How the Netherlands became a country of cyclists, and why the UK failed

Emil Törnsten 8Emil Törnsten is a Swedish Erasmus student of urban planning. In this blog for POL40160 Comparative Public Policy, he compares the dramatically different role of cycling in urban transport policy in the Netherlands and the UK – and the policy lessons to be learned.

Cycling is considered an important tool in mitigating climate change, local pollution, congestion and lifestyle-related health issues, but the UK has been far less successful than the Netherlands in getting people on their bikes. How is it that the Netherlands perform so well in cycling policy, with Europe’s highest share of cyclists (29 percent) and an infrastructure considered as the golden standard in cycling design (with spectacular cycle paths and parking amenities), while the share of cycling trips is only 2 percent the UK, a country were cycle paths are more likely to be ‘shockingly crappy‘?

Through a superb infrastructure, cycling in the Netherlands is safe, fast and cheap – naturally become the primary choice for almost a third of its citizens. This is combined with policies that makes the car less attractive. But unlike what some (even Dutch) believe, this infrastructure has not always been in place. In fact, the Netherlands suffered from the ‘usual story‘ of postwar European cities: swathes of old urban centres were demolished to make room for the car. Houses were torn down to make room for motorways, and public squares became car parks. The number of deaths in traffic increased every year, especially amongst children.

The key moment of change came during the 1970’s. Traffic accidents involving children incensed public opinion. Protestors who were fed up with the ‘Kindermoord’ (child murder) poured out in the streets and demanded safety for pedestrians and cyclists. At the same time, oil crises struck the country. Politicians and planners responded: over the following forty years, an extensive bicycle infrastructure was systematically constructed.

The UK took a different path. It was not until the 1990s that cycling became part of the policy agenda, and so far Britain has been largely unsuccessful in building a safe, fast and attractive bike infrastructure, and in getting people to cycle. The European Commission’s 2016 report State of the European Cities (figure 5.4) shows that in the most recent data available for the Netherlands, 29 per cent of trips were by bicycle, while in the UK the figure was a shocking 2 per cent.

So, when contrasting policy in the UK and the Netherlands, one has to be aware that there are three differences in policy at play here: the historical development and context of policies, the scope and extent of policies, and the outcomes of (similar) policies.

One way to explain all three aspects of this policy difference with a single approach is through theories of interests. The basic assumption, then, is that when there is general will in society to achieve something, it gets done. The development, scope, and outcomes of policies differs due to different dominant interests in the UK and the Netherlands. However, neither feminist, cleavage, power resource (partisanship), nor Marxist theories offer a satisfactory explanation. The feminist approach fails as cyclists are predominately male in the UK (and more or less equally male and female in the Netherlands), and amongst local and municipal politicians, slightly less than one-third  are female in both the UK and the Netherlands. Cleavage and power resource theories would suggest that political values and politics in the Netherlands (as well as in the other bike-friendly European country, Denmark) would be dominated by post-materialism and Green parties, in contrast to the UK (and other countries in the north-west of Europe) – yet there is little difference in this regard between these countries. Moreover, cycling is considered (almost) universally acceptable in the Netherlands, while it has different meanings (e.g. cyclists as ‘poor’ or ‘affluent’) in different parts of the UK. Thus a Marxian, class-based explanation is not sufficient either.

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typical image of cycling in the UK – not unfairly – is represented in the photo on the left.

Applying other interest-based approaches, such as rational choice theory, public choice theory, and the theory that policy determines interests, policy would develop as the number of cyclists grow. If policy-makers cycled, they would grasp the need to develop more and better bike-centred policies. In fact though, the protests were so successful in the Netherlands because of the relatively large number of cyclists. This was in part because the Netherlands (like Denmark) was relatively late in rolling out the red carpet for the car. Elsewhere, life without cars had already been made almost impossible.

From the perspective of individuals, cities can be seen as a common pool resource: it might seem attractive to take the car to get from A to B, but if everyone else does that too, streets will soon be full of noise, pollution and congestion. And it doesn’t matter how many billions of tax payer’s money are spent on motorways, since more roads will only mean more cars. The UK have failed in managing this common pool resource, while cities and regions in the Netherlands are accessible to all –  poor and rich, old and young.

Finally, interest groups must be mentioned. The UK is a massive consumer and producer of new cars, and the car industry is a significant bigger power in the UK than in the Netherlands (measured in per capita). The Netherlands, on the other hand, is Europe’s top exporter of bicycles. The lobbying power of these interests should not be taken lightly. The car industry is a top global spender on advertising and lobbying, as this graphic shows. It summarises car industry lobby spending in the EU, before Dieselgate scandal-torn Volkswagen released its 2015 lobby spending.Screen Shot 2017-03-11 at 09.21.33

And yet the protests in the Netherlands reversed the tide, and a  typical image of cycling in the Netherlands now looks like this:

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In conclusion, a diverse set of interests seems to have paved the way for the bicycle in the Netherlands. But it was not the result of a societal cleavage, but the interest of cyclists themselves, and of others who wanted the policy change and who wanted to make it a success.

Although we don’t have space here to consider how these interests were translated into policy, it is fair to assume that our policy outcomes are created by those who want them, who want them badly enough – and who are able to enrol others in their projects.

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