So, here I am trying to set the record straight. To me, these aren't so much excuses that individuals use to explain why they don't personally cycle, but excuses made even by existing cyclists for why it is that they think their country is different to the Netherlands. It seems rather odd to me that even people who campaign for cycling in their own country would prefer to make an excuse for why it doesn't happen rather than work towards a higher level of cycling, but that's how it is. It's easy to fall into a trap of believing that there is a fundamental difference in the people, the geography, the weather, or whatever.
Busting these myths is a part of what needs to happen if cycle campaigners elsewhere are to start to campaign more effectively. Asking for half measures won't do it. You need to ask for the best possible conditions for cycling if you want cycling to become a mass activity as it is in the Netherlands.
Recently I've started to refer to these as "myths and excuses", and included links to each type of "excuse" on the right hand side of the blog.
Here they are again, with longer descriptions. Click on the provided links either in or after each topic to find the references for each statement made here.
Our streets are too narrow. This one comes up all the time. From tiny villages in the UK, which really do have narrow streets, right through to places like Los Angeles where generally speaking they have enormously wide streets, a lot of people honestly believe that the place they live in somehow has less space for cyclists than the Netherlands does. It's a myth. The Netherlands has town designs from the medieval right through to the 21st century, and in all of these, space can be found for cyclists if the roads are (re)designed accordingly.
Providing for cyclists is too expensive. It's simply not true. Providing infrastructure for cyclists is actually incredibly cheap in comparison with providing infrastructure for the same people to make all their journeys by car. In the Netherlands it has been shown that even the relatively lightly used intercity superhighways are cheaper to build than not to built. What's more, it leads to other savings. For instance, in the health service, and even gives companies a competitive advantage over those from other nations.
Our population is too spread out. This is a favourite of Americans and Australians, who believe that their large countries lead to their population making far longer journeys. Thje maximum distance you could travel is of course larger in a larger country. However, average (median) journey lengths don't vary very much. The reason why is that practical everyday journeys (to school, shops, work) are constricted more by time than by distance in itself. Even in America, 40% of urban journeys are 2 miles under.. If you compare the whole of the country of Netherlands with cities in other places then the population density argument completely reverses, yet the Netherlands still has a much higher cycling rate.
We have hills. Another plea from people who imagine that the Netherlands is completely flat and that this is the reason for cycling. It's not as simple as that. In a flat country, headwinds are phenomenal, so it's not really so big a gain for cyclists as is often imagined. That's something that people who live in the area of the UK called Holland, which is just as flat as the Netherlands, also know. However, they don't cycle any more than people elsewhere in the UK because they don't have cycle-paths and their towns have been developed to exclude cyclists. What's more, not all of the Netherlands actually is that flat. In fact, the Amstel Gold cycle race is held here - and is famous for its vicious hilly course. Limburg is a hilly province in the Netherlands. Also bear in mind that Switzerland achieves a much better cycling rate than many other countries, despite being rather mountainous, and that in Britain in 1949, over 30% of total road distance travelled was by bike. The geography hasn't changed, though road conditions have.
Our distances are too great. Actually, as I mentioned before, they're not. It often surprises people to find out that the Dutch have the longest commutes in Europe. Of course, sometimes distances can feel like they are too long to cycle if the conditions that cyclists face are unpleasant.
It took decades in the Netherlands. Actually, it took about 15 years. However, what's your point ? The problem is not actually making a proper start. People have been making this excuse that it takes too long for far more than 15 years, when they could instead have been working towards making real progress and now have something similar to what the Netherlands has. Catching up requires starting the process of building good cycling infrastructure, continuing the process rather than viewing it as something for the short term, and improving the standards over time so that the experience of cycling continues to improve. That's what The Netherlands has done. Any other could do the same, but it does require commitment.
It's because of the price of gas. Yes, running a car is more expensive here than in America or Australia. However, it's not much different at all from the UK. America, Australia and the UK have the same 1% modal share for cycling. So don't wait for higher petrol prices, or higher car parking charges, in order to make people cycle. Cycling should be made into a more attractive option for everyone and then it can be a positive choice that people make. The Netherlands is absolutely not anti-car.
It's the weather. What amuses me about this one is that people use it in all directions at once. Either it's too cold in their country, or it's too hot in their country. In at least one example, the complaint was that their city was too cold relative to the Netherlands, even though had on average warmer winters than the here. Our weather varies by a surprising extent. In the three years that we've lived here, daytime temperatures have varied between -12 C (10 F - much worse if you include wind chill, which I don't) and +38 C (100 F). People don't stop cycling in either extreme. Commuters still go to work, all sorts of people still go shopping and the children still cycle to school. However, recreational destinations do change. People are more like to cycle to go skating when it's cold and to the beach when it's hot.
|Actual professional cycle-race on the|
television in The Netherlands. And
yes, this is a cycle-path.
So, why is it that so many people choose to cycle here, when they wouldn't if they lived elsewhere ? That's simple. The Dutch did all of this. And in particular, took care of this.
