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In Amsterdam, The Bicycle Still Rules
Ben Block, 20 Feb 09

bike.jpgThe Netherlands has been regarded as the cycling nation since before World War II. In a 1938 newspaper article, the bicycle was dubbed "the most Dutch of all vehicles."

Decades since, bike infatuation still appears to be on the rise. In Amsterdam, residents now choose bicycles rather than automobiles for more of their trips, according to a recent study.

Between 2005 and 2007, Amsterdam residents rode their bicycle 0.87 times a day on average, compared to 0.84 trips by automobile. It was the first time on record that average bike trips surpassed cars, the research group FietsBeraad reported last month.

Although additional bike trips are often necessary to complete errands that could be done in a single car ride, the findings reflect a decreasing reliance on automobiles throughout Dutch urban centers.

"In town, the car is not the mode of transport," said Hans Voerknecht, international coordinator for FietsBeraad. "The bicycle is the grease in the traffic system, and in part, the economic system.... It makes everything possible."

The group also reports that car trips in 2006 decreased by 14 percent compared to 1990. Downtown bicycle trips increased 36 percent, and cycling rates have remained steady elsewhere throughout Amsterdam.

The high level of cycling is an accomplishment for the Dutch capital, but not a great surprise considering Amsterdam's long-held love affair with bicycles, said Ralph Buehler, an international urban affairs professor at Virginia Tech University.

"It's the result of the policies they have implemented over the past 30 years to make bicycle use more attractive and safe, etc, while also implementing policies for car use in the city to be more inconvenient, stressful, and less attractive," Buehler said. "Even the queen bicycles."

Among Western nations, cycling is most popular in the Netherlands. Nearly 30 percent of Dutch commuters always travel by bicycle, and an additional 40 percent sometimes bike to work, according to FietsBeraad [PDF].

Commuters worldwide are turning to bicycles in an effort to abandon gasoline-burning vehicles and incorporate physical exercise into their travel routine. Global bicycle production increased by 3.2 percent in 2007 to 130 million units, according to the Worldwatch Institute.

In both Germany and Denmark, more than 20 percent of commuters travel by bicycle. And cycling still accounts for more than half of all trips in some Chinese cities, although private automobile use is on the rise nationwide.

In comparison, less than 2 percent of trips in North America and the United Kingdom are by bicycle.

The high level of bicycle ridership in Amsterdam is due to a variety of bike-friendly transportation policies. The city boasts an extensive system of bicycle paths that allow riders to bypass traffic signals and shortcut through neighborhoods. Residential neighborhoods restrict speed limits to 30 kilometers per hour to improve safety. Bike parking facilities are located citywide, while vehicle parking downtown is highly restricted.

The Netherlands plans to spend about 70 million Euros on bicycling projects in Amsterdam between 2007 and 2010 - an average of 13 Euros per city resident.

"They're really making bicycling attractive," Buehler said. "People who normally drive, they know it will take five Euros for parking and take 10 minutes more than if they bike."

As more cyclists fill Dutch streets, bike fatalities have remained among the lowest worldwide. From 2002 to 2005, an average of 1.1 Dutch biker was killed per 100 million kilometers cycled. In comparison, fatality rates in the United Kingdom and United States are 3.6 and 5.8, respectively.

In addition to spending more money on cycling infrastructure, the Netherlands has promoted mixed-use neighborhoods, which allow residents to make shorter bike trips. Fatalities also generally decrease when ridership rises, a theory known as "safety in numbers."

"If there are more people on bikes, it might be that car drivers are more aware of cyclists. So when they make a right turn, they look over their right shoulder," Buehler said. "In a city like Amsterdam, most people make bike the driver is more likely to be a biker him or herself."

Ben Block is astaff writer with the WorldwatchInstitute. He can be reached at

Photo courtesy Michela Mongardi

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Bike friendly transportation policies could be improved here.

Consider what happened in Melbourne last June, when an estimated 100,000 cyclists crammed onto the newly completed Eastlink tollway for an open day (I think they expected and catered for 30,000). The irony is that the tollway has since been struggling to make a profit from car users.

Since we're talking Holland, the tale about the little dutch boy with his finger in the dike springs to mind. I think this is one tide that can't be held back.

As a fairly recent convert myself, I have noticed a change in perception to how far away places seem to be. Oddly enough, I tend to think of places as being *further* away when I'm driving than when I cycle or walk them. Has anyone else noticed this?

Posted by: Tony Fisk on 20 Feb 09

Tony, I find in Portland, OR that often your perception of "further by driving than cycling" is literally true, if the measure of "distance" is time rather than miles/km. Even where the actual travel between point A and B is quicker by car, the total journey including finding parking, paying for parking, getting from parking spot to actual destination, etc. is nearly always slower. I suspect there is a physical distance threshold here, but haven't found it yet in normal urban journeys.

I used to say, when bike commuting through a Portland rain (now I work at home), that "a bad day on a bike is still better than a good day in a car." Flat tires excepted, I can't think of a time I have thought the reverse.

Posted by: Ted Wolf on 21 Feb 09

I also agree with Tony and Ted, on the occasional day when I don't ride and take the bus to work (Adelaide AUS)I feel it is further to work, but like Ted notes, this is generally because the bus just takes so long, and this because, there is so many cars on the road slowing the traffic (Adelaide has no bus specific lanes.)
However, whilst in Copenhagen last yr, like amsterdam, there is a greater and more welcomed use of bicycle (bike specific lanes etc) which seemed to decrease car traffic to a point where bikes outnumbered cars. Considering this, it makes sense that fatalities would also decrease.

Posted by: Josh Billington on 21 Feb 09

To see really high cycle usage in the Netherlands you need to visit places other than Amsterdam. Groningen has 60% of all journeys by bike, and cycle journeys there exceeded car journeys quite some years ago.

Posted by: David Hembrow on 22 Feb 09

Ted and David, you both raise good points about the overhead of vehicular travel times. I was talking about a perception of distance. For instance, if I have walked from somewhere and then driven back the way I have walked, it *seems* that the distance is further when in the car, and I often find myself being surprised at the distance I've just walked. I think it might have something to do with assuming that cars travel *much* faster than pedestrians or cyclists (it is actually more like 10x faster than a pedestrian, and 3x faster than a cyclist)

My point is that this perception, if common, would act as a psychological barrier to cycling or walking.

Posted by: Tony Fisk on 22 Feb 09

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