Netherlands not a ‘Bicycle Paradise’ — shift in thinking needed to follow Dutch cycling-friendliness

— Identifying mechanisms of change is a precondition for ‘copying’ Dutch cycling.

COMMENT & ANALYSIS / LONG READ: Around the world, there are people who just want to be able to cycle safely in their towns and cities, but why’s it so hard to follow best international practices?

IMAGE: Much as is happening in today’s crisis, in the 1970s, Dutch police stopped cars and checked if it was essential to travel on car-free Sundays implemented due to the Oil Crisis (Image: Nationaal Archief).

Some people are “disappointed at their achievements relative to cycle-oriented cities in The Netherlands, Denmark and elsewhere”, said a ‘call for papers’ for Velo-City Dublin conference in 2005. At the time, Dutch cycling expert André Pettinga wrote a reply — his paper is still relevant today. It’s maybe even more relevant now at a time of change. After all, it took a shock to the system to help the Dutch to start to move away from car-focused urban design.

This article is a heavily shortened version of André Pettinga’s paper:

Learning from Dutch ‘Cycling Laboratory’

Visitors to the Netherlands are quite surprised to see such intensive use of bicycles and how cycling is not limited by status, gender, or age. Returned from the Netherlands to their cities and towns many seem to become paralysed and don’t know where to start: Cycling first or infrastructure first? Focus on cyclists or focus on politicians?

Many politicians, planners, and cyclists from abroad consider the Netherlands a ‘Bicycle Paradise’. I prefer to assess the Netherlands as a ‘Modern Cycling Lab’. In this laboratory, a wide variety of cycling items can be seen and experienced, and cycling issues are constantly bubbling there.

Visitors to the ‘Dutch Cycling Lab’ have different backgrounds, and they come from Europe, from other continents and even more and more from developing countries. Each of their home towns, cities, and countries has its own stage of cycling — introduction, expansion or improvement of cycling. Different stages ask for different policies and different action plans. The transferability highly depends on the right assessment of the stage of cycling practice and the acceptance of the potential role of cycling in any policy action.

Every visitor also has defined their own constraints, their own perceptions need to be taken into account before they can take away ‘success stories’ from the Netherlands.

Cycling paradox

There is a paradox in cycling provision: Cyclists do not need much room: therefore in many situations we don’t give them any. Cyclists can move quickly in towns and cities: therefore we often introduce detours. The bicycle movement radius is physically limited: therefore we plan housing areas at long distances from schools, offices and shopping malls. And in the end some researchers even dear to ask us why we don’t use the bicycle.

How to create a cycling friendly urban environment? Urban conditions can be justified as ‘cycle-friendly’ if a human being of any age feels safe and comfortable enough to use their bicycle, under varying social and economic circumstances.

This does not necessarily apply to cycle facilities only. On the contrary, the real challenge in urban areas is to leave out as much as possible ‘cycle-only facilities’ and to improve ‘the integrated quality’ by adapting areas, routes (road sections plus intersections, streets) and spots (including squares). Cycle-friendly urban infrastructure is more than just cycling-only infrastructure.

If cycle facilities are implemented they must be carefully harmonised with the characteristics of cyclists. Some of these characteristics are very different from those of motorised vehicles and their drivers. Cyclists are vulnerable road users, have narrow wheels and no suspension, are impatient and avoid detours and are a very heterogeneous group.

The planner and engineer of any cycle-friendly infrastructure — be it separated from or integrated with other urban transport functions — should be familiar with the behavioural limitations and technical possibilities of both cyclist and bicycle. The cyclist is driver, acrobat and propulsion all at the same time.

IMAGE: In the living cycling lab, cycling design elements such as “floating” bus stops, and cars protecting cycle paths are commonplace on main roads and streets.

Cycling’s five main requirements

The characteristics and demands of an urban ‘cycle-cyclist system’ are embodied in five main requirements:

  • Road safety: the (cycling) infrastructure must maximise or prioritise the road safety of cyclists in relation to other road users.
  • Coherence: the (cycling) infrastructure must form a coherent and continuous unit, linking all origin and destination points for cyclists.
  • Directness: the (cycling) infrastructure must offer as direct a route as possible, keeping any detour to a minimum. Likewise, time delays at intersections, because policies such as of waiting for motor vehicles, must be kept to a minimum.
  • Attractiveness: the (cycling) infrastructure must be planned and built in a way that makes cycling attractive, by day and by night, in good and bad weather.
  • Comfort: the (cycling) infrastructure must ensure a quick and comfortable flow of bicycle traffic.

