Dutch cyclists are not competent to cycle in the UK

This page is a draft and has not yet been endorsed as official Cycling Embassy policy.

Summary of the claim

Whilst not always applied to Dutch cyclists, it is claimed that cycle paths (such as those found in The Netherlands), prevent cyclists from acquiring and developing the skills necessary for cycling on roads with large volumes of fast moving motor traffic. It is used as an argument against implementing any sort of separate cycling infrastructure here in the UK, although it is something of a fallacy; The minority of British people who choose to cycle have to adapt to cope with a road network which was designed without consideration for the needs of cyclists ans is inherently hostile to cycling. By re-designing our road network to accommodate the needs of cyclists of a wide range of proficiencies, there would be no need to learn behaviours designed to overcome the inherent deficiencies in our road network as it currently exists. This claim may also have roots in elitism; people who wish for cycling to remain the stable of a small group of extremely fit, fast and proficient young cyclists who are able to cope with the status quo, accessible to only the “elite” group of cyclists who have successfully developed the fitness and learned the skills necessary to cope with the British road network as it currently exists.

Example sources

Often attributed to John Franklin, from an open letter1 he wrote to letter to Sustrans in 1998, regarding the reluctance of Dutch tourists to cycle when visiting the UK. John Franklin also wrote an article Two decades of the Redway cycle paths in Milton Keynes2, he states that “There is much to suggest that use of the paths has inhibited the skills acquisition that is essential to cycle safely and more widely.” Whilst this statement was made in the context of the Milton Keynes Redways, others have interpreted it as being applicable to cyclists accustomed to using any type of separate cycle infrastructure.

Summary of responses

  1. The suggestion that Dutch cyclists are not proficient enough to cycle on British roads is a rather sweeping generalisation made about a nation of people as diverse as any other
  2. The innate hostility towards cycling prevalent in the British road network discourages the majority of British people from cycling on it, it stands to reason that it would also discourage the vast majority of people visiting from other countries from cycling on it.
    1. This is true both of tourists from countries with similar road networks and cycling rates (USA, Australia) and tourists from countries with road networks designed to accommodate the needs of cyclists, and a correspondingly much higher cycling rate than the UK, such as The Netherlands & Denmark.

In more detail

In John Franklin’s open letter to Sustrans1 he states that “Sustrans has often cited the fact that Dutch cyclists sometimes leave the ferry at Harwich and find traffic so difficult to deal with that they go back home! Interestingly, this problem is not experienced by cyclists arriving from France, Spain or the USA. Proficiency in using roads on a regular basis is essential to maximise safety, and to maximise one’s cycling horizons. I would not like to see Britain on the slope down to Dutch levels of cycling competence.” It seems that John Franklin’s ideological opposition to any separation of cyclists from motor traffic has led him to make a sweeping generalisation about an entire nation. Whilst many Dutch tourists visiting the UK may not feel sufficiently safe to cycle on the UK road network, the same can be said for the vast majority of British people who also do not feel safe or able to cycle on the current UK road network. At present in the UK, only a small minority of people choose to cycle, largely composed of young, fit and able-bodied men, who through their enthusiasm cycling have developed the confidence and experience to cope with a road network which was not designed with the needs of cyclists in mind. The vast majority of people are not cycling enthusiasts, whilst many would choose to cycle to get from A-to-B if they could feel safe whilst doing so, and doing so was made direct and convenient, until that happens they will continue not to cycle. In The Netherlands, millions of people who are not cycle enthusiasts choose to cycle because it has been made to feel a safe, convenient and direct method to get from A-to-B. Many Dutch people are oblivious to the fact that at present, the level of consideration shown to cyclists by the design of their road network is rather unique. People who cycle because it is easy, direct, safe and convenient in The Netherlands will naturally choose not to cycle here in the UK for the same reasons that the vast majority of British people choose not to, it doesn’t feel safe to them, other modes of travel have been made more convenient at the expense of cycling. Similarly, many British people who do not cycle here in the UK for exactly the same reasons will often feel happy to cycle when visiting The Netherlands.

Sustrans observed that sometimes Dutch tourists come to the UK with their cycles & see the hostile state of the UK road network, and promptly return home. This is not as Franklin suggests, a comment on the state of cycling proficiency of the Dutch people as a whole (which in iself is a gross, sweeping generalisation), it is instead a damning indictment of the complete unsuitability of the UK road network, as it currently exists, for the needs of the average person who wishes to get around on a cycle. The UK road network as it currently exists does not make cycling appealing to the overwhelmingly vast majority of British people, it stands to reason that it would also not make cycling appealing to the vast majority of tourists, be they from countries with similar road networks, such as the USA or Australia, or countries where the road network has been designed with consideration for the needs of cyclists, such as The Netherlands or Denmark.


1 Casualties on cycle paths: an open letter to Sustrans (John Franklin)

2 Two decades of the Redway cycle paths in Milton Keynes (John Franklin)

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