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A Brief History of Cycling in Denmark & Netherlands

| Tuesday October 15th, 2013 | 1 Comment

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Biking is still the preferred method of puppy transport in the Netherlands

Back in 1900, where in the world could you expect to find bicycles making up 20 percent of the transportation mix, with protected, and in some cases, elevated bicycle lanes? In fact, this city’s newspaper once said, “There is no part of the world where cycling is in greater favor…”

Most people would assume the city in question is in bicycle friendly Europe – but in fact, the above describes Los Angeles in 1897. The pleasant and temperate climate of southern California allowed “wheeling,” as cycling was then known, to become a normal and respected means of getting around.

It’s hard to believe that LA was once a cycling haven with dedicated infrastructure. Now, it’s one of the most car-dense places in America, suffering the country’s worst traffic congestion. In 2013, you have to go to Denmark and the Netherlands to find extensive bicycle infrastructure and a biking culture to go with it. So how did they get to that point? What brought cycling front and center in  planning policies?

It actually might not have been this way. Danish and Dutch cities could have easily been dominated by the automobile and its commensurate traffic snarl. But because these European cities were already centuries old when the car came along, the existing layout perhaps provided a planning constraint which eventually allowed the bicycle to prevail today in older cities, while in LA, the lowly bicycle has long since ceded dominance to the automobile.

The advent of cars

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, cities around the world experimented with different ways of segregating cyclists, like painted lines at the road side, or ditches between lanes. As the car started to become more prevalent, attitudes towards cyclists were not always favorable. As this piece from Copanhaganize.com mentions, some thought bicycle users in the 1920s were “irritating” to motorists.

Culturally then, bikes might not have prevailed in Danish cities; especially since car ownership rose after World War II. Bicycle dominance was not inevitable.

In the Netherlands, the future did not look favorable for cyclists during the car’s rise post war, either. Amsterdam started knocking down buildings to widen roads for motor vehicles and removed some of the early bicycle infrastructure that was in place. City squares became parking lots and congestion and competition for road space with cyclists ensued.

Dangerous road conditions meet energy crisis

The early 1970s became a pivotal time which ensured the bicycle’s solid future in transportation policy. As this video shows – while bike use began decreasing by 6 percent a year in the Netherlands at that time, the loss of life rocketed as cycling became more dangerous. Growing auto traffic and existing narrow streets in old cities proved to be a lethal combination for cyclists. In 1971, the lives of 3,300 cyclists were lost, 400 of those to children under the age of 14. People were outraged.

This outrage mobilized the population and prompted protesters to urge the nation to, “stop the murder of children.” These protests defined the seed of a movement, and the energy crisis provided the water to help it grow. In 1973, the oil crisis brought the country to a virtual standstill. The prime minister at the time declared that the Netherlands needed to become less dependent on foreign energy and could do so by changing policies without decreasing residents’ quality of life. In short, government policies actively began to promote bicycle infrastructure as a solution to both quell the protests over fatalities and address energy concerns.

Car-free Sundays in Dutch cities were launched soon after, and subsequently, city centers went on to become permanently car-free. But this was just the start.

Cycling infrastructure develops

Protesters maintained their pressure using organized bike tours to create awareness of cycling fatalities, and in 1975, the Dutch national government began financing dedicated cycling routes. These new routes were physically separated from motor vehicles and were launched initially in The Hague and Tilburg. In the latter city, cycling quickly shot up by 70 percent.

The combination of local and global interests spurred Denmark to invest in bicycle infrastructure, too. As their oil came largely from the Middle East, they curbed vehicle use when supplies dried up, and also introduced car-free Sundays. The Danish Cyclists’ Federation rallied too, organizing demonstrations in Copenhagen to promote cycling. Over time, their pressure started to change the attitude of the city government, bringing about a realization that bicycling should become an important part of transportation policy.

As a result, a network of dedicated and segregated bicycle routes was developed, and to this day, both countries continue to invest in bicycle infrastructure.

According to Slate, the city of Copenhagen spends around 25 percent of its road budget on bicycle infrastructure, which over time has created 397 km of cycle paths and 35,000 bike parking stations. Furthermore, the city has introduced innovations which have made cycling faster and more convenient than driving. One such example is, “the green wave,” where along main routes to the city center, bicycle traffic lights positioned at points where bikers must cross motor vehicle traffic are synchronized, so that riders can pedal at a steady 20 km per hour without having to stop. In winter, bike lanes get priority when snow clearing and road salting are necessary.

Disincentivizing car use

Promoting bike infrastructure as a matter of policy wasn’t enough – legislators also needed to discourage car use and make cars a less attractive form of transportation. The European Commission details that Denmark and the Netherlands have implemented a range of taxes, restrictions on car ownership, parking and use, which have made driving both expensive and inconvenient. Slate details that in Denmark, 2-3 percent of parking spaces are removed each year to make it increasingly inconvenient to drive to the city. Even though car ownership remains high in these countries, the European Commission says such policies have encouraged more people to use their bicycles when they can. Cars are often now just for the weekend, when people need to travel further afield – journeys where the bicycle is not the best tool for the job.

Long-term benefits of investing in cycling

Of course, something of a virtuous-circle is created when investment in infrastructure and pro-cycling policies are implemented. Dedicated and physically separated lanes on busy routes are safer. The European commission states that the number of bicycle fatalities per 100 million kilometers cycled is 5.8 in the USA,  but only 1.1 in the Netherlands; even though very few Dutch cyclists wear helmets. And in a way, although it’s perhaps not wise to advocate riding helmet-less, the fact that you can do so safely in a dedicated lane makes cycling even more convenient and appealing. According to Slate, in Copenhagen 90 percent of residents own a bike; that’s true critical mass!

Denmark and the Netherlands also integrate safe cycling into general school curricula, and motorists are routinely trained to be aware of cyclists. But that doesn’t mean riders are given a free hand to do as they please; reckless cycling is frowned upon. This correspondent for the BBC reports that police in Amsterdam will impose fines on cyclists for running red lights, riding where they are not supposed to, or failing to use lights at night. Strict rules are enforced, too, on the correct placement of mandatory reflectors on bicycles. Motorists must respect cyclists, and cyclists must respect the rules – that’s the way to share the road. It can’t hurt that statistically, most drivers are probably cyclists, too.

The result of investment in bicycle infrastructure is that you have a very utilitarian bike culture in these places. Riders tend to choose old and perhaps even rusty clunkers instead of high-end, expensive bikes – why risk theft? People are more likely to wear everyday clothes instead of tight-fitting Lycra cycling outfits. They don’t ride for the exercise or to save the environment – though these are surely side benefits. Instead, they ride because it just makes sense. Cycling is the optimal transportation choice – by design – to get around densely populated cities.

And though decades of favorable bicycle policy and infrastructure investment have allowed Denmark and the Netherlands to become the top bike friendly places on earth – similar policy changes can very quickly change behavior elsewhere, too. The European Commission details that when London imposed a congestion charge to motorists entering the city back in 2003, cycling was boosted by 30 percent.

During the course of writing this piece, I came across a humorous anecdote which illustrates the cultural reach investment in cycling infrastructure can achieve. A reporter asked someone from Amsterdam why they were a cyclist, which elicited the response, “I’m not a cyclist, I’m just Dutch.” Imagine if the same investment had taken place in LA since the 1900s, it could just as easily have been someone saying, “Hey, I’m just an Angeleno.”


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  • Jim Moore

    “I’m not a cyclist, I’m just Dutch”…I want that on a t-shirt!!!