In Amsterdam, the Bicycle Still Rules

bicycle

The Netherlands has been regarded as the cycling nation since before World War II. In a 1938 newspaper article, the bicycle was dubbed "the most Dutch of all vehicles."

Decades since, bike infatuation still appears to be on the rise. In Amsterdam, residents now choose bicycles rather than automobiles for more of their trips, according to a recent study.

Between 2005 and 2007, Amsterdam residents rode their bicycle 0.87 times a day on average, compared to 0.84 trips by automobile. It was the first time on record that average bike trips surpassed cars, the research group FietsBeraad reported last month.

Although additional bike trips are often necessary to complete errands that could be done in a single car ride, the findings reflect a decreasing reliance on automobiles throughout Dutch urban centers.

"In town, the car is not the mode of transport," said Hans Voerknecht, international coordinator for FietsBeraad. "The bicycle is the grease in the traffic system, and in part, the economic system.... It makes everything possible."

The group also reports that car trips in 2006 decreased by 14 percent compared to 1990. Downtown bicycle trips increased 36 percent, and cycling rates have remained steady elsewhere throughout Amsterdam.

The high level of cycling is an accomplishment for the Dutch capital, but not a great surprise considering Amsterdam's long-held love affair with bicycles, said Ralph Buehler, an international urban affairs professor at Virginia Tech University.

"It's the result of the policies they have implemented over the past 30 years to make bicycle use more attractive and safe, etc, while also implementing policies for car use in the city to be more inconvenient, stressful, and less attractive," Buehler said. "Even the queen bicycles."

Among Western nations, cycling is most popular in the Netherlands. Nearly 30 percent of Dutch commuters always travel by bicycle, and an additional 40 percent sometimes bike to work, according to FietsBeraad [PDF].

Commuters worldwide are turning to bicycles in an effort to abandon gasoline-burning vehicles and incorporate physical exercise into their travel routine. Global bicycle production increased by 3.2 percent in 2007 to 130 million units, according to the Worldwatch Institute.

In both Germany and Denmark, more than 20 percent of commuters travel by bicycle. And cycling still accounts for more than half of all trips in some Chinese cities, although private automobile use is on the rise nationwide.

In comparison, less than 2 percent of trips in North America and the United Kingdom are by bicycle.

The high level of bicycle ridership in Amsterdam is due to a variety of bike-friendly transportation policies. The city boasts an extensive system of bicycle paths that allow riders to bypass traffic signals and shortcut through neighborhoods. Residential neighborhoods restrict speed limits to 30 kilometers per hour to improve safety. Bike parking facilities are located citywide, while vehicle parking downtown is highly restricted.

The Netherlands plans to spend about 70 million Euros on bicycling projects in Amsterdam between 2007 and 2010 - an average of 13 Euros per city resident.

"They're really making bicycling attractive," Buehler said. "People who normally drive, they know it will take five Euros for parking and take 10 minutes more than if they bike."

As more cyclists fill Dutch streets, bike fatalities have remained among the lowest worldwide. From 2002 to 2005, an average of 1.1 Dutch biker was killed per 100 million kilometers cycled. In comparison, fatality rates in the United Kingdom and United States are 3.6 and 5.8, respectively.

In addition to spending more money on cycling infrastructure, the Netherlands has promoted mixed-use neighborhoods, which allow residents to make shorter bike trips. Fatalities also generally decrease when ridership rises, a theory known as "safety in numbers."

"If there are more people on bikes, it might be that car drivers are more aware of cyclists. So when they make a right turn, they look over their right shoulder," Buehler said. "In a city like Amsterdam, most people make bike trips...so the driver is more likely to be a biker him or herself." 

Ben Block is astaff writer with the WorldwatchInstitute. He can be reached at bblock@worldwatch.org.

For permission to reprint this article, please contact Juli Diamond at jdiamond@worldwatch.org.