Sunday, 30 January 2011

Historic cycling rates in the Netherlands and UK

I was lucky enough to be at the first meeting of the GB Cycling Embassy in London yesterday, along with people like Jim, ndru and Joe. There was a lot of optimism in the room, but also a lot of good ideas and a sense that the time has really come to secure better provision of cycling infrastructure.

Perhaps inevitably, a couple of envious comparisons were made with facilities and cycling rates in the Netherlands. As I said before, I'd like to see the same here, but I think what the comparison really shows is that cycling in the UK has fallen to a much lower level than than Dutch cycling ever fell to, primarily because of their existing large network of segregated cycle paths, and that this means the Dutch experience may not be the best guide to how to build up cycling from a very low base. Which is not to say that it isn't a very good thing to aim for.

Anyway, to put some proper numbers on this I went back to John Pucher and Ralph Buehler's article 'Making cycling irresistible'. The chart below shows the trend in the number of kilometres cycled per person in the Netherlands and the UK, and was derived by combining the figures for recent cycling rates from Figure 2, with the index trend from Figure 6, in which each country's actual trend is rebased to 100 in 1952 (and which I digitised using this).

What it shows is that when cycling in the Netherlands reached its nadir in the late 1970s, people were still cycling more there than they had been in the UK in 1952. Cycling levels in the UK have been absolutely miserable since the early 1970s at least. It's also interesting to me that cycling rates in the Netherlands apparently haven't actually increased that much since the early 1980s, suggesting that if car ownership is increasing at the same time then you need to keep improving cycling infrastructure just to keep current cycling rates going.

There are lots of quibbles you could come up with about whether all this is a fair comparison (perhaps the UK had mass car ownership sooner, or better public transport), but they are mostly beside the point if cycling is what we are focused on. And again, I'm not arguing against Dutch-style cycling infrastructure shouldn't be the aim. But it does show the size of the mountain we have to climb.


  1. I have been looking for data about bicycle usage outside the Netherlands in the first half of the XXth century; your graph is the closest thing I've got to date. Thanks.

    If you want a nonindulgent, though quick, view of some of the damaging myths about cycling in the Netherlands you may want to read this.

    Also, a comment on just an example of the historical and sociological falsifications that sustain the segregated labyrinth of mirrors, Dutch style, is here.

    I have found your posts about cycling most instructive. I am dismayed, though, that you seem to follow the PC brand of token resistance to the ideological colonialism coming from the Netherlands, which is now embodying, apparently with your acquiescence, in the GBCE.

  2. How refreshingly patronising.

  3. More patronising that going around convincing people that they need "separate infrastructure" (which you *you* will lobby the authorities to provide for them, of course) to cycle?

    Also, whether you find it patronising or not, it is precise to the fourth decimal place. Sorry about that, if you don't like it.

  4. I think what you're missing is that in the early 1950s the cycling rate in the UK was actually comparable with what they have in Germany now.

    Germany is well behind the Netherlands, but they still have a a cycling rate that Britain can envy.

    While German cycle paths are a bit lacking compared with the Dutch equivalent, they're not all bad. There is a comprehensive network of them in most places and they're usable for everyday journeys.

    This is why there is so much more cycling in Germany than in the UK.

    It's perhaps unrealistic to expect Dutch infrastructure overnight. After all, it took a while for the Netherlands to get what it has. However, if British campaigners demand what is in the Netherlands and achieve "only" what is in Germany, that's still real progress. Given time, improvements can follow later on.

    I'll stop there as I've more "ideological colonialism" to get on with elsewhere :-)

  5. "It's perhaps unrealistic to expect Dutch infrastructure overnight. After all, it took a while for the Netherlands to get what it has. However, if British campaigners demand what is in the Netherlands and achieve "only" what is in Germany, that's still real progress. Given time, improvements can follow later on."


  6. Oh yeah? So the Germans have only taken 60 years to get from the state the UK is now to their current almost-wonderful-but-not-quite-as-much-as-the-Dutchs' level of cycling? Assuming, of course, it to be true that their level of cycling in the 50s was such as you describe, and that the reasons for their achievement has anything to do with, er, their almost-wonderful-but-not-quite-as-much-as-the-Dutchs' cycling infrastructure (which, I beg your pardon for my patronising insolence) would need rather more solid proof than the gallery of photos of pretty girls behind you link.

    So we can expect that, if we follow the amazing Dutch recipe, in sixty years we'll get to the point where the Germans are now. How thrilling. Of course, by then there will very likely not be any oil left to run cars on, which will make it even easier and safer to ride our bikes in the wonderful (but probably not quite as much as the Dutchs') segregated lanes with which we will have filled (may I say desecrated?) our cities.

    Such an enticing prospect to look forward to.

  7. Oh crap, I got your line wrong about Germany and the UK levels of cycling in the 50s, and I was actually replying to a statement you hadn't made. Sorry.

    However, what I said about the need for some proof from you stands (unless, of course, you consider the gallery of photos of pretty girls "proof"), just as my assessment of the absurdity of the segregationist policies in the age of peak oil stands.

    And the proper reading of your line brings up a whole new array of interesting (and likely embarrasing for the segregationist camp) questions, but without any hard data or proof to substantiate your claims it is hard to move forward with the discussion. More research is needed, as they say.

  8. Oh bicilibre, you are one of my favourite nutters. I especially love the assertion that cycle infrastructure is bad for cycling, and then the incredibly complex list of reasons why *uniquely* in The Netherlands, it doesn't have the expected negative effect, allowing the high cycling rate to persist in spite of the cycle infrastructure, due to the unfathomably ludicrous number of excuses you give. All this happening to be in the developed nation with the highest cycling rate in the world. Bravo.

  9. I'd really like to see what the data for before 1952 would look like on that graph. It would be interesting if the cycling rate more closely matched that in NL at an earlier time, but with the decline occurring earlier.


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