With cycling and urban design, should Ireland follow the Netherlands or Denmark?

COMMENT & ANALYSIS: It can be sometimes hard to get across to people why I think Ireland should follow the Netherlands rather than Denmark in cycling and urban design… when I try to explain, “I’d settle for Copenhagen” is often the reply.

Or it’s dismissed as “just details” which can be worked out.

A video titled “Copenhagen is Great … but it’s not Amsterdam” is one of the latest published by ‘Not Just Bikes’, a YouTube channel.

The video gives a broad overview of why the Dutch modal of cycling and urban design is the better one to follow.

Not to be cliched, but it’s really not just about bikes — the differences are broader, including more trees and wide-ranging traffic calming.

The only problem with the video is that Not Just Bike concludes that the Copenhagen model can be a stepping stone to what the Netherlands has — there’s two main problems with this especially for an Irish context: (1) Copenhagen still isn’t making the jump to being more like the Netherlands and if we follow them for 10 years we’re unlikely to as well, and (2) we don’t have their huge roads.

Even with Copenhagen’s generally larger roads, Not Just Bike describes the cycling infrastructure there as feeling as tacked on.

Mark from BicycleDutch also compared both approaches in his post titled “Is Copenhagen a City of Cyclists?” in 2018.

A key point in the result of the differences is in a caption:

“The girl in the pink coat was one of the few children I saw cycling in the city. I was in the city on a Thursday until late afternoon, a Saturday and a Sunday, days you would expect to see children cycling, but I didn’t. I saw more children in a cargo bike than there were on their own bicycle.”

This is BicycleDutch’s video:

On the basics of the differences in cycling and street design make sure to also check out Robert Weetman’s blog posts (1, 2, 3) on the issue compare the UK to Denmark and the Netherlands — the Irish street and road design is basically UK design with few differences.

Weetman uses really helpful and easy to understand diagrams, like this one and he also has images of the treatments used on different streets of types and sizes.

ADDED: ‬‪This tweet from the guys at Modacity — authors of the great book ‘Building the Cycling City: The Dutch Blueprint for Urban Vitality’ — sums up a lot.

Although, the ‘ban cars’ part of the graphic they share is best read as ‘restrict car’, ie in a Dutch context it would include some bus/bike and bike only streets, but it would more often include streets where cars only use for access to their homes, where rat running is blocked and streets are more than just for transport.

Conclusion:

The Netherlands is not perfect and not everything in Dutch cycling infrastructure should be copied, but the overall approach is far better than Denmark in terms of cycling safety and comfort, making space for other things like trees and asking questions around the politics of space.

On the politics of space it has to be said that the system in the Netherlands is better than that in Denmark at asking about the politics of space.

The Dutch vary in how successful they are at asking the questions around how they use street and road space — in some cases, they got it wrong in some cases 30 years ago or more and left it that way for decades, and cities and regions differ in how successful they are.

Politics of space is a messy business. A key advantage the Dutch have is their systematic approach — from building cycle networks that doesn’t just include cycle paths on large roads, to “sustainable” or systematic safety which starts by asking the function of different roads and streets and designing them accordingly.

That approach doesn’t stop at the edge of towns — the Dutch systematic approach includes rural areas too.

If we go with the Denmark approach we already know what happens when you try to just tack cycle paths onto a city with a road network which is generally narrower.

Choose wisely.

I am editor of IrishCycle.com and have reported on and commented on cycling in Ireland for over a decade. My background is in journalism -- I have a BA in Journalism from DCU and HDip in Print Journalism from BCFE. I wrote about cycling for national newspapers, and then started CyclingInDublin.com for overflow stories. Later the website was re-branded to reflect a more national focus.

2 Comments

  1. I never really understood why Copenhagen is considered the top cycling city that can serve as an example to all other cities. As a Belgian, when I visited it a few years ago I did not see any difference with large Belgian cities. Most of those cities have now greatly overtaken Copenhagen. Even cities in other counties are now better.

    I am glad the genie is out of the bottle and we are coming to the realisation that the Dutch figured it out decades ago. Their holistic approach to cycling is truly remarkable and are the example to follow

  2. Regardless of whether we should be following Amsterdam or Copenhagen (and I agree with you on NL), we need to stop copying UK road design and UK traffic modelling.

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