Monday 8 July 2013

Paying people NOT to cycle in the country where there is more cycling than any other

Free car parking is offered in very
many locations. In this case an
advertisement for a local shopping
centre. Workplace parking is free
and it's also free at at the hospital.
One of the many recurring myths about the Netherlands is that it's expensive to use a car here and that's why people cycle. However, this not really true. Relative to other EU countries Dutch people find cars to be relatively easily affordable but they often make a positive choice not to own a car.

Many people seem to believe that the Dutch government supports cycling above other modes of transport. However, this is not really true either. Cycling is funded well compared with other nations, but roads for motor vehicles receive far more funding than do bicycle paths. What's more, some policies of the government could be seen to be aimed at reducing the use of bikes. Here are two of those:

Paying people to commute by car
The Dutch government actually allows employers to offer a tax free perk to those with a long commute by car, and many employers choose to offer this perk.

Helpfully, I don't even have to translate this because the Dutch government provides the relevant information in English on a website designed to help foreign companies:
If you own a company in the Netherlands, you can pay employees with a fixed place of work a predetermined travel allowance. You are not, however, required to do this. Often agreements have been made in the employment contract or in the collective labour agreement (CAO) about the allowances for travel expenses. 
Kilometre allowance
You can pay this kilometre allowance for both commuting and business trips. Allowances of € 0.19 or less per kilometre are free of tax and social security contributions. If an allowance exceeds € 0.19 per kilometre, the Dutch Tax and Customs Administration (Belastingdienst) will regard the excess as wages.
Public transport
If your employee (partly) travels by public transport, you can choose. You reimburse no more than € 0.19 per kilometre free of tax or you reimburse the actual travelling expenses free of tax.

Nineteen cents per km travelled goes a long way to cover the actual cost of driving many motor vehicles, and for economical or older vehicles it is likely that the driver will make a profit on this. It can also be claimed by people who car pool, meaning that a total of 38 cents per km is paid for one car - definitely profitable.

It is also possible to claim the allowance for cycling and this results in a tax free bonus as the cost of cycling is generally much lower than that of driving. I received this allowance for a 60 km per day commute. My commute earned €11 per day so in effect I was paid better than €6 per hour, tax free, to cycle. However, this option not open to most people as the minimum distance covered by the regulation is 10 km and for most people that's too far to commute by bike.

Encouraging students not to cycle
The leading cycling cities in almost all, if not all, countries are cities where large numbers of students live. I've discussed several times before how students and relatively recent graduates are uniquely placed to find cycling attractive as they're predominantly confident young adults, usually without children, with little spare cash and usually with short journeys to make. The Netherlands is no exception to this. The leading cycling city in the Netherlands, Groningen, is a student city. 50000 students live in a city of 190000 people and as a result of this influence Groningen residents have the youngest average age of any Dutch city.

The "discouragement" appears not to
be working. Bikes outside one
university building in Groningen.
700 more indoors around the corner.
However the Dutch actually provide a disincentive to students who consider cycling. Free public transport for all qualifying students. Students may use buses and trains across the entire country completely free of charge.

It's not actually a bad policy. Students must claim their free transport for use either during week time or at the weekend, but not both simultaneously. Our eldest daughter cycles to college within Groningen but uses her free public transport on the weekend in order to visit us or friends who live elsewhere in the country. This is why cycle-parking at the main railway station in Groningen is most full on weekends. Our neighbour's daughter who still lives at home uses her free transport to travel to college in the week (a 60 km round trip each day is more than most people would choose to do by bike) but she cycles to local friends at the weekend.

The pass also allows students to claim a 40% discount on the trains at any time that they cannot travel for free.

How many students take a free bus instead of cycling ?
In Groningen, it is estimated that the free bus pass is currently used by 5000 students a day on one of the main routes to university buildings. If the free bus pass was not available, it is estimated that around half of those students would travel by bicycle instead.

So why do people cycle ?
Both these policies, of giving commuters encouragement both to lengthen their commutes (Dutch commutes are in fact the longest in Europe) and to make them by car, and the other policy of providing a free of charge alternative means of transport for students, must have some negative effect on the cycling modal share of the Netherlands. Yet despite both these policies the population still views cycling as a positive choice because of the benefits that it brings. Cycling remains popular with a huge proportion of the population despite the government seemingly using fiscal measures in an attempt to discourage it.

Cycling is a convenient and economical means of transport everywhere. However, in most countries it does not reach its full potential. In The Netherlands, a bike offers more. The infrastructure not only makes cycling even more convenient than in other nations but it also makes cycling into an option so safe and pleasant that nearly everyone is attracted to cycling.

