Monday, 28 February 2011

When drivers stop and open windows

In other countries it usually doesn’t mean a lot of good when a driver stops for a cyclist, lowers his window and starts ‘a conversation’.

But this is the Netherlands.

The other night I was waiting at a traffic light at a nearby but unfamiliar junction. Some road works were in progress. There I was, in a small side street waiting to turn left on a big arterial road into the city. It took a real long time! Way too long as it was cold, raining a bit and there wasn’t much traffic. Not even on the arterial. Just one car was waiting there to turn left into the side street where I was standing.

When that car got green the driver made the turn but suddenly stopped as he got passed me. He lowered his window and raised his voice to speak to me. “Sir!” Slightly confused I looked at him; what could he have to say to me? I was just a lonely cyclist waiting for the light to turn green. “Have you pushed the button?” My surprise could be read from my face and before I could think of a response he continued. “It’s because of the road works, sir. You have to push the button now. If you had, you would have gotten green before me.” Clearly this friendly man knew the junction better than I do, including the green phases. He must be one of the few residents here. So I thanked him and after he assured me “it happens to many people sir” he continued in his big dark blue executive style car. I dismounted and walked back to push the button I had overlooked. Sure enough, within seconds the light turned green and I could also continue home.

It’s great to live in a country where there is a lot of mutual respect between drivers and cyclists. Not very strange when everybody can be either one. But I must admit, the level of consideration from this driver was remarkable, even for the Netherlands.

Population density vs. cycling rate for a range of cities

This is another of those myths and excuses that I've covered before, but just keeps on coming up. i.e. that the Netherlands has a high rate of cycling because Dutch cities are especially dense. Some campaigners make a lot of noise about high density being required to achieve a higher cycling rate or lower car use. Actually, there is not much of a correlation between cycling rate and density.

As you'll see in the plot above, it isn't true that cities with the highest population densities have the highest cycling rates. Rather, you'll find that Dutch and Danish cities have the highest cycling rates, whatever their density happens to be, because cycling in them there is a more pleasant experience because these cities have invested in cycling infrastructure in order to make it pleasant. Subjective safety is very important.

The belief that the Dutch live in remarkably highly densely populated cities is just a myth. Assen, where we live, has just 780 people per square km. That's not only significantly less dense than New York, but also less dense than relatively spread out American cities such as Portland (1655 people per square km).

New York makes a great example. Over 10000 people live in each square km of what is a very compact city for its population, yet for all the recent hype about growing cycling, the cycling rate remains extraordinarily low by international standards: Just 0.6% of commutes are by bike in that city. Conditions may be slowly improving, and it's a very good thing that they are, but it's still not yet a place to look to internationally as a success story. They're a very long way from the point where all types of people feel safe to cycle for a large proportion of their journeys.

Dutch cities need cycle paths like this
precisely because they are not dense
Much to my amusement, some Dutch people believe the same story about density. i.e. that they have relatively densely populated cities. I was once told this as part of a presentation about Groningen, the density of which is actually just 2300 people per square km. Even the capital of the country, Amsterdam, has just 3500 people per square km. The highest density city in the Netherlands is Den Haag with 5900 people per square km, but Den Haag does not have anything like the highest cycling modal share for a Dutch city. Quite the reverse, in fact, as in a presentation to us on a visit a few years back, the cycling rate there was described as "quite low".

To summarize, population density has little to do with cycling rate. Even within individual countries there is little correlation. You'll see that less densely populated Portland does better than more densely populated New York, that Cambridge does better than London, Bremen does better than Berlin, and that Groningen does better than Amsterdam.

At this point, it's traditional for some people to respond with comments about average journey distances being so much longer in whichever country they live in. However, I'm afraid that doesn't really hold water either. While the mean distance is skewed due to the maximum possible journey distances being greater, the median for everyday journeys does not vary as much as you might imagine. Even in the USA, every-day journey distances are limited by time more than by the actual distance and 40% of all journeys are under 2 miles in length. The longest journeys may not be practical by bike, but Americans rarely choose cycling as a mode of transport even for the shortest journeys.

