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November 22nd, 2016
Health • Infrastructure • Cities

The rise of cycling in the urban areas of The Netherlands

In the 1970s, the Netherlands was becoming dominated by the car, with high levels of pollution and traffic-related deaths. Thanks to pressure groups and enlightened local politicians, cities such as the Hague, Delft and Groningen began to encourage the growth of cycling. This led to a national policy of funding cycling infrastructure, such as as cycle lanes and bike-racks, and led to the Netherlands being pre-eminent among nations for its cycle use, with 27 percent of all journeys being made by bicycle.

The initiative

The initiative began with local authorities. "In the 1980s, Dutch towns and cities began introducing measures to make their streets more cycle-friendly. Initially, their aims were far from ambitious; the idea was simply to keep cyclists on their bikes.

The Hague and Tilburg were the first to experiment with special cycle routes through the city... Subsequently, the city of Delft constructed a whole network of cycle paths and it turned out that this did encourage more people to get on their bikes. One by one, other cities followed suit."[4]

This growth in cycling at a local level led to a national strategy, "Master plan Fiets, (Bicycle plan in the Dutch), [which was] established by the Dutch Ministry of Transport [and] set out for the period of 1990-1997".[5]  The plan has several goals, principally improving the quality of the environment, improving public health, increasing accessibility, and making streets safer for citizens, particularly for children. It receives significant national funding. "To fund the bicycle policy, most municipalities have specific budget allocations. These are used to ensure continuity in bicycle policy implementation. Municipalities also use external funding sources. Bicycle projects can often ride on the back of larger infrastructural projects, construction projects, traffic safety projects or spatial developments."[6]

This is reflected in Amsterdam's cycling strategy. “Even though the city's main transport policy goal is to increase accessibility by all modes, concerns about quality of life and air pollution give the bicycle a special role in transportation planning.”[7]

The challenge

After the postwar expansion of the Netherlands, Amsterdam and other urban areas saw motoring as the transport of the future. "In the 1960s, Dutch cities were increasingly in thrall to motorists, with the car seen as the transport of the future... There was a time, in the 1950s and 60s, when cyclists were under severe threat of being expelled from Dutch cities by the growing number of cars."[1]

This began to change in the 1970s, partly as a result of the growing numbers of traffic deaths, particularly among children. "All that growing traffic took its toll. The number of traffic casualties rose to a peak of 3,300 deaths in 1971. More than 400 children were killed in traffic accidents that year. This staggering loss led to protests by different action groups, the most memorable of which was Stop de Kindermoord (“stop the child murder”). Its first president was the Dutch former MEP, Maartje van Putten."[2]

There were a number of activists who protested against the situation and promoted the increase of cycling as a solution. "Two years after Stop de Kindermoord was established, another group of activists founded the First Only Real Dutch Cyclists' Union to demand more space for bicycles in the public realm - organising bike rides along dangerous stretches of road, and compiling inventories of the problems encountered by cyclists."[3]  In the light of these campaigns - and the rapidly increasingly price of petrol - there was a clear need for the national government - and local urban governments - to take action to make Dutch streets safe for all.

The public impact

The Netherlands is seen as the bicycling nation par excellence. "More than any other country in the Western World, the Netherlands is now famous for its high levels of cycling. Almost every Dutch city is served by extensive cycling facilities, and the widespread presence of cyclists is an integral part of the urban landscape, central to the very image of Dutch cities. Amsterdam is the largest Dutch city and is famous throughout the world for its bike-oriented culture. Groningen, in the far north of the Netherlands, is far less well known, but it has the highest bike share of travel of any Dutch city."[8]

Amsterdam has benefited greatly from the growing popularity of the bicycle. "In Amsterdam between 1986 and 1991, the city already saw 470,000 trips by bike on an average day. Between 2004 and 2008, that number grew to 604,000 per day, and is still growing now. [9]

The Netherlands boasts 22,000 miles of cycle paths. In 2015, cycling accounted for 27 percent of all journeys in the Netherlands, "roughly more than double the cycling modal share of Germany. It is worth mentioning however, that the number of serious accidents involving bicycles is still tiny in the Netherlands given the numbers using the system."[10] This 27 percent share of journeys can be compared with 2 percent in the UK -" and this rises to 38% in Amsterdam and 59% in the university city of Groningen... And the popularity of the bike is still growing, thanks partly to the development of electric bicycles."[11]

Stakeholder engagement

There were many stakeholders involved in the design and implementation of the bicycle policy in the Netherlands, including the national government, provinces and municipalities as well as non-governmental stakeholders (such as the Traffic and Transport Infrastructure department for promotion of the policy). Stakeholders such as health insurance providers, schools, transport companies, retailers and the media are also involved in promotion of the policy.

Important early stakeholders were the campaign groups, such as Stop de Kindermoord and the First Only Real Dutch Cyclists' Union, which were instrumental in promoting the initiative (see The Initiative). There are also many cycling organisations in the Netherlands engaged in the policy, such as the Dutch Cycling Embassy.

Political commitment

The national and local administrations have promoted and implemented the bicycle policy in the Netherlands over the last 30 years or so and now "all major Dutch cities have designated 'bicycle civil servants', tasked to maintain and improve the network."[12]

This commitment is evident from the amount of investment, “in 2010, Dutch authorities (national, regional and local) spent more than EUR24 per person in cycling projects and infrastructure”.[13] It is also demonstrated by a recent strategy introduced in Amsterdam. “In June 2013 the City Council of Amsterdam agreed to a new mobility plan: Mobiliteitsaanpak Amsterdam, proposing a new system of so-called 'Plus nets'.”[14]

Public confidence

The people of the Netherlands strongly support the policy, which can be seen as a grassroots initiative springing from a series of citizen campaigns. The levels of bicycle ownership (1.1 bicycles per person), the high proportion of journeys made by bicycle (27 percent), and the participation in cycling activism is tangible evidence of this. "The Cyclists’ Union has long ceased to be a group of random activists; it is now a respectable organisation with 34,000 paying members whose expertise is in worldwide demand."[15]

Clarity of objectives

The main goal defined at the outset of the policy (to increase the use of bicycles in the Netherlands) was clear and has been maintained consistently. There were also subsidiary objectives that flowed from greater bicycle usage: improving the quality of the environment, improving public health, increasing accessibility, and making streets safer for citizens, particularly for children (see The Initiative above).

