Urban Cycling Myths

The Netherlands and Denmark are celebrated the world over for their cycling culture. They form key locations for my research; and with similar geographical conditions to the UK, provide the ideal case studies. Although urban cycling in these areas is a function of their unique cultural, historical and political situation, this does not make them unique and inimitable. Despite this, cycling myths regarding the unique propensity of these places to accommodate urban cycling abound, and are often propagated as excuses why other countries cannot have similarly high levels. I will examine each of these myths, disprove them, and then look at how these ideas have helped contribute to the production of substandard infrastructure in the UK.


Myth #1 – Density

Whereas the Netherlands is one of the most densely populated countries in Europe, in terms of its towns and cities, both smaller and larger settlements are often of a similar population density to the U.K.  A brief comparison of the population densities in the top cycling cities of the UK and The Netherlands can illustrate the point that cycling is not dependent on particularly dense levels of population, or conversely on a particularly dispersed population. Groningen, with a density of 2,535/km2 (Statistics NL, 2015) has one of the highest levels of cycling in the Netherlands and in the world at 61% of all trips (Guardian, 2015). On the other hand, Cambridge, the most popular city for biking in the UK, claims to have 20% of all journeys made by bike, but with a similar low density of 3,193 (ONS, 2011). These two cities have other similarities, holding high student populations and a similarly flat landscape, but due to factors other than density have very different levels of urban cycling.

These figures can also be compared and contrasted with those of Copenhagen, which manages to have high cycling rates at an even lower density, and Tokyo, which maintains relatively high levels of cycling in a dense city through a completely different urban cycling culture. Along with density, a correlation is often thought to exist between short commute times and a prevalence of cycle use. However, aswell as having a similar settlement density to the UK, commute times are also not wildly different in the Netherlands. One report even suggests that the Dutch have the longest daily commute of all European nations; spending an average of one and a half hours en route each day (2016).


City Density (people per km2) Cycling Modal Share (%)
Copenhagen 1,850 22
Cambridge 3,193 20
Groningen 2535 61
Tokyo 6158 14

Table 2 showing modal share and density (Tokyo by bike, 2014), (Tokyo Metropolitan Government, 2015).


Myth #2 – A Flat Landscape


The lack of hills is also often cited as a reason why the Netherlands and Copenhagen can be so conducive to cycling as urban transport – which is true to an extent – and certainly makes cycling more appealing to less confident cyclists. However, this flatness also creates other environmental challenges to contend with, like strong headwinds, which are notorious for creating difficult cycling. In fact, they even have a competition, the ‘Dutch Headwind Cycling Championships’, in which competitors must ride city bikes against the wind that lashes off the North Sea.


A competitor in the Dutch Headwind Cycling Championships / Image from twimg.com



This line of argument can also be disputed through a look at the geography of the Netherlands, some of which is in fact hilly, like South Limburg, which retains a high proportion of journeys made by cycle. Maastricht, the capital of Limburg, has a cycling rate similar to the rest of the Netherlands. Examples also abound of cycling in towns and cities in hillier regions across the world – including Montreal, which is number 20 in the ‘Copenhagenize Index’, a measure of bicycle friendliness conducted by the Copenhagenize design company.


Hilly South Limburg / Image from valkenhorst.nl


One can also look to history to disprove this argument, as although Britain’s roads have changed over time, its geographical conditions have remained the same. Yet in 1949, over 30% of journeys were made by cycle (Critical mass London, 2011), a similar level to the Netherlands. Regarding extremes of temperature, in the Netherlands cycling continues in the depths of winter and the heights of summer, and often provides a way to escape the heat of the summer or create body warmth during winter. Its ease and accessibility can be demonstrated by the amount of pensioners that cycle, often using electric bikes, the sale of which has risen in recent years (Dutch News, 2015). These are also a popular way to negate the strain caused by hills.


Severe hills can also be negated with pioneering infrastructure like this Bicycle lift in Trondheim, Norway. / Image from imgiz.com



Myth #3 – Wide Streets

It is not the size of the street that allows for high levels of cycling, but the prioritization. As I will later demonstrate through closer examination of my case studies of Groningen and Houten, treatments such as filtered permeability, or one-way restrictions for motor vehicles, create a system that prioritizes the bicycle. In fact the Dutch have long recognised the value of different tracks for different road users, and this was even commented on with an animal metaphor in a Dutch Newspaper at the end of the 19th Century.

Beavers, the only warm-blooded animals which habitually do heavy transport by land, provide for all contingencies by cutting ‘rolling ways,’ biting off all stumps and obstacles, and do their log-rolling along these towards the water…Thus beavers have three kinds of roads, their ordinary tracks near the water, their canals, and the log-rolling roads…Variety of roads is a mark of progress among the beasts as among men. Even in Europe there are many degrees of this exhibition of civilisation. The Dutch are the representatives of the beavers among men. On the route from the Hague to Scheveningen, for instance, there lie parallel to each other a carriage road, a canal, a bicycle track, a light railway, side-paths regularly constructed…”  Spectator, 1898



Image from gizmodo.com


The ‘Hovenring’, Eindhoven, A ‘floating’ cycle roundabout that consists of a steel deck allowing cyclists to ride above the highway.