In this post, I'll point out how the usual chart which shows how cycling has grown in the Netherlands since the 1970s hides some major demographic factors which influence cycling, not all of them positive.
In addition, we've recently been told that for the first time in nearly ten years, cyclist deaths rose in the Netherlands last year compared with the year before. What's this all about, and is it somehow related to the modal share ? Read on...
First challenge: Immigration
Each year, the Netherlands loses about 30000 more people due to emigration than arrive as new immigrants. Many people who emigrate were born overseas and are returning to their land of birth, but also many Dutch people emigrate. This number, you'll notice, is smaller than that of births vs. deaths.
Nevertheless, by 2010, this exchange of people between countries resulted in 11% of people living in the Netherlands having been born in other countries. Because all other countries have a lower cycling modal share than the Netherlands, this of course implies that immigrants were born in countries where it is normal to cycle less than in the Netherlands.
Immigrants to the Netherlands try hard to integrate well with the local population and this includes their cycling habits. Immigrants living in the Netherlands cycle a lot more than they would in their own country, but on average they do so less than the native Dutch. Clearly, though, we can't state that growth in cycling is due to immigration.
Between the 1970s and now, the population of the Netherlands grew from 13 million to 16.5 million people. As we've seen, this is not due to immigration. It is also not due to a high birth rate. As is normal for developed nations, the Total Fertility Rate of the Netherlands (how many children are born on average to each woman) has been less than 2 for some time. In the Netherlands, the TFR has been less than two since 1973.
Births still outnumber deaths in the Netherlands by almost 50000 people per year, and this is what has lead to population growth. Deaths are lagging behind births because of the increase in life expectancy and resulting increase in the average age of the population. Men can now expect to live 7 years longer than in the early 1970s and women 5 years longer. Women still live slightly longer on average than do men.
Meeting these challenges
Neither older people nor recent immigrants from countries with lower cycling rates are the easiest people to convince to cycle.
Immigrants are encouraged to cycle. A successful initiative called Fiets Vriendinnen ("Cycling Girlfriends") is the only organisation that I'm aware of which cycle training for adults. Specifically, they offer cycle training and support for women new to the Netherlands, performing a useful function of helping people to integrate into Dutch society.
However, something else has happened which many people may find surprising. Elderly people in the Netherlands now cycle nearly three times as much as they did in the 1980s. It is the rise in the number of retired people cycling which has driven the growth in electric bicycle sales in the Netherlands.
|A group of older people who passed us a couple of Sunday afternoons ago. It is not at all unusual to see groups of retired people cycling for pleasure in the countryside.|
What about that rise in transport related deaths ?
Obviously any rise in deaths is something that has to be taken seriously. First some context. Overall, roads and cycle-paths in the Netherlands are amongst the safest in the world. They are much safer than they were in the early 1970s.
The improvement in safety have come in large part from following the principles of sustainable safety. Different modes are separated, keeping cyclists away from the danger from motorized vehicles even when you might not think this was happening.
|While 2011 was a slight increase over 2010, this is clearly a|
downward trend over time. It is not an imaginary trend.
In 2011, there were 661 deaths compared with 640 in 2010 (these figures are for all road users, not just cyclists). December 2011 was a particularly deadly month with 81 people losing their lives in that month alone. Without this unusual one month peak, the figures could have been lower than for 2010.
There is always "noise" in figures of this nature. It's important not to take too much notice of year on year changes as they can be so misleading. While one cannot make any prediction based on the graph, it looks more like the continuation of a steady downward trend than the beginning of an increasing trend, and we should note that the December figures which particularly made a difference last year are likely to be due to particularly unhelpful weather.
Demographics of road casualties
Of the 661 deaths last year, 40% or 269 were of people over the age of 65. Nearly 1 in five, 126 people, were aged over 80. This is a reflection of how active older people remain the Netherlands and also of how vulnerable older people can be in crashes which might cause less serious injuries in younger people.
We see the same if we look just at cycling casualties.
