Wednesday 14 October 2009

The effect of hills on cycling

In discussions about the rate of cycling in different countries, people often make remarks along the lines that "the Dutch cycle because the Netherlands is flat". It's just an excuse, of course. They're either trying to excuse the low cycling rate of their country or sometimes it's an attempt to disregard the effect of the infrastructure which the Netherlands has used to achieve its high cycling rate.

I think this is a much overemphasized difference between the Netherlands and other places. Many settled areas in many countries are also flat, or nearly flat. They don't all have a high cycling rate. An example which I've used on this blog is Lincolnshire in the UK. The area has many residents descended from Dutch immigrants who drained the low and flat landscape, despite being so much like the Netherlands, Lincolnshire consistently does the wrong things to encourage cycling and there is very little cycling there.

What's more, the Southern Dutch province of Limburg is actually rather hilly. Limburg hosts the Amstel Gold Cycle Race which is known for its particularly vicious hills. The capital of the province is Maastricht.

I covered Maastricht a few weeks back. They already have a cycling rate of around 30% of journeys, higher than anywhere outside the Netherlands, and are working hard to increase this.

Putting aside demographics, the only thing which seems directly related to cycling rate is the quality of infrastructure.

The Netherlands spends more per head than any other country on cycling infrastructure, Dutch infrastructure is the best in the world for cycling and this country has the highest rate of cycling as a result.

Second place is taken by Denmark, where they don't spend enough and have a declining cycling modal share. Germany spends less again, and has significantly worse infrastructure, but is stable with around a third as much cycling as in the Netherlands. It's quite easy to see why if you move between the borders of these countries. It's simply more pleasant here to cycle here and this is why people do it.

Make cycling convenient, safe and pleasant and people will cycle.

Stop making excuses !

See also coverage of Trondheim - a city which has huge hills, very challenging winter weather, but which is growing cycling from an already high base by building infrastructure.

For people who really like cycling up hills, there is an organisation here in the Netherlands which provides information about where to find nice steep hills to ride up. The photos of hills here in the Netherlands come from their website. this looks quite a challenge. Another example is Switzerland, which has a cycling rate which is above any English speaking country. Switzerland is definitely not flat.


Chris Hutt said...

David, the correlation between quality of provision for and levels of cycling is pretty obvious, but what isn't obvious is which gives rise to which.

Is it not the case that the countries with the best cycle provision started off with highest cycling levels? Could it not be argued that the main causal relationship was high cycling levels leading to good provision, rather than vice versa?

Another striking point about the Netherlands and Denmark is that not only the coutries themselves but the main cities too are relatively small and compact compared to the leading cities in larger neighbouring countries. That surely is a significant factor?

Another factor might be the topographical homogeneity of those countries, being overwhelmingly flat including the most important cities. Belgium by comparison, although of a similar size, is very hilly in the south and has poor cycling provision and levels.

I think we in the UK have to be very wary of assuming that the creation of Dutch style cycle path systems is the answer. In established towns and cities it would be a real struggle to wrest the space for such paths from motorists. What chance of success there unless cycling is already the dominant mode?

Perhaps 50 or so years ago, before the hegemony of the car was fully entrenched, we might have had a chance of establishing such a system. But today the car's insatiable apetite has consumed almost every available piece of land and winning it back, especially on behalf of an often despised minorty group, isn't going to be easy.

anna said...

Interesting. Many people in Vienna often say that it is too hilly (and it is actually quite hilly in a few districts). There are, however, many more cyclists in Zurich which has a lot more hills. There I have even seen mothers with two kids in a trailer oftertaking me on an uphill section. Well, some of them had E-bikes, which I think is a good alternative for old people and ones that have to carry a lot. No cars are needed to get over a few hills.

cocosolis said...

When I started cycling to work (in Manchester), my initial instinct (!?) was to go the same way I'd used when driving. I soon realised there were many hills I'd managed to ignore by pressing harder on the accelerator. A bit of trial and error allowed me to settle on a bike-friendly route - I go 'in' one way, come back a different way, precisely to minimise hill climbing.

David Hembrow said...

Chris: You can of course argue anything you like. However, no place has been more successful at growing cycling in the last 30 odd years than the Netherlands, and here the growth has happened alongside a growth in infrastructure since the 1970s.

You can find some details of this from page 27 onwards of this document.

