“The Dutch have always had cycle tracks”

So says a favourite canard of those who are opposed to reclaiming road space for dedicated bicycle infrastructure. Dutch cycling never declined in the face of the motor invasion, they say, because the cycle tracks were already in place. Therefore copying the Dutch at this late stage wouldn’t work in the UK.

In fact, the Dutch built some very British looking urban roads during the rise of the motor car:

Saturday, early afternoon, Spaarndamseweg, a main arterial road into Haarlem; two or three lanes of 50kmph (~30mph) traffic in each direction, big confusing junctions full of “stacking” and turning lanes that create merging chaos when the lights go green, and on-street bicycle lanes that are only slightly better than those we get in the UK. There are people cycling here, but relatively few considering that this is a main route in a city of cyclists on a sunny saturday. Most people are riding on nicer alternative routes, but these few decided that directness was more important.

It’s a very old road layout now. At some point in its more recent history a nasty junction has been patched, to add a bicycle bypass, a couple of hundred yards long, that allows users to avoid a set of traffic lights — busy junctions are the top priority for treatment because they are the most dangerous and intimidating places.

But it has now reached the top of the pile for a full rebuild, and of course, while the city still needs an arterial route for motor vehicle access, some space is being taken from the cars and given to proper attractive bicycle paths, wide smooth flat asphalt, well behind the kerbs and parked cars:

It took me 1,000 km of poking around to discover this one big road with such bad cycling provision, and soon the example will be gone. But 10 years ago I would have found several, and 30 years ago they would seem normal — books of Dutch photographs from the ’70s and ’80s are full of these British-style streets. It’s big and fast roads like these that cut people off, preventing journeys along or across them from being made by bicycle. It’s constant improvement to streets and to the network of cycle routes that keeps the Netherlands at the top of the league table — and it’s the constant deterioration of our own streets that is keeping us down.

Haarlem council have a page in Dutch (or badly translated by Google) about the developments.

I assume that all of the readers of this blog already subscribe to A view from the cycle path, which has stacks of information about the Dutch way of doing streets.

18 thoughts on ““The Dutch have always had cycle tracks””

  1. Here’s a link to the final design of this particular street. One directional separated cycle paths all the way. Your observation is correct. But there is also some truth in the canard. Yes the Dutch had cycle tracks, but only at some places and they were not connected, not wide enough, not smooth enough, not designed safe enough at junctions and so on. From the 1980s the Dutch started thinking in routes rather than in streets. That changed everything for the better and it also makes clear that any nation could start building cycling infrastructure like the Dutch did.

  2. My understanding is that the Dutch standard (1920s onwards) was to build cycle tracks on any road which had more than 500 cyclists/day. In some places the tracks were taken out in the 50s/60s and the road widened, but then sense started to prevail.

    1. That rule of a cycle track for over 500 cyclists was only true for ‘roads’ which in the Dutch sense are larger roads in the countryside. This rule never applied for streets in a built up area. Whenever reading a (translation of a) Dutch source you have to understand that the Dutch never mix their words for street and road as is possible in English. They are completely different things in Dutch. Unfortunatly not all translations make that same distinction.

  3. Thanks for the link. You may be interested to know that it’s documented that cycle-facilities were actually removed from some Dutch streets during the 1950s and 60s when the car was king.

    That’s from one of several English language papers that we keep links to.

    Many towns were transformed twice, in the mid 20th century to accommodate the car, and then in the late 20th / early 21st to accommodate bikes. We’ve many “before and after” posts, but this and this best illustrate how the towns were changed twice.

  4. Richard this video does nowhere say that the extensive high quality cycle path network the Dutch have started to build since the 1980s was there before that time. And that was also never the intention of this video. (I know; I made it.) This video and the texts that go with it (blog post), only explain why the Dutch don’t see cycle paths as second class or an excuse to clear the roads from cyclists for motorists. Yes cycle paths existed for a long time, mainly in the country side, but the coherent network of high quality cycling infrastructure there is now in the Netherlands was the result of deliberate political decisions. The mere presence of the road in this article also makes clear that after decisions taken in the 1970s/1980s it takes a lot of time before every road has cycle paths. But it is never too late to take those decisions and start building them!

  5. Certainly, the Netherlands has done a huge amount to make its cycle network coherent, rebuild existing paths, and build paths on roads that never had them. But modal share never dropped down to the sort of level prevalent in most of the UK. Bikes have always been present in the Dutch street, in large numbers.

  6. Richard, I stand to be corrected but I think you’ll find that in the early 1970s, the modal share in the UK and Netherlands was similar. In the UK, it has continued to drop since then (for obvious reasons) while in the Netherlands it has continued to climb (again, for obvious reasons).

    1. According to the graph on p32 of the Dutch Bicycle Masterplan, cycling’s modal share in a collection of Dutch cities was 80 to 90% immediately after WW2, declining to a minimum of around 30% in 1975, after which it slowly revived (to 40% or so by now). That graph also plots Manchester, with cycling at 35% post WW2 and declining to less than 5% by 1970.

      So the modal share of cycling has never been similar in UK and Netherlands, and was hugely different in the 1970s. To put it another way: cycling in Dutch cities, at the deepest depth of its decline, was still almost as much of a mass movement as it has EVER been in a typical British city.

      In 1970s Netherlands, 1 in 3 trips were still by bike, so it was easy to find and build popular support for the changes and spending Dutch politicians made at that time. In 1970s UK, with fewer than 1 in 20 trips by bike and most of them by children (with no vote and counting the days before they could start learning to drive) there was no incentive to do any such thing.

