Thursday 20 October 2011

How the Dutch got their cycling infrastructure

How did the Dutch get their cycling infrastructure? This question keeps coming back because it is of course relevant to people who want what the Dutch have.

Road building traditions go back a long way and they are influenced by many factors. But the way Dutch streets and roads are built today is largely the result of deliberate political decisions in the 1970s to turn away from the car centric policies of the prosperous post war era. Changed ideas about mobility, safer and more livable cities and about the environment led to a new type of streets in the Netherlands.
The recent video to introduce the Dutch Cycling Embassy explains this very briefly, but there is a lot more that can be said about it. That is why I made a longer video for a more in depth look into the history of cycling infrastructure in the Netherlands.

Please watch this video before you read on.

“The Netherlands’ problems were and are not unique, their solutions shouldn’t be that either.”
Thus ends my video, but what do I mean by that? I think the Dutch could and should be copied. If you look at the key factors for the change in Dutch thinking, you see these are just as valid today. The world is still too dependent on fossil fuels and many cities in the world have congested streets. Streets and roads which are also very dangerous, especially for vulnerable road users like pedestrians and cyclists. And that is even more so when these road users are elderly or children.
Other elements leading to the change are also not unique. That is not only so for the protest posters.

Cycle protest posters Amsterdam 1980
Critical Mass posters 2007-2011 various places

The mass cycling protests in the 1970s look very similar as well, compared to protests in other countries today. Like the massive number of people protesting by bike on London's Blackfriars bridge just a couple of days ago.

Cycling protest tour 1979, Amsterdam.
Blackfriars protest tour 2011, London.
(Picture by Joe Dunckley)
Even the rogue painting of cycling infrastructure on roads is something that could be witnessed just a few weeks ago in Moscow.
Painting cycle lanes, Amsterdam 1980
Painting cycle lanes, Moscow 2011

So where then is the difference? The below picture from 1974 says a lot. It shows the then prime minister of the Netherlands Joop den Uyl and his wife, accepting a record from the foundation ‘Stop de kindermoord’ (stop the child murder) with a protest song.

Prime Minister Joop den Uyl and his wife accepting a record with a protest song by 'Stop de Kindermoord'  with the radical title:
"playing on the streets: death penalty"
This was at their home where they were adressed as parents. It gives a clear picture of how the pressure groups of the 1970s managed to get the political powers to listen to them and take action. It took them a decade, before not only decision makers, but also the planners finally listened to the protests. Getting the people who take decisions and those who have to draw plans for the streets to adopt the new ideas: that is where the real change started.

Read more posts about campaigning. See examples of what works in the Netherlands.

How to read this post - a note from David
This is one of the most popular posts by Mark. Note his emphasis in the last paragraph about addressing the Prime Minister and his wife as parents. They were addressed as equals and as people in a similar situation to the protesters. This was not a "them vs. us" situation but one of mutual respect and support.

This is the essential difference between how the Dutch achieved change and how many other campaigns elsewhere have failed to achieve change. Campaigning for cyclists or cycling is not effective as you're then campaigning for an out-group and not proposing something beneficial to the masses. Similarly, there is no point in campaigning against drivers as you are then pitting a small group against a much larger group. What's more, while the Netherlands has been more successful than any other nation at reducing use of motorised transport, this country has achieved that end without alienating drivers and without overt anti-car measures. Choosing to fight against drivers means picking a battle which cannot be won and one which in any case you don't to fight.

Read other posts about campaigning which further this discussion.


Marco te Brömmelstroet said...

Thanks for this post! A clear message of what the Dutch achieved and how they achieved it. In terms that leave other no arguments to try the same themselves!

We (the people) did it, so can you!

Severin said...

That was an amazing video, I got goose bumps watching it... Makes me want to organize mass protests now.

Thanks for your incredible dedication to this blog, and the cycling movement– these videos are very eye-opening and encouraging to advocates on a variety of levels.

That said, I think one difference is that while people were outraged in the Netherlands people are not outraged at traffic deaths as much here in America. Historical buildings get a lot of attention, and their preservation is important to people but not really traffic and traffic deaths.