Also, the high levels of cycling in the 1940s in both the Netherlands and the UK did not automatically lead to cycling infrastructure. In fact, here in NL this was a period when cycling infrastructure was largely neglected, as you can read in the same document.

I'm going to write about sprawl and size of cities a bit later. NL is much more spread out than many people think. For now, please consider that the Randstad in effect acts as one big spread out sprawling city of 7.5 million, with a lot of commuting from one part to another. It also has a cycling rate which is well beyond anywhere in the UK.

You mention Belgium, and it makes an interesting comparison. Ride across the border from NL and the low quality of the cycling infrastructure is immediately apparent. You also stop seeing so many cyclists. This happens even just over the border in the rather flat bit just south of Eindhoven, which is less hilly than Limburg. I'd call that correlation.

Personally, I think the adoption of Dutch policies towards transport would indeed lead to higher rates of cycling in the UK. Or anywhere else. It could hardly do any harm. You could take the view that the enormous roads built already have actually reserved space for a decent cycling network. This space simply needs to be re-allocated.

As I've noted before, even in the UK, where decent infrastructure exists, people use it. Where it doesn't exist, as is true of most corners of the English speaking world, people simply don't cycle to any appreciable extent.

Chris Hutt said...

David, by chance I just came across a figure for the modal share of cycling in Amsterdam in 1970 - it was 25% even then, far higher than almost any UK city but probably pretty typical for NL at the time.

So that supports my point that NL already had much higher cycling levels than most of northern Europe even before the renaissance in cycling began. In addition NL already had a tradition of extensive segregated cycling provision dating from at least the 1930s.

The developemnt of high quality segregated infrastructure was much easier to achieve from that base compared to the base conditions that prevail in the UK where a cycling modal share of 5% is considered high.

Martin Parkinson said...

Thanks to Chris Hutt (who I suspect was being a deliberate agent provocateur) for shining a light on a question which is central but rarely asked here. We (that's to say *me*, but I'm sure I'm not the only one) look at your brill blog, David, and sigh heavily. Because although we're completely convinced by your evidence, we look out the window at our own UK streets, then we look at your pictures and vids of NL, and we just *can't see* how it could be *remotely possible* to get from one to the other. The difference looks too great.

That is why the most effective parts of your argument are the historical pictures where you show that 60's Netherlands was remarkably similar to 60's UK. A useful research exercise would be to take a small area in NL with good cycling infrastructure and find a "twin" area in the unreconstructed UK, which it resembles in important respects (size, topography - you couldn't get a terribly close match but that wouldn't matter). You could then look at the historical development of the infrastructure in the NL twin and use it as a template to show in detail how the UK twin might now look *if* it had undertaken the same path. This might blow away the heated yet futile arguments I've seen about why some UK places have experienced tiny increases in cycling levels, and it might be persuasive to planners who experience the "physically couldn't be done here" reaction. It'd be important that this study was done on a small area so that there could a pretty close level of detail and it would therefore probably need some level of technical highway engineering knowledge.

I think I've just described an MA thesis I'd like to do! Except that I can't afford to do it and am lacking in time. Or has something like this been done already - it seems a bit of an obvious idea to me so surely it must? Go on tell, me it has been done and everyone knows about it except me ...

Karl McCracken (twitter: @karlonsea) said...

Well said, David.

The Tyneside landscape is pretty much flat (if you ignore the city centre drop down to the quayside), yet our cycling rate is about 2%. It ain't about the hills, but the traffic and a disjointed infrastructure that does bonkers things like install Toucan crossings to keep cyclists safe but significantly inconvenienced.

David Hembrow said...

Chris: I think we'll continue to disagree about this. You can find evidence of higher cycling rates in many locations in the UK if you look back in time a little.

Martin: Before and after photos of Assen, where we live, do exist and the "before" photos look a lot like many British towns. I've no idea if anyone has written a thesis about it. However, I'll continue to dig things out. There are other good examples.

Karl: That's the point. Bristol (where Chris is) really is quite hilly. However, most populated parts of the UK are not. That's why I see "but we've got hills" as an excuse and not a real reason for not cycling.

Harry Lieben said...

I don't understand: I'd love to have hills on my commute! (living in Holland) But only when you don't have to break at the lowest part of course.

Frits B said...

