I was lucky enough to meet Anita Dirix at the VeloCity Global Cycling Conference in Adelaide this year. I kept in touch and asked her how can Australia move from a focus on cycling for sport to cycling for transport like the Dutch. Our conversations resulted in the following.
How to get the cycling wheel turning in Australia?
The Dutch have a pragmatic approach to cycling and unintentionally became a major cycling influencer of the world. The Dutch success of cycling has created an international search for an explanation. How did the overall support for cycling start? Can the approach be duplicated in other countries? Can the Dutch process in becoming a cycling nation be reproduced in Australia?
During a recent visit to the Netherlands, the Australian influentials (government and policy makers) learnt that over the last 20 years, cycling was highly supported by the Dutch government, both local and regional. Cycling is not only highly supported in Amsterdam but also in other cities like Utrecht, Arnhem, Zwolle and Groningen. There are cyclists everywhere. The key questions of the Australian influentials during their visit to the Netherlands related to how to get the more Australians to ride like they do in the Netherlands and how did the cycling movement start?
The more obvious reasons for the Dutch success is that; it is a small country, flat, compact and easy to cycle. The majority of distances to cover are short and suitable for cycling. The Dutch also have a reputation of being economical, even frugal or stingy and cycling is easy and cheap. Dutch people ride for transport because it actually saves time.
The Netherlands have some ingredients which makes cycling flourish, but that does not distinguish them from other neighbouring countries. Of course the Dutch would like to know what started the change in behaviour, discover the one thing that made more people start cycling instead. Knowing that would be a big selling point, but the point is there was no big trigger as a starting point.
In Europe, and also in the Netherlands, there was always a tradition in cycling. At that time, cars and trains were still scarce. A bicycle was more available for obvious reasons. We are talking history, at the first part of the previous century. After the fifties cycling became old fashioned, a poor man’s transport. In the urge to push forwards and with rising prosperity, cars became the desired objects and favourite mode of transport in the Netherlands and in many countries around the world.
The growth of car use in the sixties and seventies was related to issues of prosperity and welfare and rarely to well being. Wikipedia claims the impact of the protest movement, Stop the Child murder, the oil shortage of the 70’s, and the presence of a left wing policy to focus more on well being for the whole instead of prosperity for the few, were a fertile soil to help cycling grow. It is like the starting point of the Nile; many springs make the river flow.
Please don’t misunderstand, cycling was not always taken as granted by all Dutch people. Although nowadays there is no Dutch politician was dares to neglect cycling, this was not always the case. The changes occurred because of some brave politicians who chose the path least trodden. They succeeded to give cycling a boost upwards much like a flywheel and accelerated the growth and support of cycling by the whole community. Looking back, the biggest changes were achieved fighting other challenges. Cycling prospered in the Netherlands when fighting challenges like air pollution, or fighting lack of space in historical centres or fighting traffic jams. The Dutch succeeded in creating a sufficient critical mass of cyclists to make it worthwhile, socially and financially to create good cycling infrastructure. The flywheel of change started turning round, which is still on going. It created a possibility for the Dutch government and policy makers to shift our focus from technical infrastructure, to creating better quality of space and creating better places to be.
Visitors to the Netherlands will notice that Dutch people don’t generally cycle from nowhere to elsewhere but cycle mainly for transport. Dutch people cycle not only on perfect infrastructure, but also cycle in an environment where shops, offices, all sort of activities are widely accessible by bicycle. Cycling in the Netherlands is included as part of normal life and is in everything to improve the quality of public space and urban planning, including social and economic activities. It all fits together.
The Dutch did not start cycling to change the world. The Dutch started cycling as a solution for certain local challenges. They had to deal with some urgencies and supporting cycling helped provide a solution to these urgent challenges. Solving barriers to cycling can help provide solutions to the other problems, creating the flywheel that can help you in turning the wheel around faster. Don’t fight cars, because you will still need them to be mobile; but change the mind frame to smart mobility. Don’t focus to change the world, but set examples which can persuade others to follow. Be persuasive instead of enforcing.
Choose the examples you wish to set wisely. Look for situations in your community where supporting cycling can be more effectively introduced. Look for opportunities. Look at geographical reasons, the willingness of the residents or some other urgent issue that needs to be solved. Setting examples will create energy that will flow and likely be more attractive for others to follow.
There is no copy and paste from the Dutch, you have to create your own flywheels to turn. With this we can support you but it also requires political courage and patience. It took us almost 50 years to get there, but we certainly can support you by sharing our experiences and are pleased to do so.
Anita Dirix Project Management
Utrecht, The Netherlands
06 50 55 50 62