Cycling is far more than a weekend-warrior activity in the Netherlands. It’s a deeply ingrained part of life.
But why is that the case? Has it always been so?
And what can other places learn from Dutch attitudes and actions around cycling?
Here’s why the Dutch ride bikes
The Dutch ride bicycles because they’re practical and affordable transportation for all ages. Cycling is quick and safe thanks to excellent and ubiquitous bike infrastructure. The high population density and flat terrain are also helpful.
In the Netherlands, cycling was common transportation by the late 1800s, but dwindled after WWII. It grew again in the 1970s as social movements and oil crises established the importance and urgency of bicycle infrastructure.
There’s also a long tradition of bicycle racing, but the Dutch consider it a fundamentally different activity from practical cycling. Just like walking around town and running a 5k are different activities, so are utilitarian cycling and bike racing.
There are even different words in Dutch: fietser is one who simply travels by bike whereas wielrenner is one who rides for sport/racing.
Speaking of which, most people get around town on city bikes like these. Of course mountain bikes and road racing bikes are also available, but far less common than in North America.
Is cycling really that common in the Netherlands?
Yes, cycling really is as prevalent in the Netherlands as you might’ve heard. Recent data show that it’s actually more common than driving for trips under 7.5 km (4.7 mi), and it’s the single most popular mode of transportation in large cities.
In the largest Dutch cities, cycling is even becoming the majority of all trips combined.
Bicycles still account for one-third of all trips between 7.5 km and 15 km. The e-bike market is growing rapidly, too, which suggests that e-bikes will eventually replace even more of those longer-distance car and transit trips.
Among Dutch people who do cycle—which is most—the average distance ridden is only about 3km/day. That reflects its role in everyday life as opposed to sport.
What makes cycling so normal in the Netherlands?
Safe, quick & pleasant bicycle infrastructure
It’s safe and easy to cycle in the Netherlands because roads have separated bike lanes/routes, thoughtful intersections, and low car speeds wherever drivers and cyclists mix. Bicycle parking is also plentiful in most places.
Because bicycles need much less space than cars, it’s often faster and more direct to cycle within a city than to drive. That’s actually true in almost all crowded urban environments, but most other places don’t have the infrastructure to make riding safe for people of all ages and fitness levels.
The right kind of density makes cycling efficient
The Netherlands’ high population density means residents are likelier to live within cycling distance of everyday amenities, which require less infrastructure to serve. Equally importantly, residential and business areas are often mixed, so houses are less isolated from jobs and amenities.
Density is important but the sheer number of people per square mile isn’t the whole story. Many extremely dense places see far less transportation cycling.
Consider two cities with the same area and population. City A has one district of ultra-dense high-rises and one district of strictly businesses. City B also has two districts, but they’re each a mix of low-rise housing and diverse businesses.
Population density is identical, but City A is harder to cycle in, since most people live farther from most businesses. The Netherlands is more like city B, where houses and amenities are more evenly spread.
That’s partly for historical reasons. Most Dutch cities and towns were heavily populated before cars existed, so sprawling development and rigid, residential-only zoning were not even plausible.
Many other old cities (in both Europe and North America) developed in the same way.
But unlike so many of them, the Netherlands has preserved this moderate, mixed-use density. With few exceptions, it wasn’t bulldozed to build highways and outlying suburbs during the suburban boom of the 1950s-1970s.
Driving is extremely expensive
Cycling is far cheaper than driving in the Netherlands due to exceptionally high gas prices (about three time the US average) and high car taxes. Dutch people can save thousands of euros each year by replacing car trips with bicycle trips.
Compared to the cost of a city bike, it’s staggeringly expensive to drive.
It’s common to see higher vehicle and gas taxes in Europe than in North America, but they’re particularly high in the Netherlands. Congestion reduction is a major reason, along with long-term environmental concerns (like emissions) and financial factors (like high road costs).
In that context, it makes sense to discourage driving and provide a great alternative in the form of bicycle infrastructure.
Flat terrain requires less exertion
The Dutch landscape is famously flat. That’s not necessary for cycling, but it does encourage it, since we instinctively want to conserve energy. However, flatness matters less as e-bike sales increase.
Indeed, there’s historically a bit less cycling in the hillier province of Limburg, and its capital—Maastricht—is playing catch-up after lagging other cities in bicycle infrastructure. I gather that region is a bit culturally distinctive, so hills may not be the only factor, but they’re probably a major one.
There’s little extreme weather (but it matters less than you’d think)
Weather in the Netherlands is rarely extreme enough to make cycling difficult. True, it’s often dreary and wet, but it’s uncommon to deal with scorching heat waves or fierce snowstorms.
But the clement weather, like the flat terrain, is helpful but not essential for cycling. Even far northern cities like Oulu, Finland have good bicycle infrastructure and high cycling rates despite far more snowfall. Here’s a terrific video (and terrific channel) that I highly recommend pausing to watch:
Background: how the Netherlands became so bike-friendly
The Netherlands became exceptionally bike-friendly after social movements and oil crises in the 1970s. Development had been more car-centric after WII, but these events established the social and environmental importance of bicycle infrastructure.
Even though cycling is stereotypically Dutch today, it wasn’t a totally smooth path.
It’s true that the Netherlands took up cycling more readily than neighboring countries in the early 20th century. But as personal cars became common, people began to prefer them, and development reflected that preference.
With the cars came unprecedented traffic deaths: sometimes more than 500 children in a single year, which is a horrifying number for a country of roughly 13 million people at the time. (That’s an even higher rate than the 4,000+ annual child traffic deaths in the US in recent years.)
In the early 1970s, a movement called Stop de Kindermoord (“stop the child-murder”) arose in response to the fatalities—and, secondarily, to the destruction of old neighborhoods for “modern” roads.
And as the movement caught on, the first of the decade’s two major oil crises challenged car-centric policies on financial and geopolitical grounds.
The outcome, in brief, was a major revision of road safety standard standards followed by action. Previously wide, fast, highway-like roads were put on a “diet” while smaller roads remained small (and, in some cases, became car-free).
Today, cycling is front and center in Dutch life thanks to a confluence of design, environmental, and cultural factors.
But they’re not inevitable.
Indeed, they’re also the results of societal insistence on safer, more human-friendly cities, of which cycling is a key part.