Cycling in the UK is on the increase. Cycle lanes are appearing in all our towns and cities, providing safer routes for school runs, commuter routes for workers and country trails for those of us wanting a leisurely ride. We are undoubtedly on the move and it would appear, in the right direction, but Andrew Robertson asks, how far have we come, and how far do we still have to go before we are able to compare ourselves to the the most advanced cycling nation on Earth - the Dutch?
Let's start with the topography. The Kingdom of the Netherlands is as flat as a flounder, with approximately 27% of the land being below sea-level. The highest point is 322.7 metres (1,059ft), which in most countries would be called a hill - but not in the Netherlands where they have humorously named it 'Mount Vaals'. There’s no doubt about it; a land whose highest point barely pokes its nose above the ground lends itself towards an activity such as cycling. But it takes more than a friendly terrain to get a population out of a car and onto a bicycle. As we know, the UK is hillier than Holland, but that didn't stop the rise of the bicycle in Britain during the Victorian era. In fact, once mass production began in 1890, everyone was using them for both work and leisure. It was trendy, affordable, practical and common. So the hills can't be blamed for cycle apathy, and nor can the bike itself. It's perfectly capable of steep gradients with a little assistance from its rider.
One of the first requirements to encourage bicycle use, and perhaps the most obvious, is a proper cycle infrastructure, a network that allows children to cycle to school, and people to go to work without fear of losing their lives. One of the many reasons people give for not travelling by bicycle in London for example, is the fear of motorised vehicles; or rather the fear of being hit by one. On London's manic roads, it often reaches war-like status, with bike lanes blocked by parked cars, and bus lanes shared between cyclists and stressed out taxi drivers. It's a recipe for disaster. There's no talking to your cycling companion on your journey and you can’t even signal properly in case your wheel hits a bump and sends you into oncoming traffic. Delicate sounds of bird whistles, if they exist, are drowned out by the revving of engines and the beeping of horns from irate drivers shouting encouragement like, 'C'mon out the facking way!' So high is the noise level of car engines that if it were measured in a nightclub, the authorities would close it down. The roads are full of vehicles moving at an average speed of 9mph, which is slower than in the days of horse and cart! Static traffic fills the air with toxic car breath, increasing incidents of asthma in children. But despite this hellish environment, for many, it remains their preferred way of getting around the city.
During the 1960’s, the Dutch were also on their way to car dependency. Until 1960, the number of passenger kilometres travelled by bicycle was greater than by car. However just as in the UK, bicycle use declined sharply thereafter and by 1974 had returned to its 1950 level. What happened next was both remarkable and radical, changing the entire vehicular landscape of the Netherlands. Good old-fashioned lobbying in the 1970’s by the Dutch cyclists union, Fietserbond, persuaded the forward-thinking administration of the time to invest heavily in a nationwide bicycle infrastructure. A proposal was made as early as 1972 to create separate routes for bicycles and moped traffic, which resulted in a 'bicycle traffic plan.' Change had begun, and the traffic circulation plan of 1978 said priority should be given to 'projects under preparation within the Bicycle Route Network'.