The Netherlands has more bikes than residents, with over 60% of its journeys powered by Dutch cyclists. In Amsterdam, a city with 400km of bike paths coursing through its ancient streets, the culture has been engrained into normality.
As with many of Northern Europe’s cycling hubs, the path to becoming one was not easy. In the 1950’s car ownership boomed in Holland and total journeys by bike dropped from 85% to just 20% in 1971. The government asked city councils to draw up plans for the motoring cities of the future, widening roads and pushing the ‘archaic’ bikes out.
But the explosion of cars brought with it greater destruction than just filled-in canals. In 1971 alone, over 3000 people lost their lives to motorists, 450 of them children.
‘Bike Street: Cars are guests’
For the Dutch People, the government’s motoring bubble had burst. A social movement emerged called ‘Stop de Kindermoord’ (Stop the Child Murder), led by a grieving journalist who demanded that motorists should be adapting to cyclists, not vice versa.
The tragedies were a watershed and the bicycle a solution - in early 1972 plans for major highways through and around Amsterdam’s historic core were rejected by its city council. When the Arab states cut the flow of oil to Europe the following year, even the politicians began to see sense.
From the early 70’s successive Dutch governments, buoyed up by popular demand, have spent billions on rebuilding and exceeding the robustness of their nation’s previous cycle network. What they’ve achieved is far from nostalgic; it’s a mature and inspired approach to travel and daily life.
Proficiency classes are compulsory in Dutch primary education. Multi-story ‘Bike Parks’ inform you when they are full, and politely direct you to the ‘Bike Barge’ bobbing on the bank of a nearby canal. True, Amsterdam’s small and flat geography perfectly suits bicycles, but the city’s success rests on more than just that.
Children raised in Amsterdam learn its natural cycling flow from the ‘bakfiets’ and handlebars of their parent’s bikes. Developing in this immersive culture dulls the people to how special it really is; there’s no subculture to define the boundaries of this national institution.
It’s so safe that helmets are rarely seen, and so convenient that most Dutch don’t even consider a daily 5km exercise. Old bikes aren’t viewed as useless relics but trusted friends. Like the bikes themselves, no age or class is excluded from cycling in a city that supports it.
The popularity of cycling in the Netherlands is a triumph of people power and common sense politics. Perhaps dauntingly for our own city, it shows just how hard reaching cycle paradise really is.More stories