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Urban Cycling: Getting inspired by the Netherlands

Interview with Chris Bruntlett, Marketing & Communications Manager of the Dutch Cycling Embassy

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European Business: `What would your city look like if more people decided to cycle?´ is one question you invite visitors to your website to ask themselves. Based on the Netherlands’ vast cycling experience, how do increased numbers of bike riders in general change the landscape of a city?

Chris Bruntlett: As a Canadian who recently moved to the Netherlands, I’m experiencing this qualitative change on a day-to-day basis. First and foremost, an increase in the number of bike riders makes a city cleaner and quieter and a much more pleasant place for everybody, regardless of whether you decide to ride a bike yourself or not. Everyone can lead a happier and healthier life and people of all ages – not only the ones with a driver’s license, but also small children, teenagers and the elderly – can move around more freely and have access to a form of mobility that hadn’t been available to them before.

European Business: Many bike aficionados and urban traffic experts will instantly name Amsterdam when asked about the best city to explore by bike. How did Amsterdam achieve this universal recognition?

Chris Bruntlett: One reason Amsterdam is a great cycling city is because its inhabitants decided to make driving really difficult and expensive forty years ago. They raised the cost of parking and re-shaped many of their neighbourhoods to make it inconvenient for people to drive. By reducing the number of cars on the roads and slowing down those that remained, the bicycle became prevalent once again, as it had been before the Second World War. As the number of cyclists increased, Amsterdammers used this momentum and identified the key roads that were most in need of good cycling infrastructure, which they built step by step over a period of four decades.

It was a tremendous generational effort, which continues to this day. The municipal government recently announced that it would remove 11,000 parking spaces over the next few years, which is not only politically brave, but also another ironclad commitment to reduce the number of motor vehicles in the city and make the bicycle, public transportation and walking the primary ways for people to get around. I would be careful of holding Amsterdam up as a model city that can be exported elsewhere though. Many of the pivotal reasons why it became such a good place for bike riders - its narrow streets dating from the Middle Ages and its multitude of canals - can’t be found in other areas, especially in North America.

European Business: The Dutch Cycling Embassy has consulted on projects as far away as Turkey and Panama. What can foreign cities learn from the Dutch cycling experience?

Chris Bruntlett: We are approached by governments on every level of the hierarchy, from the municipal level all the way up to the national one. They want to improve their urban traffic situation with a thought-out cycling concept, but mostly they don’t know where to begin. We help them look at their city from a bird’s eye perspective and determine a good starting point, before we plan and design adequate cycling routes with the purpose of incentivizing people to switch from other modes of transport, primarily motor vehicles, to riding bikes instead.

Once we have decided on the macro-concept with our partners, we can then proceed to deal with really minute details, from the colour of the paint on the asphalt to the ideal position and height of traffic lights. These really intricate design details are spelt out in Dutch design manuals for bicycle traffic - something many other cities don’t even have, because their existing manuals and standards are all designed to move cars, and anyone on foot or on a bicycle is basically considered an impediment to that purpose. So once the decision has been made to improve cycling conditions in any given city, there is really no better place to look to for inspiration than the Netherlands. We say to our partners: There’s no need to invent the wheel – the Dutch have already done it. They’ve made their mistakes and figured out the best way to do it, and now the rest of the world can learn from those lessons.

Read the second part of the interview "Urban Cycling: Political will is necessary to succeed" here: