Why the Dutch cycle…

Together We Cycle

… and what we can learn from this 

As we all know, the Dutch are big on cycling… it is estimated that 50% of trips in Amsterdam are by cycle and there is no such thing as a ‘cyclist’ in the Netherlands, after all when nearly everyone cycles there’s no need to identify yourself in this way. The inspirational film ‘Why We Cycle, which was recently screened as a joint event between YoCo, Cycle Heaven, and YCC aims to explain why this is the case. 

As the film highlights, there is nothing fundamentally different about the Dutch. By the 60s, the Dutch, like the British, saw the car as the future. Vintage film from the Netherlands at this time could equally well be from the UK; with promotional puffs for futuristic road schemes and footage of small numbers of cyclists (not the multitudes of today) fighting their way through hordes of cars and vans on busy double-parked streets. 

So what happened in the Netherlands in the 70s to change this trajectory? A significant moment in the Dutch cycling story is also a tragic one. A number of children cycling to school were killed by motorists and this led to a movement which, pulling no punches, was called Stop de Kindermoord (stop the child murder). This led to the first steps towards improving cycle provision, which was reinforced by those keen to reclaim historic town centres and residential streets (through ‘home zones’) for people, not cars.

Stop Kindermoord protests in 1972
CC0: Verhoeff, Bert/Nationaal Archief/Anefo

It is sobering to reflect that in the UK, concerns about the risks associated with cycling led, not to a protest movement to improve the safety of vulnerable road users, but instead to an increase in the school run, an arms race of ever larger cars and a mentality that expects cyclists to dress in day-glow colours and be lit up like Christmas trees if they are not to be blamed for being run-over… And, in going down this route, it can be argued that we’ve introduced even bigger risks, those of obesity, poor air quality, and, for children, lack of independence… 

A typical school run in Amsterdam
Photo: Alfredo Borba CC BY-SA 4.0

The film highlights many aspects of the excellent cycling infrastructure in the Netherlands, from properly segregated cycle lanes to protection at intersections. Early on, cycling improvements tended to be piecemeal but now the concept of Sustainable Safety ensures safe, convenient and accessible cycling is at the heart of the transport planning system. The film also explores the role played by Dutch cycling culture. It is, however, important to remind ourselves that Dutch people are not born with an innate predisposition to cycle, nor to respect cyclists, rather these are learnt behaviours that arise as a consequence of strong laws to protect cyclists, better training for motorists, and promotion of, and socialisation into, cycling from an early age.

It can be tempting to look at the Dutch situation and feel defeated by their 50-year head start. In fact, the film stresses that while some of the foundations may well have been laid in the 70s, many of the most significant improvements in the Dutch cycling experience (particularly in terms of infrastructure) have happened in the last 20 years. Many, even in the Netherlands, have forgotten how recent much of the change has been. 

So, can we achieve a Dutch-style approach cycling in the UK and, more specifically, here in York? This was part of the valuable post-film discussion with viewers and some of the film-makers (Gertjan Hulster and Arne Gielen). Some noted that whilst culture change is important, the Government vision for cycling and walking (Gear Change) and guidance (LTN 1/20) for cycle provision is already in place. What we lack is the political will to implement this vision and adopt this guidance in York. We desperately need our local councillors and council officers to be prepared to look beyond the noise of a vocal minority who want to retain the car-based status quo. We need action, now, to ensure that walking and cycling dominate: to improve York’s health, air quality, carbon budget and livability and ensure that our children can ride safely to school.

Is that too much to ask?  

One thought on “Why the Dutch cycle…

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