Piet said...

There is a substantive difference between the Netherlands and English speaking countries with respect to cycling. This difference is glossed over in the video. In the Netherlands cycling was never the exclusive domain of a tribe wearing funny clothes, hi-viz jackets, helmets, riding racing and/or specialised bicycles, stressing speed, weight, fitness, masculinity etc. In English speaking countries this tribe branding of cycling is unfortunately now the case. Governments and general public think and discuss cycling mainly using this tribal paradigm. Substantive changes in political will require a view of cycling as a normal day-to-day activity. Any efforts that counter the tribe view should be supported (eg bike hire schemes). Initiatives reinforcing the tribe view and tribal behaviour should be discouraged or downplayed (hi-viz jackets, helmets and other clothing paraphernalia, change/shower rooms infrastructure, specialized lockers etc).

Slow Factory said...

People pushing for political leadership... indeed. Here in Germany the transportation minister has cut spending on cycling and just said that a mandatory helmet law could be inevitable. The infrastructure and education for cyclists in Germany is terrible, in general, when compared to the Netherlands.

Taliesin said...

The video almost seems unreal to me. Not because I don't believe this is what happend in NL, but because it seems to suggest that the move away from the car-centric planning didn't cause opposition.

Didn't the removal of space of cars cause claims that it would kill the city centres?

ibikelondon said...

Bravo for the wonderful post and truly inspiring video. As someone who helped to organise the Blackfriars Bridge ride last week this is just what I need to get me feeling inspired again!

Fantastic work!

didrik said...

I wonder what the difference is between the Netherlands and the US in terms of the leaders listening to public outcry. Or that there was any public outcry at all.

It seems like the main thing that brought the people together was the rate of child deaths. We have an extremely high yearly body-count from automobiles here in the US but when you mention it, people just have no reaction at all. Automobile crashes are the leading cause of death for children in the US but people don't seem the least bit bothered.

Micheal Blue said...

Thanks for posting this.

Jim Moore said...

This blog and video as well as the DCE's video are absolutely fantastic! Thank you everybody involved for going to this effort.

The logic in these stories is absolutely compelling. Pretty soon, once enough people have seen what proper cycling conditions are via the web, the public demand for the same in their own cities will become too large for politicians of all stripes to deny.

And of course a big, big thanks to all those protesters in the 70s and 80s in the Netherlands for creating this beacon of sustainable transport in cities that is now guiding the rest of the world.

Frits B said...

Taliesin: "Didn't the removal of space of cars cause claims that it would kill the city centres?"
Of course it did, and still does, even in David's Assen where a much overdue renovation of a main street is held up by endless palavers with shop owners. Even when experience elsewhere says otherwise, the loss of passing cars and parking spaces is seen as damaging. But as politicians and city planners usually listen to more parties concerned, the change will be made eventually.

Rebecca said...

The outcry in the Netherlands that I saw in the video was similar to the outcry n the USA in the early part of the 20th century to deaths caused by cars, especially the deaths of children. The solution back then by “motordom was to manage the message so that auto drivers pedestrians & (cyclists) would share the responsibility for their safety. That’s when we got jay walking laws & cross walks. Playgrounds were built to get children off the streets and children were given safety awareness instruction in school. Streets became the domain of automobiles and they rule here to this day. I read about this in the book “Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age In The American City” by Peter D. Norton.

Principal Skinner said...

Have i got this correct? It seems that there was a campaign to reach the hearts of the political decision makers before any of the infrastructure was built. There was a need to get a cultural shift in the way people perceived cities and urban design. Once that was established, then the physical infrastructure could be developed. In Auckland, cycling is not seen as credible and in the domain of sports people and the fearless. Does there need to be a rebranding of the image of cycling before any serious credence and $ is provided to develop cycling?

Unknown said...

Truly excellent and enlightening video. This could be the basis for a full length documentary, it's an fascinating topic with so many layers to discuss.

Dennis Hindman said...

