Jim Davis invited me to make a guest post before the CEoGB Study Tour in September.
Britain and the Netherlands are very similar in many ways.
The two countries are adjacent to each other. If not for the North Sea, a storm in which devastated areas of both countries in 1953, they would share a border.
Both countries are members of the EU. Both are constitutional monarchies and have a Queen as head of state. The two countries have similar degrees of wealth and people live in similar housing. The climate is similar, and (especially for many of the most populated parts of Britain) the geography is also quite similar. Both countries are producers of fossil fuels (Britain has more oil, but the Netherlands has the largest natural gas reserves in Europe).
The two countries share a lot of history, some of bloody. Both were almost exclusively Christian countries in the past, but are now multicultural with a mix of beliefs as well as a significant number of non religious people. The people of the two countries have very similar social norms and have similar values.
Both countries were the centres of extensive empires before the Second World War. Both have benefited from immigration from countries which were a part of those empires. Spicy foods from India and Indonesia have been adopted as national dishes in the respective nations.
[img_assist|nid=2005|title=The Netherlands was one of the biggest export markets for Sturmey Archer|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=179|height=240]
Both Britain and the Netherlands have a strong history of utility cycling. In 1949, British people not only made more journeys per year by bike than by car, but they travelled more km per year by bike than by car. Dutch bicycle advertising from that period emphasized the use of quality British-made components.
In both countries, cycling declined sharply from the 1950s through to the 1970s. Car ownership rose over the same period and both countries now have similar levels of car ownership. The cost of owning and running a car is very similar in both countries.
Up to this point in the story, it would be difficult to find two countries which were more alike.
Taking an interest in the Netherlands
Our interest in the Netherlands started when a friend took a job here in the late 1990s. He invited us to visit, saying (paraphrased) “you won’t believe what it’s like to cycle here”.
[img_assist|nid=2006|title=One of my first infrastructure photos of the Netherlands. Where there were three holes under a bridge, two were for cyclists|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=240|height=180]
The first trip was a shock. Here was a whole country where cyclists didn’t come second best. Freed from a choice of either cowering in the gutter or being daring enough to “take the lane”, cycling could, after all, be a relaxing activity normal for the entire population.
Despite the many similarities between the two countries, for cycling it is now difficult to imagine how they could be more different. The Netherlands has the highest rate of cycling in the world, while Britain has nearly the lowest. Confident that they can go anywhere in safety and without conflict, Dutch cyclists are of all ages, both sexes, and incredibly numerous.
[img_assist|nid=2007|title=Participants on our first study tour in 2006|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=204|height=240]
We became regular visitors for holidays and cycle racing events. What we’d seen fed into our campaigning in Cambridge, and from there we organised our first Study Tour in 2006. We had many friends in Cambridge and we liked our home there a lot, but slowly the decision was made to emigrate, which we did in 2007.
Emigrating is not an easy option. Finding a home, setting up a business and enrolling children into school are difficult things to do while also trying to learn a language. All these things are much more difficult than we’d realised. Even small things like reading letters from schools took considerable time at first.
However, moving presented us with other shocks too. We thought we knew the country quite well from our previous visits. We thought we knew how the Dutch cycled. But soon we discovered a myriad of things that not only had we overlooked when viewing the Netherlands through rose-tinted spectacles from the other side of the North Sea, but we never had any idea would be possible at all.
[img_assist|nid=2008|title=Photo taken by one of our daughters on a recent school trip|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=180|height=240]
For instance, we knew that Dutch children cycled to school. However, we didn’t know that on average they do so unaccompanied from the age of 8 and a half, we didn’t know that most school trips were made by bike, we didn’t know that it was normal for primary school children to go cycle camping a class at a time, we didn’t know that some secondary school students rode a 40 km round trip every day to get to school, we didn’t know that after school discos which went on until after midnight the children would cycle home across the city alone without anyone worrying about it, we didn’t know that rural cycle paths used by school students would receive special priority for clearing of snow in winter, and we certainly didn’t have any idea at all that a school triathlon could consist of giving vague instructions to a swimming pool and running track 20 km away and letting the students find their own way there and back.
