Just Cycling

The Netherlands is a country of cyclists. For us, it’s just business as usual, but we’re a unique country, with over 22.5 million bicycles, and only 16.9 inhabitants (CBS 2015), there is nowhere where cycling is as normal as over here.

Too fat

The obesity rate is rising, and traffic is getting more and more congested. ‘Bikes will prove to be the solution in cities’ is what Canadians Chris and Melissa Bruntlett argue in their recently published book Building the Cycling City – The Dutch Blueprint for Urban Vitality.


‘A bicycle can make a major difference in Africa’ says Marieke de Wild from CooP-Africa, the foundation that organizes bicycle projects in Uganda and Kenya. ‘In the villages, children regularly have to walk 10 kilometres to school. With a bicycle they would be much faster, saving time for homework and helping their parents.’


For a serious climate policy, cyclists (and pedestrians) should make up more than 50 percent of traffic in a city, says Jaap Rijnsburger of Cycling Lab.


A bicycle culture doesn’t just manifest itself out of thin air,’ professor Ruth Oldenziel knows. ‘as a policy maker you need to think long term. To start with, you need a real understanding of how your city works.’

Lean and clean

Ordinarily extraordinary on the bicycle

Cycling is clean and completely ordinary for us. Cyclists transport themselves without polluting the air. Who cycles, stays lean. The whole world can learn from what is normal for us, the Netherlands = Bicycle country. Dif report lines up the facts.

CYCLING IS INGRAINED in our culture, that we’ve nearly lost sight of the fact that we can be a model country for the rest of the world. ‘Copenhagen gets a lot of attention worldwide, but the Netherlands is way more interesting’, says Chris Bruntlett. ‘you are the only country which has more bicycles than people.’ After their move to a house near a train station in Vancouver, Chris and his wife Melissa decided to get rid of their car in 2010, mainly to see whether they could live without one. That decision would change their life. From that day onward, they saw how easy and useful a bike could be in the city. They started documenting their car-free life through their company Modacity, and travelled across the world to cities in which clean transport had the upper hand. 

Climate and movement, cycling encompasses both

‘In the Netherlands, we saw a lot of cities which all put bicycles center stage.’ says Melissa. ‘That’s why we wanted to make a blueprint on how the Dutch cycling culture came to be and what the rest of the world can learn from that.’

Climate and movement in one
Our bicycle culture is something we should be more proud of, says Ruth Oldenziel. As a professor in American-European Technologic History at the technical university in Eindhoven, she has spent the last few years researching bicycles. In the book Cycling Cities: The European Experience (2016) she collected knowledge on the Dutch and European bicycle culture. ‘Everywhere around the globe, people are working on climate and movement.’ she says. ‘Cycling encompasses both of those perfectly.’ About a decade ago, she and a few other coworkers started research into bicycle culture. ‘A topic that needed to get more publicity.’ ‘In our book we translate scientific research to policy. To inspire policy makers around the world to think about the role bicycles have.’

Everywhere around the globe, people want to learn from the Dutch cities

Oldenziel isn’t the only one working on the subject. Melissa and Chris Bruntlett see that the attention for their book is huge, and Jaaps Rijnsburger from Cycling Lab is doing research towards the value of bicycles to the climate. Urban planner Marco te Brömmelstroet founded the Urban Cycle Institute, through which he collects and conducts research into bicycles and cycling. ‘There was a strong demand from abroad.’ he says. ‘We have elected to take a social-scientific approach, which is still rather unique in this field.’

Cycling stimulates creativity
te Brömmelstroet researches how cycling every day can heighten creativity and other cognitive functions. ‘The initial results are promising’. Next to that, cycling is of course healthy, especially in a society that is getting less and less exercise. And it is cleaner and cheaper than other forms of transportation. That last point is of special interest to Jaap Rijnsburger of Cycling lab. He is working on a dissertation of the climate impact of cycling. The use of cars is growing dramatically, with the COproblems growing at the same rate. Electric vehicles may produce less CObut if the carpool keeps growing we won’t have enough resources, roads, and parking spaces.