Quite a few people pointed out other "excuses" in the comments, and I made a comment answering some of them. Here's a slightly edited version of that text:
"Our streets are too wide" and the closely related "You can't drive in medieval cities in the Netherlands". This is about claiming that cities elsewhere are too new to incorporate cycle infrastructure. It's exactly the opposite of what the "too narrow" people claim. The latter, "medieval", variant can be credited to a strange chap whose only experience of the Netherlands was on a train journey in the 1930s. Anyway, again it's nonsense. Some cities in the Netherlands do indeed have centres which date from medieval times. However, other cities and towns have been established right through history, including one of the very newest cities in the world which was established in the 1970s on land which had been sea bed until a short time previously. Plenty of space for wide roads there. However, all Dutch cities, no matter how old or new, are great for cycling in.
"You'll have problems at intersections". Not if well designed. I've examples of quite a few.
"Mass cycling is for poor countries"? Try looking here. Propelling yourself by consuming imported oil is detrimental to the economy. Cycling makes your country's economy stronger.
"Segregationists are splitters". What is this ? A playground squabble ? What I find most amusing about this accusation is the idea that cyclists haven't been split on many issues for ages. What's more, cyclists in low cycling countries are about as split as they possibly can be from the mainstream. Achieving a higher cycling rate re-integrates cyclists into society, which is what you need if you want to see cyclists being taken seriously on all levels, including in the event of crashes between motorists and cyclists.
"It doesn't matter what non-cyclists think". Hilarious. If that's what you believe then don't expect ever to grow the cycling rate. Growth can only come by convincing non-cyclists to take up cycling. If you don't take into account why people don't cycle (this is the reason) then you won't ever grow cycling.
If cycle paths are built "we'll be banished to dangerous crap forever". Isn't that the problem now ? That the roads which "cyclists" ride on are "dangerous crap" so far as everyone but very enthusiastic cyclists are concerned ? Cycling has reached its lowest possible ebb in the English speaking world. Whatever direction campaigning takes, to end up with a worse situation than a mere 1% of journeys being by bike, as at present, is rather unlikely. There is, almost literally, nothing to lose.
"Weren't the Dutch government always supportive of cycling" ? Actually, no. In the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s cycling in NL declined rapidly while the government prioritized road building and cars. I've several examples on the blog, also before and after photos of Assen, and Mark Wagenbuur recently made a nice video showing what Amsterdam was like in the 1970s.
"There's a lack of political support". I have a lot of sympathy with this. Of course there is a lack of political support in countries where cyclists are a minority. This is why it is a mistake to campaign only for "cyclists". Take note from the Netherlands. Successful campaigning here started by pointing out the deaths of children, not merely "cyclists". This removes the problem of cyclists being a minority. Everyone is concerned about children. This blog includes a number of articles about campaigning.
"Where there are no children cycling there is no need for this concern". Nice counterpoint, but children also die when walking, and in cars due to the way roads are developed and used in many countries.
What's more, car centric road design harms the development of children. Dutch children have an extraordinary amount of freedom of movement. That's all part of the reason why Dutch children are the happiest in the world. In fact, the top four countries for child well-being in this list from UNICEF just happen to also be the top four countries for cycling.
So, as it turns out you need cycle paths not only to stop children from dying when cycling, and not only for the sake of but also to help their development into healthy, happy adults. Personally, I find that quite a compelling argument.
There are a lot of stories about children on this blog precisely because children are important. Quite apart from anything else, they're the only source of future cyclists. If children aren't riding bikes, what chance does cycling have ? One of my favourite photos of local children is this one, of a girl riding home from school and with a few wobbles practising riding no hands as she went:
If you've not seen it before, take a look at the video of what our local primary schools look like.
I think "John in NH" makes a good point in the comments about wanting manuals and standards to be improved. Most road engineers in the Netherlands are just the same as those in the USA or anywhere else. They're not mavericks, they're simply competently doing their job, and following all the relevant guidelines. Most of the infrastructure exists simply because the standards have been followed.
However, even the very good CROW manuals from the Netherlands don't tell all that you need to know. In the Netherlands they are interpreted from within a Dutch context. Minimums really are treated as minimums. Different types of infrastructure described in the CROW manuals quite passively and without preference are not equally popular. This is why it's important not only to read the manuals but also to see what is really done on the streets.
The excuses keep piling up, including a hilarious one which appeared on Dave Warnock's blog. Apparently, "it is a historical fact that the Nazis invented segregated lanes." Unfortunately for this "fact", Adolf Hitler wasn't born until four years after the creation of the first cycle path in the Netherlands. Besides, what kind of argument is this anyway ? Allegedly, Mussolini "made the trains run on time", but does that mean that all "right thinking" people should now prefer that they don't run on time ?
Now if these people used the same argument about motorways and cars then it might actually make sense. It's a matter of historical record that Hitler "enthusiastically embraced" the building of motorways as well as "demanding the production of a basic vehicle" so that as many people as possible could drive on them.