Over 65s cycle around 12% of the total kilometres cycled each year in the Netherlands. However, almost 2/3rds of the cyclists who died in the Netherlands last year were of people aged over 65.
In total, 200 cyclists died in the Netherlands last year, a rise of 38 over the year before. This is quite a sharp rise in one year. It compares with 185 in 2009, which makes for a less dramatic change. It is still part of a downward trend, and the Netherlands remains the safest country in the world for cyclists.
Why are older people falling victim more often ?
It is an unfortunate fact that as you get older, you also become more delicate. Injuries which might cause nothing more than a little discomfort when you are young can cause a broken bone when you are older. Those which might have resulted in a broken bone can result in death.
The rise in electric bicycles has been blamed for older people suffering more injuries and deaths. One study claims that while electric bikes are not much different in safety to non assisted bikes for younger people, there is a relationship between an assisted bike and a higher rate of injury amongst older people. Such bicycles are sold almost exclusively to retired people, and for this age-group they result in being able to ride faster and further than before, without improving the rider's reaction time or strength.
However, it would appear that the main reason why older people are falling victim more often is that they are cycling more often. Between 2000 and 2010, the number of kilometres ridden each year by over 65s more than doubled. Over 65s now cycle nearly three times so much as they did in the 1980s.
None of this is new
In 2005, a study showed that the number of visits to hospital by older cyclists had risen by 55% between 2005 and 2009. The total distance cycled by this group had also risen by 50% over the same period.
In 2010, a study showed that elderly cyclists ran 3.2 times the risk of injury than younger cyclists, and that this was due not to having more crashes, but due to the relative fragility of older people. It also showed that 10% of total cycled kilometres in the Netherlands are ridden by the over 65s, and a link was shown (again) between improvements to cycling infrastructure, an increased rate of cycling, and lower risks for all cyclists.
What about the future ?
|Average number of bike rides per day for Dutch|
population separated into different age groups
In 2007, a study suggested that ageing of the population could be expected to slowly reduce the rate of cycling in the Netherlands. It also predicted a rise in serious bicycle crashes of 10% over 20 years for much the reasons that we have seen start to occur. This study also showed that immigration was thought unlikely to have a very large effect because the number of immigrants remains small.
That same study includes an interesting table which shows the percentage of cycle trips by over 65s in 2005 for each local government area, compared to what it is expected to be by 2025. In Assen, for example, 12% of cycle journeys were made by over 65s in 2005, and this is expected to grow to 16% of cycle journeys being made by over 65s in 2025. This is about average for the whole country.
Of course, the Netherlands isn't standing still. A new organisation, the National Investigation into Cycling Safety has begun to work on improving future safety for cyclists in the Netherlands.
It is important that standards for cycling infrastructure continue to improve. Only with improvements in standards can the cycling modal share be preserved despite the challenges of demographic change.
All three types of safety are important.
About comparing sensible figures
Last week, British politicians compared Dutch and British cycle safety figures in rather a confusing and perhaps even deceitful manner by referring only to the absolute number of deaths in both countries.
It is of course true that the Netherlands has a higher rate of cycling injury per hundred thousand people. However, this is because while everyone cycles in the Netherlands, and as we see above, this covers a very wide range of demographic groups, only a minority cycle in the UK and they're largely young adult males.
Comparing per km cycled, even though the Dutch cyclists include far higher levels of more vulnerable groups (not only older people, but also children and people with disabilities), the figures are very much better for the Netherlands than the UK, even taking into account the increase last year. Several people blogged about this, but I refer you to "(Drawing) rings around the world" for accurate figures.
Someone quipped that by the same logic as used by the British Transport Ministers, Switzerland could perhaps learn a lot from the UK's good record on skiing safety, and it's a valid comparison.
Any British politician who wants to know what the difference really is between cycling in the Netherlands and cycling in the UK only has to ask us to find out. We do tours specifically for this reason, but not one British politician has yet come to see for themselves.
Investigations into the cause of the rise in injuries and deaths continue. If the person who made the quip about skiing safety reads this, let me know and I'll link to you.