In addition there are goals that are necessary to support mass cycling, many to do with providing the necessary infrastructure.

The main goals of Amsterdam's Long-term Bike Plan exemplify these: more bicycle parking spaces, bike racks, cycle lanes and additions to the cycle network.[16]

Strength of evidence

Policymakers initially referred to similar policies in other countries like Germany, although after 2005 Germany followed the Dutch model. In designing their policy, national policymakers referred to the initiatives in municipalities like the Hague and Delft. They also instigated pilot projects, such as the 1994 pilot in Utrecht which tested a 'bike-and-ride' approach, with bike racks available near bus stops.

When designing the road infrastructure, most Dutch traffic experts use the CROW recommendations. "In 1993 CROW produced the first version of a Design Manual for bicycle facilities, entitled ‘Sign up for the bike: Design manual for a bicycle-friendly infrastructure'. This Design Manual describes all the steps, from the decision to promote cycling through to actual physical implementation. The Design Manual introduced the five main requirements for bicycle-friendly infrastructure.”[17]


Given the pro-bike attitudes in the Netherlands, a bike-friendly policy was always going to be supported; what was required was sufficient investment. Policymakers tested the financial feasibility of encouraging the expansion of cycling. The main sources of funding include regional subsidies, contributions from city sectors, the municipal Mobility Fund and each urban area's own budget.

A number of alternative methods of funding have also been deployed, for example: for infrastructure in business parks, there are often individual arrangements; EU funding is increasingly being used for bicycle projects; and in some municipalities, bicycle parking is financed from car parking income. "To fund the bicycle policy, most municipalities have specific budget allocations. These are used to ensure continuity in bicycle policy implementation. Municipalities also use external funding sources. Bicycle projects can often ride on the back of larger infrastructural projects, construction projects, traffic safety projects or spatial developments. Municipalities can also call on subsidies, which are administered by provinces and city areas."[18]

The approach in Amsterdam is indicative of the levels of investment. "For 2020, the municipality invests together with parties such as ProRail and Amsterdam City Region almost €120 million to resolve the main problems in the area of bicycle parking and bicycle network.This sum, €90 million for the realization of the 38,000 bicycle parking spaces. Until 2040, a total of approximately €200 million is needed, of which €170 million for bicycle parking."[19]


The approach taken in the Netherlands is to apply policy direction at national level and to devolve the management of cycling to provincial and municipal government. "Besides 12 provinces, in the Dutch agglomerations of the country’s largest cities there are 7 city areas which, specifically in terms of traffic, have the same duties as provinces (except that they do not administer their own roads). The 19 ‘middle managements’ have been allocated a central role in traffic policy by the state in recent years, through far-reaching decentralisation from the state level. Provinces and city areas have now acquired responsibilities to ensure policy cohesion at regional level – in other words to promote a stronger collaboration between municipalities."[20]


There are many indicators by which policymakers monitor the growth of the policy: the number of bicycles per inhabitant, parking slots, the number of bicycle accidents, and the proportion of journeys taken by bicycle. Apart from this, policymakers referred to various studies (such as a 2005 study on municipal differences in bicycle use, exploring what role cycling policy and traffic policy play in encouraging bicycle use).

Policymakers also monitor the relevant infrastructure. “In the Netherlands the system known as Cycle Balance (Fietsbalans) is used nationwide to assess the quality of cycling infrastructure and services. In the early 1990s, the ministry of transport decided to initiate a benchmarking project and commissioned the Dutch Cyclists' Union, 'Fietsersbond', to carry out systematic data collection.

"The Cycle Balance comprises... five components:

  • "A written survey among the relevant employees working in the individual cities and municipalities... to assess the role of cycling in municipal planning.
  • "With the help of a written survey among cyclists, their perspective [on]how satisfied they are with the local cycling conditions...
  • "Accurate data on the percentage use of bicycles as a means of transport, as well as the volume of traffic and road safety in the individual municipalities.
  • "The quality of the cycle-route network...
  • "Cities [are] evaluated for the quality of their cycle-parking facilities.”[21]


All the actors (internal and external stakeholders were aligned with each other to achieve the goals. The policymakers consulted the stakeholders about the design and implementation of strategies. External stakeholders like the campaign groups (see Stakeholder Engagement above) and the Dutch Cycling Embassy have acted as intermediary between public and government bodies to make the change happen. Also, the municipalities are investing in a long-term strategy, which shows their motivation and their alignment of interest towards the policy.


Cycling in the Netherlands, 2009, Department of Transport, Public Works and Water Management


Cycling Quality Management and Evaluation in Europe, 2008, Cycling Expertise


How Amsterdam became the bicycle capital of the world, Renate van der Zee, 5 May 2015, The Guardian


Keeping the Dutch Cyclists Rolling, Michael Afanasyev, 21 September 2015, Bike Citizens


Meerjarenplan Fiets 2012-2016, Gemeente Amsterdam


Opportunities for Dutch cycling enterprises in Germany, Hendrike Hellmann, The Dutch Cycling Embassy


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