The “old” Amsterdam; cycle city

Here’s a meme that pops up in social media every other week:

When it comes to cycling, the argument your city is not like Amsterdam is invalid. 50 years ago, neither was Amsterdam.

Sometimes the cited city is Groningen or Assen, but in all cases the point being made is that the Dutch were headed down the path of high car use in the 1970s, but deliberately chose as a matter  of policy to step back and put a greater emphasis on cycling (see How come the Dutch got cycle paths and not us?).

Driving is still the majority mode, but cycling has around 27% mode share in the Netherlands, compared to less than 1% in Australia. The mode share of cycling for the journey to work is 40% in Amsterdam, 34% in Utrecht, 24% in Eindhoven, 22% in Rotterdam, and 14% in The Hague. It’s 2% in Melbourne and 1% in Sydney (see How big was cycling in Australia in the past? and Which cities in the world are the most “bicycle-friendly”?).

The message is Dutch cities aren’t unique; there aren’t special or structural explanations for the Dutch cycling miracle. Any city can do what Amsterdam did if it takes action! Unsurprisingly, advocates who earn their livelihood from cycling or urbanism put this meme on heavy social media rotation.

So, can Australian cities “go Dutch”? Is there nothing other than lack of political will stopping Melbourne and Australia’s other cities from achieving Amsterdam-like cycling levels?

I think we can increase cycling significantly in Australia, but it’s usually a mistake to think that we can replicate someone else’s experience. A similar argument could’ve been put in the immediate post-war era – and in many cases was – that every city could choose to rely almost entirely on cars. Yet even in the US where some cities achieved this outcome, the mode share of cars in NYC for the journey to work is small; now around 26%.

Clearly there are other forces at play – like legacy densities and infrastructure – that have a big influence on the extent to which any city can “choose” to change travellers’ behaviour. There are big variations in the level of cycling across European cities too; the mode share for the journey to work is 2% in Barcelona, 12% in Hamburg and 30% in Copenhagen. The fact that 40 years ago “Amsterdam wasn’t Amsterdam ” doesn’t logically mean that other cities can do over the next 40 years what Amsterdam did in the past.

An important factor for Australian cities is we don’t have anything like the tradition of cycling in the Netherlands. Cyclists made up 70% to 90% of traffic in Holland in the 1930s. The Dutch have been pro-bike for 100 years, not just since the 1970s. According to social historian Anne Ebert, the bicycle is an “important object for Dutch national identification” (see How big was cycling in Australia in the past?).

I’m afraid there’s no evidence that cycling was ever particularly big in Australia so it’s never been seen as a natural alternative to driving. Even in World War 2, with fuel rationing and other privations, the Bureau of transport, infrastructure and regional economics estimates cycling’s mode share was under 10%. It’s just never been regarded as being as useful here as it has been in the Netherlands.

The cost of driving relative to incomes was historically much higher in the Netherlands, making cycling relatively more attractive. Australian cities are also larger and less dense. We seem intent on keeping them that way and extending their reach into the regions; that’s made driving relatively more attractive than other options. Aside: it would be interesting to compare the quality of public transport in Australian cities with Dutch cities over the last 100 years or so to see if it was a factor bearing on the relative attractiveness of cycling.

It’s generally argued that pedestrians being run over by drivers in the 60s and 70s was one of the key reasons that political support could be rallied in the Netherlands to take action to reduce the competitiveness of cars and promote cycling. Australia also experienced high casualty rates in that era but the response was to make roads and cars safer. It’s a much less potent issue in Australia now; road deaths peaked at 30 per 100,000 persons in 1970 and fell continuously to 7 per 100,000 by 2009 (see How come the Dutch got cycle paths and not us?).

And here’s one that tends to be underplayed; topography has a big influence on the level of cycling and Dutch cities are very flat – see Is cycling so successful in Amsterdam because it’s as flat as a pancake? While they have flat parts, Australian cities have a more varied topography; even parts of Melbourne’s CBD are steep by the standards of Amsterdam. Riding a Dutch-style 20 kg bike with just three gears – or just one in the case of oBikes – up the northern end of Collins or Bourke St is a big ask for someone who’s a casual rider (see What are the prospects for dockless bike share in Australia?).

The mode share of cycling in Australian cities depends in part on how travellers view factors like the effort involved, exposure to weather, and danger of cycling on roads. It also depends in part on the competitiveness of the alternatives i.e. cars, public transport and walking. The Dutch cycling miracle wasn’t the result of a dictatorship; it happened because of political pressure. A key issue for Australian cities is to identify what would motivate travellers to willingly forego the ease of other modes and take up cycling on the scale of Amsterdam.

Of course Australian cities don’t have to emulate Dutch cities in order to do much better; if cycling were to achieve (say) a 10% mode share across Australia’s capitals that would be hugely beneficial for urban life if it were mostly at the expense of driving. It’s equivalent to what public transport averages across our capital cities at the moment. I think we’ll see a lot more two-wheelers in the future, but I expect that unlike Amsterdam today, they’ll mostly be motorised e.g. electric scooters.