Student cities will of course always tend to have more cycling than non-student cities. City centres will always be busier than suburbs. Longer commutes are less amenable to cycling than short commutes, but good infrastructure in all of these locations is fundamental to unlock whatever demand exists for cycling in each place with each given population.

What this blog post isn't about
There seems to be some confusions amongst readers about what they perceive as anti-driving measures in the Netherlands. It's quite normal in this country for driving routes to be longer than cycling routes but this is not so much as a result of anti-driving measures as of pro-cycling and pro-pleasant neighbourhood measures. The problem of rat-running through residential areas has been almost eliminated by making those areas almost impossible to use for through journeys by car.

It's quite normal for a bicycle route
(blue) to be shorter than the shortest
possible car route (red)
Cyclists can use direct routes through neighbourhoods because this encourages cycling and doesn't harm residents. However, driving routes go around residential areas because cars going through them do harm residents.

The same principle is applied in town centres and in the countryside and there are many thousands of examples of this throughout the entire nation. However while these measures make driving slightly less convenient than it might otherwise have been, they do not make it impossible. Dutch roads are well designed and well maintained and a pleasure to drive on.

Similarly, residential car parking is quite generous in the Netherlands. New developments are built with ample space to accommodate the cars that people own and older streets are rebuilt to accommodate them. This means cars can be parked without causing conflict with pedestrians and cyclists.

The Netherlands, here in Orange, has
the highest rate of non-motorized
transport in all of Europe
The Dutch government can even offer support for driving and public transport, as demonstrated in this blog post, and people still choose to cycle here. They do so because cycling is better for them than any alternative, not because they've been forced out of cars.

The end result is that despite this being a rich nation where people can afford to own and use cars and other motorized forms of transport, the Dutch people make a positive choice to use non-motorized forms of transport more than the people of any other nation. Is this not the result we should all hope for ?

Carrots work better than sticks.

Today we went on a very enjoyable family trip to a seal sanctuary in Groningen. The 120 km round trip was too much for the family by bike so we made one of our rare trips by car. We didn't check in advance, but parking our car turned out to be free of charge in a half empty car park- an experience we've had almost everywhere that we've gone by car in this country. On this hot day I'd much rather have ridden a bike. That would have been a positive choice, much more pleasant. The cost of parking a car is immaterial.


Martin said...

You only have to look at awchris's video's on Youtube to see how good the Dutch free-way's are. But it terms of making it difficult to drive cars Houten would be one town that does this well. Also many other towns/cities have restricted car use by removing carparks and creating pedestrian streets in the city centre's. Also your fuel cost is much higher that many other countries we complain when petrol prices are at $1.50 Litre just imagine if it was $2.50 litre as it is in your country.

David Hembrow said...

Martin, see my videos too.

Actually, Houten does something quite different. I've blogged about Houten a few times. Take a look at the video showing how cars have to take a long route around, but realise that this isn't actually special and it's not what I'm talking about.

It's normal all across the Netherlands for cycling routes to be shorter than driving routes. However, the experience of driving is not bad in any way. This is often misunderstood.

The roads here are immaculately maintained, extremely well designed and objectively safe to use. Drivers are not "punished" in order that cyclists can benefit. Rather, they're restricted because this makes conditions better for everyone.

As for petrol prices, they may be more expensive here than in your country, but they're about the same as in many other countries with a low cycling modal share. There is no correlation at all between petrol price and cycling modal share.

Koen said...

Actually, Houten is very easy to drive around in. I just went there this Saturday. There is a large ring road, and everybody drives at around 70 km/hour. If you need to go anywhere, there are few intersections. For trips inside town, the bike is obviously the better choice. I just wish lots of other towns in NL would finally pick this up as thoroughly!!

charlie_lcc said...

Amsterdam, we were told, has one of the highest car parking charges in the world. Where I live in Inner London, on street car parking has got progressively more expensive and difficult. Cycle use is up 200 - 300% in a decade.

David Hembrow said...

Charlie_lcc: Amsterdam has more expensive parking than most, and that city has more of a problem than most with finding spaces for cars. However the cycling modal share in AMS is not higher than in other Dutch cities which have cheaper car parking.

Many Dutch people believe the same myths about cycling in the Netherlands as do people from other countries. Visitors are misled by this and as a result they take back home the wrong ideas about why the Dutch cycle.

Please read my blog post about things to be wary of when learning from the Netherlands.

We try very hard to avoid this trap on our study tours.

M-MZ said...

The 10 km limit on the 19 cents/km was probably imposed by the employer. The Dutch tax law does not enforce this in any way. My employer has a maximum of 133 euro's per month. Both are rules which you find in your contract.

