People cycle in the Netherlands because it is flat

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Summary of the claim

The reason cycling is so popular in the Netherlands is because the country is flat. By contrast the very low cycling levels in Britain are explained because the country is hillier in many places. (This form of argument is often accompanied by the implication that Britain can never achieve Dutch levels of cycling, because it is a hillier country.)

Example sources 

Most recently, responses to the BBC Newsnight programme, Why Do So Many Dutch people cycle? For instance - 'They ironed flat the country' and 'Because its flat!!!!'

Summary of responses

  1. If flatness is the defining reason why people choose to cycle in the Netherlands in such huge numbers, then flat cities like London, Manchester and Cardiff would have levels of cycling that at least approximate to those found in Dutch cities. They don't - cycling levels in these flat cities rest at around 2% of all trips, unlike the 30%+ share typical of Dutch cities. 
  2. While the Netherlands is flat in large part, it is not an entirely flat country. The south is particularly hilly, with cities like Maastricht, Nijmegen and Arnhem built on or around hills. These places have cycling modal shares far in excess of most British cities, even those that are flat (the modal share for cycling in Maastricht is over 25%). Likewise countries across Europe that are substantially hillier than the UK have better cycling levels; Switzerland, for instance, has a national cycling share of 6% of all trips, compared to just 2% for the UK.
  3. Parts of the Netherlands may be flat, but these parts of the country are also typically very windy (the Netherlands is not famed for its windmills without reason). Strong winds provide as much of a impediment to cycling as gradients1, yet Dutch people still cycle in large numbers in these places.
  4. Electric bikes are increasingly available, at lower prices. Power-assisted cycling makes going uphill as easy as cycling on the flat. 
  5. It is just as important to create safe and inviting conditions for cycling in hilly places as it is in flat places. If we want people to cycle, we should make it pleasant for them to do so, and we shouldn't simply give up in places that are a bit hilly. Indeed, as cycling uphill will mean cycling more slowly, and therefore a greater speed differential with motor traffic, it is arguably even more important that special attention is paid to subjective safety in hilly places. 

In more detail

It is undeniable that it requires more effort to cycle uphill than to cycle on the flat, and consequently - all other things being equal - that cycling in a hilly area is less attractive than in a flat area. We know from research2 that increasing hilliness does tend to have a suppressing effect on cycling levels. 

However it cannot be true that people cycle in the Netherlands purely because it is flat. If this were so, flat cities in Britain like London, Manchester, Cardiff and Birmingham would have the same amount of cycling as Dutch cities. They don't - the cycling mode share in many flat British cities languishes at around 1-2%, far below the typical 30%+ mode share in Dutch cities.

Similarly, if flatness of terrain is the reason why cycling is so popular in the Netherlands, then the equally flat East Anglia would have correspondingly similar levels of cycling. However in Norfolk and Suffolk, cycle to work rates (which are typically higher than the general cycling rate) are not even 3% of all trips.3

Indeed, research estimates that if Britain had exactly the same topography as the Netherlands, the proportion of all trips cycled would only rise from 1.7% to 2.6%4 - still around ten times lower than the rate in the Netherlands. This suggests that, while 'hilliness' is a small factor in suppressing cycling levels, it leaves a very large difference unexplained. Even in the very flattest parts of Britain, cycling still only accounts for less than 3% of all trips made.

When you consider that hilly cities in the Netherlands, like Maastricht, achieve cycling levels far in excess of flat British cities, it is clear that terrain, in and of itself, pales into insignificance as a reason why people don't cycle in Britain (we have our own version of Maastricht - the hilly city of Bristol has a cycling to work mode share of 12%5).  The main obstacle is fear of motor traffic, and a reluctance to cycle amongst it. If we are serious about enabling cycling, we need to do all we can to make it subjectively safe and an obvious transport choice everywhere, even if, in hilly areas, we don't achieve the same level of cycling as in flat places. This means that in hilly places in Britain we should not just give up, but make a greater effort to create safe and comfortable environments. Cycling up hills inevitably means cycling more slowly, and greater speed differentials with motor traffic; in turn that means a greater need for separation, to make cycling a relaxing and pleasant experience, rather than one that requires more exertion than is necessary. 

We shouldn't overestimate the amount of effort required to cycle up gradients, particularly shallow ones. Cycling more slowly can make hills much more manageable. But for those who struggle, electric bikes are an increasingly affordable option; power assistance removes the effort required to cycle uphill. 

It's also worth noting that, while the Netherlands is pretty flat, it does have hilly areas, particularly in the south and east, and cycling levels here are just as high as in flat parts of the country. Flat parts of the the Netherlands also have deal with vicious headwinds, which present as much of a difficulty as cycling uphill.

And, finally, every uphill is, from the other direction, a downhill. It might require a bit of extra effort to cycle in one direction, but the return leg will require no effort at all. 

Further reading

Footnotes and references