By contrast, longer cycle journeys are easier to make in the Netherlands. We find this from our own experience. Places that seemed "too far to cycle to" in the UK are often closer together than we remember them being, and people make the same and longer distance journeys here by bike without a second thought.

The reason for the vastly higher rate of cycling in the Netherlands is not population density, but policy which support cycling, effective campaigning, and successful infrastructure design.

For those who prefer a scatter graph:

The cycling rates for cities with stars after their names are the lowest on my graph, but they're all actually exaggerated relative to the other cities in the list. For these cities I could find only figures for "commuters" and not for all journeys. That the local authorities should choose to publicise this figure instead of one for all journeys is itself an indication that you don't see a lot of school children, parents with children, or pensioners on the streets of these cities. Where there is a healthy cycling culture, commuters are a minority of cyclists.

Sunday, 27 February 2011

Attack on critical mass in Brazil

An atrocious incident, whatever one's view of critical mass.

1 March update: If you want more news, The Urban Country has good coverage of what has happened since - as well as some rather unpleasant reader's feedback underneath the article.

Also I recommend Peter Miller's take on "What makes the news and what doesn't".

Saturday, 26 February 2011

The importance of direct cycle routes

One of our readers drew our attention to a video that shows a cycle route in Rijswijk which is in effect a suburb of The Hague. It shows a road where cyclists have to make a detour while motorised traffic can go straight on. The man in the video calls this a daily annoyance. And he is right. Most cycle routes in this country are as direct or (more often) more direct than routes for motorised traffic.

In this case (see picture below) the green line (about 100 meters/yards) would be the logical route. There is ample room for a cycle path there, but curiously cyclists are required to take the route represented by the red line. This includes going up and down and even an extra level crossing of a light rail line that would otherwise be crossed on the overpass. There is a shortcut (red dots) using the pedestrian stairs. But all in all the red route is at least double the length of the desired green route.

It is clear from the video that this man is not the only one who feels this is wrong. Many cyclists find a short cut by riding over the grass. The city council doesn’t like that but instead of tackling the problem by making the cycle path more direct, they put up a fence to protect the grass. The fence is of course consequently damaged. Another option is to ride against traffic on the opposite side of the road. Which is not a good solution either.

But it could be fixed: a bridge in this road (just left of the picture and seen in the beginning of the video) is due for maintenance. The man in the video urges the city to correct the mistake while they’re changing the bridge.

As can be seen on the picture, the rest of the cycle routes (on the other side of the road for instance) are direct and up to standards so it is most unusual to have this strange situation. It does make clear that cycle routes must be direct, people don't settle for less and rightly so.

The city of The Hague, third largest in the country and the seat of national government has a bad reputation when it comes to cycling infrastructure. One of my older videos shows an example of shared space gone wrong in the center of the city. David (while still living in the UK) has visited The Hague on a study tour of the Netherlands. The cycling experts in the city confirmed they know they are doing below average. This reflects in the ‘low’ cycling rate of 22% of all journeys. But The Hague is working hard (see picture above) to catch up with the rest of the country.

Link to Google Streetview

Friday, 25 February 2011

Another view from the cycle path

We’ve got something to tell you. “We”? you might think…
Yes, David has asked me to join him on his blog.

My name is Mark Wagenbuur. For regular visitors that could already be a familiar name. Inspired by David’s blog I started making videos showing Dutch cycling infrastructure about two years ago. I published these videos on my YouTube channel. David has shown you quite a lot of them along with his insightful comments. At his request I have also written one guest post as background information to go with one of the more in depth videos.

David has recently invited me to make our cooperation a bit more formal. An invitation I gladly accepted. After some thought we agreed that I will take up the role of ‘regular guest poster’.

Since I will only be a guest poster there will be no major changes to the blog. Nor with its affiliations to "Dutch Bike bits" or "Hembrow Cycle Holidays". David will continue to give you his sharp analysis of everything concerning cycling, especially by comparing the situation in the UK and the Netherlands. But you will occasionally see a blog entry “published by Mark Wagenbuur”, giving you another view from the cycle path.

