People continue to claim that the Dutch cycle more frequently than people of other nations because Dutch journeys are shorter than those of whichever country the claimant happens to live in.
However, this idea that somehow the shortness of journeys in the Netherlands is the reason why the Dutch cycle more than people of other nations is simply not true.
A recent report reveals that "On average Dutch people spend one and a half hours en route each day. That is 15 minutes longer than the average time on the road for citizens of 16 EU countries, and it is also the longest." Yes, you read that right. The Dutch travel for more time every day than people of other European nations. What's more, "Holland has, at 92%, the highest percentage of the total population traveling daily and France has, at 72%, the lowest percentage."
The report also mentions that "In most East European countries, traveling by public transport takes up 20% of all travel time." This reinforces something that I blogged about a few weeks back. The choices that people make about transport are in large part determined by the wealth of the nation they live in. Local public transport (i.e. the bus) is not an option that people will easily be convinced to take if a private form of transport is available. However, that private form of transport can be a bicycle rather than a car: "Of the 91 minutes that the Dutch travel on average per day, 17 of those minutes are spent on the bicycle (19%). The neighbours i.e. the Belgians and Germans, cycle on average only 5 minutes per day, and other Europeans cycle even less. In the Netherlands, Slovenia and Italy, only 7 to 8 percent of the total travel time is spent on public transport."
Dutch people know that they travel a lot, but, as is common everywhere, they over-estimate the difference between their travel times and those of other nationalities: "Dutch people think they commute longer than residents of other countries, but in reality things are better than they suppose. Commuters in Holland spend on average 2 minutes longer per day commuting than commuters do in other countries."
Journey distances - Over what distances will people cycle ?
Having established that a lack of time spent travelling isn't what makes the Dutch cycle for such a large proportion of their journeys, let's look at something else.
In all countries there are both longer and shorter journeys. In a larger country there is a potential to make longer journeys. However, the regular journeys that people make are constrained by time and in all countries most journeys are relatively short. I pointed out that 40% of journeys in the USA are under 2 miles (3.2 km) in length. Here are some figures showing what percentage of short journeys in several different countries are made by bike:
The left cluster shows how in the Netherlands, 37% of journeys under 2.5 km are made by bike. In Denmark, 27% of them are made by bike. In Germany 14% and in both the UK and the USA, 2% of journeys up to 2.5 km are made by bike.
The second cluster shows the figures for distances of 2.5 km to 4.4 km. In this case, the numbers are 37%, 24%, 1% and 1%. The third cluster of bars is for 4.5 km to 6.4 km. At this distance, 24%, 15%, 7%, 1% and 0.4% of journeys are made by bike.
Journeys of between 4.5 and 6.4 km are cycled 60 times as frequently by the Dutch as by Americans.
The Dutch cycle considerably more than people in other countries which spend less on cycling infrastructure.
What keeps people from cycling is not distance. Rather, people won't cycle even for short journeys if the cycling experience is not pleasant. How likely the general population is to cycle correlates very well with the level of expenditure on cycling infrastructure.
The Netherlands, Denmark and Germany all spend more than average on cycling, and the result is that their populations are more likely to cycle for short journeys than people of other countries which spend less.
In The Netherlands, everyone feels comfortable to cycle, including children, older people and those with disabilities. People make a huge number of cycle journeys each day.
In the UK and USA, only a tiny proportion of the population choose the bike even for the very shortest of journeys, and by the time you get to the 4.5 km - 6.4 km journey length, the already very small participation has already shrunk to a half or a quarter of what it was for the under 2.5 km journey length.
Other excuses are summarized here.
September 2012 update
It's been pointed out to me that some people are misinterpreting the words "Of the 91 minutes that the Dutch travel on average per day, 17 of those minutes are spent on the bicycle". This does not mean that every Dutch person has a multi-modal commute. It simply tells you how much commuting is by bike vs. other modes. In the Netherlands, just like most other countries, people do what is most convenient for them. For that reason, they mostly do not have multi-modal commutes. Most commuters use one mode for their commute, either walking, cycling or driving the whole way from home to work. Other commuters combine short journeys by foot, by bike or in a car with public transport, but these commutes are counted only as public transport commutes. Dutch railway stations do provide a lot of cycle parking in order to support combining bikes with trains, but the total capacity of the railway system is not particularly high in the Netherlands. If you live in a place where trains have standing room only during commuting times then you probably have about as much multi-modal commuting as is normal in the Netherlands.
The graph came from "Making Cycling Irresistible: Lessons from The Netherlands, Denmark and Germany", by John Pucher and Ralph Buehler.