Chris: I have lived a bit longer in Holland than David so know the development of cycle infrastructure firsthand. I was born in Rotterdam in 1939 and lived there till 1961. During that time, traffic went from cycle dominated to car dominated, but although Rotterdam had the advantage of having its centre bombed in 1940 - which meant that it could start from scratch - there were hardly any cycle provisions until in the 1970s. Cycles had to share the streets with cars. Rotterdam still has few dedicated cycle paths, just lanes wherever possible. On residential streets all traffic has to share. Then in 1961 we moved to Emmen, 40 km from Assen, which at the time was just changing from a rural village to an industrial town. During this transition Emmen got new areas with residential streets that lead nowhere for cars but are interconnected for cycles; a simple matter of thinking while planning. Population is 90,000 now and finding your way there by car is straightforward but lengthy (the dead ends are marked the same way as in Assen: street lanterns with the light on top - in case David wonders why the difference). In 1980 I moved to Assen which has always been more of a town than Emmen and was very "compact": narrow streets which had to cope with lots of traffic passing through town. A motorway now keeps through traffic away, a ring road has been laid around the centre and most of the centre has been either pedestrianized or tamed with a 30 km/h speed limit or one-way traffic. This didn't even require much demolition; Assen may look very different now as compared with 50 years ago but it's mainly the road that has been "re-arranged". Most of the buildings are still there, a bit cleaner perhaps. The only thing necessary for such a change for the good is a bit of vision and determination. You have seen David's videos of Groningen then and now; no rigorous demolition, just shifting the road layout may be sufficient.

Chris Hutt said...

Frits B, thank you for taking the trouble to explain something of the historical background.

I made several visits to NL about 15 years ago, mainly in the Randstat area, so I have a pretty good idea of how things were then. What you say fits quite well with my experience, especially that Rotterdamn was quite poor for cycling and some new towns exceptionally good (Houten near Utrecht impressed me very much).

A significant point from your comments is that NL embarked on providing segregated infrastructure at a point where car ownership was still relatively low and therefore before cars had come to claim every inch of our streets.

If we in the UK were to embark on the same course today we would find it very difficult to reclaim space from cars. Politicians would not dare to upset so many electors. So for the most part we must develop a different strategy.

Today I was in Oxford UK and this is much closer to having an NL type cycling culture than Bristol. It is generally flat, relatively small and has very limited car access across the centre. But the specific cycling infrastructure is very poor.

This suggests that the provision of segregated infrastructure isn't as important as having a cycling culture, a sense that cycling is perfectly normal and unremarkable.

David Hembrow said...

Chris: The UK also has some remnants of sensible design which date back further than the 1970s. e.g. this bit. However, they've generally been neglected.

The big push in the Netherlands was in the 1970s and 1980s at a time when car ownership was higher than in the UK.

Finally, you really can't compare the cycling rate, or the demographics of cycling, in Oxford to that of any town in the Netherlands. Just as in Cambridge and York, which similarly have a higher than average rate for the UK, these towns are university towns. Having a university means you have more confident young adults, often without too much ready cash. i.e. Just the right demographic to easily attract to cycling.

But how much cycling is there ? Well, not much by Dutch standards. Oxford has just 530 cycle parking spaces at the railway station. Assen's population is less than half that of Oxford, but there are five times so many places needed here. It's also fewer than a village with a 15th of the population a few km from here. The cycling rates really are not comparable. However, maybe they would be if the infrastructure existed so that cycling became something that everyone did.

WestfieldWanderer said...

My first reaction to Chris's rather bleak perspective of the possibility of a cycling future in Britain was that anyone with half a brain should simply pack up and move to a civilised and enlightened country. That way those that remain could happily stew in a toxic soup of their own making and no-one would care.
However, research done by Lynn Sloman, and others, and published in her book "Car Sick" suggests that about 50% of car users are "reluctant car users" and would gladly adopt other means of travel for at least some of their journeys if only those other means were made more attractive. The other 50%, what Lynn describes as the "Jeremy Clarkson" types and "habitual car users" would never consider changing their mode of travel. We leave those to get on with it and work on encouraging the more open minded 50% to use bikes and buses or whatever more often. The only thing missing, of course, is an open minded, forward thinking and far sighted administration to enable the necessary changes to take place.

Frits B said...