You can take that quite literally; since I live in the south of the Netherlands (’s-Hertogenbosch), a part of the country that can sometimes be very different from the Assen region in the north-east where David lives. I use my second bicycle every day in Utrecht where I work and I also visit Amsterdam regularly, which are the fourth largest and the largest city in the Netherlands respectively. Assen, although growing rapidly, is not even in the top 20 of the larger Dutch cities, so some things work out quite differently there. As a native Dutchman I have also cycled a bit longer in this country than David has. My main focus will remain to be on video making but from now on I will also try to use words to show you something of cycling in Netherlands.

Also on behalf of David I hope you will enjoy our (further) cooperation.

How wide is your cyclepath ?

When I say that cycle paths here are quite often 4 m wide, I'm quite sure that a lot of people don't believe me.

An amusing way of demonstrating this occurred to me on Saturday. I put my bike sideways on a cycle path which is being resurfaced (so officially out of use, not that this stops many people) in a position where it wouldn't get in the way due to the pile of tiles for resurfacing the pedestrian path, but would demonstrate the width.

As you'll see, if it were possible to ride your bike sideways along here, it would still also be possible for someone to ride in the same manner in the opposite direction without any danger of crashing...

There was a little confusion, so I've added another photo, showing the same spot from the opposite direction. Here you can more clearly see the pedestrian path alongside the cycle path. It's been dug up in the first photo. Also you can see how a temporary dropped kerb was made to allow easy cycle access to the recommended detour route.

And why this cycle path ? It's nothing special as such, but it's part of the most direct route for us to the city centre so I come along here often. I took photos when I saw it was being improved.

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Transport for London: Baffling people with huge numbers

Transport for London recently told the world that 2.5 million cycle journeys have been made on the "Barclays" London bike share bikes.

Instead of straightforwardly presenting data which shows the true extent of the usage of these bikes and puts it in a context which helps the reader to understand what the numbers mean, London has used a style of writing which often is used for projects like this. i.e. Trying to impress the reader by quoting what sound like huge numbers, and doing so without any context so that the meaning of it remains clouded. In this blog post, I explain what the numbers really mean.

What they say
In London's press release, you'll read of:
  • Cycling to the moon and back 13 times in the first six months
  • Covering more than 10,000,000 km
  • Building on the massive 117% growth
  • Making a huge contribution to the cycle revolution
Some context
However, let's look at those figures. Six months, 2.5 million journeys. The numbers sound great, but actually if you look closely at them you quickly see that this is not actually very impressive at all. This equates to 2.28 journeys per bicycle per day or less than a quarter of the estimated ten uses per bicycle per day that promoters used when selling this system.

London has a population of 8 M people. Between them, they make around 20 million journeys per day. If all the six months worth of shared bike journeys had been made on just one day (requiring each bike to be used an impossible 416 times), then even that would make up only 12% of total journeys in the city. However, actually it took half a year, 182 days, for this many journeys to be made. The total usage equates to only around 0.07% of the total journeys in the city. On average, Londoners are using these bikes not once per day, not once per week or once per month, but about once every 18 months. In fact, as each individual trip is being counted here, you could also say that this is the equivalent of the average Londoner going out and returning home again about once every three years by using these bikes.

So far, the scheme has cost 140 million pounds. The cost to Transport for London for each of the 2.5 million journeys made so far is £56 pounds. The hypothetical Londoner making their once per three year trip to the pub and back is subsidized to the tune of £112. Does that sound remotely like a reasonable or sustainable cost ?

Is this really deserving of the amount of hype which it receives ? It is deserving of comments from the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, such as 'The zest in which people have taken to two wheels and joined the cycling revolution we are engendering in the Capital has gladdened my heart.'. I'd love to see a genuine cycling revolution in London, and in Britain as a whole. However, let's please be realistic: this isn't the revolution you were looking for.

Back in March 2009 when I first wrote about the potential of the bike share scheme in London, I calculated that based on the promoters estimates of future use, it still had a maximum potential capacity of only 0.3% of the total journeys made in the city. Some people criticised me for pointing this out. However, actual usage has been under a quarter of what I wrote about.