      Since then we have won all the arguments as to why it’s a good thing for people to cycle, but still have the problem that so little cycling is done that there don’t seem to be any votes in it. Any moves to shift spending and roadspace from “much-needed by-passes” to “under-used cyclepaths” is loudly denounced in the press and an apparent vote-loser. And it takes a very rare and courageous politician (I can think of only one in recent times) to stand up to the “long-suffering motorist” and do something that actually makes a real positive difference to the cycling environment.

  7. Edward – see Transport Statistics Great Britain (second graph in http://www2.dft.gov.uk/pgr/statistics/datatablespublications/tsgb/latest/tsgb2010roads.pdf ) Cycling hit rock bottom in the UK in 1970, and has stayed there ever since. It was also the turning point for the Netherlands, but they never dropped as low.

    More generally, Mark makes a valid point about how the NL started thinking in terms of “routes” in the 70s/80s. This focus on “coherence” is what you do once you’ve started to get your act together. You look at what you’ve already got, and what you can reasonably do with the space/money/politics available. In the Dutch case, they already had a tradition of tracks, they had quite a bit of money (from the discovery of gas in the North Sea), they had a lot of cyclists so the politics weren’t too difficult, and they generally had the space (outside the central core). They decided they could go for comprehensive tracks, and the result is excellent.

    But everybody’s history is different. What can we do in the UK that’s coherent, given where we’re starting from? A few bits of excellence are rather beside the point. Mostly we’re starting from scratch, with limited political support, and busy roads that are quite often too narrow for tracks (given the competing uses). We’ve a fair amount of quite scrappy infrastructure, but little coherence. The advantage we have is that taming the car is much more feasible than it was in the 70s.

  8. Richard you jump to conclusions. The Dutch did start to think in terms of routes but also started building them from scratch. Not after they “got their act together”. Here is a link to info on one of the first two demonstration-routes, in The Hague 1975-1979. Unfortunately the pdf is in Dutch but from page 17 start the before and after pictures and sketches that are easily understood. In the before situation there was no cycling infrastructure at all on the entire route! That is the exact same situation the UK has now.

  9. There are tracks on the main road (Loosduinseweg/kade) to the south of that alignment that look like they’ve been there quite a while (block paving).

    And Weimarstraat has since been rebuilt as a mixed-profile street.

  10. That’s a lot of cherry-picking to make a point. But, but, but, “Our winters are extremely cold, so there’s no such thing as Global Warming!”

    If I’m correct (go on, then) in 1980 there were about 8 to 10.000 km of bike paths & lanes, but of very poor quality and often disconnected, aka a subjectively unsafe infra network for cycling. I know, I remember my high school years in Utrecht and cycling in different parts of the country very well. In 1980 the cycle rate’s downward trend had been halted, had indications of going upwards, but nothing to be happy about (yet). It hovered nationally at 15-18%. In Amsterdam cycling had hit rock bottom (at 22% for whole of city & 35% in downtown)

    Since the 80’s the NL expanded and upgraded the bike network massively. In the summer of 2009 the Fietsersbond remeasured the network: 29.000km of separated bike paths and 7.000km of on road bike lanes. Most importantly, the quality of the infrastructure increased enormously, both re: comfort & its connectivity. Combined with the new integral approach to traffic & spatial planning, things improved like no time before.

    So NL went from (I’ll use the high nr) 18% national modal split for bikes to 28% in 30 yrs. Amsterdam went from 22% to 38% (incl suburbs) & from 35% to 55% for downtown. Groningen started the first stage of redesigning their city in the 60’s, specifically to make it ped/cycle-friendly. They went from 20% to 65%. Houten…do I even have to mention that town?

    Think about that, while putting in perspective the fact that between 1980-2010 car traffic tripled, if not more.

    People are so often looking for ways to make their history/situation or others’ seem ‘exceptional’, depending on their agenda (often both) while there are more similarities than differences. But go ahead, keep digging for excuses, it’s a life-time hobby for many.

  11. The figures for cycling rates in Amsterdam and Groningen, quoted by Amsterdamize, are unfortunately a fiction. Dutch city administrations manipulate the statistics to inflate the share of cycling. True, that indicates a different political culture – many cites in other countries don’t know or care how many cyclists they have. However, the untrustworthy statistics make it difficult to draw any conclusions on the effect of policy. (The quoted national cycling rate is also wrong).

    In turn that makes it difficult to assess the issue raised here, of whether the current situation in the UK is comparable with that in the Netherlands in the 1970’s, and whether it could also be ‘turned around’. It is difficult to even assess if the modal split was ever ‘turned around’ in the Netherlands. The low current modal share for cycling suggests it wasn’t.

    Perhaps cycling never really eroded in the Netherlands to the extent it did in Britain, as some comments above suggest. A relevant factor, which nobody mentioned, is whether motorisation rates were historically lower in the Netherlands than in Britain. If you don’t have a car you can’t drive it, and that it a powerful incentive to use a bike, even with poor infrastructure.

  12. “A relevant factor, which nobody mentioned, is whether motorisation rates were historically lower in the Netherlands than in Britain. If you don’t have a car you can’t drive it, and that it a powerful incentive to use a bike, even with poor infrastructure.”

    The Netherlands had the highest level of motorization in whole Europe around 1970. Since then it fell well below Western European levels now having the lowest level of motorization in the Region.

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