Cycle-friendly societies: lessons from the Dutch and the Danes

The Netherlands and Denmark have become synonymous with high numbers of cyclists and extensive cycling infrastructures. In Denmark, 9 out of 10 people own a bike, while the Netherlands has an estimated 16.5 million bikes in a country of 17.3 million people. Both countries have developed impressive cycle networks and have integrated cycling infrastructure into wider transport planning.

But the prevalence of cycling in these countries didn’t happen overnight – or by accident. Campaigning, urban planning, political support and investment all had roles to play in making the Netherlands and Denmark such great role models for bike-friendly societies.

A historical perspective

In the first decades of the twentieth century, as in other parts of Europe, cyclists in Denmark and the Netherlands were in competition for road space with horses, trams and growing numbers of cars. In Denmark during the 1920s and ‘30s there was a long-running debate on how to accommodate cyclists on Danish roads. Initially, a painted line to separate cyclists from other traffic was suggested. But a high number of accidents pushed Danish planners towards a separate cycling infrastructure, which has grown into the widespread network Denmark has today.

In the Netherlands, taxation funded a national network of cycle tracks across the country.  But after the Second World War, the rise of motor vehicles confined cyclists to the margins, with some cycle paths removed to widen roads for cars. The city of Rotterdam, destroyed during the war, was rebuilt with a plan that put the automobile at its centre, with people commuting by car from the new suburbs.

This decline in cycling also happened in other European countries. In the UK, the 15% of all trips taken by bike in 1950 had plummeted to just 1.3% of trips in 1975. But in the 1970s, popular protests took place in Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands against motorway expansion, triggered by steep oil price rises and a growing environmental movement. This backlash persuaded urban planners that more consideration needed to be given to cyclists, pedestrians and public transport. Since then, national and local governments have prioritised policies to make cycling safer, more convenient and more attractive. As one study has noted:

“Instead of catering to ever more motor vehicles by expanding roadways and parking facilities, Dutch, German, and Danish cities have focused on serving people, making their cities people-friendly rather than car-friendly, and thus more liveable and more sustainable than American, British, and Australian cities.”

Cycling today in Denmark and the Netherlands

In the Netherlands today there are 35,000km of cycle paths, while Denmark has 12,000km. In both countries, traffic calming measures have restricted or banned cars on residential streets and have imposed speed limits. There are extensive bike parking facilities – the Dutch city of Utrecht, for example, is building a further 30,000 bike parking spots as part of a ten-year infrastructure plan.

Integration with public transport networks complements the efforts to encourage more people to get on their bikes – in the Netherlands, 50% of all public transport trips begin with a bicycle ride. From an early age, Dutch, German and Danish citizens are taught how to be safe cyclists and to make motorists aware of other road users.

Prioritising cycling ensures that cyclists can get around quickly and safely. In Copenhagen, electronic systems coordinate traffic lights to recognise bikes instead of cars, which means cyclists travelling at a speed of 20km/h find that they hit green lights all the way into the city in the morning, and back again at the evening rush hour.

Could it happen here?

With decades of cycle-centric planning and investment, Denmark and the Netherlands are miles ahead of the UK. But one of the few positives emerging from the coronavirus pandemic in this country has been a resurgence of interest in cycling. During the 2020 lockdowns, some UK cities created pop-up bike lanes, and bike sales soared by 63%. A wave of new cyclists took to the streets, with many feeling safer in the saddle than on crowded public transport.

But with traffic now returning to pre-lockdown levels, cycling campaign groups are worried that the momentum may be lost. As Keir Gallagher of Cycling UK told the BBC:

“If measures aren’t taken now, then unfortunately a lot of those people who have discovered cycling are going to be lost and people are going to return to their cars if they don’t feel safe.”

As Denmark and the Netherlands have demonstrated, infrastructure is a vital factor in persuading more people to take up cycling. One UK city that’s been working hard to improve its cycling infrastructure is Cardiff. In 2017, Cardiff Council launched a 10-year cycling strategy, which aims to make walking or cycling the first choice for short trips within the city. Working with transport planners and civil engineers, the council has identified five primary route corridors for cycleways, connecting major destinations, existing communities and strategic development sites across the city. In the coming years, over 30km of segregated cycle routes will radically improve Cardiff’s cycling infrastructure. Clearly, Cardiff’s efforts are paying off: last year, the city came top in a poll to be named Britain’s best cycling city.

The road ahead

The rewards of cycling for individuals and for wider society are numerous. Cycling causes almost no noise or air pollution and consumes far fewer resources than automobiles. It’s also good for physical and mental health and is much more affordable than other modes of transport.

The economic impacts of cycling are also considerable. A 2015 study by the University of Birmingham highlighted a number of benefits: cyclists visit local shops more regularly than drivers; property values of homes in cycle-friendly areas are higher; cycling to work leads to lower staff turnover and fewer sick days; and facilities allowing children to cycle to school save on the public cost of school travel.

With governments now aiming to build back better, fairer and greener, perhaps there’s never been a better time to learn lessons from our neighbours on how to be a cycle-friendly society.


Further reading: more on sustainable transport from The Knowledge Exchange

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.