Is this mass cycling ?
By way of contrast, a few days ago I ran a story about the amount of cycling in the Netherlands. The Netherlands has only twice the population of London, but there are over a million bike journeys an hour for the daytime hours of working days. That's more than 14 million journeys per day by bike, or 2.5 billion per six months. Let's state that in another way: The Dutch population is twice as large as London's population, but they're making a thousand times as many cycle journeys as the "Boris Bikes" are used for.

In fact, no shared bike scheme can ever possibly scale to cope with mass cycling. It would simply take too many bikes. What's more, as shown above, it can never introduce cycling as part of a regular habit to anything like the whole population of a city because the total capacity is so small for any affordable system (even a very expensive system)

Large bike share schemes are what cities install if they want to give off the appearance of being interested in cycling without investing in the infrastructural change which is necessary to make a real difference. There were already over a million bikes in London before the bike share was installed. People need safe and attractive conditions for cycling, not more bikes.

Of course, Londoners do actually ride other bikes as well. It's estimated that half a million cycle journeys are made every day in London on bikes other than bike-share bikes. These are far more significant numbers than the bike share bikes provide, in fact 36 times as large. What's more, this number has a far greater potential for growth than bike share does, as no-one wants to put 36 times as many of what are already the most expensive bikes in the world onto the streets of London.

You may also remember that a while back it was revealed that 84% of users already have their own bike and that almost half of users would otherwise ride their own bike. So, only half of the 2.5 million journeys over the last six months are actually new cycle journeys. To a large extent, the system is being used as a cheap to the user, but expensive to the tax payer, method of keeping existing cyclists bikes safe from vandalism and theft. Perhaps if London had spent some money on improving its inadequate cycle parking then this wouldn't be the case.

To bring about a genuine "cycling revolution in London, the environment must be made more conducive to cycling. People want to do it, but they need their local government to stop wasting vast amounts of money on silly things like bike share and invest properly in those things which have a proven history of success in promoting cycling.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Gloucestershire campaign groups in conflict

Two new blogs have recently come online from Gloucestershire, England.

In the red corner, the well established and traditional Popular Cycling Front of Gloucestershire who are working towards "minimising the continued decline of cycling by tinkering around the edges of the road network". Excellent, rousing stuff which will no doubt result in a huge rise in cycling numbers any time around now.

In the blue corner: The Peoples Cycling Front of South Gloucestershire, with a dream of "Cycle-paths the Dutch won't laugh at". What a dangerous bunch of radicals...

Monday, 21 February 2011

Pedestrianization without adverse effects for cyclists

Explanatory captions on this video are visible only if you play the video on a computer and not on a mobile device.

It may seem surprising to some, but these photos and video show a pedestrianized area in the Netherlands. It's in the shopping and social centre of a brand-new housing development on the outskirts of Assen. Cyclists are allowed. The signs say so.

These are not old buildings in an old city centre. Everything you see here was built in 2009 and 2010. The official opening was in December of 2010. Shortly before, this was farm land.

It's a very child friendly place. Children can be seen in the video running amok in front of a delivery van, which has to move at a very slow speed as a result. They also ride on various small-scale human powered vehicles in the shopping streets. This suburb was designed to enable 2/3rds of primary school children to cycle to school.

Everyone knows that pedestrians come first here, and behaviour is according to this principle. But note that the design is according to this principle as well.

Cyclists are allowed to cycle all the way through the pedestrianized zone, and ample cycle parking is provided outside all the shops to encourage cyclists.

However, this is not a through route for cyclists. Cyclists whose destination is elsewhere, and who wish to get wherever they are going faster, will take other more convenient, faster routes rather than riding through here. This is important as it makes no sense at all to have a pedestrianized area which is also a major through route for cyclists.

What's more, it's actually unusual to see a van being driven in this location. A delivery only road built behind the shops serves for most deliveries.

You can see the main route from the centre of this city to the centre of this housing development in a previous blog post. Another post shows part of the route in the opposite direction.

