Lessons in promoting bicycle use: The case of the Netherlands
Biker in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Photo by Multerland/Flickr.

A biker pedals in one of Amsterdam’s bicycle lanes. The prominence of bike lanes in the city is due in part to community activism and human-centered policy decisions. Photo by Multerland/Flickr.

Darío Hidalgo is EMBARQ’s Director for Research and Practice, with over twenty years of experience as a transport expert, consultant, and government official. Hidalgo is a Colombian native who grew up participating in Ciclovía in Bogotá, and a frequent contributor to TheCityFix.

In 1998, when the local administration of Bogotá, Colombia – my home city – began heavily promoting bicycle use, residents felt ambivalent about the new mode of transport. More than 300 kilometers (186 miles) of permanent bike lanes later, trips made by bicycle accounted for 5% of total trips made in Bogotá in 2011, up from less than 1% in 1998. However, this is still a far cry from the Netherlands, where biking accounts for 27% of total trips and is an integral part of transport policy and people’s everyday lives.

A 2011 video from Bicycle Dutch, an independent blog and YouTube channel covering cycling in the Netherlands, recounts the history of the country’s bike lanes, or cycle paths, and provides useful insight for any country or city looking to strengthen its bicycling infrastructure.

The Netherland’s path to global leadership in bicycling infrastructure

The Netherlands is often cited as a leading example in providing high-quality infrastructure for non-motorized modes of transport, particularly bicycling. And while many assume that the country’s bike lanes – embedded as they would seem to be in Dutch urban design – were built into municipalities from the start, that is not the case.

After World War II, the Netherlands experienced a period of significant wealth accumulation and industrialization, enabling consumers to buy expensive commodities that were previously out of reach. During this time, there was a rapid increase in the number of automobiles coupled with a demand for infrastructure that supported driving. As a result, parks were paved over, historical buildings knocked down, and the car became the dominant mode of transport in the city. Commute times skyrocketed, community ties vanished, and automobiles killed in one year over 400 children.

But then the Dutch made a change – urban residents began making concerted efforts to challenge the dominance of the car by creating public spaces where cars were banned, reinstating and improving bike lanes, establishing car-free days, and crafting transport policies that put people first. Their work shows that people’s protests, combined with responsive leadership can create enormous positive change. Now, the Dutch lead in road safety with only 3.9 traffic fatalities per 100,000 people.

This history is captured in the Bicycle Dutch video below – “How the Dutch got their cycle paths.”

Global efforts to promote non-motorized and sustainable transport

Although certainly a leading example of prioritizing non-motorized transport, the Dutch experience is not entirely unique. Dutch citizens are not the only ones who have been spurred to action by the dominance of cars in their cities, nor is the Netherlands the only country seeking to engrave sustainable, people-oriented transport options into the everyday lives of its citizens. Bogotá’s Ciclovía and Gurgaon, India’s Raahgiri Day, for example, are two cases where urban residents are challenging the dominance of the car in urban spaces.

Today, there are a myriad of resources available for cities and countries interested in implementing people-oriented, sustainable transport solutions – and the research libraries of EMBARQ and the World Resources Institute (WRI) are great places to start. Drawing lessons from countries like the Netherlands – which has set a high standard for integrated, sustainable urban transport systems – and building on new research, there has never been a better time to scale up the global implementation of sustainable transport systems.

EMBARQ, the sustainable urban transport and planning program of WRI, is also the producer of TheCityFix.

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