Cycling in the Netherlands, from a converted e-bike enthusiast
Could following the Dutch model of cycling, forged since the 1970s, be the answer to the UK’s push towards a greener society
Could Cycling be the Answer?
Now, without sounding too much like the Stranglers and their 1977 hit Something Better Change, after moving to the Netherlands, some things have had to change. I now drink black tea, coffee is either black or with much more milk than I would ever have used in the UK and finding a Sunday roast involves being on friendly terms with your local butcher and knowing that if you leave it any later than Friday, you will have no chance of finding one.
Living in the Netherlands, a country I affectionately call Dutchland, involves the use of a bicycle as a primary means of transport. Armed with my new e-bike, I think nothing of cycling 30km plus a day, a feat never achieved in England where the roads are so dangerous in rural Suffolk, you take your life into your own hands just venturing out onto a main road. Here cycling is a sociable event. In the same way passengers in a car, or a train, or even an aeroplane, are able to chat to others during their journey, that too is the aim of town planners here in the Netherlands and as one recent Twitter use put it:
Cars have passenger seats for a reason: We’re human. We speak. For the same reason, bike lanes need to be wide enough for this. And if there’s no room, then engineers, … must remove a car lane. We all need to move and talk.
There is nothing more joyous than watching mums on the school run with a young child on the bike seat behind, accompanied by a young 5- or 6-year-old cycling alongside chatting away to the parent and clearly having the time of their life revelling in their freedom.
We have just returned from a short trip to the island of Schiermonnikoog, an island off the north coast of the NL, an island of such wild and expansive beauty, I was constantly reminded of the barren and majestic beauty of the north coast of Scotland and the endless sand dunes of Durness right on the most north westerly tip of Scotland (a place famous for the being the favoured childhood holiday destination of the former Beatle, John Lennon).
I digress, Schiermonnikoog is a hidden gem and the chosen destination of many a well-heeled Dutch or German tourist. You cannot take your car onto the island, instead the main form of transport is fietsen, or rather, bikes, and so we hired four e-bikes ready for collection from the ferry terminal. The island, contrary to expectation is not completely flat and amongst its endless cycle paths through wooded area; sand dunes; coastal paths (looking homeland), and fields with cattle grazing on each and every corner, we found these amazing pump tracks. I was immediately transported back to my childhood and yes, loving the sheer joy of cycling with the wind through your hair and the sense of freedom that cycling here in the Netherlands brings.
Cycling in the Netherlands is joyous. Cycling is freedom. Cycling is a way of life.
Studies show that Dutch children are some of the happiest children in the world and I am starting to understand why. Cycling on the endless network of cycle paths is very safe — the cyclist is king! Motorists have a legal obligation to give way to a cyclist and if there is an accident, regardless of fault, the car driver is always responsible. Dedicated cycle paths across the country (and not just in just in cities) make this a reality. However, I was surprised to learn that this was not always the case, and the parallels between the quandary which the UK faces today and 1970s Netherlands are most interesting.
It was in the post war years when the wealth of the nation found new heights, that the Dutch chose to display this wealth through car ownership. Increasingly, gridlocked cities could not cope, and authorities sought to knock down existing buildings to make way for new and wider roads. Daily usage of the car increased from 3 to 22km/day; all at the same time when childhood deaths hit an all-time high of 400 per year.
But it was an energy crisis, much the same as we have today, which really forced a change in attitudes at all levels. The 1973 Oil Crisis made travelling by car unaffordable and prompted the Dutch PM, Joop den Uyl, to challenge the Dutch population to change their ways and find a new way of living: a way less dependent on energy, but without sacrificing the quality of life.
Taking the lead, central government financed new cycle routes initially in The Hague and Tilburg and cycle usage rose by between 30 and 70%. A political will at both the national and local level made these changes possible and turned around the fate of the nation’s children; 2020 childhood road deaths stood at 14 (down from 400 in the 70s). In the UK: 52.
It is this vision of a greener and a better quality of life which drives the Dutch Cycling Embassy (a vast network of public and private organisations) to literally pave the way, sharing expertise with cities all across the world.
Did you know that cyclists shop more locally and are much more loyal than shoppers driving a car?
Did you know that cyclists spend less money on each shopping trip, but they shop much more frequently and spend more in total?
Did you know that cycling (even on an e-bike) is cheaper than running a car, and is silent, thus reducing traffic noise and generating minimal carbon emission therefore improving the air quality of many neighbourhoods?
Benefits identified by the Dutch Cycling Embassy
A political will at both the national and local level made these changes possible.
Today the cycle lane network in the Netherlands runs to 32,000km and the popularity of e-bikes, especially amongst older citizens makes long distances accessible for all (including those with disabilities) thus negating in some instances, the need for a car at all.
So, in my new life here in Dutchland, something really has changed. We are now a one car family, and three out of four members use bicycles as their main form of transport. I will continue to do all my food shopping by bike including cycling to the local farm shop to buy some lovely free-range eggs; I will cycle with my friends to the local garden centre, chatting so much that the 20km passes in a flash; and I will cycle those 8km each way to the local butcher to find that Sunday roast to put a smile on everyone’s face.
Something really has changed in my life and changed for the good.
All photos Clare Varney ©