You may be wondering what happens should you want to drive here ? Well, actually you can do that too. This whole place is in fact built on top of an underground car park. Residents living in apartments here not only have the legally required secure bicycle parking, but also have have allocated secure car parking under the development. Visitors to the shops can also drive.

Aerial photograph from 2007.
No permanent buildings yet in the
centre, but many facilities were
provided as temporary buildings.
Car parking here is free of charge. It often is so in the Netherlands, a country which is not "anti-car" as some cycling advocates imagine it must be. Should we ever want to buy a large item here which could not easily be transported by bike, there would be no problem with driving to these shops. However, we probably never will do this. Cycling is too convenient.

Free indoor car park. It never fills up.
The only driving route from our home to this place (in blue) has two sets of traffic lights on it and three roundabouts. It starts off by heading in the wrong direction, and the distance is significantly further than any of the many plausible routes by bike (some shown in red). Additionally, if we cycle then we can park our bikes directly outside the shops. A car would be buried somewhere underneath and involve a few minutes walk to the shops:

If it were not possible to park your bike immediately outside the shops, and if bikes had to be placed in the same underground car-park as cars, then this would make the car much more competitive in terms of time. Perhaps it could even be quicker than cycling if you were lucky at the traffic lights.

This is why in order for pedestrianization not to favour the car over the bike, it has to accommodate cyclists very well. That's exactly what we see here. The sign shows that it's a pedestrian area, but underneath it says "cycling allowed". A nice simple message, and an essential one. Take away easy access by cyclists and you actually create a car-oriented pedestrianized area which promotes driving over cycling. I've seen that before,  more than once.

Free indoor cycle-park at a school in
the complex. Overflowing.
This new centre provides not only a range of shops (supermarkets, baker, toy shop, stationery, flower shop, chemist, hair-dresser, opticians etc.), but also primary schools, adult education facilities, a sport hall, cafes and restaurants, a public library, a town hall, health and fitness centre, medical centre. It's a proper centre for the community. And of course all these things are convenient to cycle to.

As the whole area is not yet complete, this temporary cycle path (3.5 metres wide, smooth asphalt) provides access for people who live north of the centre:

Before any of the above was built
People lived in Kloosterveen for several years before the shopping centre shown above was built. During this time there were temporary facilities provided on the edge of the site now covered by the new central development:

Temporary car-parking by temporary supermarket, chemist, post office and snack bar
Temporary cycle-path leading directly to the cycle-parking in front of the temporary supermarket
By the provision of temporary shops, people were allowed to form the habit of shopping locally rather than arranging their lives around making longer journeys in order to go shopping.

If I show something old, someone always says "but you couldn't do if it were new". If on the other hand, I show something new like this, someone always says "but you couldn't do it if it were old". However, the city centre of Assen also provides an excellent example of somewhere which is both pedestrian and cycle friendly, and Assen is 750 years old. Where there is a will to do so, cyclists can be accommodated well anywhere. Policy in Assen prefers cycling, so we get cycling. If you do what works then mass cycling is possible anywhere.

I published this a bit earlier than originally planned after hearing about troubles with pedestrianization in Canada.

The centre which is the subject of this post has its own website.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

How to vote

Here in the Netherlands we've Provincial elections coming up on the 2nd of March. I guess we're not eligible to vote, as we haven't received voting forms this time around.

Intercityfietser has put together guidance on who to vote for depending on how positive different parties, in different regions are about cycling in general, and also on providing for longer distance cycling.

Almost all the parties have something to say, and most are quite positive about cycling. The best two marks locally are for the CDA and D66, two parties quite separated in the political spectrum:

CDA: Drenthe is the number 1 cycling province, but also with the largest multi-day cycling event (the fietsvierdaagse) in the Netherlands. Must make sure that the area has the best quality cycle paths of the Netherlands reaching all tourist sites and attractions. Development and construction of a dense network of hiking, biking and horse trails. Combating traffic congestion and helping the environment by promoting cycling in Drenthe with a focus on commuters. Working with the municipalities to improve the cycle network to get riders from A to B in a safe and comfortable manner. Organising an award for the best municipality with regards to cycling. Pooling expertise or various partners in cycling.

