A brief history of bicycles in the Netherlands
As a French person, the first thing I noticed when I come to the Netherlands is the incredible number of bikes in the streets. For the Dutch, it might be usual to see bikes everywhere in the city, but for a French person, it’s something surprising! After a few days of using my bike for every task, I asked myself : why do the Dutch use their bikes so often for short trips? Is there a historical reason? Is it just a question of city planning or of topography?
The first thing that come to the mind is maybe the topography of the Netherlands. The average altitude is 30 meters, whereas in France, it is about 375 meters. As a cyclist can only move with the strength of his or her muscles, all the factors which contribute to make his or her trip harder can discourage cycling. So, we may think that it explain the large uses of bikes in the Netherlands. In the reality, the Netherlands is also a very windy country. This is also a factor that make a bicycle trip harder. So the argument of topography is not sufficient to explain the popularity of bicycling among Dutch people.
In the next paragraph I will explore the history of bicycle use in the Netherlands. In order to explain this Dutch “cultural exception”, this investigation will be put in a European context and I will compare some points to other European countries.
The modern bicycle is the result of a long evolution since the german “Laufmaschine” (literally “running machine”, also called in English “a draisine” or “a dandy horse”) invented by Karl Drais in 1817. The modern bicycle with a chain and tubed tyres appeared in the 1880’s with the help of some brilliant British inventors like Henry Lawson (for the chain), John K. Starley (for the two wheels of the same size), and John Boyd Dunlop (for the tubed tyres).
At that time in most European countries, the bicycle was mainly used by rich people because of its high price. Gradually it became more popular among the working class. This evolution was the result of a cheaper manufacturing process due to mass production and also of an increase of the standard of living among the working class. Throughout Western Europe, the use of bicycles grew and everyone used them to go to work and to do shopping.
The first use of bicycles in the Netherlands was for tourism. It was considered to be a way to discover the country. Another objective pursued was to promote the nation and its values in Europe, especially against the unified Germany of Bismarck, which had become a powerful nation.
In most of European countries, the bicycle became, between the First and the Second World Wars, a popular means of moving among the working-class, whereas the bourgeois gradually began to use cars.
In the Netherlands, the situation was slightly different. For the royal family since Queen Wilhelmina, it was and it is already a means to show their closeness to Dutch citizens. One interesting little story is about the expression “la petite reine”, an oft-used nickname for the bicycle. This expression comes from Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, who was a great fan of bicycling. It was given to her as a nickname when she came to France in 1898. With time, this expression ceased to be used to name the person on the bicycle, but the bicycle itself. Another supposition is that this expression came from the book of Pierre Giffard : “La reine bicyclette”.
In all of Western Europe, the arrival of cars announced the beginning of the decrease of bicycle practice. This trend began between the two World Wars for the upper class and after the War for other classes. Due to some historical reasons, the situation in the Netherlands was a bit different.
Before World War I, the Netherlands imported all their bikes from foreign countries. During the conflict, the country stayed neutral and it was trapped between the United Kingdom and Germany. It was also affected by the British embargo on German products. Because of this embargo, there was no more fuel for cars, especially for those used by the Dutch upper class. As a result, they were forced to rediscover the bicycle and use it again for daily trips. The embargo also forced the Netherlands to develop its own bike industry. It lead to the current famous Dutch bike with its utilitarian vocation. So, during World War I, the majority of Dutch citizens used their bike to get around. For this reason, as well as lobbying from strong bicycle associations, the government decided to develop bicycle paths and created separate cycle facilities.
In 1924, the economic situation of the Netherlands was not the best a country could expect. Because of the increasing number of cars, the government had to develop the road network, but there was not enough money to do this. A tax on bicycles was introduced, but the different bicycle associations thought that this was not a fair tax and felt that this tax would be a problem for poor people. As a result of this protesting, the government accepted that all the new roads built or renovated must be equipped with a bicycle path. This measure was really efficient. In this way, in 1938 for the 6,120 km of road there are at that time in the Netherlands, there were 2,675 km of bicycle path.
These Dutch specificities went on to contribute, after the Second World War, to delaying the decline of bicycle use.