Let's see...we have not had massive protests for cycling in Los Angeles due to a very small amount of people who bike regularly, but we are starting to close down some miles of streets to cars in a growing number of Sundays per year for CicLAvia. The city council is encouraging this mass show of support for cycling by putting up a great deal of the funding. These events are increasing the number of cyclists before there is permanent infrastructure to support it on a daily basis. If this continues, there will a growing number of cyclists who will demand better infrastructure and the politicians in turn will tend to support this as they have seen the positive effects of cycling by way of CicLAvia.

At least that is one way I see to quickly get the cycling rate up in low modal share cities by simulating the creation of infrastructure by temporarily closing miles of streets on Sundays, and then using that growing force of people to help create positive political changes for cycling.

One of our bikeways engineers was standing next to the crowd at the last CicLAvia and he told me that I need to get these people to community meetings to support bicycling. In other words, the larger mass of people will make it much more likely to prevail in influencing the political decision.

To try and get the dramatic changes that were made in the Netherlands, without their initial high modal share for bikes, would be an almost impossible task as few people would support it. Instead of butting heads, try and get people to support it by way of the subversive act of having mass cycling on temporarily closed streets. You'll get a growing number of businesses and politicans to support it and people in the community will tend to love it. It effects only a small area of the city, but at least it's a strong foothold to grow the cycling base.

Andy in Germany said...

I know that we can prove that getting cars out of ciies is a helpful thing, but what about small owns? Our shopkeepers are adamant that removal of parking spaces will kill their business in our town of 5000 or so, and so far I've found no evidence to contradict this (not saying there isn't any, just that I can't find it)

Gitaar said...


I live in the netherlands, in sittard and indeed we have a lot of cycling infrastructure.

You can cycle across the whole country, what country has that available for their inhabitants?

Its very great, cool to see a lot of people know about the netherlands. I always thought nobody know's the netherlands because we are a very small country haha..

Dennis Hindman said...

It's important to get a large amount of people bicycling on a regular basis, in order to get a ground swell of support for putting in infrastructure. Another way to do that, besides frequent Ciclovia type events, is to introduce bicycle sharing on a large scale. People will try the bikes out of curiosity and this will in turn lead many of them to get their own bike to use instead.

New York city has created 250 miles of bikeways over the last four years. People there are for putting in bike lanes, but the majority of those surveyed just don't want them in their neighborhood.

A much larger amount of people in New York want bike sharing that will be introduced next year. Afterall, it will cost the city nothing and it provides an alternative way to get around besides a taxi, bus, walking or subway. You introduce an acceptable way to increase cycling and that in turn leads to a larger demand for more infrastructure.

James J. James said...

I think what's unfortunate about English speaking countries is that they tend to be insular in their media. There are enough people in the world that speak English that the media has no reason to look beyond them.
What is happening though is that this particular website is a "bridge" to connect a non-anglo european approach to others. It's great!

ibike said...

Fantastic post and video, but for countries like Britain aspiring to have what the Dutch have the following question remains tantalisingly unanswered: how do we get politicians and planners to take cycling as transport seriously?

If you look closely at the photos of the Amsterdam and Blackfriars protest rides you’ll see the root of the problem. In the picture from the Amsterdam ride of 1979 there are people of all ages, and everyone is wearing normal clothes. By comparison, the photo from last month’s Blackfriars flashride shows a sea of bright yellow and tight black lycra.

I was on the flashride and whilst it was a truly amazing experience to be in the midst of so many cyclists, what really struck home was the image of the typical cyclist: young, fit, enthusiastic and wearing specialist clothing. In other words, crying out to singled-out as the other, the hated “cyclist”. I’ve never worn anything but normal clothes when riding a bike but I was clearly in a minority here.

Things are slowly changing, however. You’re starting to see parents with kids in child seats letting them ride without wearing helmets, something you just wouldn’t have seen a few years ago. The other day I even saw a young man with his lady friend riding side-saddle on the rear rack. How very Dutch, I thought!

I’m excited by the London Cycling Campaign’s “Go Dutch” campaign, but as well as headlining on “infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure” it must also address this problem.