D66: Encourage people to go out in their free time by providing nature areas, cycle routes and subsidies for cultural events. Aiming at strengthening the green character of the area, of increasing sustainability, and creating attractive living and working areas. Good public transport and good and safe roads and cycle paths. Support for further separation of cyclists and pedestrians (vulnerable road users) from motor vehicles. More cycle paths, not only for recreation but also for riding to work and school. Getting users together with the planners to ensure good standards. A network of electric bike charging points on good quality cycle paths. Increase in interoperability between cycling and other modes, with for instance, covered cycle parks at carpools. In favour of organizing activities which don't have a negative effect on people or the environment, the endless cycling and walking paths in Drenthe offer ample opportunity for "clean" recreation.

On the other hand, of those who replied, the PvdA locally gets a bit of a negative remark because their response is merely that they want to maintain Drenthe as the number one cycling province and make it easier to get stolen bikes back. That's not enough.

The VVD gets the lowest mark, with the writer seeming to think that they view the car as the main form of transport in a sparsely populated region like this.

None have anything actually negative to say, of course, as that would be political suicide.

Judy and I went out for a ride today, taking our dog for a walk at the same time. We found that yet another new cycle path had been created near our home:

I feel confident that whoever gets into power locally, progress will continue. In any case, proportional representation is the norm so power will be shared, and those political parties who are represented will have to discuss and make sensible decisions between them.

I found the voting information through, and "borrowed" the illustration at the top from,

Friday, 18 February 2011

A million journeys per hour by bike

A few days ago, I posted some information about statistics on cycle usage in the Netherlands. Based on that blog post, Mark Wagenbuur made the video above illustrating the very same statistics: In the daytime on a normal working day in the Netherlands, more than a million journeys are made by bike every hour.

Remember that the population of the Netherlands is just 16 million. That's only twice the population of New York or London. However, the number of journeys, spread across a whole country is much higher: 16 million Dutch people make more cycle journeys between them than 300 million Americans, 65 million British and 20 million Australians all added together, and they do so with greater safety than cyclists in any of those countries.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Shopkeepers prefer cyclists

Branko Collin sent me an interesting story today:

The popular Ferdinand Bol shopping street in Amsterdam (which crosses the Albert Cuyp market) has been partially closed off while the city of Amsterdam has been tunneling a subway underneath. Now that the end of the tunneling is in sight, the city's department of infrastructure has announced it will put the original double tram tracks back in.

The street's shopkeepers' association is none too pleased about this, as it reduces the space for cyclists and pedestrians.

It was reported here and here.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

An unremarkable morning and a pleasant evening

Explanatory captions on this video are only visible when it is viewed on a computer and not on a mobile device.

The video shows a Monday morning from a few weeks back. I made the video at around 11 in the morning, which is a very low time for cycling - especially so on a Monday morning like this one as the shops are all shut.

This is a very typical scene of what it's like when it's not rush hour.

Cycling is relaxing, not stressful. There's no need to concentrate unduly on potential dangers.

Explanatory captions on this video are only visible when it is viewed on a computer and not on a mobile device.

The next video was made on the way back from an event in the city. We rode home after midnight, separated from the light motor traffic the whole way. Again, it's relaxing, not stressful.

In the Netherlands, cycling is for everyone. It's not only for commuters, not only for confident young adults, but for everyone in all stages of their life and at all times of the day and night.

The simple ordinariness of cycling in the Netherlands is what is so special about it.

I've covered the scene of the first video twice before, once in rush hour and once demonstrating the degree of separation of cars from bikes.

Monday, 14 February 2011

All those myths and excuses in one post

For some time I've been using the tag "excuses" on some posts on my blog. However, it's a bit ambiguous and even though I've explained what I mean a few times, some people still think I mean something else.

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.

The Netherlands also once had "not
enough space" for cycle-paths. Click
to find out how this street looks now
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. This is a plea heard often from people who imagine that the Netherlands is completely flat and that that is the reason for people 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.