[img_assist|nid=2004|title=Even in a snow storm bikes are parked en-masse at the shops|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=240|height=180]
School-children are just one example. Supermarkets and shopping centres provide large numbers of cycle parking spaces already and are in a race to build more. Enormous numbers of people commute by bike. Railways stations provide thousands, in some cases tens of thousands, of cycle parking spaces. A long term programme to increase cycle parking spaces at railway stations, stretching over decades, continues to increase total numbers by over 25000 every year. These spaces are used primarily by long distance commuters who combine cycling with a train journey. Disability scooters, hand-cycles and wheelchairs are all considered in law to be bicycles. They are used for practical journeys as well as recreational ones and it is not at all unusual to see such vehicles a considerable distance from home. All cycle paths must be “accessible”. At the other end of the age range, even the over 65s still make a quarter of all their journeys by bike.
The Netherlands is a nation of cycling superlatives. The population is just 16 million, double the population of London and less than that of greater New York. However, over a million journeys are made every hour by bike through the daytime hours of every work-day. This is a phenomenal rate of cycling: As many cycle journeys are made in this small country as in all English speaking countries added together.
[img_assist|nid=2009|title=Age is no barrier to everyday cycling|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=240|height=189]
None of this would be possible if cycling were restricted to a narrow demographic. Such high cycling figures are possible only when cycling reaches well beyond the realms of enthusiasts. The entire population must see cycling as attractive and useful, regardless of age, physical ability and social status. For this to happen, everyone has to see cycling not as an extreme sport for daring individuals, but as something convenient, safe and normal.
In the Netherlands, cycling’s fortunes turned around in the mid 1970s after protests about an increase in road deaths, especially amongst children. The result was the building of a nationwide network of cycle infrastructure which has no equal elsewhere. In urban areas you find a network of cycle paths and roads which don’t work as through roads for motorists which provide direct routes to all destinations. In the countryside there are two networks, providing direct routes with top quality surfaces for direct journeys as well as recreationally oriented routes which may take a more scenic route through the countryside, sometimes with rougher surfaces (these substandard paths are not counted as part of the 29000 km of cycle path in the country).
The gift to the world that is offered by the Netherlands is the demonstration that all this is possible. It is possible in a comparatively rich, democratic, Western European country where people can afford to own and use cars. What’s more, it is affordable. The Dutch have repeatedly shown that investing in cycling is not only good for the physical and mental health of the nation, but also that it’s an effective fiscal measure. The cost of building the world’s best network of the world’s best quality of cycling infrastructure is less than the cost of not building it. This is true not only of very busy cycle paths inside cities, but also of relatively sparsely used inter-city “cycle superhighways” for longer distance commuters.
In 2008 we started organizing Study Tours from our base in Assen. We do so from our base in Assen, because we know the city well, it’s small and easy to get around, and to a very large extent it is “normal”. Assen doesn’t have university with associated a student population to provide an easy boost to cycling numbers, yet over 40% of journeys in the city are made by bike.
Groningen, the world’s top cycling city with nearly 60% of journeys by bike, is just a “cycle superhighway” away and we also visit this city on the Study Tours.
As part of the tour we explore a range of different types of cycling infrastructure and see how people of all ages, including young school-children, make their journeys by bike. Due to our experience of living in a low cycling country as well as in the Netherlands we offer a unique insight into the differences between the two.
Previously we have hosted visitors from the UK, USA, Australia and Germany. This September we host a group from the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain. That tour is now full, but we are always prepared to organise further tours for interested groups of campaigners, council officers and/or politicians.
Our blog, “A View from the Cycle Path”, originally started as a way of explaining questions which had been raised by people who had been on our Study Tours and providing supplementary information after those tours. We had noticed that on returning to their own country, people quite quickly settle back into live as it is and forget what they’ve seen.
The appeal of the blog was larger than originally expected. Most readers now have never been on one of our tours, and probably never will. We hope that our blog continues to help people understand both why the Netherlands is different, and how it has become so.
We also organise cycling holidays. Not everyone is a campaigner, and even campaigners sometimes want a rest. Assen is the capital of Drenthe, the least sparsely populated province of the Netherlands. It’s a very pretty area, and known within this country as a good destination for cycling holidays.
We organise holidays for individuals, couples and family groups, with varying ride lengths. These tours also take advantage of the thousands of km of motor traffic free cycle path and country roads which offer through routes only for bikes in this area.
We’re not selling something we don’t do ourselves. We decided to make this area of the country our home because it is such a relaxing and pleasant place to cycle.