Not Always a Nation of Bikes
By Jay Walljasper
Since bicycles are as much a symbol of the Netherlands as tulips, wooden shoes, and windmills, it’s tempting to conclude that Dutch people must have some sort of unique genetic makeup that compels them to bike so much. The truth is, biking began to fall out of fashion in the 1950s, and by 1980 only 13 percent of all trips were made by bike — less than half the rate of today.
Like North Americans, the Dutch experienced a boom in personal wealth and car ownership after World War II. Great steps were taken to remake their old, medieval cities to accommodate automobiles. Even lovely old Amsterdam turned to an American traffic engineer to draft plans for slicing an expressway through the center of the city.
But the gasoline crisis of the 1970s had a huge effect on the nation, as people gradually came to see that depending on the automobile for all transportation was a mistake. That sparked a movement to improve biking conditions, which led to many of the innovations we see now on the streets of the Netherlands, according to Dutch transportation expert Hillie Talens.
Today bicycle riders make 27 percent of all trips in the country—a figure that is still climbing. Bike use increased 10 percent in The Hague from 2006 to 2010, and is rising 3 percent annually in Rotterdam—one of the most auto-oriented Dutch cities going back to the 1930s. Groningen is still the undisputed bike capital of Europe with a 59 percent bicycle mode share, followed by the city of Zwolle where half of all trips around the city are made on two wheels. Utrecht counts on bikes for 36 percent of all trips made, and Amsterdam 38 percent.
(left) In the 1950s and 60s, rapid growth in car use left Amsterdam’s historic canals clogged with traffic. Bicycle use reached an all-time low in the early 1970s. Photo: Thomas Straatemeier
(right) Amsterdam residents protested a proposed urban freeway that would have cut through the heart of the historic city. Coupled with the economic turmoil caused by the 1973 oil crisis, the public unrest led the Dutch government to choose to pursue transportation policies that favored bicycles, walking and transit. Photo: Thomas Straatemeier
(Below) Today, bicycling is a completely normal and mainstream mode of transportation for Dutch men and women of all ages. This wasn’t always the case.