Headwinds are 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 that race is famous for its vicious hilly course. It takes places in Limburg, a hilly province in the Netherlands.

Also bear in mind that Switzerland achieves a much better cycling rate than many other countries despite the fact that it's rather mountainous. Switzerland's cycling infrastructure is good, but not wonderful. If it had better infrastructure then it probably would also have more cycling.

It's quite reasonable to assume that people will cycle less in truly mountainous places, but if your area is less hilly than Switzerland and you have less cycling than Switzerland, think about the reason for this. It's not the hills.

Trondheim in Norway is a very hilly city. In fact, it's the only city in the world where a permanent mechanical lift has been installed to help cyclists climb a hill. Trondheim is also a very cold place in winter. Nevertheless, Trondheim is investing heavily in cycling and plans to double its existing 8% cycling modal share in the next few years. Growing cycling requires good infrastructure. That's the same anywhere.

Finally, if you're making this excuse from the UK, bear in mind that in Britain in 1949, over 30% of total road distance travelled was by bike. That's a higher proportion than is the case here in the Netherlands now. The geography of Britain hasn't changed, but the road conditions have. That's why people no longer cycle.

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 shorter distances elsewhere 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.
Yes, this is a cycle-path.
And yes, that's a genuine Dutch hill
Cycle-paths are slow. Yes, this one keeps coming up. I tried pointing out how much quicker my commute is here than it was in the UK, and even showed someone riding along a cycle path at over 60 km/h, but people still cling to this belief. It's nonsense. Well designed cycle paths prioritise cyclists on them over cars on the road. Here we have traffic lights which default to green for bikes, others which allow only cyclists to make a right turn on red, and many which allow cyclists to cross diagonally and give then green lights twice as often as drivers, a growing network of intercity bicycle superhighways for long distance commuters, journeys within town which take a more direct route from the roads and avoid traffic lights. And yes, racing cyclists really do use cycle-paths in the Netherlands. The infrastructure is that good.

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.

Update 15/2/11
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 Dutch cities, 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 so it makes a lot of sense to campaign for 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.

Update 19/2/11
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. Also we should note that in the Netherlands "bicycle use declined considerably during the occupation". This was the result of tyres being rationed and in short supply: "Anyone wanting a new tyre needed to turn in the old one and demonstrate that he lived at least 5 km from his place of employment and needed the bicycle in order to cover that distance on a daily basis".

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. Given decent conditions for cycling, even free car parking isn't enough to make Dutch people 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 ?

August 2013
The "bicycle" on the left has a
number plate - but it also has a
two stroke engine mounted by
the rear wheel
On a BBC Radio 4 programme, one of the people dialing in claimed that Dutch cyclists pay a type of "road tax" to use their bicycles. This is not true. There was once licensing of bicycles in the Netherlands, but that was phased out in the 1930s.

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.

March 2014
Today a London Labour councillor tried to suggest that Hackney's low rate of cycling is due to 'diversity'.

As I've pointed out before, in the Netherlands, cycling is inclusive of all:

  1. Immigrants from non-cycling nations cycle in the Netherlands as if they were natives of the second rung cycling nations.
  2. Disabled people cycle.
  3. Older people cycle.
  4. Children cycle.

In the Netherlands, people cycle for all the same reasons as Londoners drive cars.

The same councillor also made a bizarre remark about how she believes cycling does not encourage human interaction. UNICEF think otherwise. Cycling gives people freedom. This is particularly important for children and is one of the main reasons why Dutch children are considered to have the best well-being of any children in the world.

Rather than making things up about the Netherlands, let us show you how this country really is.

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.

It's quicker by bike

A few days ago, a campaigner from the UK sent me a document to review. Amongst other things, it said: "Many existing cyclists want to continue to cycle on road because of speed and convenience. They see a segregated system as slow – although modern cycle routes in Europe can be as fast-moving as cycling on the road."