I hate to use the term, but cycling needs to be “rebranded” as a normal activity and control of its image wrestled from those who have made it into a niche activity. Cycle campaigners have a key role to play here. You only have to look at the literature put out by many cycle campaigns to witness a similar fetish for helmets, hi-viz and lycra!

Let’s start making cycling normal.

Paul Martin said...

Excellent post and wonderful film, Mark. Thank you very much.

me_land said...

I agree that there is no reason per se why the same approach couldn't work here (in the UK) and elsewhere. However, there is a much bigger 'generation gap' here, i.e. people in the Netherlands had mostly cycled, changed to cars for a bit, then went back to it. Here there are at least two generations now for whom cycling, as others have said, is a niche (even 'weirdo') activity. It's still possible, and essential, but will take longer.

"I think, therefore I bike" - nice!

Anonymous said...

Did housing and business changes play a role in the Dutch shift toward automobiles? Why were the Dutch travelling so far in the '70s, and what made them stop?

davidncohen said...

@ Severin
I too had goose bumps when watching the video = great stuff.

Henk op den Berg said...

I feel much bettter at ease in France or Italy on my bike than in Holland. (I am a pre-babyboomer and still don't have a driver's licence) In those countries I am an adult participant in the general traffic. This summer in Paris: a delight compared with Amsterdam where I live. The French countyroads, marvellous! Italians most friendly.
The only time I was hit by a car was in Holland on a bicyclelane! The police that I called, didn't care and did nothing, allthough I was injured!
The transportation of your bike by train in Holland is horrible and to Paris even impossible.
Sorry to say that the worst conduct to cyclists will be found in Britain. There I had very negative attitudes towards me as a long distance cyclist.

Unknown said...

Great, inspiring post, thanks David. I lived in NL the 90s which gave me a lifelong appreciation of the Dutch and their transport infrastructure.

I agree with others that as well as infrastructure, the image of cycling in many countries has to be changed from "sportsperson" to ordinary person. See the copenhagen cyclechic blog for inspiration! Here in Madrid, even though I bike to work in my normal office gear most people say “wow, what a sportsperson". My reply is that anyone can ride a bike, it’s something you never forget.

Dennis Hindman said...

Check out these three videos of CicLAvia in Los Angeles, by Rob Adams, to see how cycling can be pushed with little opposition and no bicycle infrastructure in the immediate area. The momentum builds and the demand for more bike infrastructure will follow.

Mark W. said...

Interesting comments, I hope this will be usefull in some discussions.

@Henk op den Berg. "better at ease cycling in Paris and Italy"? Are you comparing cycling in the summer on a quiet back road in Tuscany to the rush hour in December in Amsterdam? Because otherwise I do not follow. Cycling in Paris has improved a lot recently, but if your really think it is more relaxed than cycling in Amsterdam I think you hold a minority opinion.
Taking your bike in a train in NL is difficult, that is true. Some things are just not scalable. 40% of all train passengers in NL got to the train by bike. Imagine them all taking their bikes inside: impossible.

FreshEyes said...

The cultural turning point, mentioned briefly in the video, was the 1973/4 Arab oil embargo that led to petrol rationing and four motoring-free Sundays.
Amsterdam without tin parked along its canals remains a vivid recollection for me. But the experience of being able to wander freely along town and city streets, to stand chatting in a cross-roads, to enjoy the space, to cycle in safety to friends, relatives or the beach - I think that shared experience laid the foundation on which consensus could subsequently be built.
But even before that event, cycling was still a common activity. There was no such thing as "the school run". I walked to my Primary School and cycled to school from Year 6 up. I can't remember anyone being dropped off by car.
So the UK is a long way behind: Cycling has long died as a normal form of day-to-day transport, especially for children.
There has been no traumatic, unifying, national experience.
Popular media paint cyclists as obstructive and dangerous law breakers.
Any slight constraint on car access or parking is seen as anti-car and a threat to business.
So what's the way forward?
Two things have to be grown at the same time: a culture that sees cycling (and walking) as a normal, expected mode of transport; and infrastructure that makes useful journeys safe and enjoyable by bicycle (and on foot) - even when this causes some inconvenience to motorists, as it will.
There is not the national consensus, the political will nor the budget to achieve this overnight on a national basis. However, both can be built, slowly, in a few selected localities that may then serve both as evidence base (showing economic and health benefits) and as exemplars (of normal people doing normal things by bike). Indeed, the video mentions that is how The Netherlands started.
Building effective infrastructure in just one area and seeing it used, is better, in my view, than squandering money on painting ineffective, incomplete and just plan silly cycle lanes randomly all over the place.

