Sunday 12 May 2013

History and cycling's mode share in Amsterdam and London

This presentation by René Meijer of the City of Amsterdam has a useful chart showing the transport mode split in Amsterdam by the length of the journey.

I've tried to recreate it for London, using data from the London Travel Demand Survey downloaded from TfL's Romulus website*. It's not possible to make an exact comparison, for a few reasons:
  • For London I use data on journey 'stages', which includes things like walking to the bus stop. It's not clear whether the Amsterdam data uses data on stages or on the main mode used for a trip from A to B.
  • The journey distance categories are slightly different between the two cities.
  • I've included motorcycle journeys in the 'car' category in London, but it's not clear whether or how they are counted in Amsterdam.
With those caveats in mind, here's the London chart.
Note, I've tried to use similar colours, so the reason there's lots of red in the Amsterdam chart and hardly any in the London chart is that lots of people cycle in Amsterdam and hardly anyone cycles in London. The difference is huge, and seems to be made up by a mix of more travel by car and by public transport in London for trips of between 0.5 and 10 km.

London's high public transport share for medium-length trips (predominantly bus until for trips of up to 6km and predominantly Underground/DLR thereafter) is striking, and I think a little under-discussed in the debate about growing cycling. We have a pretty wonderful public transport network that competes against cycling both in terms of attracting passengers and, in the case of buses, for road space. Even though there is definitely scope for huge growth in cycling with the right policies in place, this starting point probably means we're unlikely to match Amsterdam's modal share even for trips of the same length. Cities can't choose their history, and that can make a huge difference to their future.

* You'll need to request a password to access the full site.


  1. You could also say that Amsterdam falls short on bus/tram/metro (it's because the city centre is very densely developed - buses/trams can only really serve the edge of the centre). Amsterdam is building a new metro line, and it will be interesting to see the effect that has.

    Buses and bikes can be complementary - bikes are better at short-distance, non-radial and peak trips; buses better at longer and radial trips. We need both.

  2. Another observation or two for you.. consistent with the idea that cycling in London is presently dominated by, how can I put it, enthusiasts.

    Hardly any very short trips in London are made by bike - but share seems roughly consistent for 1-2km trips and 8-10km trips (both dismally low, but about the same absolute share). Whereas in Amsterdam, the share for cycling for 8-10km trips is considerably smaller than that for shorter trips. And by the time you get to 20km, the modal share is almost the same in both cities.

    It's a useful reality check for people like me in the transport-for-fitness camp that most Dutch people, in the world's most cycling friendly environment, still don't want to cycle much more than 6km on the flat.

    If geographical differences between London and Amsterdam mean more trips in the 6-10km range rather than say 3-6, does that have implications for cycling's potential modal share here and/or the type of people we can & should expect to see on a bike?

  3. Interesting that overall, the trending is similar to London, but the absolute level of car use is lower across the range. This is not however because Dutch people don’t have cars – according to World Bank statistics, the last time it was measured the penetration of private car ownership per 1,000 pop was very similar in the Netherlands to the UK. (Of course, you are comparing two cities, not two countries, but I should imagine the comparison is valid just as no doubt the mode-by-distance comparison between urban and non-urban in the two countries is quite similar – ie the profile simply replicates but at a slightly longer distance set in the country.)

    If the Dutch have as many cars as we do, does that mean they make less use of them? That is probably a fair assumption, not just from this but also from EU material I dug up a while ago which indicates that the average age of the Dutch private car fleet is a fair bit older than the UK’s – I think the UK is around 5.9 years while the Dutch is nearer 7. Use your car less often, make it last longer. I can’t imagine that the UK motor industry would be happy to see the average replacement period extend like that, so no doubt we can expect resistance from them notwithstanding the obvious advantages for existing drivers of less traffic-clogged roads.

    The trending for cycle use between the cities is actually quite different. Amsterdam does precisely what you would rationally expect it to do – tail off gradually as distances get greater, and people lose the time or fitness or enthusiasm for it. London appears (if I am not just misled by the narrowness of the bands) to sustain much the same take-up through a wide range of journey lengths, which hints at the different culture here – enthusiastic road warriors willing to don lycra for long commutes. In a mature transport cycling culture it would be obvious that take-up falls off quite quickly beyond a certain point, as the journey morphs into one which can only be done by donning special clothing and/or by having a shower available at the destination – who would want to do that for a trip to the shops or a business meeting?

