As part of RTPI London’s Centenary celebrations a group of London based planners spent a long weekend experiencing the world’s most cycle friendly country.
The group of 12 planning practitioners spent four days cycling around the Netherlands to learn how the Dutch make cycling accessible as part of the design of their cities and highways. Cycling is an increasingly prominent feature of UK transport and planning rhetoric; however, despite efforts such as the Mayor's Vision for Cycling in London, UK cycling levels are among the lowest in Europe.
The study group included some keen cyclists, as well as others who rarely rode a bicycle, or had not done so for years. Having disembarked at the Hook of Holland, the group followed a dedicated cycleway up the Nieuwe Waterweg to Rotterdam, before heading inland to the pretty city of Gouda and on to Utrecht, a distance of over 90km in one day.
The following day included a cycling tour of Utrecht by Herbert Tiemens, a renowned Dutch cycle guru. As bicycle programme manager for the region, Herbert was able to provide insight into the development of cycling in the city, as well as the integrated approach to transport and land use planning that exists in the Netherlands.
Out-of-town shopping centres, for example have been discouraged by Dutch planning laws since the 1970s, specifically to protect the existing shops in city centres. Out-of-town shopping was restricted to large goods in specific locations. This was national policy until 2007, but local governments have continued these planning policies, to focus shopping in the city centres. Retail parks are still strictly limited.
In the 1960s Utrecht was demolishing buildings and widening roads for car traffic. This space (Potterstraat) has now been reallocated to people and bicycles. Cycling in the Netherlands is very safe and people’s attire reflects this.
We also saw many examples of cycling infrastructure, including 1 and 2-way tracks, bicycle streets and a brand new 4,500 space underground bicycle park at the railway station.
Utrecht street with separate provision for buses and cycles (no cars)
Tour group, Herbert Tiemens and daughter outside 4,500 space bicycle park in Utrecht
From Utrecht, we headed north to Amsterdam (40km), arriving just in time to see the Netherlands beat Costa Rica in the World Cup quarter final.
A rest-day in Amsterdam provided some respite for saddle-sore bottoms and an opportunity to explore Dutch housing developments including IJburg and Almere, In both cases, high-quality cycling infrastructure (including a very impressive bridge) is integral to the design of the new town/neighbourhood and it is well-integrated with local and regional public transport. IJburg was marked by particularly high quality public realm, including play-streets and a comprehensive network of cycle tracks.
The final day consisted of a further 100km ride back to the Hook of Holland, via Schipol, Westeinderplassen, Leiden and the North Sea coast. Despite the relative amateurishness of many of our group, we were able to cover over 240 km in three days – testimony to the quality of the wonderful Dutch cycling environment.
The Netherlands is not, it must be emphasised, a country of car-haters; on the contrary, on the trip we saw endless classic cars, including Citroen DS19s, BMW M3s, old Porsche 911s and a fair amount of American metal. Dutch people are as interested in cars as we are; they just have more freedom to choose when to drive them.
Lessons for the UK
The Netherlands and UK have much in common; both are densely-populated high-income countries with strong central governments, temperate climates and highly urban populations. Yet the Dutch have built themselves a country where 27% of all trips are by bicycle and 37% of children cycle to school.
In Britain, it is commonly assumed that “Everyone in Holland cycles because it is flat”. The actual answer is not topographical but political. Car-centric urban planning was the norm in the Netherlands from WWII until the mid 1970s. The 1973 energy crisis was accompanied by widespread protest at the soaring rate of child deaths from road accidents, in a movement known as 'Stop de Kindermoord’ (stop the child murder) and pressure for better cycling conditions from the Dutch Cyclist Union. This prompted a marked change in the Dutch approach to urban planning, away from ever-increasing motorisation in favour of a focus on quality of urban life as a means to deliver attractive cities that attract investment and jobs,
The Dutch commitment to cycling has continued into the 2010s and shows no sign of abating. Political leadership is key. There is cross-party support for cycling in the Netherlands. The Dutch National Transport Plan states that Provincial and Municipal governments must promote cycling; this must be embedded in their policy documents, but how they do so is up to them. They are backed up with high quality design guidance and high levels of reliable, long-term funding.