In some countries like France or Germany, car manufacturing before World War II created several models of cheap cars. After the war, they began mass production of those models. This contributed to the democratization of cars at the expense of bicycle use. In the Netherlands, the situation was a bit different. The country had no car industry, which delayed the massive use of cars and maintained the use of bikes as a daily means of transport. To give an example, the number of cars in the Netherlands was 2.5 times lower per inhabitant than in France until the beginning of the 60’s. This fact is decisive in the Dutch Bicycle story, and in particular when the government decided to promote bicycle use.
During the “glorious thirty”, the Netherlands didn’t escape the European trend. From 1950 to 1978, the practice of biking was divided by 2.7. This figure is huge and it is comparable to the one in other European countries. However, the beginning situation in the Netherlands was better than in other countries (the level of practice was higher than, for example, France) and the fall start later mainly because of the lack of a car industry.
During the 60’s and the 70’s, in all of Western Europe, cities were designed for the cars. As a result, cyclists and pedestrians were often forgotten in new infrastructures. Again, the Netherlands stood out from other European countries by creating some pedestrian areas in the city-center of some cities. In 1953, Rotterdam was probably one of the first city in the Netherlands to create such a zone. At the end of the Sixties, fifteen Dutch cities had decided to set up pedestrian areas. But it didn’t prevent the decline of bicycle practice during these two decades. Even if throughout Western Europe, bicycling went up with the oil crisis in 1973, in the Netherland, the lowest point was achieved in 1978.
During the Sixties, some protest movements appeared against the growing number of cars and the nuisances they caused. In Amsterdam, in 1965, the “Provo” movement imagined getting rid of all the cars and giving all citizens a bicycle for free. At that time, it was considered to be something of a joke, but among some transportation specialists, the idea to control and limit the circulation of cars began to appear in their thought.
On the 4th of June, 1977, during World Bike Day, 9,000 cyclists protested in Amsterdam and in some other European cities. They wanted better infrastructures for cyclists, the interruption of the building of cars park in the city center, and the obligation for car drivers to park their cars in the suburbs. From the beginning, their demands were not only about infrastructures for cyclists but also about car regulation especially in the city center. Other associations, like parents of student associations, feared for their children. With the growing number of cars, the road to school became more dangerous for pupils. Each accident provided an opportunity to revive the debate about the impact of car traffic on local life.
With the creation of a cyclist association (“fietsersbond”) to defend the rights of the cyclists in 1975, some Dutch began to imagine ways to regulate the circulation of cars.
With the different protest movements, some young Dutch engineers began to imagine a new way of making roads. They created in Delft the first “woonerf”, which is a street where only cars of the inhabitants are allowed at a very slow speed and where children can play in the street without being worried by traffic. With the success of this planning, this kind of street was also developed in Gouda and then all over the country. It contributed to keeping the districts calm and safe. It was one of the first attempts, and successful at that, to limit the circulation of cars. These “woonerf” were officialized by law in 1976. This arrangement became very popular and there were over 2,700 zones like this in the Netherlands in 1983. But they were very long and expensive to build. Some cities prefered to create a “thirty kilometer per hour” zone. With these initiatives and probably also because of the oil crisis, cycling increased by 30% from 1978 to 1983.
In this context, the Dutch authorities began to react. In 1974, they decided to fund at 100% two “pilot cities”: The Hague and Tilburg. The aim was to show if it was possible to create a “bicycle-friendly city” by building priority lines to come and pass throughout the city in safety. The results were very encouraging for the city of Tilburg, but more mixed for The Hague (because such planning is difficult to set up in a bigger city).
The new cities of Almere (built starting in 1976) and Lelystad (built starting in 1967), were built from the beginning for bicycles. On the major streets, the authorities applied the “separation” principle. It meant that bicycle paths were built alongside these road in order to protect cyclists from the danger of high speed car circulation. In the heart of districts, authorities applied the principle of “integration” (or “cohabitation”). No bicycle path were built; the cyclist had to ride on the road with cars, but vehicule speed was reduced to thirty kilometers per hour.
In the city center, transit circulation was progressively forbidden, like in the city of Groningen starting in 1977. The general principle was to build dedicated paths along the main roads and to decrease circulation on minor roads. The parking of cars was also regulated in the city center. On highways, passages were build each 500 meters to avoid the “cut-off effect”.
All the means discussed in the last section were mostly successful and the Netherlands became a pioneer in term of bicycle policy. Many countries will follow the Dutch example when they will decide to change their transport policy in favour of bikes.
