Why is The Netherlands a successful cycling country and how do we continue this succes?

Author: Ruud Ditewig, Movilization The Netherlands


The Netherlands has a long cycling tradition. The Dutch have always cycled a lot and continue to do so.
From abroad, the Netherlands is often viewed as a good example of a successful cycling country.
Normally only the infrastructural aspects are examined, without people asking themselves why it is
that the Dutch cycle so much and what factors have played a role in this.
However, this must be done if people want to learn from The Netherlands. Not everything can be copied just like that. And copying a good cycling infrastructure provides no guarantee for a successful
cycling policy.

In this article I will address the three most important factors that play a role in the success:

o the Dutch spatial planning policy
o the Dutch society
o the Dutch traffic safety policy

Cycling in The Netherlands

The Netherlands has a population of 16,500,000. It’s the 25th most densely populated country in the world with 484 inhabitants per square kilometer.
The use of the bicycle is high in The Netherlands: 27% of all trips are made by bike. But bicycle use depends much on the distance covered. Most of the bike trips have a maximum of 5 – 7,5 km. Of all trips up to 7,5 kilometer 35% are made by bike.
Bicycle ownership is also high; the Dutch own 1.1 bicycles per person.
The most important motives to use the bicycle is commuter travel, education (50% of all students go to school by bike) and social-recreational.
Other countries in Europe with a high bicycle use are for example Denmark (19%) and Germany (10%).

The history of spatial planning in the Netherlands

The Netherlands has a long tradition in the area of spatial planning. Spatial planning has been
controlled by legislation for a long time.
The origin of this lies in the organisation of water management, because the Netherlands has always
had to fight against the water. The water management boards have been controlled by legislation
since as early as 1798. The subsequent spatial planning legislation followed on from the water board
legislation. Traffic safety is still one of the core tasks of Rijkswaterstaat, the Directorate General of
Public Works and Water Management.
From the start of the twentieth century, government has played a strongly regulatory role in the area of
traffic, housing, industrialisation and agriculture. Since 1962, there has been an umbrella spatial
planning act. Since then, government spatial planning documents have appeared regularly. These
documents strongly regulate the growth and structure of The Netherlands. The national documents are worked out in more detail at provincial, regional and local authority level.
The result of all of this is that there has been more or less no opportunity for the unstructured
expansion of industry, ‘unstructured building’, ribbon development and speculative construction
outside of the development plans in the Netherlands. As a result, the impression is given of an ‘over
organised’ country in the area of spatial planning and spatial layout. This impression is to a large
extent correct, but it has resulted in the function and form of the public space being harmonised and
that there is a clear position for the bicycle in it.

> The influence of this on traffic and transport, and especially on the bicycle
Because The Netherlands has organised spatial planning down to the fine details and moreover,
because there are many opportunities for interested parties to have their say, there are many
opportunities to give attention to slow traffic.
Bicycle traffic is an integral part of the traffic and transport system. The basic structure of the
modalities that are always worked with is car - public transport - bicycle. This triple is also employed in spatial planning. This has the result that already at an early stage, account is taken of slow traffic in
structure and zoning plans.
Traditionally, the Netherlands has designed its public space on a "small scale". Dutch cities almost
always have a human scale. Infrastructure is rarely amply dimensioned and therefore has never more
capacity than is strictly necessary. In cities, an approach road with 2 x 2 or 2 x 3 lanes are wide roads. This has resulted in the barrier effect of infrastructure being limited.
This has a positive effect on bicycle use. There are many dedicated provisions for cyclists. Where the
cyclist must share the space with other traffic, there is often room to do so, especially in residential

The Dutch society, far-reaching social integration

The Netherlands has a classless society. The differences between rich and poor are relatively small.
There are also few differences between the uneducated, labourers and educated people. They live in
the same residential areas, their children attend the same school and they encounter each other
during their leisure time. Wage levelling for instance has been government policy for years.
Naturally, there are subtile differences, but these are not very large.
The basis for this was laid centuries ago. The Netherlands origin is a trading nation that has sailed
all of the world's oceans. Moreover, The Netherlands has always been a Calvinistic country, where
hard and serious work was one of the virtues. This, and a host of other factors, has led to the current
classless society.

> The influence of this on bicycle use
This far-reaching social integration has been a major influence on the development of bicycle use.
Originally the bicycle, when it was introduced at the end of the nineteenth century, was a toy of the
From the 1920s however, cycling has been a mass occupation in The Netherlands. The bicycle has
become a means of transport for everyone. The members of the Royal Household have, for instance,
always been enthusiastic cyclists.
Because in The Netherlands administrators and policy makers cycle en masse, they are not only professionally involved with the bicycle, but they also have experience of it.
The fact that cycling forms part of our life-style is at the same time the major problem. In a country where cycling is so normal, every effort and investment in the bicycle is approached with the greatest reserve. We find it normal that hundreds of millions are invested in provisions for car and public transport. But we continue to be shocked by the investment of some million Euro's in a bicycle bridge or tunnel.
And there lurks one of the threats for the bicycle. We live in a society in which mobility and the means
of transport are continually subject to major change. Cyclists have until now been able to maintain
their position, despite the enormous increase in car mobility. In the Netherlands, we also need a
bicycle policy to be able to retain the position of the bicycle, stagnation is unarguable decline.

The Dutch traffic safety policy

The Netherlands has had an active traffic-safety policy for a long time. This has had a major influence
on bicycle use. After all, cyclists will only cycle if the use of the bicycle is more or less safe.
Even in the 1930s, concerned Dutch citizens established a pressure group that concerned itself with
the promotion of traffic safety. For decades this group has been an important discussion partner for
the government. Now social interest groups such as the cyclist union and pedestrian union have also
been established. These organisations are also involved in the development of the Dutch traffic-safety
policy for a long time.

> The influence of traffic safety on bicycle use
From the 1960s, traffic-safety measures, such as the obligation to wear a helmet, the alcohol
legislation, the car testing legislation, improved driving instruction, the obligation to wear seat belts,
tightened equipment requirements for cyclists and speed reduction measures have ensured much
improved traffic safety. While there were more than 3,000 fatalities in the Netherlands in 1970, in 2009 there were less than 750, while mobility had more than doubled in the intervening period.
This has all resulted in a climate in which the cyclist, despite the growth in car mobility, could continue
to cycle.