We are not the Netherlands – but we can learn from their experience

After hosting a Dutch transport planner for a week, Bike SA believes Adelaide can learn from the Dutch and how they legitimised cycling as a means of transport.

 Bike SA hosted senior Dutch transport planner Arie Vijfhuizen in Adelaide last week, for a series of presentations, functions and workshops attended by over 100 transport planners, engineers, architects, government department heads, elected members, industry representatives and business leaders. It was part of a national tour of Australian cities organised through the Cycling Promotion Fund, the Dutch Embassy and the Australian Institute of Australian Traffic Planners and Managers.

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Bicycle SA organised a meeting between Dutch Transport expert Arie Vijfhuizen and South Australia’s top transport planners, local councillors and more.

The itinerary included a guided bike tour of Adelaide’s CBD and suburbs, a breakfast with AITPM members, a presentation at the Department of Planning, Transport and Infrastructure, a workshop of the Tonsley development, and finally a Business of Cycling breakfast.

Arie invited us to imagine an agreement between state and local governments that puts cycling at the centre of transport policy. An agreement to make cycling safe for everyone, to invest long term in best practice infrastructure and education programmes. An agreement that makes cycling not just an alternative form of transport, but a preferred form of transport. Despite opposition, just such an agreement was in fact signed by government, business and community stakeholders in the late 1970s … in The Netherlands.

The Dutch experience 

Over subsequent decades Dutch cities have transformed from car-centric risky places for riders to havens for everyone on a bike. There are now more bicycles in The Netherlands than people. Some Dutch cities struggle to cope with bike jams and the provision of parking for so many bikes (there are 12,500 bike parking spaces at Utrecht train station alone). These are enviable challenges to have.

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Utrecht Bike Parking. Credit: Kevin Mayne (ECF)

In The Netherlands cyclists and cycling are not considered problematic issues, but crucial contributors to vibrant cultures, both urban and rural; they’re integral to people-friendly places. Virtually everyone, it seems, rides a bike in The Netherlands. And even if they don’t, they’re acutely aware of everyone else on bikes – commuters, students, families, children, CEOs, politicians and even their Royal Family.

Dutch cyclists are not visible because they wear fluorescent vests but because everyone is alert to their constant presence.

Arie’s visit.

During his visit Arie showed numerous examples of clever solutions to the perennial issue of using limited urban spaces to accommodate cyclists, pedestrians, cars, freight and public transport. He presented simple and sensible ways to create integrated, connected networks from origin to destination; making cycling safe and functional. Bike routes should be direct with minimal stops, Arie explains, and our planning should reflect this reality. “Cyclists are like water. They flow along the paths of least resistance to get where they want to go”.

Arie described dynamic traffic lights that favour the flow of cycle traffic into and out of cities during rush hours. And traffic lights that respond to rain so that cyclists are given the green light in poor weather. And ‘self-explaining’ roads, where the design and infrastructure clearly communicate how the space should be navigated.

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Dutch Traffic engineer Arie Vifjhuizen with Bike SA’s Michael Bridge

It is interesting that in South Australia we are considering laws to allow adults to ride bicycles on footpaths, while in The Netherlands not even children can ride on the footpath. This is only possible because they’ve invested adequately in proper infrastructure that typically separates cyclists from pedestrians and motorists. The rationale being that if you welcome cyclists to use a road, you have to make it fit for purpose.

We are not The Netherlands – We are not Europe – is often the refrain. A reasonable one too, given our urban environments more closely resemble the USA. But we can nevertheless learn from the Dutch experience to customise our cycling cities.

In the first instance, Arie suggests, reduce speed limits to improve safety which encourages more people onto a bike … which reduces congestion … which ultimately improves travel times for those who are in cars. Arie also recommends improving facilities for cyclists on residential streets parallel to our main arterial roads. These are two approaches that can effect improvements quickly.

But before we take the many small steps towards making Adelaide a cycling nirvana, Arie points out that first we need a revolution. Not a revolution requiring the storming of the barricades, but a revolution in our thinking, our approach to cycling; Putting cycling at the centre, rather than the metaphorical gutter. In this industry we often talk about the drivers for behaviour change that encourage people to adopt active travel. Using the Dutch agreement made in the 1970s as an example, the change needs to be matched at the top too, galvanising the political will to commit to a long term vision, to commit to an agreement with sufficient investment that delivers best practice infrastructure and programmes.

This is more than just encouraging some people to give cycling go. This is about making cycling safe, practical and desirable for the 60% of Australians who want to.

