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.
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.
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.
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.
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.