Over the last few years, I’ve been campaigning where I live for Dutch quality cycling infrastructure to help reduce traffic congestion, which needs to suitable, safe and convenient for anyone aged 5 to 95. It’s not something I write about regularly on this blog but the posts I have written have been well received by visitors (you can find out what my thoughts have been here: http://girodilento.com/category/advocacy-2/)
However, for all the reading and the watching of YouTube videos, I’d not been to the Netherlands to see it for my own eyes. When we were having our discussion about where to go on the family summer camping holiday this year, the Netherlands came up as somewhere we’d not tried. Some online research and via the Cool Camping website we booked a week at Camping de Roos, near the small town of Ommen.
Before we left my kids asked me how many people live in the Netherlands and a Google search gave us 16 to 20 million people depending on who’s figures you believe. I thought that seemed a lot given it’s much smaller than the UK and there are 60 million people (ish) in the UK. Some more Googling showed us that the Netherlands has a 60% higher population density than the UK.
On the drive over it certainly felt like that as we were travelling to our camp-site towards the German border, not exactly where it all happens in the Netherlands. Even so, the motorway was very busy and there was a surprisingly high amount of traffic.
It was a very rainy afternoon when we arrived and there weren’t many bikes around – it looked like most people had taken their cars. There was no shortage of bike paths though – even though in the rain it looked like they weren’t getting much use.
The camping ground we were staying in was very large and there were a lot of Dutch families on the site (with only about 20-30% of the campers not Dutch) and people of all ages were riding bikes around the camping ground. Cars were banned apart from setting up or packing down, which made for a fantastic environment and allowed me as a parent to breathe out and let my kids explore as they wanted to. It also made for a quieter camp-site – another bonus.
The vast majority of the Dutch were on traditional & perhaps classic Dutch City bikes – upright, with hub gears, dynamo lights and built in locks, mudguards and racks. Plenty had big front crates for carrying shopping too or childseats (front and/or rear) for kids. The bikes were made by brands like Sparta, Cortina, Batavus and Gazelle but also brands like Giant, Scott and Merida. Surprisingly to me, the Dutch kids bikes were exactly the same just smaller and there were very few “sporty” bikes like you’d see in most other places in the world. In fact my kids Islabikes helped them stand out as foreigners and looked very under-specced alongside Dutch kids bikes.
The camp-site had its own branded Dutch bikes for hire for around £5 per day. My wife and I hired some so we could take our kids on a family cycling route of 20km from the camp site. Unfortunately that 20km excluded me getting us lost and adding another 8-9km to the route, I would say no more than 4km (of the 20km) was on road, all of the rest was on fully segregated cycle paths. For my wife who won’t cycle in the UK as she feels it’s too dangerous and my kids who I won’t let cycle in the UK because I know it’s too dangerous, the cycle paths were the revelation I thought they would be.
Kilometre after kilometre physically separated from cars. Out in the countryside they varied in their quality but being fully separated from cars meant that my whole family could relax and ride at the pace they were happy with completely without stress in our case this was 5-8 miles an hour.
The path quality was generally exceptional – even in this mostly rural area – it was easy for my 8 year old daughter to waft along chatting without a care in the world as we pretty glided through the pretty countryside.
Given how few segregated paths there are in the UK and how poor designed, constructed and maintained they are, it was mindboggling to see how many kilometres of paths there were for the relatively low local population levels.
We also did quite a lot of driving in the Netherlands and with a road network designed to be largely separate from the cycling network (and a good rail system), the Netherlands is the best country I’ve ever driven in. The roads for cars are generally well designed, the separated cycle paths that are equally attractive to use seem to take enough people out of their cars to keep things moving. We drove around 900km in our week on a couple of big trips and never had to stop once for traffic congestion. Not once.
We might have got lucky and we never drove into Amsterdam but we did drive into Eindhoven.
Another surprising thing my wife and I noticed was the sheer number of older people riding bikes (by older I’d say 65 years plus). We expected to see a lot of children out riding and there was. Probably 30-40% of the cyclists we saw during our week were aged between say 10 and 18 years old. They were all out riding with friends and often riding between towns for what I’m guessing is socialising (as it was the school holidays). But as I say the big surprise was older people – probably 50% of the cyclists we saw.
They looked vigorous, healthy and happy (and much stronger and more vital that elderly people in the UK) and seemed to mostly ride in groups 2 or 3 abreast while chatting. Many looked to be retired and this looked like a way they spent days out. Amazing for someone coming from the English speaking world. Another amazing thing was the skill level of these older cyclists. At one point we were on a narrow dirt path in a forest travelling in single file. This was on the first ride, so my kids were a bit wobbly and nervous as they got their confidence. We were passed by a couple of groups of older cyclists coming the other way, who rode confidently at and past us doing 20kmh+, with one hand of the their handlebars without stopping chatting. It was very impressive! Anyone who says great infrastructure means less skilled cyclists hasn’t seen what I have (and maybe an idiot with an agenda).
As an aside, in the small town of Ommen there were three bike shops that I noticed. Two in the middle and one a little further out. The customers I saw in these during the week were 60+ years old women.