As a consequence, any ‘cycling inclusive’ urban plan must identify opportunities for cycle-friendly development and bring about suggestions and options for practical interventions. Urban change in favour of cycling needs to be provided for in planning schemes. Moving from one phase to the next phase is a crucial decision-making moment; in fact, it is a policy action opportunity.

There are opportunities to switch to cycling-friendly plans, housing plans, parks, offices, business areas, new roads, tunnels, railways, and so on. Every town and city has plenty of these crucial planning moments. One of the most common examples is renovating or implementing a sewerage pipe in an urban road. As part of the reinstatement, the local government could easily provide traffic calming or another cycling-friendly design.

IMAGE: Dutch cities filter or limit motor traffic on smaller streets both in urban centre and residential areas in a number of ways including making streets one-way only for motorists, narrowing streets, fully removing cars, and using bollards (as pictured).

5Es of interventions

The interventions could be summarised as five different themes (5Es):

  • Experimenting – scaling up: if interventions are effective and efficient on a micro level, they generally will be effective on macro level; scaling up and down is an important planning instrument; experimenting is not limited to engineering but can also be of legal, financial etc character.
  • Engineering – manuals: technical interventions have to be of non-morised-friendly type; they can successfully be copied from other cities and towns and retrofitted, if not compromised.
  • Enforcement – safe/secure: the precondition for interventions within local context is that they will be attractive enough for users without enforcement by officials.
  • Enhancement – modal diversity: this means no car-dominance and therefore a balanced use of all modes of urban transport, non-motorised and motorised, because that has been proven to remove many of the quality constraints of public space. A necessity here is a well run and accessible public transport system.
  • Education – capacity building: interventions can be characterised as newly planned (built) or meant for retrofitting in existing urban areas, (can be unplanned areas as well); planning and engineering education programmes within and outside existing governmental organizations must make this distinction.

The five main requirements simply state: cycling should be respected as modern mode of transport, cycling is part of modal diversity. These requirements can be applied anywhere.

Dilemmas on the use of public space

Of course, planning and engineering are always confronted with dilemmas on the use of public space. The question of whether enough space is available for retrofitting or including cycling facilities is the wrong one. This question is mostly raised by planners and engineers who first donated urban space to cars.

The key question is how much space are we allocating to the various modes of transport in relation to other public functions? How do we facilitate accessibility for all people? How do different modes of transport contribute to the kind of public space and accessibility we want? So, we should set priorities for the different requirements of different modes of transport and balance them against our ambitions for public space.

If urban change seriously implies goals and targets for saving expensive urban space, for avoiding traffic noise and saving energy and natural resources, cycling does contribute to urban change. Simply because the use of motor vehicles (private cars) is replaced by cycling, without losing levels of household mobility. Cycling needs an improvement of the urban environment (if not yet available), and, at the same time, cycling contributes to the improvement of the urban environment.

Cities where governments have decided to give more public space (roads, streets, squares) to cycling, in turn, provide more room for social encounters and recreational activities. In these places, the overall accessibility for all citizens has improved. Car-oriented road and street planning does not support social security, although many people think they are safe in their machines.

I cannot deny that, even in the Netherlands, much can and should be improved to meet the requirements for cycling. But what others can learn from the Netherlands is that we impose less ideology on motorised mobility (private cars) versus non-motorised mobility (cycling) than other countries. Relatively the Dutch are more pragmatic and have a more functional approach towards transportation aims for the society.

IMAGE: “Bicycle streets” is an imported idea from the Dutch’s Belgian neighbors but now widely implemented to different levels of success across the Netherlands.

In the 70s and 80s, many Dutch cities developed Traffic Circulation Plans (in Dutch VCPs). Endorsement of such multi-modal plans for a period of 10 years was a condition to qualify for (re-)construction subsidies. The budget came from two targeted national funds: one for cycling infrastructure and one for public transport infrastructure.

Cycling expertise does not come to existence out of the blue, it is a (integrated) specialism, the development of which needs to be driven by a ‘market mechanism’. The famous Dutch national programme for providing for cycling (Masterplan Fiets) in the 1990s had a great impact on the level of debate on cycling policies and best practices.

In fact the broad series of debates, on-street-experiments, new data collection, developing of cycling manuals new style (including for cycle parking), and so on, in fact, has delivered three main items. It brought new arguments for integrated cycling policies, new cycling expertise and instruments.

Elements of ‘Dutch Cycling Lab’ can be applied elsewhere

The Netherlands shows a sustainable source of cycling expertise and experts. Many flavours and colours from the Dutch Cycling Lab can be applied elsewhere:

Traffic calming: A culture of carefully prepared experiments with urban infrastructure and mobility. Many housing developments nowadays are based on experiments and experiences with traffic calming.

