If You Build It, They Will Ride (Part 2)

In my first blog entry on bicycling infrastructure in the Netherlands, I provided some general comments and then emphasized separated or dedicated bike paths, including some of great routes via out-of-the way paths through forest and heath lands.


But what is most important from a public policy standpoint is the more utilitarian cycling infrastructure, including bike lanes that are integrated with roadways, some of them separated from the cars only by painted lines. Familiar stuff right? We have those even in Toronto, and more all the time. Yet even these bike lanes in the Netherlands stand out for their high quality, for their continuous character (i.e., none of the “bike route ends here” phenomenon so familiar and disheartening to Toronto cyclists), and for the evident commitment to facilitating door-to-door cycling that has been built into their designs.


Consider, for instance, this shot of the exterior of Duivendrecht train station on the southeast perimeter of Amsterdam. If you look at the section of the clearly marked two-lane bike path as it passes underneath the overpass, take note of the continuity (i.e., the path doesn’t just end when you get into the station), the separation from the road within the station itself (for safety), and the proximity of the lane to the bike lock up (how convenient). It is all just common sense, even unremarkable, unless, like me, you have experienced the marked contrasts of navigating most train stations in North America by bicycle, including for instance, Union Station in Toronto.

Bike Path Outside Duivendrecht Train Station (Photo by Author)


Utilitarian, everyday cycling infrastructure here also includes clear signs indicating rights of way at intersections, including at roundabouts where, in urban areas, priority goes to bikes, not cars. And there are also dedicated parking lots and even indoor garages for bikes.


Of course, it is well known that the Dutch love their bicycles. Consult any tourist guide to the Netherlands, including lists of “stuff Dutch people like”, and you will find prominent mention of bicycles. Certainly, that includes riding for fitness or lifestyle reasons. Active cycling clubs are everywhere, including the Touring Club Wageningen whose members graciously accepted me into their fold during my visit. Each Saturday, we would go out in groups of 6-15 on 80-140 km excursions to Limburg, to Germany, east and west along and between branches of the Rhine and Maas Rivers, or north into the Veluwe, always including lively (and funny) historical, cultural and geographical commentary from fellow riders. Such clubs are typical here.  Sunny weekend days bring large groups of sport cyclists in spandex out riding along bike paths and on narrow roads atop the ubiquitous levees (here called “dijks”).


But what truly struck me was the ubiquity and extraordinary normalcy of more practical cycling here. The Dutch ride their bikes to work, to school, to shops, to the pub, to visit friends, and just to get out for a leisurely pedal on a sunny Sunday afternoon. This is true of younger people and older people. You would have to have a cold heart not to be moved by the common site of septuagenarian couples riding side-by-side along a bike path holding hands. Before coming to live in Wageningen for the year, I had never seen any couple ever riding in that fashion. But in the countryside and on dedicated bike paths in the Netherlands, I saw it daily. And it struck me as something one would only attempt on a dedicated bike path separated from car and truck traffic. Just so, choices and behaviours, including romance, are enabled by infrastructure.


Caricatures you may have heard about the Dutch loading up their bicycles are also true. Cyclists pedalling with a second person sitting side-saddle on the back rack is a very common sight, particularly near schools. Dutch parents also load their children up, sometimes in ways that seem, to me at least, quite precarious, particularly when combined with a load of groceries. Numerous cyclists have outfitted their bikes with trailers for hauling dogs, children, equipment, bags and parcels, or all of the above. And bikes with large carrying bins built onto the front of specially designed frames, while a novelty elsewhere, are actually fairly common here.


The numbers confirm that Dutch people use their bikes…a lot! In Groningen, mode share for bicycles (i.e., trips taken by bicycle as a share of all trips taken by all modes of transportation) is on the order of 40 percent (and higher in the city core). That makes Groningen, by some measures, the most cycling friendly city in the world. But, you might protest, Groningen is hardly a large agglomeration. Moreover, it is a city dominated by students. True, but Groningen is not as exceptional in the Netherlands as you might think. If you consult the ranking of world cities by cycling mode share compiled by City Clock Magazine, five of the top ten are Dutch cities, including not only Groningen, but Leiden, Utrecht, and Amsterdam, the latter all larger and more complex urban centres.


So how do we explain such high rates of cycling ridership? It is tempting to resort to naturalism. One might say (as some do) that Dutch love for cycling is in their DNA. But, despite the rise of  racist essentialisms in populist right wing rhetoric in the Netherlands, can we really say there is such a thing as Dutch DNA? It would be like saying Canadians are just “born” with a need to apologize. Sorry. Another form of naturalism would be to assert that the explanation lies in the fact that the country is flat. I mean, wouldn’t any people living in a country this flat have an affinity for cycling?


True, the country is quite flat, outside of Limburg province that is. Finding climbs with vertical ascents of more than 50 metres within an hour’s ride of Wageningen, for instance, took me some asking and some riding around. But if you think cycling is a popular mode of transportation in the Netherlands only because it is easy, then try riding for 30 minutes into the all-too-common headwinds blowing in off the North Sea, sweeping across the country with little topographical relief to interrupt the air flow. I assure you, for instance, that in Groningen, they know about headwinds. There is a reason why Zeeland in the southwest hosts an annual “cycling into a gale” national championship, to my knowledge the only event of its kind and reported to be the world’s hardest time trial.


The reality is that it is dangerously misleading to subtract human action from the historical geography of Dutch cycling. Things have not actually always been as they are now. While cycling was certainly popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, bicycle use thereafter declined, giving way to the car. Many larger Dutch cities began to evolve in ways disposed toward automobile travel just as did North American cities.


Consider the case of Amsterdam. Tourists cannot help but be struck (often literally) by the sheer volume of bicycles being ridden to and fro, often at considerable speed. Cycling infrastructure is also varied and ubiquitous. But it was not always so. As it turns out, these two phenomena, the popularity of cycling and the extent of public infrastructure, are conjoined in Amsterdam; they built it, and they rode. More specifically, renewed commitment to building dedicated urban cycling infrastructure while at the same time reining in the reign of cars took hold during the 1960s. This renewal was fuelled in large measure by mothers becoming driven to civic action out of concern for the safety of their children in the streets. You can read more about that history, as I did, in an excellent piece in the Guardian by Renate van der Zee. As the city’s infrastructure tilted more toward bicycles in Amsterdam, the mode share of cycling rebounded. I suppose one could say that this infrastructure building was demand driven, except the demand came from concerned parents, not cyclists. And the demand was given shape by collective, popular mobilization, not just individual choices and behavioural changes. There are numerous, intersecting lessons from this and related episodes in the historical geography of Dutch cycling that we can learn from as we attempt to make our own cities, including Toronto, safer, more fun, and all around more conducive to cyclists. If you build it, they will ride.