion kilometres), excerpt of a table by the Ministry of Infrastructure)

In 2020, a year that the government imposed measures to counter the pandemic, people cycled less frequently and also covered fewer kilometres per week on average than in 2019. An exception was the group of the over-75s, who cycled equally often in both years and covered the same distance. The reasons for cycling were similar when the years 2020 and 2021 are compared, but in 2021 people still cycled less to work compared to 2019. This is partly because working from home increased from about 30% in 2019 to 45% in 2020 and 2021.

How much do the Dutch cycle per week on average by Statistics Netherlands (CBS).

Who cycles?

In the Netherlands 7 out of 10 persons say they cycle at least one day per week. That percentage was the same in 2021 and 2020. Women cycle more than men. In total, women make almost 17% more bicycle trips per year (2.4 billion compared to 2.0 billion by men). The share of cycling among women (29%) is therefore higher than among men (27%). For children, the bicycle has a higher share of journeys than for adults. Up to the age of 18, almost half (48%) of all trips this age group makes are made by bicycle. The share of cycling is lowest among people between the ages of 30 and 60. This increases slightly again above the age of 60. Three out of ten Dutch (29%) cycle on 4 or more days of the week on an ordinary bicycle. One out of ten (14%) cycles on an e-bike. In 2020, the 12- to 17-year-olds cycled most frequently, either on standard bicycles or e-bikes. They also travelled the most kilometres: an average of 33 kilometres per person per week (when we narrow this age group down to ‘students and pupils’ it was apparently 22km and almost 7 times per person per week, as mentioned in another paragraph in the same article). The over-75s cycled least. They cycled an average of 14 kilometres per week, about as many as 25- to 34-year-olds. Since 2010, the difference in bicycle use between people with a Dutch background and people with a migration background is getting smaller. The share of cycling is also growing among people with a non-Western migration background, although this is still lower than that of the other Dutch people. Bicycle ownership is higher among people with a healthy weight than among people who are overweight or obese. The opposite applies to owning an electric bicycle. Total bicycle ownership (electric and non-electric together) is significantly lower among people with obesity than among people with a healthy weight. People with a healthy weight also cycle significantly more often and further than people who are overweight or obese. Pensioners cycled an average of 21 kilometres per person per week (in 2019 in 2020).

Where do people cycle?

People who live in more urban areas cycle relatively more than people who live in the countryside. This is partly due to the distances to destinations, which are generally lower in urban areas than elsewhere. In the four largest cities, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague and Utrecht, the modal share of cycling for trips within the city has increased in recent years. From these 4 cities, travellers in Utrecht use the bicycle most often at 48%. In Rotterdam, this happens significantly less often at 27%. The relatively lower share of cycling in Amsterdam, The Hague and Rotterdam is partly due to the availability of a tram and metro system in these cities. In the smaller cities, people cycle most often in Leiden, Zwolle and Groningen. More than half of the journeys within these municipalities are made by bicycle.

Important reasons to choose the bicycle. From Fietsmonitor 2021 (Cycling Monitor) Fietsersbond/DCE

Why do people cycle?

For the “Cycling Monitor” (Fietsmonitor) researchers for the Fietsersbond (Cyclists’ Union) and the Dutch Cycling Embassy asked people to give their three main reasons to choose the bicycle for a trip. Most mentioned were health, ease of use, and that cycling is good for the environment. Mentioned fewer were ease of parking, that cycling is cheap, and that cycling is faster than other ways to travel. Only 6% of the Dutch say they do not have another way to travel. Clearly, the Dutch do not cycle out of necessity. Almost half the cyclists said they keep on cycling regardless of bad weather conditions. Three out of ten say they cycle less. The Dutch love the bicycle most of all modalities: 96% is satisfied with cycling in their country. Next comes their car, which pleases 85% and then public transport which is okay for 67% of the people in the Netherlands. When the Dutch were asked to rate aspects of cycling the scores ranged from 7.1 to 7.9 on a scale from 1 to 10, with traffic safety scoring lowest and ease of use scoring highest.

Where to do people cycle?

The bicycle does not play an equally important role for every trip motif. For education-related trips, the Dutch use the bicycle in more than half of the trips (52%). The bicycle is also an important mode of transport for commuting, especially up to 5 km. About 27% of the working population uses the bicycle for their commute. This share is higher for people with a relatively short travel distance: 55% of workers who live within 5 km of their workplace go to work by bicycle. When the home-work distance is between 5 and 10 km 31% of the people go by bicycle and between 10 and 15 km that is 14%. The trend for education and work-related trips is upwards. Comparing 2010 to 2021 the modal share for cycling to education or to work increased by 13% and 14% respectively. People cycling regularly use the bicycle most for daily errands (23%), recreational cycle tours (19%) and going to work (15%). In 2020, most bicycle trips were made to run errands or to do some shopping. However, most cycling kilometres were travelled for recreation. The bicycle is important in combination with the train, especially on the home side of a trip. In their hometown, train passengers use the bicycle as pre- or post-transport for approximately 43% of train journeys. On the activities side, usually in a different town, this is a lot lower at 11%. This is partly due to a higher availability of a bicycle on the home side. On the destination side some people use a (second) bicycle parked at the station there, or a so-called OV-Fiets, a rental bicycle of the nationwide shared bicycle system in the Netherlands.