This is yet another of those myths about cycle infrastructure - that it must always be secondary to roads, leading to slower journeys than a cyclist could make on the road, and only at it's best being "as fast-moving" as cycling on the road.

This is not actually true. Cycling infrastructure at its best can lead to quicker journeys than using the road. And that's what we have here: traffic lights which default to green for bikes, others which allow only cyclists to make a right turn on red, which give cyclists green lights twice as often as drivers, a growing network of intercity bicycle superhighways for long distance commuters, routes for cyclists which avoid the traffic lights so that you don't have to slow down or stop, and many other things which make cycling more convenient than driving. If cyclists had to use the roads, then they'd not be able to take advantage of this and cycling would be neither so efficient nor so attractive as it is.

The graph shows relative speeds by bike or by car for distances. Note that these are not cherry picked, but are an average for the whole country, and an average for all cyclists. In the Netherlands, that means the whole population. The average speed for all is slowed down somewhat by the very much wider demographic of cyclists here vs. other countries. Primary school children, meandering teenagers and pensioners are slower than enthusiastic cyclists of working age. Faster cyclists have an advantage over a considerably longer distance.

Nevertheless, "In the city, cyclists on average reach their destinations 5% quicker than drivers, and in the bigger cities (>100000 residents) usually more than 10% quicker. For distances of up to 3 km, the bike always wins. From 4 km, mostly not.".

In the Netherlands, there are many ways in which cycling has been made faster than driving. The extensive unravelling of cycling routes from driving routes makes this possible to a far greater extent than if cyclists are restricted to the routes of drivers.

The graph comes from The Fietsersbond.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Who cycles in the Netherlands ? Everyone cycles in the Netherlands !

Average number of bicycle rides per person per day for the entire Dutch population for all seasons combined broken down by age and sex
To a first approximation, everyone cycles in the Netherlands. The graph above shows how cycling rates vary with age and sex within the Netherlands, expressed as the average number of cycle journeys per day made per person.

It shows a number of things: that cycling is very popular with school age children, for instance, and that it drops off a bit for working age adults as for some the commute is "too far" by bike. Males between 20 and 50 years of age cycle the least. This is because they're most likely to have a job requiring a long commute. Women follow a similar pattern, but there is a jump in cycling between "25 to 30" and "30 to 40" as this is the age at which women have children, and having children allows women to return to cycling. This first happens with children on their mother's bike and later with women accompanying their children on their own bike before at eight years old they are able to ride unaccompanied to school. Men don't get this chance so often so men cycle less.

This is due to women being more likely to be at home looking after children than their male partners. As a result, they more often cycle with young children to school, or make shopping and other utility trips by bike. This is what leads to the Netherlands uniquely having 55% of trips overall by women.

Cycling stays with people through their entire life. Even the over 75s are predominantly still active. They make an average of around 0.3 trips per day by bike, or more than two trips each week.

The Dutch use their bikes for exactly the same purposes as people in other countries use their cars
Here we see the reasons for bicycle journeys. Only 16% of all cycle journeys are commutes. The largest percentage, 22%, are shopping trips, 18% are school journeys, 14% are social, and 11% are to go visiting.

This level of cycle usage, across both sexes, all ages, and for all purposes, requires infrastructure which has a high level of subjective safety.

But let's go back to that figure of just 16% of cycle journeys being for commutes. In all too many places, commuting rate figures are touted as "modal share". Actually, commutes make for just a small percentage of total journeys in any country, and that should be the case for cycling too. However, in many countries there is not the required subjective safety for everyone to cycle. In these countries, promoting cycling as just something for commuters and ignoring the other 84% of potential cycle journeys removes the need to make conditions suitable for everyone to cycle. This can never be the route to mass cycling on the scale that it is seen in the Netherlands.

I am not impressed with people touting "commuting" modal shares because they have missed out the big picture. What is important is that everyone should be able to make every type of journey by bike. We should be cautious of figures designed to impress which emphasize the easier demographics to attract to cycling - one of which is the confident young adult, often but not exclusively male, riding to work and back.

These figures came from the same source as last week's post, the Fietsersbond. Marc has also written about these statistics.