I was involved in a discussion in comments over at Cycalogical about whether cycling campaigners should be more ambitious in pushing for segregated cycle lanes instead of more minor 'reforms' such as 20mph zones, which have more support for the time being but would be likely to have a smaller impact on cycling rates. I said (perhaps a bit too robustly), that I found these kind of arguments a bit tedious, as the two are not necessarily opposed. In particular, I think we just don't have a large enough constituency of cyclists to be able to win arguments over large-scale re-allocation of road-space from motorists to ourselves. To win that argument we first have to increase the number of cyclists out there, which is where things like 20mph zones come in.
One thing the debate touched on is whether the example of the Netherlands, perennially cited by some as the only country worth emulating in its approach to cycling, is really that useful for the UK. I suggested it wasn't, as the Dutch have had extensive networks of off-road cycle paths as far back as the early 1900s and never saw cycling modal share fall as far as it did in the UK.
Apparently this isn't widely known, so for the sake of information here's a short video which shows that the Netherlands had a large network of segregated cycle paths even before motor cars became widely used.
And for figures on relative rates of cycling in the 1950s, see Fig. 6 in this pdf, which shows the indexed trend in cycling rates in Netherlands and UK. You can work out the rate (in km cycled per person per day) in 1952 by taking the most recent figures from Fig. 2. The end result is it looks like in 1952 people on average cycled around four times as much in the Netherlands as in the UK.
So cycling has always been more common in the Netherlands, in large part because they've had this great network of segregated paths for so long. Dutch campaigners have never had to operate from the position of cyclists in the UK, where we have an extensive road system in place designed almost entirely with cars in mind and cycling an afterthought at best. It's all very well saying that we should aspire to the same (and I agree!) but not if it ignores the pragmatic and political challenges involved in getting there.