Want to know more about the Dutch experience? Bicycle SA recommends checking out this little YouTube video and browsing over this fantastic blog

11 Comments. Leave new

And did the over ‘100’ attendees come away punching the air and saying “this can happen, we will make it so!”? Was there any discussion on buy in from those departmental heads, or are we stuck in a position where the politicians don’t want to stir the pot too much and to allow riding on footpaths is the easiest thing they can do?

I live down in Brighton and frankly it is sh*t – nightmare roads to cross, park cars everywhere. Was the Holdfast mayor present at this shindig, how can I help can traction at local levels and not just the city?


As a Dutchie living in Adelaide (for the past 3 years), I cannot agree more 🙂

Scoresby Shepherd AO
April 2, 2015 2:26 am

A good early step would be to prohibit parking in Cycle lanes on main roads (at present it is only prohibited during 3 hr times, morning and evening.

Pablo Honey
April 2, 2015 3:38 am

A revolution in our way of thinking isn’t exactly news if you happen to have commuted to and from work over the past decade – I happen to commute daily. Our streets and roads are full of mixed messages: signs varying from ‘Bike lane at all times’ to one-and-a-half-hour increments during selective periods; drivers who take it upon themselves to either park in designated bike lanes during designated bike lane times or stop in bike lanes while waiting to turn left (often hundreds of metres away); drivers turning right across lanes from the opposite direction, causing cyclists to brake suddenly in order to avoid a collision; and the countless newspaper articles or ‘discussions’ on talk-back radio about why cyclists ought to pay a registration fee to use roads (I have news for anyone who thinks this as a viable option: cyclists already pay a road fee, it’s called car rego as they are vehicle drivers/owners, too!) and we have a much clearer picture – with or without a senior Dutch transport planner’s confirmation – that no matter what infrastructure is put in place, it will mean little if our collective attitudes to cyclists don’t change for the better.

Will Matthews
April 2, 2015 3:41 am

Amazing news that this just went down in Adelaide!…… well done and hopefully his message was well received by our planners.


Another thing you could learn from the Dutch that would improve general biking experience is Dutch bikes. They have bikes where your trousers don’t get stuck in the chain, skirts don’t get in the wheel, and mud splatters don’t and up on your back. I think we all know that Dutch bikes can carry two people at once, or a whole load of kids or luggage or groceries, but even if you don’t have that, the fact that you can jump on your bike in your normal daily clothes, and you can get off without any damage to them or dirt on them, would make it so much easier to use.

Michael Oats
April 2, 2015 8:33 am

No we are not the Netherlands, we are better, sunnier, have more open spaces,let’s do it smarterand better than them,
We can develop and include trams to carry bikes also passengers, upgrade and fill pot holes,sweep the bike lanes on Anzac Highway removing the sharp debris, think about the placement of bollards on bike tracks,encourage cycling and advertise on the TV about the benefits of cycling, regards Michael Oats Team Submarine


Sounds like a great seminar.
If more people rode bikes then we could have more apartments and accommodation closer tp the city. And more free space available for larger hoise blocks, parks, gardens and urban agriculture.
Each car purchased sends money overseas. So we may as well support local Australian jobs by ditching the car mentality

Anne Kendall
April 2, 2015 7:41 pm

Good luck! Great ideas! I joined the Cycling Touring Club of UK recently because of a touring holiday in Europe this year.
It is a charity. Masses of brilliant rides. Members raise funds for supporting good cycling in so many ways.
The focus is very inclusive – young, old, people with disabilities, city and country people, the wild, the sedate, and people touring amazing to small distances.


You may also be interested in reading two Thinkers in Residence reports from thinkers based in the Netherlands and Portland US respectively. Fred Wegman’s report, Driving down the road toll by building a Safe System (2011), made recommendations regarding cyclists and cycling infrastructure. Fred Hansen, All on board: Growing vibrant communities through transport (2010) said pedestrians and cyclists should be put at the centre of transport systems.


Great Initiative of the partner funding bodies to bring Arie out to Australia. The argument that ‘we aren’t Europe’ frustrates me. Most studies into transport behaviour in Australian cities show a large percentage are less than 10km, which would be appropriate for cycling – if the infrastructure were supporting that as a choice.

I hope his insights will change the thinking of transport engineers who may typically think that the car (and heavy vehicles) need to be prioritised because their volumes are so much more significant at present. Improtantly, it would be great if the major parties and business lobbyists took a united stand on positive provision for cycling…


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