Quality of life: No hard borders between public and private premises, transparency in housing areas, no gated communities, no fencing/walls, no dead-end streets (cul-de-sac) for walking and cycling.

Treatment of public space: Integrating of rainwater storage and greening in housing and business areas in combination with walking and cycling facilities are highly appreciated.

Urban management: Each local authority applies a yearly budget for maintenance of public utilities and services, including cleaning and repairing cycling-only infrastructure. Treatment of cycling issues in assignment and tender procedures and getting building permits.

Central business district traffic management: Dividing town and city centre into sectors with borders which can be crossed by pedestrians and cyclists where the private car has make a planned detour.

Levy-system: Housing developers have to contribute financially to area-wide services, including cycling-friendly roads and streets.

Integrated spatial planning approach: Completion of local cycling networks in city plans, land use framework plans and area action plans. Traffic and transport paragraphs are obligatory in legal spatial planning documents.

Bicycle parking: A wide variety of parking facilities from open-air to safe-guarded in-house cycle parking facilities. Some are obligatory based on a national by-law for local governments in providing building permits. Local experimenting with size of bicycle parking facilities (mini-midi-maxi) and parking free-of-charge, financially backed-up by car parking revenues.

Manual development: In The Netherlands civil engineers have to use special cycling manuals. This has caused a shift from applying strict standards towards a set of criteria for the design, implementation and auditing of cycling friendliness. Planners and engineers have developed road categorisation rules and integrated flow charts for co-operation in the urban planning and designing process.

New research: Economic impact of nationwide recreational cycling (long-distance cycling routes, car restricted wetland islands).

Public transport: Central government supported financially doubling capacity of cycle parking facilities at 60% of all railway stations.

Schools: Introduction of a new generation of experimental projects to restore safe-routes-to-school.

Bicycle shops: A country wide system of bicycle dealers (shopkeepers), provided by high-quality bicycles from (mainly Dutch) bicycle factories.

The Dutch Cycling Lab delivers arguments for integrated cycling policies, cycling planning and engineering expertise and a variety of planning instruments and concepts. Typical Dutch concepts successfully applied in The Netherlands are:

  • road sharing and traffic calming
  • integrating public transport (train, tram and bus) and cycling
  • reducing public space for private car parking
  • integration of various water and green features in planning
  • transparent accessibility for walking and cycling in housing areas (no gated communities)

Variety in concepts, ideas, designs, criteria, policies, fact finding etc in the Cycling Lab is crucial. Unity and applying traditional standards do not contribute enough to sustainability.

‘Cyclemotions’ — a shift in thinking

IMAGE: A shift in thinking to another level allows actions such as Utrecht removing a central motorway and refilling it with water (image from 2015, work now nearly finished).

Favourable social and economic circumstances are the best promoters for cycle usage. Cycling policy, therefore (also), should be embedded in non-transport sectors. Cycling policies can never be successful if only presented and financed as separate policies.

Based on the Dutch Cycling Lab, I can define a new challenge: three shifts in planning for cycling are necessary.

Shift from a social point of view: In an urbanising society the cyclists should not have to fight for good public space treatment. Consequently it should be self-evident that modern urban management governments and urban designers should include the basic needs of safe and comfortable cycling.

Shift from a technical point of view: To improve the learning curve urban planners and engineers need to move away from applying fixed (and copied) standards towards defining cycling oriented requirements and even further to integrated ‘decision making trees’. We need to develop a discipline or profession of ‘cycling inclusive’ urban designers.

Shift from an economical point of view: Cycling potential in many town and cities is highly underestimated due to the fact that cycling mostly is just seen as a ‘transport’ issue, and not truly integrated both in transport sectors and other policy areas such as health, education, industry. Consequently the economic benefits are highly underestimated.

Identifying the mechanisms of bicycle culture and urban change is a precondition for ‘copying’ successful Dutch cycling concepts and success stories. By doing so, cycling contributes to urban change and makes a cycling-friendly environment in our towns and cities feasible.

This is a heavily edited and shortened version of André Pettinga’s paper ‘Learning from the Dutch laboratory’. 


  1. What hope is there for us in Ireland when those in power believe it a good idea that after public money is spent building a top class cycleway such as that along the Grand Canal from Adamstown to Inchecore it is good policy to add gates at regular intervals which are impassable by a large proportion of cycles. It will be claimed that this is to stop antisocial behavior but it doesn’t take a genius to see this argument is totally invalid, the gates don’t stop those who wish to misuse the facility. Lets try and access the routes already built as well as campaigning for new facilities.


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