Unknown said...

Thanks for this wonderful article. Being half Dutch but living in Finland I always miss the cycling paths here, and the laws here are also way to car-centric. I hope that someday the legislation here will also change more in favour of bikes and pedestrians.

Groetjes uit Tampere!

Frits B said...

This same video is now shown on Elsevier's website:
and attributed to Dutch Cycling Embassy. Mark might wish to put them right.

mikeC said...


Yes, you're right that many on the Flashrides have been wearing cycling clothing, and there's been a sea of high viz

However, many of us weren't...

These protest rides have grown over the summer, from 200 to 2500 people... and I don't think it's too fanciful to suppose that in the spring, when the mayoral election looms large, many more people will be inspired to take to the streets to protest for a more bike-friendly city

Perhaps then, the call could go out actually asking people to come on their bikes in normal clothing to show the city that cyclists are just ordinary people

One step at a time, but it feels like something is happening in London, and 2012 could be an exciting year

Well done for making such an excellent and inspiring video

Dennis Hindman said...

Here's a upcoming bike infrastructure project on Spring St. in downtown Los Angeles, that Dutch bike experts helped stimulate ideas for, during the Dutch embassy's ThinkBike workshop in September. This included Dutch traffic engineer Hillie Talens, who participated in the Jefferson St. group project, which includes the scramble intersection at USC.

A few weeks before the last CicLAvia in October, the first bicycle lane in the downtown area was put in. There is a buffered area next to Macarthur Park, when is shown in this Seeing Thingz video. I had to throw in a video with some good live music, after all, L.A. is known for entertainment.

Mark W. said...

@Frits, thanks for noticing that. I have requested the removal of the reposted video and they did remove it at once.

Everybody is free to link to or embed the YouTube video, and a lot of people do, which is perfectly okay. But downloading it and uploading it elsewhere, and then with the wrong credits is annoying. But they are a respectable company and it took but one request to correct this.

João Lacerda said...

Great Post!

How could I help and get the subtitles translated into portuguese?

Mark W. said...

@João if you have a text for me in Portuguese I can add it as subtitles with the original video.
Just send me a message on YouTube and we'll take it from there.

Jan van der Grift said...

Excellent little movie with amazing historical images!

Anonymous said...

This is Joni from Brazil and I would like to congratulate you guys the initiative of spreading the Dutch mindset for cycling around the world.

Recently I have voluntarily edited a short video quoting your work in Portuguese and the link is below. In this way, I would like to apologize you guys for not asking a proper authorization first since I was in hurry to get it done before travelling.

I look forward to hearing from you and if you have any comments or suggestions regarding to this issue please let me know.

Florianópolis Brazil

Severin said...

You know what I would really love to see, is a history of Dutch bicycle infrastructure design. You mention in this video that old bicycle paths "were of an entirely different sort" and that new designs were experimented with in the 1970's but how did the Dutch arrive at the genius intersection design? When did the Dutch decide that sidewalks, bicycle paths, should NOT give way to drive-ways? Common arguments against cycletracks in the US are that intersections and driveways will be problematic, but how did the Dutch make their solutions?

Jackie said...

Hi Mark/David,
Extremely well done video! Thanks so much! I'm Dutch (now living in Maple Ridge, BC, Canada - David actually did a post a couple years ago on subjective safety and used a photo that I sent him that was taken in Maple Ridge).
When all these protests were happening in NL I was a teenager, living in Lelystad. I think I was kind of oblivious to all the protests. In Lelystad cyclists had it actually pretty good.
Just wanted to let you know that your video has been posted on the Project for Public Spaces website: