Having displayed my ignorance of the history of my adopted country yesterday, today I discovered yet something else about its recent history: how cycle paths came about. As the wide majority of people in the country, I do a large chunk of my transportation on a bike (and by train for the longer distances), and the place that biking occupies in people’s lives is one of my very favorite aspects of living in this country. While growing up in car-infested São Paulo, I did quite a bit of biking before being able to drive (going to school etc.), which was quite unusual; but symptomatically, the day I turned 18 I got my driver’s license and never mounted a bike again until I came to live in the Netherlands at age 23. Ultimately, it is mostly a matter of infra-structure: driving and parking is often a nightmare around here, so, in the wide majority of situations, one is much better off biking. There are cycle paths virtually everywhere, including routes that are not allowed for cars; cycle paths make it safe and pleasant to bike around. Foreigners are often surprised that we don’t wear helmets to bike in the Netherlands, but rather than indicating Dutch recklessness when biking (although there is a lot of that too, especially in cities like Amsterdam), it in fact indicates how safe it is to bike here.
But to my surprise, today I discovered that the fantastic cycle paths have not always been there, thanks to this short film (H/T Luca Baptista):
(See also this link for further info.) As so many other countries, after WWII the Netherlands went through an economic boom, which among other things meant many more cars and the accompanying need for roads to accommodate them. As was to be expected, this went at the expenses of biking, which became highly unsafe; unsurprisingly, biking rates started to go down. So in the 1970s, vocal movements and popular protests demanded an improvement in the infra-structure for biking, in particular in that an astonishing number of bikers were dying in traffic accidents – including many, many children. Lucky for us, this was around the time of the 1973 oil crisis, so it all seemed to indicate that serious changes in lifestyle, and transportation in particular, were needed. Political will to implement those changes became forthcoming, and slowly but surely, cycle paths were built around the country. Sure enough, as soon as it became safer to bike again, the biking rate grew spectacularly again.
It is true that biking fits the Dutch ethos particularly well: the Dutch are outdoorsy, exercise-oriented and practical. Moreover, the flat topography of the country is a facilitating factor – never mind the strong winds and the constant rain! So admittedly, this exact combination of factors is unlikely to be reproduced elsewhere, but these developments show that building dedicated cycle paths is the fastest and easiest way to get people on their bikes. I’ve noticed a trend towards cycle paths in quite a few European cities as of lately (Ljubljana, Munich), and I’d be curious to hear if the same can be observed elsewhere.
In the meantime, I take my daughters to school by bike everyday, and the older one (7 years old) already rides her own bike, in all safety. The occasional flat tire is the only serious concern we have.