This is a guest post by Lucas Brailsford, based on his popular youtube video exploring why the Dutch cycle.
The Netherlands is the bicycle capital of the world. The Dutch make 4.5 billion trips by bicycle each year. And each cyclist travels an average of 878 kms annually. 84% of the population has at least one bicycle. This includes men, women, young, old, rich and poor.
This system is so efficient that in urban centres, trips made by bicycle are on average 5% faster than the same trips made by car. For a healthy population this is great because this form of transportation is free. It also provides freedom and accessibility and it offers an important means of exercise, with studies showing reductions in illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes and depression. Cycling also promotes social capital and belonging because it fosters interaction between people and their built environment. These are interactions that don’t seem to take place in the same way from the seat of a car.
This begs the question, how did the Dutch keep their cycling culture alive while so many other countries lost theirs?
Many people think the Dutch cycle just because they have designated bike lanes or because the country is so incredibly flat. Sure, these play a significant role, but maybe the most important reason for the Dutch cycling culture is actually overlooked. Bicycles were a major means of transportation up until the 1940s, but in the years following WWII road networks and highways were constructed across the Netherlands welcoming the age of the automobile.Dutch city planners approved routes for expressways leading directly into city centres to facilitate traffic, and in Amsterdam, demolition crews cleared large swathes of historic neighbourhoods to make room for intercity highways.
This is how the public reacted— A battle erupted between the government and the public over the construction of this automobile infrastructure and the increasing danger caused by cars for both cyclists and pedestrians and especially for children. After years of protest, the public eventually won and construction of urban highways ended. Politicians finally realized the important role that cycling had in society.
During all this chaos in the streets a quieter victory was also taking place. In the halls of power laws were passed that banned big box stores from being built on the outskirts of town. This seemingly small land use policy had a huge implication on the future of the country. Now development was pushed into city centres, and small-scale supermarkets and retail stores sprung up in most neighbourhoods. As urban density increased car ownership was optional, not mandatory because people could easily access all their basic needs by foot or bicycle.
The real lesson here for all the cities across the world trying to develop a similar bicycle culture is change requires two elements— a dedicated public outcry and forward-thinking policy. While protesters are an important catalyst for change the paper-pushing bureaucrats remain the true unsung heroes. So I’ll take this moment to give a well-deserved thank you to those protesters and paper pushers who unknowingly made the Netherlands such an accessible, healthy and open society. You left a pretty great legacy.
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