    1. Exactly. The difference in cycling share between London & A'dam is greatest for 1-2.5km journeys.

      As a reasonably fit adult cyclist, I probably wouldn't bother cycling that distance unless I'm in a real hurry. Little time saved vs a brisk walk, by the time I've gotten the bike out of the garage & locked it at the other end.. plus being an enthusiast, I ride decent-ish bikes & don't like to leave them locked outside more than I have to.

      The people most likely to cycle 1-2.5km are those for whom walking that distance is a slow and maybe unappealing prospect - and people traveling along with them. My 4 year old son, say, or his 70 year old grandmother. 2km for either would be ten minutes on a bike, or half an hour on foot. Perfectly practical, just the right amount of healthy exercise & a useful chunk of time saved.. of course, with London's awful roads & dismal driving culture, it's not an option, but you probably knew that already (sadface)

    2. ...or people with limited time to do those short distances.

      After I drop my young daughter at school at 9am (she cycles and I walk alongside with my bike), I ride the 1.5 miles (2.5km) into work and get there at ten past which is acceptable. Otherwise it would be half past, and I'd have to leave 20 minutes later and get home later. Similarly one night a week I take her to swimming lessons near my work, then drop her home, before heading into town for my running group. Only the bike makes this possible - an extra 20 minutes here and there would mean a rethink of my schedule and I would have to miss something.

      My point is, this is the kind of cycling we see so little of, but the kind that can be so useful. Your comment seems to indicate cycling is either for long distances, or it only benefits the elderly or the very young, and I don't buy that.

      Does it really take you ten minutes to lock a bike to a sheffield stand? I deliberately chose a serviceable but inexpensive bike for getting around town.

    3. I live in Amsterdam. I switch from walking to cycling for distances above ~1km, maybe 1500m when I've enough time and the weather is nice. Due to the lack of indoor parking, most bikes are parked outside continuously, so everybody owns cheap and rusty bikes. Otoh, that also means you have fast access to them, and you can leave them close to your destination without bothering about parking, any light post will do just fine.

      You would walk 2km or more? Really? That would make me spend an additional hour a day walking to the shops, restaurants, friends, et cetera.

  4. Another factor in the London/Amsterdam debate, hinted at above, is that the type of bicycle used is quite different.

    A typical English cyclist will need to don high-viz, helmet, cycling trousers or complete kit, trouser clips, find a lock and key, perhaps dig some lights out, even before they fetch their bike from some obscure out-of-the-way parking location. Their bike will have dirty wheels from rim brakes on aluminium rims, dirty chain that always transfers horrible black grease onto trousers even if it doesn't eat those trousers, and often doesn't even have basic mudguards to keep road dirt off.

    I, however, have a Dutch bike, which has hub gears and hub brakes, fully enclosed chain, integral lock with captive key, integral lights, prop stand, "dress guard", mudguards. Whatever I'm wearing I can just jump on it and ride, without needing to find any kit other than the bike itself. This makes it a sensible transport choice for trips from only a few hundred metres: it's quicker than walking overall, and you get to sit down. If my bike is out of the garage (which it is most days after the morning school run) I will use it even to post a letter at the end of our road, a trip of just 400 metres.

    1. The Dutch bike, of course, is a direct copy of the typical pre-1920s English bike, before the "lightweight bicycle" boom.

  5. It would also be interesting to see if there's a difference in bicycle use in larger cities (like Amsterdam) and smaller towns in the Netherlands. When I still had indoor parking available, I always owned two bikes: a cheap daily workhorse that could be left at train stations or city centers, and a better maintained, more expensive one that was used for longer distances.

    Living in Amsterdam, I now only have the first type, which limits my bike-radius to about 30 minutes (~8 km in traffic). For anything above that, i'll take public transport or car.
    However, if I still had access to a decent bike, I might be tempted to do longer distances, especially with nice weather (not that often). Also, since Amsterdam is very compact, distances are limited, while in other parts of the country, you might want to cycle to the nearest town or city.

  6. Very interesting comparison and comments.
    Does someone know what's the year of the Dutch data? can't find it anymore. Thanks in advance.


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