How the Dutch got their cycle paths

A key reason the Netherlands has the highest level of cycling for day-to-day transport in the world is its extensive network of high quality, safe bicycle paths. But it wasn’t always like that – the key message of this video (see exhibit) is that most of the bicycle network was built from the mid-1970s onward.

The implication is there’s no special “Dutch” factor that makes the Netherlands experience unique or non-replicable. Other countries who’re prepared to follow the same strategy should also expect to generate a huge increase in the use of bicycles as a means of transport.

Up until the 1970s the Netherlands, like everywhere else in the developed world, was being re-shaped to accommodate the car. However there was a significant change in direction around that time. Cycling was prioritised over cars as a matter of conscious and deliberate policy and authorities started to build segregated bike paths.

An interesting and potentially very useful question for policy-making is why the Netherlands changed course in the mid 70s and other countries – like Australia – didn’t. The video posits three key explanations for the change in direction taken by the Dutch.

First, there was “public outrage” over the number of buildings being demolished and the amount of space given over to cars for roads and parking.

Second, there were an “intolerable” number of road deaths. In 1971, 3,300 lives were lost on Dutch roads, over 400 of them children under 14 years of age.

Third, the oil crisis of 1973 was severe, resulting in gas shortages and high energy prices that “halted” the country.

Mikael Colville-Anderson, a writer for Copenhagenize, says Denmark had a similar history.

The energy crisis in 1973 hit Denmark hard. Very hard.  ….A groundswell of public discontent started to form. People wanted to be able to ride their bikes again – safely.  .…Protests took place…..we started to rebuild our cycle track network in the early 1980s

Of course these same forces also affected other developed countries. In 1971, Australia had a similar population to the Netherlands (12.8 million vs 13 million) and recorded a similar number of road deaths (3,590 vs 3,300). However there were some key differences between the two countries.

There was an outcry in the 60s and 70s about road deaths in Australia too, but it resulted in pressure to make cars safer, not a popular call to suppress them or to find safer alternatives. Victoria is reputed to be the first jurisdiction in the world to make seat belts compulsory in cars.

Perhaps the impact of cars was felt more keenly in the older, narrower streets of Dutch cities than it was in Australia, which even prior to WW2 was largely a suburban nation. It seems plausible the cost of rising car use would’ve been more obvious and tangible in a very old city like Amsterdam, which was a world centre well before any Australian cities were even built.

Coal-fired power stations and Bass Strait oil probably insulated Australia better from the 1970s oil shocks. For example, there wasn’t a “car free Sunday” here as the video says there was in the Netherlands.

Nor did we turn every second street light off as was the case in Denmark. The energy crises of the 70s seem to have had a bigger impact on lifestyles in Europe – and to be perceived as a bigger economic threat – than they had in Australia.

But perhaps the key reason Australia didn’t follow the same path as the Netherlands or Denmark is suggested elsewhere in the video. It’s evident cycling was already a major form of transport in the Netherlands. Prior to WW2, cyclists “out-numbered other traffic by far” and there were even cycle paths. While the paths weren’t up to today’s best practice, the one in the video is better than many in present-day Australia!

The same strong cycling tradition was also true of Denmark. Even at its all-time low in 1960, says Mikael Colville-Anderson, “the percentage of the population using bicycles for transportation” was 10% – that’s much higher than in Australia where it’s been well below 1% for at least the least fifty years. And as the quote above shows, Denmark also had bicycle infrastructure prior to widespread car ownership.

The much lower level of petrol taxation in Australia in the 70s compared to European countries, as well as the considerably more dispersed urban form of our major cities, doubtless also helps explain why bicycles were never taken seriously as a transport option here.

But what about Australia today? On the face of it, we would seem to be more receptive now to cycling as a means of transport – and most importantly as an alternative to cars – than we were in the 1970s. Yet the outlook for a significant increase in investment in bicycle infrastructure is gloomy.

Cycling still only accounts for 1% of journey’s-to-work, just as it did in 1976. As Paul Mees explains, bicycles make up 2% of work trips to the CBD in Melbourne, but a miniscule proportion of work trips in the suburbs where the great bulk of the jobs are located. The use of bicycles for non-work transport purposes (as distinct from recreation) is still tiny.

On the evidence of the video, the key lesson from the Netherlands experience is the importance of popular pressure. A groundswell of public opposition to cars and widespread support for cycling drove the political reorientation toward investing in bicycle infrastructure.

We don’t have that sort of popular pressure in contemporary Australia. We have a compelling warrant in environmental and other terms to invest more in cycling, but it doesn’t touch the everyday lives of people in the way the events of the 60s and 70s affected the Dutch and Danes. In fact there’s a good chance the electorate will shortly vote to abolish even the carbon tax!

Still, the positive message from the experience of Amsterdam and Copenhagen is that they’ll very likely come if the infrastructure is built in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide, Hobart, and so on (and see the supporting research on that point). The real challenge is identifying the circumstances that’ll get governments to re-orient their priorities, though I suspect the Dutch experience is only of limited value on that score.