Chris: "A significant point from your comments is that NL embarked on providing segregated infrastructure at a point where car ownership was still relatively low and therefore before cars had come to claim every inch of our streets."
This is not what I wrote. The exact problem was that there were too many cars already so town planners were looking for ways to keep them in check. My experience from the 60's on is that Emmen simply grabbed the opportunity to do so when developing new neighbourhoods, while Assen - which was overrun by cars at the time in narrow streets - chose to channel motorized traffic along main roads while banning it elsewhere. The same route has been taken in a lot of Dutch towns. It really is a matter of political will. I remember walking around in Cambridge long ago, in my younger years when I had a girlfriend there, and wondering why people didn't streamline the traffic flow. One-way systems provide a lot of extra space and are relatively cheap to install. People will protest, of course. They did in Groningen, very loudly too, but in the end everybody got used to the new situation and saw that it worked.

cocosolis said...

Somebody mentioned Oxford - this w'end I drove (yes...) down there. There's some road works on the A40 near where it crosses the A34. Normally that stretch of the A40 boasts full cycle paths on both sides. Now there are just red signs that say 'Cycle Path Closed'. Diversion? nope. Alternative? nope. Guidance on how to proceed with the journey? None.

Not sure what my point is. We can't all go live in Assen, and I sometimes wonder whether we enjoy our minority status - the glamour and romance of lycra - a bit too much for our own good.

David Hembrow said...

Coco: I've covered road works quite a lot before. In particular, this is what happens when there is work on the cycle path. Or this or this, or this. I've not yet seen a cycle path disappear due to road works.

Chris Hutt said...

David, the link you gave to the graph is very helpful. It shows that in the 1970s when the NL started to reallocate space to cyclists the level of car ownership (for both UK and NL) was around 0.2 cars per capita.

Today the level of car ownership in the UK is more than double that and expcted to increase further. There are far fewer households without cars and far more households with multiple cars than in the 1970s.

On top of that cycling in the UK remains at much lower levels than in the NL even at the nadir in the 70s as I mentioned before.

Because we have lived with high car ownership levels for so much longer than the people of NL had in the 1970s our lifestyles and economic/social infrastructure have adapted much more to car ownership. People now expect to 'enjoy' a degree of mobility that cannot be provided without the car.

All these factors make it much more difficult to reallocate road space away from cars in the UK today than it was in the NL in the 70s. I wish it were not so but I'm afraid it is.

100 Mile Bike said...

I think there is another angle that is worth exploring for why cycling usage increases and that is cost of alternatives.

In London over the last 5 years or so the number of cyclists and corresponding journeys made has exploded. There are many reasons for this but I believe the most significant is how expensive public transport and private car transport is now.

When it costs £5-£10 per day to travel in the city the bike suddenly becomes a very atractive option.

So if policy makers want to further encourage bike use maybe the answer is to further increase public transport costs !!!

Not sure how politically viable but .....

Doug Oates said...


First. Your blog is extraordinary! I enjoy every entry. Also, much appreciation for posting YouTube video segments of Velomobile journeys in NL.

All of the commentary is quite thoughtful on this entry. And, it speaks to the poignant and difficult issue of human behavior and personal transportation. There seems to be quite a bit of personal psychology involved with regard to motor vehicle use habits and trade off considerations to utilize human powered transport instead. I struggle with these potentially "existential" debates on a daily basis here in Colorado, USA, where I expected a cycling nirvana to exist when I moved here 5 years ago. What I've found, is a car centric culture where the bicycle is only considered in the realm of recreation and sporting and minimal thought in terms of practical transportation. It seems the pros and cons, benefits and costs, and challenges to increasing human powered transport is a global issue, where there are pockets of model behavior.. Assen, Copenhagen, Portland (OR-USA), Boulder (CO-USA), etc... But, for the most part, motor vehicle use is "programmed" into the psyche of the general population. It would be wonderful to establish a global research initiative among all universities that conduct sustainable transportation research. I've seen little mention of human powered transportation as an element in climate change and carbon output management. I'd say those of us that believe human powered transportation is the next step in personal transit evolution must reach out to form a constituency. The motor vehicle industry is a highly profitable and formidable group. It is definitely a threat to the viability of this industry to witness an increase in bicycling. Profit at BMW, Skoda, Toyota, Ford, etc., will suffer greatly if we have our way. :-) Again, David, keep up the fabulous effort. Your blog is an inspiration.

Doug Oates
Denver, CO USA
Velomobile Industry Association