Amsterdam’s cycle paths attract, ahem, a diverse range of users

I was in Amsterdam for six days last month. This is the city where cycling averages a phenomenal 38% mode share across all trip purposes.

It’s good to be reminded of what can potentially be achieved and to try and figure out how they did it. So I took a (completely unscientific) straw poll of ordinary Amsterdammers, asking them why they thought cycling levels are so high in their city.

They gave reasons like the high standard of cycling infrastructure, the high cost of driving, the relatively short cycling distances, and the long tradition of cycling in the Netherlands.

All eminently plausible reasons. But they also prefaced their explanations with words to the effect “of course it’s flat” as if it were so obviously the most important explanation it didn’t need further elaboration.

Flatness doesn’t usually get much emphasis – and in many cases doesn’t even get mentioned – in discussions about the potential of cycling as a mode of transport in car-oriented cities like Australia’s.

It’s clearly not a sufficient condition for high levels of cycling; plenty of cities with relatively flat topography nevertheless have levels of cycling an order of magnitude below Amsterdam’s. There’s obviously more to it.

But is it a necessary condition for the extraordinarily high mode shares seen in places like the Netherlands? Unfortunately, I haven’t seen any data that isolates the effect of topography.

This writer says it’s a myth cycling can’t do well in cities with hills. He reckons even San Francisco isn’t a problem:

I rolled up and down the hills of San Francisco on a one-speed Biomega, together with friends on upright bikes. I was unimpressed. And I’m just a normal schmuck in normal clothes, not some Captain Spandex MAMIL.

Seriously? I lived in downtown San Francisco when I was a student; those hills are bloody steep (c.f. Bullitt). Stick to the water’s edge and it’s flat but those hills are daunting for anyone other than sport cyclists.

There’s a sound argument that cycling can nevertheless still grow in hilly places if the right policy choices – like improved infrastructure – are made, but winning a really high mode share in such locations seems unlikely.

I don’t think topography is given enough attention. All the famous Dutch cycling cities are very flat. So is most of Copenhagen. I don’t know for sure how much flatness contributes to the extraordinary success of cycling in those cities but I suspect it’s a lot.

Flatness means less effort, so there’s less sweat and less need to wear special clothing. It helps explain the preference  for heavy bicycles in some places.

They’re more comfortable because they have big, fat bump-absorbing tyres. An upright riding posture makes more sense because obtaining mechanical or aerodynamic advantage isn’t as critical in a sympathetic environment.

Bikes can be loaded up with enhancements like baskets, chain guards, bike stands, and dynamos. The option of carrying shopping, children, a passenger, or everyday items like a change of clothes and a bundle of textbooks isn’t as off-putting as it is in undulating places.

I expect flatness is a key reason why cycling in the immediate post-war era in Australia was strongest in certain regional centres like Bundaberg in Qld and Grafton in NSW but not in others.

The role of topography is often downplayed or dismissed by cycling advocates because, I suspect, it doesn’t fit with the dream that all cities can potentially emulate Amsterdam, or at least Copenhagen.

Those with a stake in promoting cycling prefer to focus on matters where changes can be made.  Topography and climate are inconveniently immutable; they’re ‘nature’ whereas something controllable like infrastructure provision is ‘nurture’.

The lay of the land isn’t destiny; it doesn’t mean cycling can’t win a significant mode share in non-flat places. But my intuition is topography imposes a limit; even with the same suite of policies, localities with an undulating landscape aren’t likely to come close to emulating Amsterdam.

Having said that, the future might be very different. The increasing popularity of affordable, power-assisted bicycles should make topography largely irrelevant for cycling.