Some other arguments can be added to explain this pioneer role. The Netherlands is a flat and densely populated country. It means that urban spread is limited: a cyclist will have access by bike to more services than in other countries. Furthermore, the nature of the soil (sand) forces the authorities to renovate regularly the roads. When renovation occurs, bicycle paths are incorporate. It allows a faster evolution in road structures.
The Dutch have a strong urban culture. Urbanization is ancient. In 1650, half of the two million inhabitants in the former United Provinces lived in cities. The city is made of low houses attached to one another. The road in front of the house is thought of as a part of the house where children can play. The virulent reaction of the Dutch people is more understandable because cars threatened this art of living.
Another specificity of the Netherlands is the number of middle sized cities. Those cities are often not well equipped in public transportation and the distance between the home and the workplace is regularly short. This is another argument in favour of cycling. For those who work far from their home, they can use the rail network, which is very dense, and then use their bike: the complementarity between these two means of transport is well developed in the Netherlands.
All these cultural and historical reason also contributed to a fast resurgence of bike use in the Netherlands. Then the authorities created strong policies to pursue the development of bike infrastructures and the first initiatives for traffic reduction.
The various traffic reduction policies dating back to beginning of the seventies had a great effect. From 1978 to 1985, there were 30% more trips done by bike. This success encouraged the authorities to pursue the development of bicycle infrastructures and their efforts in terms of traffic reduction. The number of bikes continued to increase, and because of the “mass effect”, there was a decrease in the number of accidents. A virtuous circle began: because it was safer to ride a bike, there were more and more bicycles, which contributed to the safety of other cyclists. The authorities follow this trend and continue to develop and maintain the bicycle network.
For the roads with a maximum speed limit of thirty kilometers per hour, they are often paved with red bricks in order to facilitate their renovation. Other roads are made of asphalt. It contributes, for the a car driver, to a better readability of the space: they know the speed limit thanks to the color of the road. In old cities with narrow streets, the building of separated bicycle path is very difficult. It is often preferable to build bike lanes or just limit the speed of cars. Like this, all the user of the road can share it.
In 1990, the first national bicycle plan (“Masterplan Fiets”) fixed objectives in term of safety, development of bicycle use, intermodality between the bike and the public transport system, and in terms of the reduction of bike theft. Some guides were written in order to help the municipality to build bike infrastructures and also to help cyclists in their daily life (for example, to park their bike and avoid theft).
Since 1995, some fiscal laws also encourage the Dutch to go to work by bike. They can deduct from their taxable income about 750 euros each three years in order to buy a bike. There is also a kilometric allowance of 0.19 euro per kilometer for those who use their bike from home to work.
In 1998, a first 7 kilometer long “bicycle highway” was built between Breda and Etten-Leur. With its success among the inhabitants, other similar projects appeared throughout the country. The government announced in 2009 a vast plan costing 25 million euros to connect the main cities of the country with high speed bicycle paths (“fietssnelwegen”).
In the overall history of bicycles in Europe, the Netherlands is a special case. Since the beginning, the elite of the nation have relied on this means of transport to claim their difference in Europe. The most convincing example is probably the use of bicycles by the royal family which was, and still is to this day, a bit unusual.
After the World Wars, the Netherlands followed the European trend of the massive use of cars. Due to some historical and fortuitous reasons, the decline in bike use was not as significant as in other countries.
During the Sixties and the Seventies, the civil society stood up against the “all car policy”. From 1978 onward, thanks to some citizens’ initiatives and also thanks to a strong involvement of the government in favour of bikes, the Netherlands became one of the first nations to stop the fall of bike use.
This lead to the current situation, where when a foreigner thinks of the Netherlands, the first thing which comes to mind is this culture of bicycling. Today, the Netherlands is probably the best example of a nation that combines both a high level of practice and high infrastructures quality.
This is called the phenomenon of safety in numbers: it means that the more cyclists there are, the safer they are. That’s why nowadays it is three times more dangerous to get around by bike in France than in the Netherlands. Some studies have also shown that the more cyclists there are, the less accidents there are.
HERRAN, Frederic, Le retour de la bicyclette. La Découverte/Poche, August 2015. 255 p.
Cycling in Holland [Consulted 21 september 2016] http ://www.cyclinginholland.com/index.php/dutch-cycling-culture.html
Blog Velib Paris [Consulted 24 september 2016] http ://blog.velib.paris.fr/blog/2015/01/09/pourquoi-tant-de-cyclistes-aux-pays-bas/