When do people cycle?

On working days, there is a clear peak in bicycle use during the morning rush hour (between 8 and 8.30). The majority of cyclists are then on their way for work (21%) or education (60%). In the afternoon, cyclists are more spread over time on the streets.

Negative aspects of cycling

One of the risks is getting your bicycle stolen. This happens a lot in the Netherlands. In 2021, 735,000 bicycles were reported to be stolen. In 85% of the cases those were ordinary bicycles, 15% of the stolen bicycles were e-bikes or speed-pedelecs (e-bikes that can go faster than 25km/h). That is a little over 2,000 bicycles that were stolen every day!

Cycling is not a dangerous activity. Nevertheless, most road deaths occur among cyclists. And among the seriously injured, cyclists are by far the largest group. The number of injured is likely to continue to grow in the coming decades. Why is that? Almost three-quarters of all bicycle deaths and almost half of the seriously injured cyclists are over the age of 60. “There is a double aging process going on: there are more elderly people and they are also cycling more often,” according to a researcher at the Dutch road safety organisation SWOV, specialised in research into older cyclists. Older cyclists run a higher risk: the fatality rate for cyclists aged over 80 is approximately 50 times higher than the risk for cyclists under the age of 60.” The Dutch fortunately do not seek the answer in wearing a cycling helmet. Most of the members of the Cyclists’ Union, 80%, and 68% of the non-members do not want to make it mandatory for all cyclists to wear a bicycle helmet. Instead, the Cyclists’ Union has a 10-point plan to prevent people who cycle from being hit by cars or having a fall in the first place. Reducing the number of bollards and making barely visible kerbs clearer are far better measures to improve cycling safety. The most important points are separating car traffic from people and designing the streets and cycleways in a better way.

Traffic fatalities for the bicycle and the private car 2000-2021 by Statistics Netherlands (CBS)

The future

There could be much more cycling. People still use the car for trips that could be made on a bicycle, even in the Netherlands. In 2019, one third of all car journeys were shorter than 5 km; this amounted to 2.5 billion trips. Almost half (47%) of the car jouneys (3.5 billion) were shorter than 7.5 km and 64% (4.8 billion) were shorter than 15 km. For trips of up to 7.5 km (65% of all trips), 38% of the Dutch use the bicycle and 34% the car. For distances from 3.7 km and more, the car is more popular than the bicycle. In November 2022, the minister for Infrastructure announced that the national government will invest 780 million euros in cycling infrastructure in the entire country. Together with the funds from local municipalities and the provinces the total investment will amount to 1.1 billion euros. The money will be used for better regional cycle routes, closing gaps in the networks with tunnels and bridges and better bicycle parking facilities. The aim is to get 100,000 people more on the bicycle in the coming 2 and a half years.

Although mobility trends are hard to predict, the 2019 level of cycling is expected to have been reached again in 2022. For 2027 a growth is expected between 9% and 12% depending on what scenario is followed. The future looks good for cycling, also because cycling is associated with positive feelings in the Netherlands. People who walk or cycle to work are more often satisfied, less stressed, more relaxed and experience more freedom than people who do so by car. Bicycle use not only improves physical health, but it is also positively related to mental health and subjective well-being.

The first video of 2023. How did the pandemic influence cycling in the Netherlands?

9 thoughts on “How did the pandemic influence cycling in the Netherlands?

  1. Cycling during the Pandemic was great. Much less cars on the roads because people worked from home and everything was closed. Much safer. I got hit twice this year because drivers have forgotten about cyclists in the pandemic

  2. I am very interested in the modal shares in the big cities and the “smaller” cities.
    Where can I find the sources?

  3. “Almost three-quarters of all bicycle deaths and almost half of the seriously injured cyclists are over the age of 60.”

    In other words, people ‘die in the harnass’ instead of stumbling at home. If the 60+ would trip at home in some way or other they would not end up in these statistics. The good news is that in the Netherlands the elderly bicycle as long as they can. They remain mobile and socially active.

    In presenting statistics like this that group should be completely isolated and not presented in the context of road safety for that reason. They fall all by themselves. It is their age, the bicycle should be left out.

    The good news, about the elderly bicycling is, that less of them drive around in cars killing people. Although a 89 year old woman drove over a 3 year old girl on a pedestrian crossing recently. And drove away. That woman should have been on a bike or trike and not drive a car in Amsterdam.

    1. From what I’ve heard and read, much of this is apparently due to the increasing number of e-bikes among the elderly over the last decade or so. But more recently, probably in the last 5 years, teenagers and sometimes even young kids have increasingly started using e-bikes. I would not be surprised if the number of accidents also increases in this age group.

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