The attitude towards separate cycle infrastructure varies as much as the quality of it. In Germany some cyclists feel ‘pushed off the road’ by their separate ‘on-sidewalk’ mandatory cycle paths. In English speaking countries some cyclists are also reluctant to give up their ‘right to use the roads’, a feeling which is enhanced by a strong ‘them versus us’ culture.
There is a very different attitude in the Netherlands. The conflict of interests is just not there. First of all because the Dutch don’t think in terms of drivers versus cyclists (everybody can be both) but also because they feel each type of traffic has the infrastructure it needs and deserves. And many Dutch think ‘it has always been this way’.
It is impossible to single out one reason to explain this. There are complex cultural, political, financial and historical reasons that all contributed to today’s attitude. But it is interesting to focus on one of the historic reasons.
When mass cycling became common in the Netherlands from the 1890s the cyclists had to deal with roads that were totally inadequate for cycling. Most roads were not paved at all. The state highways had been constructed for horses and carriages and they had been neglected because of cuts in maintenance in favour of what was considered more modern rail transport. In order to make cycling possible at all new roads for cyclists were necessary. And they were indeed built. At first next to the highways, but then an interesting problem arose. Since the cycle paths were so much better than the roads they were soon invaded by horsemen and carriages. This lead to protests and eventually in 1905 to a new Road Law that was very specific in the protection of cycle paths. It forbade non-cyclists to use them. And it also gave the cycle paths the legal status of ‘road’, to be used by cyclists only.
It was only after this law was in force that cars became common. They too were forbidden to use the cycle roads. But it was hard to enforce with the smooth cycle ways that were so much more comfortable for those early cars too, directly next to the poor roads. So the pragmatic Dutch simply created a division. A hedge or a line of trees between the road and the cycle way and the matter was settled. By the 1920s it had been laid down in National Law that the construction of these separate cycle paths was mandatory on roads with more than 500 cyclists passing per day. When the cyclists’ union looked back in the 1930s to three decades of practise, they were very satisfied that this solution had also improved overall road safety. Implementation in cities was interrupted by WWII but from the early 1950s the separated cycle paths became more common in city streets too.
Much has changed since the early 20th century. Motorised traffic now has its own good roads, and there was a decline in cycling that was overcome again, but that ground attitude has always remained. It were not the cyclists who were sent off the roads. It was motorised traffic that was sent off the cycle paths for the benefit of all. This basic attitude has been such a long tradition that it is incorporated in the way of building and thinking about roads. No driver will ‘invade’ a cycle path, not even now, not even if he can.
What has been a growing tradition in the Netherlands for over a hundred years can be adopted by other countries too. On highways and through streets with a high volume of motorised traffic at increased speed you need smooth, wide, clear and well maintained cycle paths separated from that motorised traffic to improve overall traffic safety. In city streets with moderate traffic volumes and low speed differences you can create complete streets which are fit to be used by all types of traffic including cyclists and pedestrians.
Mark Wagenbuur has made many excellent videos of Dutch cycling provision. I've included many of them, often with his words, on this blog. You can find many more on his youtube page. He also provided information about the first cycle path in the Netherlands.