Everyone cycles in the Netherlands – children are independent from an early age and according to UNICEF are consistently the happiest in the world. Dutch people do not cycle due to pecuniary constraints or a commitment to environmental wellbeing; they do it because it is the most convenient way of getting about.
Dutch roundabouts are safe, direct and accessible to anyone on a bike
Delivering the Netherlands to Britain - a personal view
If we in Britain are to catch up with the Netherlands, we will need to undertake the fundamental step of considering cycling as a mainstream mode of transport.
This requires strong and consistent leadership at a national level, coupled with statutory requirements for all UK local authorities to ensure that cycling is the de facto mode of transport for journeys under 5 miles. All too often cycling is forgotten in the UK, or dismissed as a marginal activity. Legislation is required to address this.
The built environment must cater not only for existing cyclists, but for the vast majority of people that will never cycle on British roads with heavy traffic. Just as the design of new roads in the UK is specified by DMRB and Manual for Streets, equivalent documents are required for cycling infrastructure. Cross departmental cooperation will be needed to integrate land use planning, cycling design and public health. It will also require high levels of long term public funding; at least the £20 per person per year seen in the Netherlands, sustained over many years.
Britain is facing a looming obesity crisis, soaring levels of physical inactivity, particularly among children, climate change and dying town centres. Making the UK fully accessible to everyone by bicycle would address these concerns while adding considerably to our quality of life; however UK-wide, cycling is stagnating or falling outside a few cities and the DfT predicts this to continue to 2040, A vision for change is required.
London is increasingly something of an exception to the UK trend; while cycling in London remains a minority activity, its popularity is growing. TfL has a good understanding of London’s cycling potential .London has a Cycling Commissioner, a Cycling Vision and a well-funded business plan. TfL has also pushed for much higher design standards and for new types of junctions, signs and signals that are commonplace in the Netherlands – this is starting to be reflected in TfL’s latest designs. The benefits of cycling are also incorporated into TfL’s Health Action Plan. Elsewhere in Britain, further encouragement comes from the Wales Active Travel Bill and the Bristol Cycling Strategy; however these remain outside the “business as usual” discourse Much stronger national leadership is needed if Britain is to become as cycleable as the Netherlands and for the UK to get the liveable towns and cities that it deserves.
George Weeks is an Urban Designer at Transport for London. Prior to this he was a Graduate Fellow in Sustainable Urbanism at the Prince's Foundation for Building Community. He is a Young Urbanist, a member of the Urban Design Group and the Communications Representative for RTPI London. George is also a previous winner of the RTPI award for Outstanding Acheivement in Planning Education.
A full report is being produced and will be published on our blog www.rtpilondoncalling.wordpress.com
Follow us on Twitter: @RTPI_London
For further information contact George Weeks - firstname.lastname@example.org
Herbert Tiemens’ website: http://herberttiemens.wordpress.com/
Bicycle Dutch website http://bicycledutch.wordpress.com/
Dutch Cycling Embassy http://www.dutchcycling.nl/
Dutch Cyclists’ Union Fietsersbond
Making Space for Cycling – excellent UK design guide http://www.makingspaceforcycling.org/
Understanding Walking and Cycling (2011) – essential reading for UK policymakers http://eprints.lancs.ac.uk/50409/1/Understanding_Walking_Cycling_Report.pdf
For further information on the history of Dutch cycling, please see this excellent presentation from the European Cyclist Federation
Recent studies from UWE on designing environments for cycling: http://info.uwe.ac.uk/news/UWENews/news.aspx?id=2896
A very good source (unfortunately in Dutch is “History of shop planning tradition in the Netherlands.“ http://www.pbl.nl/sites/default/files/cms/publicaties/Detailhandel%20en%20beleid%20definitief%200711_0.pdf