Update November 2011
The excuses keep rolling in:
"But we have driveways". Believe it or not, The Netherlands has driveways too. They are just designed differently.
"Cycle training will increase cycling". Sixty years of evidence tends to suggest that it won't.
"Cycle-paths would cause flooding / light-pollution / removal of trees". Next to the damage caused by building roads, these considerations are trivial for cycle-paths.
"I cycle so you could cycle too". People often think that because the conditions are good enough for them to cycle that everyone else would too, perhaps after a bit of training. Actually, this is not remotely true, and training has been shown to have little effect on its own. The reason is simple: training does not change conditions on the streets, and therefore does not improve subjective safety to the point that people want to cycle.
Update December 2011
"It's in the genes / blood / veins of the Dutch". Like many of the myths, this one is believed by some Dutch people as well. However, a survey on a Dutch website for expats revealed that when Dutch people leave the Netherlands one of the things they miss most is cycling. It has also been shown that when people of other nationalities come to the Netherlands they cycle far more than they would have if they had stayed in their country of origin. England has a region named "Holland" which is strikingly similar to the Netherlands. It's flat, they grow flowers, there are a lot of windmills and dykes. Many of the people who live there are the families of Dutch immigrants who helped to drain these low lands and turn them into fertile farms - the same process as happened across much of the Netherlands. However, almost no-one cycles in "Holland" despite having the same blood. Why ? Because conditions for cycling are terrible. There are no cycle-paths to speak of. The reason why both native Dutch people and other nationalities cycle more when they live in the Netherlands than when they live in other countries where cycling is less pleasant isn't "in the genes", the "blood" or the "veins". The reason is that the infrastructure here makes it possible. Subjective safety.
"Journeys are short in the Netherlands". It was also revealed recently that Dutch commutes are the longest in Europe, somewhat defeating the argument that the Dutch only cycle because their journeys are short.
Update January 2012
"Strict Liability makes the Dutch safe to cycle". Some people think that high levels of cycling in the Netherlands are due to "Strict Liability" or that "Strict Liability" must be in place to make cycle-paths safe. Another way of saying this is to express opinions that the main reason that cycling is safer in the Netherlands than in any other country is because laws are different. None of these things is actually true and this view is based on a misunderstanding . The policy which has lead to more and safer cyclists is called Sustainable Safety and it's about creating fewer dangerous conditions on cycle-paths, streets and roads.
Update January 2013
Another suggestion which I've been sent was "why should traffic grind to a halt to indulge your hobby". That bicycles get in the way of cars and slow them down is not a new claim. However, studies have shown that more cycling leads to fewer traffic jams. In the Netherlands, driving is not actually difficult at all. An IBM study of "commuter pain" showed that Amsterdam is about as annoying for commuting by car as is Los Angeles and Berlin. Amsterdam is a better place for driving than London, Paris, Madrid, Milan or Moscow, all of which are dominated by cars and don't have nearly so many bicycles as down Amsterdam. There are few truly anti-motoring policies in the Netherlands and no reason for cycling campaigners elsewhere to be "anti-car". If it is attractive, cycling sells itself. People cycle en-masse in the Netherlands because cycling is very attractive indeed, not because they are punished if they drive.
Another myth which seems to have gained popularity of late is that lower speed limits are all that it will take to make people cycle. There's nothing wrong with reducing speed limits in and of itself, however, the effect of this should not be overstated. The Dutch found that reducing speed limits was not effective enough on its own. Low traffic Dutch streets which have 30 km/h (18 mph) speed limits are attractive to cyclists not because they have a low speed limit, but because they have almost no cars on them. The Dutch not only have the most extensive network of low speed limit streets in the world, but also have unravelled routes for motorists from those for cyclists. This removal of cars is what makes streets subjectively safe and leads to cycling being an easy choice for people to make.
Update July 2013
People continue to promote the myths which are addressed above. This post is but a summary, but if you follow the links above you'll find the individual references for each statement made here.
Again I've seen comments about how supposedly unfriendly the Netherlands is for drivers. This is simply not a fact. Driving here is a pleasure and it's also very affordable relative to peoples' salaries. Policies which are "anti-car" are extremely difficult to find. The Netherlands is one of very few countries which actually offers tax incentives to commute by car. In how many other places do drivers have such a perk ?
|The "bicycle" on the left has a|
number plate - but it also has a
two stroke engine mounted by
the rear wheel
The modern myth may have roots in simple misunderstanding. There is a class of motorized bicycle in the Netherlands which doesn't exist in the UK. They look a lot like normal Dutch bicycles and these do have a number plate at the back, but they also have a two stroke engine mounted by the rear wheel. They're no longer produced, having been replaced by electrically assisted bicycles with the same 25 km/h assisted speed limit.
A few days ago, the bike in the photo at the top, which belongs to the grand-child of one of our neighbours spent most of the day either being ridden along, or parked in the middle of, the street that we live in. No-one drove into it. No-one came close to doing so. That's what is needed if people are to feel confident about letting even very small children play outside: a very high degree of subjective safety. You can also see the answers to these "excuses" all at once.