One of those myths that won't die is that the Netherlands has a high rate of cycling because the price of petrol ("gas" to Americans, "benzine" in The Netherlands) is high. This seems particularly to be suggested by Americans, because the price of petrol in their country is so low, and so is the cycling rate.
However, I don't believe this to be the case. If you remove the USA, and Australia to a lesser extent, many other countries have very similar petrol prices, but markedly different rates of cycling.
The graph shows the rate of cycling as a percentage of journeys in several countries in the world, plotted along with the January 2011 prices for petrol.
There are three areas of this graph which show a story.
On the left you can consider the USA, Australia and Great Britain. All three of these countries have a cycling rate of around 1%, but the petrol prices are spread widely - between 60 cents and €1.47 per litre.
You can then consider the largest part of the graph, Great Britain through to Finland. In all of these countries except Austria and Switzerland, the petrol price is very similar: between €1.40 and €1.48 per litre. However, the cycling rates vary across nearly the whole spectrum, 1% of journeys at the low end and 11% of journeys at the high end. The two end positions are taken by Great Britain with petrol at €1.47 per litre and Finland where petrol costs €1.48 per litre.
Lastly, take a look at the top three: Finland, Denmark and the Netherlands. If you look hard enough here, then you can see an upward trend in both petrol price and cycling rate. However, petrol in the Netherlands is actually only 11% more expensive than Finland (€1.62 vs. €1.48) while the cycling rate is 2.5 times as high (27% vs. 11% of journeys).
But actually, this doesn't tell the whole story. Because we've considered only petrol and not diesel, we've simplified the issue. When I last covered this, I noted that while petrol was more expensive in the Netherlands than in the UK, diesel was 14% cheaper in the Netherlands than in the UK. Considering both petrol and diesel together, the price of fuel is actually more equal between nations than it appears on my graph. For the driver of a diesel engined car (roughly half of new cars sold in Europe run on diesel), the fuel to run it is actually cheaper in the Netherlands than in Britain - yet these two countries span the widest range possible of cycling rates.
I think it's fair to say that there's no real relationship shown here between the price of fuel for cars and the cycling rate. Even when fuel for cars is expensive and congestion results in journeys being slow and inconvenient, people will continue to want to drive if driving remains the least bad option.
Many myths and excuses exist for why the cycling rate in other countries is lower. The only thing which really explains why the Netherlands stands out so far above other countries is that the experience of cycling is so different. In the Netherlands, cycling takes place away from the threat of motor vehicles on good quality cycle paths and roads which prioritize cyclists. Never is it necessary to take on busy motorized traffic by bike, or even to ride up the side of rows of stationery vehicles. This leads to an outstanding level of subjective safety, and as a result all types of people cycle.
To see the policies, infrastructure and campaigning which have lead to the Netherlands having both the world's highest cycling rate and also the world's safest cyclists, click on what works.
Cycling rates for the graph are taken from here and here. Prices for petrol (current in January 2011) come from here, here and here.
I covered the same excusepreviously. However, it keeps coming up again, so I think it's worth repeating.
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The less positive stuff What not to do if you want a cycling "revolution" - Long list of interventions and policies which are not helpful. Copy the best examples from the Netherlands - a short list summarising the above. Important to copy the best examples, not just anything "Dutch". Bear in mind that the Netherlands is not perfect. Shared Space - this much hyped idea simply does not work well. It disenfranchises the vulnerable and claims of safety are exaggerated. Don't confuse the concept with far more successful nearly car free streets. Shared Use Paths designed to be used by pedestrians and cyclists together. These rarely work well because the two user groups are too different and it leads to conflicts. They are not built in the Netherlands (but cycle access to pedestrianized zones is good). Strict (or presumed) liability - If you think this is an important part of why people cycle in the Netherlands then it is probably not what you think it is. Helmets - one of several ways of scaremongering about the supposed dangers of what is actually a very safe means of transport
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A cyclist in a cycling family living in the capital of the cycling province of the world's greatest cycling country.
I was born in the UK, lived for over 8 years in New Zealand and have lived in the Netherlands since 2007.
I organise cycling infrastructure study tours, run an online bicycle shop, arrange cycling holidays and write a popular blog about cycling.
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