A series of recent posts on the Dutch blog Magic Bullet argues that the high levels of cycling in the Netherlands are predominantly explained by geography, both physical, and social. [An earlier post, suggesting that an explanation lies with power in the Netherlands being held by 'wealthy, white, highly-educated middle class, working as decision makers', who cycle a lot themselves, alongside a concentration of cycling students, is probably not worth bothering with here, largely because it is question-begging - why are these groups cycling far more than their equivalents in for instance, the UK, in the first place?].
The posts are more general than a specific UK-NL comparison, arguing about the transferability of the Dutch cycling experience worldwide. Nevertheless, a comparison between these two countries is instructive, because it can serve to isolate reasons for high Dutch cycling levels.
As regards physical geography, he suggests that the Netherlands demonstrates that both flatness and mildness of climate are required. He writes
Physical geography is one of the most decisive factors determining the success of cycling as day-to-day transportation… The breeding ground has to be flat [and] the climate should be acceptable to get outside 7/7 days of the week, 12/12 months of the year.
Of course if the climate of a particular country is excessively hot or cold, that will have a discouraging effect on ‘ordinary’ cycling; it just becomes too unpleasant. But most of Western Europe does not generally fall into this category, except for small periods of the year. And, specifically, while the Dutch climate is conducive to cycling – it is mild – the author himself describes how the UK climate is ‘even milder’. Climate cannot be a reason why cycling levels are so low in Britain, if a country with a less conducive climate – the Netherlands – has considerably more cycling.
Flatness is, again, initially convincing as an ‘essential’ condition for high cycling levels; hills are a deterrent, and should be acknowledged as such. Research does suggest that cycling levels do decline with increasing hilliness. But the author takes this argument too far, and writes that
Dutch-type cycling infrastructure in [hilly] areas would be a complete waste of money
People will certainly be less inclined to cycle in hilly areas than they may be in flat areas, but this is not an argument for simply failing to make conditions for cycling better in these hilly areas. Quite the opposite, in fact; the harder cycling becomes, the more effort should be made to make it as comfortable and as pleasant as possible. Hilly towns and cities are places where good cycling infrastructure is just as important as it would be anywhere else (Dave Horton has written convincingly on this subject). Flatness is not ‘essential’ for mass cycling (by which I mean cycling being available as a transport option for a significant majority of the population); we can and should enable cycling in hilly towns and cities, and not give up. More cycling is worth it, even if the levels of cycling achieved are not as high as in flat areas.
So, I don’t think that flatness and a good climate are ‘decisive factors determining the success of cycling as day-to-day transportation’. My own town of Horsham is virtually flat, and has a very pleasant climate. There is not a hill to speak of within it, beyond an incline here or there, and it rarely gets exceptionally hot or cold. Yet cycling levels here are miserable, as they are in countless similar market towns in Britain. The same is true for major cities like London, Manchester and Birmingham; the ‘decisive factors’ of flatness and reasonable climate have only succeeded in making cycling an attractive prospect for a tiny percentage of all trips.
Plainly there is a much more ‘decisive factor’ at play here in these UK towns and cities, although I should make clear that the author of Magic Bullet is more concerned with identifying the conditions that are required for high levels of cycling; he is not specifically arguing that these conditions, once identified, will automatically result in high cycling levels.
His more recent post then turns to ‘social geography’ as an explanation for high Dutch cycling levels, or, specifically, as an ‘essential condition’ for the high cycling rate.
after you’ve climatized your country and moved all mountains, one has to put the country into a shrinking machine to make it truly ideal for cycling. As a result of the shrinking, all distances become within lilliput range of a lilliput vehicle: the bicycle. Upon shrinking, absolute speed is less important, because everything is nearby anyway.
That is, high cycling levels in the Netherlands are dependent not just on a good climate and flatness, but also on the country being ‘shrunk'; it has a high population density, and (separately) its towns and cities are small and compact.
David Hembrow has, of course, pointed out that England has a very similar population density to the Netherlands, yet very different cycling levels. This is critiqued by Magic Bullet as a sleight of hand, because England (unlike the Netherlands) is not a sovereign state, only a ‘constituting country’, part of the United Kingdom.
My response to this is essentially ‘so what?’
I see no reason to believe that cycling levels in England would be significantly different if it were to become a sovereign state, independent of the other members of the United Kingdom. It would have the same population density it has now, the same climate, the same geography, and the same low cycling levels. It’s perfectly acceptable to compare England with the Netherlands, even if they are not the same constitutional entities; the objection is as silly as saying a large town can’t be compared with a city of the same population because one is a city, and one is a town. If the population density of an area is important for cycling, it is surely important irrespective of whether the area under consideration is a constituting country or a sovereign country.