They only sold practical Dutch bikes and there were even plugs for electric bikes outside.
I have to say it made it appear like the Netherlands must be one of the best countries in the world to retire in as you don’t have to worry about keeping your drivers licence and it looked great for your social life – not to mention health.
Of course being the Netherlands, almost no one was wearing a helmet. There were a handful of British or German tourists who wore them (but I think many put them away after a few days). Sports cyclists wore them. I saw plenty of road cyclists on the paths I was riding on with my family, riding in lycra in groups with helmets. I only saw two cyclists in the week in hi-vis (and helmets). It was on the last day and they were travelling together, two gentlemen in their 60’s and we saw Dutch cyclists were laughing at them as they went past. A truly different & better world.
This wasn’t a study tour – just a family holiday but it was hard not to think that the Dutch system is deeply impressive and that by separating cyclists from cars in many places, they’ve made the system work better for everyone. It was a fantastic place to be a driver and Dutch drivers were just as badly behaved as UK ones – there was a lot of tailgating and speeding wherever we drove – but the road system was fantastic. The system works brilliantly for cycling with direct and largely car free routes right into the centre of even small towns. The cycle routes are more direct than the driving routes but as well as lots of cycle parking in the pedestrianised town centres, there was also plenty of free car parking that was never full. There is a lot of traffic though and a lot of driving – more than you’d think reading about cycling advocacy from outside the Netherlands. But it looked like 20-30% of trips wherever we went were by bike and this took a big chunk of cars off the road and kept the road network moving (not mentioning trains which we didn’t use).
We didn’t see one “fat” Dutch person either and it’s not just that, as it was summer and warm, a lot of people were in shorts and t-shirts (male and female) and the Dutch have fantastically toned legs thanks to the cycling infrastructure and looked in generally good shape. The Dutch are not small people and you couldn’t help but wonder with all their dairy farming that if they didn’t cycle on average 800+km each, each year how big an obesity problem they’d have (like the UK, NZ, Australia & the USA for example).
I couldn’t help but think that behind all this investment in cycling might just be pragmatic common sense. If you give people a real and attractive choice to make any journey on a bike in comfort in safety by building fantastic infrastructure, then they’ll use it. As a result, that will take cars off the road and reduce congestion, it gets people of all ages moving and keeps them healthy, it reduces pollution and competition for road space and parking. Building world class bike infrastructure costs a fraction of building roads for cars or train tracks (or bus lanes). All of which are extremely important in such a densely populated county as like anywhere else but perhaps even more, the Dutch simply don’t have the space for everyone to need to drive on every trip.
Having seen it in practice, I’m less convinced that it’s an idealistic “cultural” decision but I think the Dutch are happy for the rest of the world to believe this if we want to. I think it’s a rational decision with no downside and every upside.
A few other points that were interesting to note.
- The cycling infrastructure seemed to mean there were a lot less pedestrians as it was much easier just to take a bike as you can cover 4-6 times the distance with the same physical effort as walking whilst also more easily carrying things on your bike than whilst you walk
- Family trips by bike are normal – to church, to the country side to the shops, to anywhere
- Driving hasn’t suffered because of cycling investment – it’s made driving much better but because people really do have another hugely attractive alternative to having to take the car. Cycling infrastructure also takes cars off the road, which is better for those who do want to/need to drive.
- Cycling reduces congestion and demand for scarce resources like urban space for parking cars
- The Dutch cycling infrastructure approach makes it simple, safe, convenient, quick and attractive to cycle for all ages, from children, to families to the elderly.
- There were no Sustrans style gates blocking any path anywhere. Yes, this meant there were occasional motorised scooters but that’s an enforcement issue not a design one and in fact becasuse the paths are generally wide it wasn’t an issue for cycling anyway (where we were).
- Cycle paths had access across side roads and there was even rural filtered permeability (bollards) to close country roads to cars but keep them open for bikes.
- Where there wasn’t segregated paths, cycling was much more unpleasant and more like the UK. Dutch drivers also tailgate, speed and pass cyclists too closely. However around 2/3 of the time you are on seperate paths.
- The increased quality of life for Dutch citizens as a result of all of the above was tangible. The political elite in English speaking countries who have failed to build this at home, have not only sold everyone else short but they’ve failed themselves as many of them are now of the age that retired Dutch people are enjoying fantastic quality of life with cycling
- Cycle paths were wide, very well surfaced and designed for all speeds and abilities. Next to main roads they really were like motorways for bikes – it was incredibly easy to travel distances by bike with little effort (assuming a basic fitness level.
- In one week just on holiday, my wife and kids rode 70km, which is more than they’d probably ridden in the rest of their lives combined. This is what infrastructure does – make cycling easy, safe and attractive to build in. Their bikes are now gathering dust again in the UK.
I will now most definitely be booking a place on a study tour and visiting again – and maybe even emigrating! The Netherlands was absolutely a revelation of the best possible kind. Camping de Roos was fantastic too and well worth a visit.
Thanks for reading