Density of motorways by country- 2009* (km motorway per 100 km² land area) Source: ERF - European road statistics 2011
Density of motorways by country- 2009 (km motorway per 100 km² land area) Source: ERF – European road statistics 2011

One of the more interesting papers on cycling I’ve read in quite a while just appeared in the latest edition of the international journal, Safety Science. In The Dutch road to a high level of cycling safety, Schepers et al investigate why the Netherlands achieved an 80% reduction in the number of cyclists killed per kilometre over the last 30 years. From the abstract:

Factors found to contribute to this improvement include the establishment of a road hierarchy with large traffic-calmed areas where through traffic is kept out. A heavily used freeway network shifts motor vehicles from streets with high cycling levels. This reduces exposure to high-speed motor vehicles. Separated bicycle paths and intersection treatments decrease the likelihood of bicycle–motor vehicle crashes.

The high amount of bicycle use increases safety as a higher bicycle modal share corresponds with a lower share of driving and greater awareness of cyclists among drivers. Low cycling speed was also found to contribute to the high level of cycling safety in the Netherlands.

Traffic-calmed areas are extensive in the Netherlands and extremely important for safety; almost 60% of all cycling in urban areas is done in them. Separation of cyclists from motorists is also critical given that over 80% of all police-reported fatal and severe bicycle-vehicle crashes in built-up areas occur on distributor roads where exposure to high-speed motor vehicles is greatest.

But while it’s common to recognise the benefits of segregated infrastructure, the vital consequential question of what happens with cars and trucks that lose road space to bicycles is usually overlooked.

The authors point out a key way the Netherlands achieves high levels of safety for cycling is via the country’s motorway network. Whereas around a quarter of all vehicle kilometres of travel in Europe (and less than one third in the US) take place on motorways, they say the figure is around a half in the Netherlands. At 57 km per 1,000 sq. km, it has the has the densest motorway network in Europe.

While both are important, they say the level of network separation is a much more important contributor to safety than the level of bicycle modal share. It’s tempting to assume that road space given over to cycling paths leads to vehicle trips being replaced by public transport, but that evidently doesn’t happen to a sufficient extent in the Netherlands to obviate demand for motorways. As dense cities like Amsterdam and Paris that otherwise tick many of the boxes of ideal urbanism show, reducing the use of cars is politically very hard; it doesn’t take many vehicles to generate serious congestion, environmental and safety impacts in dense areas.

The researchers also found that other policies – like intersection design – are important in achieving a high level of cycling safety. However, they concluded some policies don’t appear to help much:

There are also a number of factors…(that make) no or at most a very small contribution to cycling safety, i.e. comprehensive traffic education and training of both cyclists and motorists. There is also a lack of research about the impact of traffic regulations that favour cyclist and pedestrians and we did not find the introduction of strict liability in the Netherlands in 1994 to be associated with cycling safety.

Another interesting point the authors make – it’s not directly related to safety – is cycling was always a popular mode of transport in the Netherlands. Although it’s increased sixfold since then (see How come the Dutch got cycle paths and not us?), even by 1965 there were already 6,000 km of cycling paths in the country.

(Cycling) has been at a high level for almost a century and it was only at the beginning of the sixties that the number of kilometres travelled by motor vehicles exceeded the number of bicycle kilometres (during which time bicycle use started to decline).

This is consistent with the case made by others that the Netherlands has a long history of widespread bicycle use that predates the boom of the 60s and 70s. This is an important insight for assessing the potential of cycling in Australia; contrary to the romantic notions of some, Australia never had a very high level of cycling compared to European countries (other than during WW2) and we never had the cultural identification with cycling as a means of transport (as distinct from a sport) that the Dutch have (see How big was cycling in Australia in the past?).

Cycling has great potential as a mode of transport in Australian cities, but too often it’s blithely assumed everything that happens in The Netherlands or Denmark can be transplanted here willy nilly.