Even more bicycles
‘I want to know how many cyclists we need in addition to electric transport to keep cities livable’, Rijnsburger tells. ‘My proposition is that at least half of all traffic needs to be non-motorized traffic, that means walking or cycling. In the most urbanized parts of the country, that number is now 30 percent, so it needs to climb to 50 percent.’ In his hometown of Gouda, he is doing research on how you can make the switch from a car to a bicycle. ‘I’m involved in the implementation of a new mobility plan by the municipality with the ambition to become the number one cycling town. We asked ourselves the question: with which investments in cycling lanes and 30kmph zones can we increase the level of bikes in traffic? That’s a good case study for my research.

The Netherlands pollutes less than the United States

Even now you can see the climate benefits of a cycling nation, says Chris Bruntlett. ‘Its easy to see that the Netherlands is cleaner than, lets say, the United States.’ In 2014, the Dutch used about 9.8 tons of CO2per capita, as compared to 16 tons in the United States. Besides those climate benefits, cycling can also be of great significance in poorer countries. Marieke de Wild sees that cycling is a hazardous challenge in the cities, due to the dense traffic and chaotic roads. But in rural areas it can quickly increase the quality of life.

More often on time
‘We see that people benefit a lot from a bicycle. Children can get to school faster and healthcare professionals can reach their patients in time. Thanks to our bicycle ambulances, people arrive in the hospital on time. ‘Those who are responsible for their own bicycle (they pay half of the cost themselves), are more careful with it. But a bicycle is still just the first step, because with more money, people still often choose  motorized transportation.

That used to be the case in the Netherlands. Cycling Cities depicts a trendline. Between 1930 and 1960, the cyclist percentage was the highest. After that, cars became affordable for a larger part of society and the percentage declined. That downward trend stopped in the 70s, when minister-president Den Uyl mandated no less than 10 car-free Sundays during the oil crisis of 1973. On the streets, the first protests against cars emerged.

Wanting to cycle
In Amsterdam, groups such as Amsterdam Autovrij (Amsterdam Car-free), and Stop de Kindermoord (Stop the Murder of Children), started a successful lobby to stop the many traffic accidents on its streets. At the same time the Cycling Union was founded. ‘That attention from within society was crucial to the start of Dutch bicycle culture’, argues Jaap Rijnsburger from Cycling Lab. ‘Just having a fancy infrastructure won’t get you there. You need to have a developed middle class interested in cycling and policy makers who are willing to fight for the subject.’ Urban Planner Marco te Brömmelstroetagrees. ‘Mobility is intrinsically linked to who we are as a society, how we treat each other, and how we approach the public space. You can’t leave that to technical traffic engineers.’

Cycling Citiesdescribes how for instance Amsterdam, Enschede, and Copenhagen could become cycling cities. ‘We even got reactions from Iran and Turkey.’ Ruth Oldenziel tells us. ‘People around the world want to learn from the Dutch cities.’ To accomplish that goal, five factors are of crucial importance according to her. 

Environmental planning and building density, the other forms of transport present, such as motor vehicles, public transport, and pedestrians, the city wide traffic policy, and the effect of bicycle activism and the cultural meaning of cycling.

Learning through observing
Jaap Rijnsburger believes that policy makers can look at the Netherlands as an example, but need to realise that our government and society have spent years making policy and paying attention to bicycles. ‘For anyone just getting started, they would be better served looking at Germany as an example’, he finds. ‘Many cities there have installed sidewalks, after which they’ve gradually allowed bikes, thus creating a system. In Germany that led to bicycle development.’ Ruth Oldenziel agrees. ‘We’re against the idea of just building bike lanes. A bicycle culture doesn’t just manifest itself.’ She sees more and more policy makers who come to the Netherlands after they’ve read their book. ‘They ask us “how do you do it?” But there is no simple answer. I often ask them where they’re from and to examine whether there is a similar city in the Netherlands, that’s where they can learn from.’

Cycling is hip
Next to this Marieke de Wild from Coop-Africa believes it is important cycling gets and keeps a cool image. ‘Africans are quick to buy a scooter when they have more money.’ ‘It’s faster, but mainly a status symbol. We can see it with adolescents who think it’s cool to ride a mountain bike, that helps.’ Because however many climate benefits there are, that’s usually not the reason to ride a bike. Ruth Oldenziel often asks people why they step on their bike every day. ‘It is rarely about the CO2emissions. Most people are just happy they get to move and get on their bike because they enjoy it. Policy makers should always keep that in mind.’

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