ARCHIVES: This is legacy content from before Sustainable Cities Collective was relaunched as Smart Cities Dive in early 2017. Some information, such as publication dates or images, may not have migrated over. For the latest in smart city news, check out the new Smart Cities Dive site or sign up for our daily newsletter.

Animated Infographic Explains Why the Dutch Cycle

In recent years cycling has taken center stage as an important political topic for cities around the world.  In an age of austerity and increasing oil prices, it is little wonder that cycling has reemerged as a significant form of sustainable transportation. Cycling enthusiasts and politicians commonly praise the affordability and the inherent health benefits to having an active population, but there is another important social dynamic that is often overlooked. 

There is a growing body of research suggesting cycling plays a significant role in fostering social belonging and active civic participation. People who ride bicycles on a regular basis are more aware of their social surroundings, and this heightened perception actually increases engagement in community interaction. On the other hand, motorists benefit far less from this social interaction. This is due in part to cars being privately owned, enclosed spaces.  Motorists are separate and insulated from the public sidewalks, parks and bicycle lanes that they pass by while driving on road networks. In this way, the motorist is removed from the public realm while behind the wheel.

Currently, many municipal leaders and planners are grappling with the challenges of invigorating a new cycling culture or reinventing one that was lost during the past 60 years of car-friendly urbanism. In the drive to make cities more cycling-friendly, there is one country that consistently stands out. The Netherlands remains the cycling capital of the world.  The Dutch have kept their cycling culture alive despite the pressures of modern industrialization.  While maintaining high levels of prosperity and happiness, cycling remained one of the preferred means of transportation. As a result it is so entrenched in Dutch society that it is often easy to undervalue the reasons for its continued prominence. 

 Amsterdam cyclist, 1970s / by Amsterdamized, creative commons license

In the complex socio-technical system two crucial elements of this success are often overlooked.  First of all, in the mid-1970s the public fiercely opposed planners and civic engineers who attempted to build highway networks leading directly into historic city centers. These social movements appeared across the Netherlands, gaining broad traction within the public after a dramatic spike in car-related child fatalities in the years following WWII. Throughout this public unrest, the bicycle became emblematic of social resistance. 

The second and even less credited reason for the current cycling culture in the Netherlands is forward-thinking policy. While protests were going on in the streets, policy makers were busy passing land-use policies that prevented big box stores from being built on the outskirts of cities. The ramifications of these policies were enormous. Now development was directed increasingly into city centers. There was little room for large-scale stores that usually cater to shoppers with cars in the existing urban fabric of these historical cities. As a result, the retail shops and grocery stores built inside cities continued to service pedestrians and cyclists. Small shops remained in place and others appeared in neighborhoods across the city.  Often the most cherished locations for retail were those positioned along popular cycling routes.  In the years to follow, these developments in the land use and transport system kept reinforcing each other. As a result cycling increased and development of cycling-friendly urbanism became normalized practice. In cities like Amsterdam the incorporation of cycling infrastructure is so natural to planners that the knowledge gained from decades of active transportation planning remains an unconscious skill for Dutch planners and municipal leaders. 

According to the pundits and prophets who dominate the media, the future of transportation is all figured out for us. Cheaper gas prices mean we can still count on our private cars to take us everywhere we want to go in the years to come. The only big change down the road will be driverless autos, which will make long hours behind the wheel less boring and more productive.


This article was co-authored by Marco te Brömmelstroet from the Urban Cycling Institute.


M. te Brömmelstroet (personal communication, February 11, 2015)

Infographic by Lucas Brailsford