The 10th post of the EU BICI series benefits from the insights of co-author, Peter Furth, Professor of Civil Engineering at Northeastern University and frequent instructor of a sustainable transportation course via TU-Delft.
With tulips and clogs, bikes are a signature element of the Netherlands—lots of them. Everywhere. It’s the only country in the world with more bikes than people. More than anywhere in the world, bicycling here appears to be a form of “mechanically assisted walking.” Where residents in other countries might walk for short distances, the Dutch pedal. But because they pedal, their “velo-walking” extends far greater distances than normal walking ever would. Cycling is used as the default mode for short trips like running errands. Except in busy shopping areas, bikes far outnumber pedestrians; cycling is pervasive.
But even in this exceptional national context, people are surprised to learn there is still wide variation in cycling use. Exorbitantly high mode shares for bicycling (more than 50% of trips under 5 miles) are easily seen in a wide variety of Dutch contexts: Amsterdam and another of the four large towns, Utrecht; medium sized towns like Groningen; small towns like Veenendaal; and even suburban towns like Houten and Pijnacker, which flaunt idyllic cycling use. But Rotterdam (which got totally leveled in WWII) and Eindhoven, which followed more car-oriented development patterns, have half that amount (which is, of course, still high). In this post, we use two cities—Delft (home to a university and a well known bicycling city) and The Hague (a close-by government city, hardly considered a “bicycling haven” by Dutch planners) as a lens through which to better explain some peculiarities about Dutch cycle planning.
What clearly what stands out for non-motorized planning in Holland is the civility by which space is shared by pedestrians, bicycles, trams, and occasional cars in large car-free and “car-lite” zones in city centers. Unlike some Dutch cities, Delft and The Hague allow bikes in their pedestrianized areas. “Harmonious co-mingling” is perhaps the best way to describe it. There is a dance that exists as cyclists weave past each other and other road users. When pedestrian density makes it too difficult to ride, cyclists just dismount and walk until they can mount again.
Relative to all other European countries, Holland is the densest and the flattest. These two factors help explain a lot of why the Dutch bike so much. But at least two characteristics stand out about their cycling use: (1) Dutch bikes are more upright than in any other country (even relative to adjoining countries); (2) bike speeds are low, largely owing to both the riding style and the fact that distances are close. In fact, it is not uncommon for towns, villages or neighborhoods to be designed around a 7 minute bike shed from grocery stores or elementary schools. Planners from the nearby town Pijnacker state that as a central criterion for siting schools and zoning shopping areas. Mapping the schools and shopping areas for the newer areas of The Hague reveals the same pattern.
Better than any other place on earth, the Dutch excel in bike-transit integration. But it’s not because they allow bikes on trains (the $8 fee makes doing that regularly impractical). The success appears to be more so attributed to four factors:
- The spatial coverage and frequency of train service is outstanding. Most lines to most destinations run on 15 or 30 minute headways all day.
- High quality bike routes lead to the station from all parts of town. Near stations, there are natural impediments to cycling owing to the many buses & cars arriving there. To overcome them, you can often see bike-only underpasses that make these highly cycled routes to the station as good as those everywhere else.
- There is a concerted policy to concentrate offices, shopping, and (more recently) dense housing near stations. In The Hague region, for example, municipalities that would normally compete for office space have agreed that large office building should be built only near train or metro stations. And in Zwolle, the Chamber of Commerce refused to go along with a new office area being considered unless a new train station was part of the plan.
- A massive amount of bike parking is provided, increasingly at high quality levels. Delft’s new station, under construction, will have 7,000 indoor spaces (still pale in comparison to Utrecht’s 30,000 spaces). And the Dutch are not shy about keeping a second bike locked at a train station near their work, using it for the “last mile” of their commute. A full 12% of train passengers use bike as their egress mode, along with 40% using bike for access.
Leveraging the bike for short trips, along with bike+train for long trips, provide the Dutch a powerful one-two punch to counter auto dependency. Recently, a national congestion mitigation program has opened a third front by funding the construction of “bicycle highways” to encourage bicycle use for medium distance commutes. For example, a new bike superhighway from Zoetermeer to Delft University (7.5 mi) offers commuters a car-free, non-stop route thanks to underpasses at major road crossings and priority at minor street crossings. A new, $2 million bike bridge opened this month as part of an improved route from Delft to The Hague. Two routes have been completed from The Hague to Leiden, and one is still being improved between Delft and Rotterdam.
While Dutch bike planning traditionally meant simply providing cycle tracks along all main roads, the main emphasis today—especially visible in The Hague’s newer suburbs—is providing bike routes that avoid main roads altogether. These routes use linear parks and local streets that have been prioritized for bikes using traffic diverters and speed humps. This paradigm, referred to as “unbundling,” is popular with nearly all riders because it offers cycling routes that are safer and more pleasant and involve fewer annoying red lights.
One challenge for Dutch cities is passing on the bike habit to immigrants who come from countries with low bike usage, especially among women, and where autos are a status symbol. Another is maintaining a high level of bike use in the face of rising expectations regarding comfort and safety. The Hague is currently spending a whopping $15 million (about $30 per resident) per year to improve its bike network. While some is for repaving existing bike paths, most is for building new bike infrastructure, including urban “bicycle highways” and cycle tracks on streets that formerly had only bike lanes. Delft has also joined the emerging movement to replace bike lanes on several streets with cycle tracks. A wave of two-way cycle track installations is underway following the widespread application of raised crossings (legally called “exit construction”), which give two-way cycle tracks the same level of safety as traditional one-way cycle tracks.
There are at least two elements that other cities struggle with when simply aiming to import Dutch cycle planning: (1) Dutch infrastructure solutions tend to be expensive (e.g., they use curb-separated cycle tracks rather than the common strategy of American cities to protect bike lanes by simply shifting parking lanes away from the curb or installing flexposts); (2) political support is strong—cycling is hard-wired into the culture. To be sure, there is an active, vocal, and powerful auto-lobbying effort throughout the Netherlands. However, because everybody’s children, regardless of political party, ride bikes to school, and because bicycling is far less expensive than public transportation, cycling related initiatives have support across the political spectrum.