[EDIT - Paul M, in the comments below, has got me thinking about whether the population density, of a country as a whole, is even worth bothering with as a reliable indicator of cycling levels. Sweden, for instance, has a very low population density of only around 20 people per square kilometre, but that is no reason to suppose cycling will never form a significant proportion of all trips made in the country. At least a third of Sweden's population is concentrated in the metropolitan areas of the three biggest cities, where cycling can form a serious mode of transport. Sweden already has a 9% modal share for cycling, for all trips in the country.]
The argument then switches from apparent low density in the UK explaining low cycling rates, to high density explaining low cycling rates; specifically
Typical population densities of Metropoles e.g., London (5206/km2), Paris (21423/km2), New York (10.606/km2) are much higher than anywhere in The Netherlands (e.g., Amsterdam 3645/km2, Rotterdam 2850/km2).
How can this be? High densities should surely result in high cycling rates; yet the rate of cycling in London, as a whole, is barely better than the rest of the UK, and much lower than anywhere in the Netherlands. The explanation -
In true metropoles, subways, trams, buses and walking are completely taking over the role of the bicycle. Distances between one side of the metropole and the other are much too long to cover with a bicycle: London has a surface of 1577km2, Amsterdam is only 219km2(=11x20km). Amsterdam can be cycled through from one end to the other in an hour or so. London would take you half a day or more.
So it’s the size of London that is responsible; the assumption being that in bigger cities, trip lengths get longer. That’s why London has an extensive public transport system; because trips within it are long and consequently not attractive by bike.
I don’t have any information on typical trip lengths in Dutch cities (perhaps someone can supply them) but it is certainly not true that trips in London are mostly so long they are not cycleable. Joe Dunckley has helpfully put this information in graphical form (taken from the National Travel Survey), so I can borrow it shamelessly -
The relevant column for London shows us that 42% of all journeys in London are under 2 miles; 70% are under 5 miles; and 86% are under 10 miles. A large majority of trips in London, therefore, are of an eminently cycleable distance; they are under 5 miles long. We can also see that around 50% of all London trips are between 1 and 5 miles long; the ‘sweet spot’ for cycling distance.
The size of London has not resulted in a large proportion of trips being made all the way across the city; the majority of trips are composed of short distances within it. It’s entirely reasonable to expect the relative proportion of trip lengths made in Dutch cities – despite them being smaller – to be broadly similar.
The argument then finally moves to a discussion of the geography of the Netherlands as a whole; it is claimed that the Netherlands’ arrangement of small towns and cities, at close relative proximity to each other, is a critical factor in explaining why cycling levels are so high. Commenting on this pattern of small cities, positioned closed to one another, he writes
What a difference with the UK, where [the] entire top 20 [by city size] is larger than Eindhoven. Or Germany, where the entire top 30 is larger than Eindhoven. But the overall population density of these countries is still lower… that’s due to the horrific emptiness and long distances in between those big cities. These distances will kill all attempts to promote relaxed cycling from one city to the other.
Well, a sound basis for high cycling levels in a country is not the amount of cycling from one city to another, or even from one town to another; it’s cycling within towns and cities, so I have to say distance between large towns and cities is rather irrelevant. These longer trips, upwards of 10 miles, will not be as attractive for cycling, and will always remain a small minority of the total number of trips made by bike. Bicycle trips between towns and cities in the Netherlands will pale into insignificance compared to the number of trips made within them; so the proximity of their towns and cities to each other doesn’t strike me as a particularly determining factor. (You could even argue that large cities like London, Birmingham and Manchester represent an amalgamation of outlying towns and villages within the urban area, and in that sense are not all that different from the Dutch arrangement, albeit with the rural bits in between having disappeared).
And despite the apparent ‘horrific emptiness’ of Britain, we can borrow one of Joe’s graphs again to demonstrate that trip lengths in Great Britain are, for the most part, rather short -
These distances correspond closely with the distances cycled by bicycle in the Netherlands. 58% of all bike trips here are between 1 and 5 km long (a further 18% of all trips made by bike are between 5 and 10km long), and only 19% of all bike trips made are shorter than 1km. So there is huge potential for converting a significant proportion of those 66% of all British trips to being cycled.
And here we come to what I consider to be the most pressing ‘essential condition’ for high cycling levels. It isn’t flatness, or climate, or social geography (although these things can be important), because a high proportion of trips in Britain (and in London specifically) are short, the climate is mild, and large parts of the country are generally flat.
The reason why these conditions have not resulted in high cycling levels is due to the environment for cycling itself; how pleasant and attractive cycling trips actually are. This isn’t mentioned at all by Magic Bullet, and yet the evidence would suggest it is the most pressing ‘essential condition’. ‘Main roads’ in Britain typically look like this -
It is the environment for cycling that explains why short trips in Britain, despite a mild climate and general flatness, are cycled in only a tiny minority of cases. Dutch cyclists are insulated from road danger, while British cyclists are continually exposed to it. I suspect this is why Dutch people fail to identify – or downplay – subjective safety as a significant reason why people don’t cycle. They don’t know any different.