Employers also have another way's they can award employees for cycling. They can give a bike to their staff. Here is a diagram for the tax laws around bicycle commuting:

David Hembrow said...

M-MZ: You may well be right. I thought I'd read about 10 km minimal distance somewhere, but on searching for it now I can find it documented only for public transport.

Hōkan said...

What's the tax on new cars? I've heard that this tax can almost triple the cost of purchasing a car.

David Hembrow said...

Hōkan: There is tax to pay on a new car but it's nowhere near as expensive as you've been led to believe.

There is always 21% sales tax and on top of this a BPM charge which ranges from 0% for particularly efficient cars up to a difficult to calculate amount for other cars.

I searched for values of the BPM for a Skoda Octavia, a slightly larger than average car, and it comes to between €2375 and €6625 for different models of the car which cost between €19000 and €33000. As you can see, this is nowhere near a tripling of the price - that's just yet another myth believed in other countries.

Unknown said...

Making cars go the long way round and stopping rat-running in residential streets are excellent policies. In the UK context they are regarded as 'anti-car' policies first and only second as pro-walking, cycling, children playing in the streets policies. Such is the grip of car-think on these islands at the moment. Thus any politician or town planner who proposes such policies will have to face down the full weight of car-think, as articulated by local newspapers, residents, businesses, MPs etc. You only have to look at the recent protest in Clapham Old Town the other month where the council was proposing to introduce a bike lane along a shopping street. There were protests against the idea by local businesses and the local MP Kate Hoey, and trumpeted by the South London Press. See:

Paul M said...

Yes, it is interesting to note that, while the Netherlands clearly experiences far far highers cycling rates than other northern European countries including the UK, its car ownership is substantially similar to its neighbours. I have in my mind that the UK is around 420 cars per 1,000 pop and the Netherlands around 410 - certainly the order of magnitude and the comparison are about right if the numbers are not precise.

I have never been able to find Dutch stats for average pa private car mileage - these are available via the UK's website for the UK but I wouldn't know where to look in Nl and possibly wouldn't be able to read them anyway (unless English translation is provided). However one stat I did find which struck me as quite telling is that the average age of a car in Nl is older than in the UK - about 7 years cf 5.9. That suggests to me that cars are more lightly used and so can extend their useful lives.

I assume that apart from real enthusiasts who are prepared to cycle-commute beyond 10km or so, by this distance the car takes over in Nl, in fact I saw a table somewhere which suggested that Dutch cycling more or less falls off a cliff around 7 or 8 km while in the UK, a much lower base dribbles away far more slowly as distance mounts. It rather suggests that UK cyclists are more likely to be gung-ho Franklinist road-warriors while Dutch cyclists are more likely to be practically minded people using the mode which works best for them in any given situation, and I assume that if the bicycle had not been invented, the Dutch woudl have a similar profile of car journey length to the UK, ie well over half of all trips are less than 5 miles/8km, and 75% are less than 10 miles/15km.

David Hembrow said...

Unknown: Yes, I know. Ten yeas ago I tried to find enthusiasm amongst my neighbours in Cambridge for closing our street as a through route for cars. Almost no-one wanted this. They didn't mind rat-running if it meant they could go both ways with their own car.

Paul M: Car ownership rates are indeed very similar.

Just as in all relatively rich countries, the private car takes over for longer journeys. People are just not interested in sitting on buses if they have a choice. It's also true that 70% of journeys overall in NL are under 7.5 km in length. Similar to the UK, and indeed similar to everywhere else including those countries where people imagine their journeys are longer.

Dutch cycling doesn't drop off as much as you think with longer distance. In the Netherlands, 15% of all journeys between 7.5 km and 15 km in length are made by bicycle as are 3% of all journeys over 15 km in length. i.e. the proportion of longer journeys made by bicycle here is higher than the proportion of shorter journeys made by bicycle in the UK.

The attractiveness of the cycling provision is such that everyone rides more here, including those people who might be "Franklinist" if they lived in the UK.

Richard Adamfi said...

It is clear that students mostly cycle in Groningen instead of using the bus. So how come Utrecht University seems to have so many people using the bus that they have had to buy special extra-long 25 metre bendy buses to carry all the students?

David Hembrow said...

Richard, bendy buses are used in many parts of the Netherlands including Groningen and Assen, and students cycle in huge numbers in Utrecht just as they do in all other student cities in the Netherlands. The presence of the bus doesn't mean that everyone will take the bus, including if they can do so for free. That's pretty much the whole message of this blog post.

Follow this link to see the relative amount of public transport usage amongst European nations. You'll see that the Netherlands has one of the lowest rates of PT usage.