For many London cycling activists and politicians with transport responsibilities the Netherlands is the touchstone nation for urban cycling policy, as demonstrated by the London Cycling Campaign’s ongoing “Go Dutch” theme and Boris Johnson’s borough-centred “mini-Holland” schemes. It is easy to see why. In 2014, cyclists accounted for a commanding 32% of modal share across the Dutch capital Amsterdam, higher than any other category and rising. Only walking rivals it as a way to get around. How did Amsterdam come to be such a beacon as a cycling city and what can London learn from it?
Professor Ruth Oldenziel of Eindhoven University – a Dutch person and a cyclist, just so you know – is co-editor of a new book called Cycling Cities: The European Experience. In it, she and a colleague characterise Amsterdam as the “world bicycle capital, by chance”. Last week, presenting the book’s findings at a London Travelwatch event, she summarised the city’s cycling pre-eminence as resulting from “a kind of coincidence”.
The professor’s Amsterdam cycling story is not of the city’s authorities introducing a visionary type of street design and everything proceeding from there, but one arising from the interplay between a range of factors over time, during which cycling policy was never more than “makeshift” and change has been untidily incremental. Nor is Amsterdam representative of every city in the Netherlands. “There are many different Dutch cycling cultures,” Oldenziel said. While Groningen and Enschede have banned cars from their city centres, Rotterdam’s cycling levels are very low.
Amsterdam’s recent rising high cycling levels have been quite gradual compared with the dramatic plunge they took from peaks as high as 75% in the 1950s. By then, cycling had become perceived as an obstacle to modernisation. The book reproduces a photograph from 1957 showing Amsterdam’s main commercial and commuter street, the Leidsestraat, clogged with cyclists, bikes and trams, all competing for the same road space. Something had to give in the heart of Amsterdam’s main transport artery. It did: the photo’s caption says that in 1971, cyclists were banned from it.
Oldenziel records that there was a class element to the disciplining of Amsterdam cyclists, which had been going in various forms for decades. Cycling was what the lower orders did and, in the view of the authorities, they did it in a manner that was unruly, unpredictable and a hindrance to the car-led future. The first segregated cycle lanes, introduced in the 1930s, were an outcome of the process of marginalising cycling rather than an attempt to encourage it. But from the mid-1970s, new social forces came into play. Amsterdam’s counter-culture, allied with its preservationist movement, reclaimed the city’s cycling heritage as part of its resistance to motor-domination and redevelopment. “Thereafter, the city adopted a pro-cycling policy, albeit on pragmatic rather than principled grounds,” Oldenziel writes.
Today, in the centre of Amsterdam, a thumping 87% of trips of less than four kilometres are made by bicycle. Oldenziel attributes this to a combination of a determined social movement, a stubbornly strong cycling tradition, Amsterdam’s compact layout and a “pragmatic mix of pro-cycling and car-limiting policies,” of which the curbing of motorists has “proved the most effective”. She said that the Dutch approach as a whole “is really about intervening on the streets, inch-by-inch, bottom-up and really cost-effective, with very few large engineering infrastructural projects.”
The book looks at what has happened to cycling in 14 European cities, identifying five main factors explaining why it has thrived in some and faded in others: the nature of the urban landscape; the availability of alternative modes of travel, including public transport; cycling’s place within wider traffic policies; the effects of social movements; and cycling’s changing cultural status, from the transit mode of poorer people to the high status one it is today. London is not among those studied. It is, of course, as distinctive as every other city and a very different one from Amsterdam, both physically and historically. But some of the reasons for Amsterdam’s success can surely be transferred.
Oldenziel, who had pedalled round parts of the capital during the afternoon, told me her research had found that traffic-calming measures have represented the best use of public money in European cities. Making car parking more expensive produced strong results too and generated funds for road infrastructure changes. She was precise about what sort of of infrastructure brings about the best results. “A lot of cycling lanes are at the expense of pedestrians or public transit,” she explained. “These infrastructure visions often mean travelling at a high speed from A to B. That’s actually a car mentality. What you want is an infrastructure that is about the living street: about negotiation, about meandering and traffic calming. We do need to invest in infrastructure, but not in separate lanes.”
Although the Amsterdam story she tells includes periods of conflict between trams and the demolitions required for subway construction on the one hand and cycling on the other, Oldenziel would prefer the interests of pedestrians, cyclists and public transport users to be allied and complementary. It’s about having the right priorities for making a city a place to live in rather than one for racing through. “The story of Amsterdam is actually that automobility was so expensive that car space is now taken over by cyclists by default,” Odenziel said. “There are speed bumps everywhere too. But it is mostly about making the decision that cars do not belong.” Plenty there for London to reflect on.
Cycling Cities: The European Experience can be purchased via here.