There’s No One Way to Build a Cycling City: Lessons from the Dutch and Danish

July 11, 2019

If you posed a question to someone on what culture represents the epitome of cycling, they are likely to respond with either the Dutch or the Danes. Denmark and the Netherlands have become synonymous with cycling, with Copenhagen, Denmark topping the 2019 Copenhagenize Index of the world’s most cycling friendly city, followed closely by Amsterdam and Utrecht, Netherlands.

While these places are at the forefront of cycling, they have many dissimilarities in their approaches to cycling infrastructure design, culture, and trip purpose. While attending the 2019 Velo-City Conference in Dublin (June 25-28, 2019), I had the opportunity to join a pre-conference masterclass put on by The Cycling Embassy of Denmark and The Dutch Cycling Embassy, where the differences and similarities were explored.

In the Netherlands, cycling is heavily ingrained in the culture. If you asked a Dutch person why they cycle so much, they are likely to be confused by the question, because cycling is just something they do. A typical morning in Utrecht you will see children riding side-by-side to school with their friends, elderly people riding leisurely to a cafe, friends riding two to a saddle, or a throng of cyclists entering mega garages capable of parking thousands of Dutch fietsen. For the Dutch cycling is as much a social activity as it is a form of transportation, and the system is designed to accommodate this.

Dutch infrastructure demonstrates modal hierarchy by prioritizing cyclist access and safety over automobile access and speed (in contrast to roadway design in the US, which evolved in a completely different manner). Smooth red tinted asphalt dominates the central areas of Dutch cities which is reserved for cyclists and pedestrians, while automobiles are met with brick roadways, which incentivize slow travel in zones with a max speed of 18.5 mph. When cycling lanes intersect with those for automobile traffic, it is the vehicle that waits, clearly demonstrating that in the Netherlands, the cyclist is royalty. Cycling tracks connect the majority of major Dutch cities, completely separated from automobile traffic, allowing for safe and efficient travel on bicycle throughout the country in urban, rural, and suburban areas.

Contrast this with Copenhagen, where Danes ride hastily on bike paths that feel very integrated with vehicular traffic. Helmeted cyclists zoom quickly through unprotected infrastructure on a variety of different cycle types. Queues of cyclists build at a red light and then quickly dissipate on a system very much optimized for speed and commuting. As one takes the cycling tracks to leave the city, they ride on a curb protected lane, though the proximity to the street makes one feel very much a part of traffic. Connecting major cities in Denmark through a unified bike network is difficult because of its low density and natural geographic constraints. Despite these constraints, there is a growing network of cycling highways that connects many outlying suburbs to major cities such as Copenhagen, creating unified metropolitan regions.

These descriptions leave us with two very different cycling cultures; a relaxed and meandering Dutch system focusing on safety vs. a Danish scheme characterized by speed and efficiency. Both are far and wide known to be shining examples of cycling and boast some of the safest streets in the world. The delegations for the respective cycling embassies recognize these differences and understand that cycling cities can take many forms, but their planning and justification should have common threads. A few of those threads include safety, design guidance, and branding.

Paramount is that safe cycling is about planning for all modes. For the Dutch, it was noted that some of the most important cycling decisions have nothing to do with cycling at all. The Danes concurred saying the most important bicycle plan, is the car plan. Failing to address all modes, will inevitably create an incomplete transportation system that will break down and endanger users.

When planning, they both suggest using a set of road design rules and guidelines, such as the widely adopted CROW manual, that are informed and crafted around best practices. This allows for the incorporation of local, national, and international best practices, creates a more ubiquitous system, and makes transportation planning very much a bottom up process that allows for innovation.

Branding is an important aspect of cycling promotion. Both the Dutch and Danes agree that a positive approach is more effective than a negative one. Consistent positive cycling promotion builds interest and does not demonize other forms of transportation they may cause resentment. The city of Utrecht demonstrated this in 2015, as the host to the start of the Tour de France. Utrecht capitalized on this high profile event by hosting a celebration of cycling and starting their Tour de Force initiative, with goals of creating a national bicycling agenda and empowering cycling policy in the Netherlands. For the Danes, they often talk about the benefits of cycling, whether it is combating climate change, increasing physical fitness, or getting a better return on investment (they cite a statistic that a 750 m tunnel costs the same as 750 km of cycling super highways).

The respect that the delegations had for the others cycling culture was evident, even if they were fairly opposite on many issues. Despite those differences, they readily acknowledge the necessity of working and learning together. The Dutch were appreciative of the Danes initiative on creating the world’s first cycling embassy, which was the impetus for the creation of their own. The Danes readily admit to the Dutch mastery of a single issue, cycle parking and cycle garages. While they continue to learn from their differences, there is one area of definitive agreement;. there is no one correct way to build a great cycling city.

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