The following interview with Climate Reporter Arne Jungjohann was originally published in German on Klimareporter.de.
Cities in the Netherlands invest a great of money on quality cycling infrastructure, says Canadian traffic expert and author Chris Bruntlett. But it also took a decades of citizen activism and political will before the car moved from the center of all considerations.
Climate Reporter: Mr. Bruntlett, bike paths in Germany's cities are mostly lanes painted on the street. You looked at five cities in the Netherlands. What does the bike infrastructure look like there?
Chris Bruntlett: In the Netherlands, many bike paths are physically separated from the road. Where that is not possible and cyclists share the road, cars are only allowed to drive at 30 km/hr. The idea is to make cycling attractive to everyone. For the five-year-old grandson it has to work just as well as for the 80-year-old grandmother. That is the goal to which the Netherlands aspires.
In the Netherlands, almost no cyclist wears a helmet. Why?
Because cycling is safe. That's why less than one percent of cyclists wear a helmet. Cycling should be comfortable and fun. It isn’t the helmet that ensures safety, but smartly designed roads and intersections. And because so many people cycle there, the health benefits far outweigh the potential risks.
What does an intersection which is safe for cyclists look like?
Bike paths that are physically separated from the road aren’t enough. It is important, for example, that the - in the Netherlands, red - track of the bike path is not only guided over the intersection, but is also slightly raised. As a result, motorists turn much more attentively. People make mistakes. But the Dutch build their streets in a kind of way that the consequences of such mistakes are no longer deadly.
In Berlin, six cyclists lost their lives by collisions with trucks - mostly when they turn right - this year.
This also happens in the Netherlands, but less often than in Germany. Safe intersections and right-turn assistants would help prevent such accidents.
It is even better to replace the heavy trucks in the cities with cargo bikes. This, too, is pronounced in the Netherlands and the cities give subsidies for their purchase. Logistics service providers like DHL or UPS are becoming more and more popular because cargo bikes do not get stuck in a traffic jam and their operation costs only half that of a truck.
The cycling infrastructure in the Netherlands wasn’t build overnight. How did the country get there?
Cycling has been made easy and the cars tamed. In this comparatively small country, 35,000 kilometers of cycle paths were built completely separated from the road. And with 30 euros per person per year, you spend more than five times as much on good cycling infrastructure as Berlin or Stuttgart.
But how did this development happen?
After the Second World War, many bombed cities in Europe were rebuilt - in most cases unilaterally for the use by cars. In the Netherlands, this development was not so bad. But even there, the traffic increased and demanded many deaths, including many children. In the 1970s, the Dutch began to defend themselves against those tragic collisions.
How did that translate into politics?
Civil society spoke up. Citizens demanded more from their politicians, and went on the streets with drastic slogans like "Stop de kindermoord!". And that increased over the years.
The clout came from the breadth of the alliance. It was not just cyclists who demanded more bike paths. In the end, it was a broad coalition of environmentalists, doctors, parents, teachers, cyclists and city planners fighting for livelier and happier cities.
Traffic researchers say: Good bike paths alone are not enough to get more people stop using their cars.
Have you ever traveled by train from Germany to the Netherlands? You recognize the first station in the Netherlands because - unlike in Germany - hundreds of bicycles are parked there. The Dutch have realized that bikes alone do not replace cars, as well as good bus and train services. But if we combine both - bike and train - they are unbeatably effective and convenient. And then the demand for cars in the cities decreases rapidly.
Can the success of the Netherlands be copied?
The sober realization is that there’s no “one size fits all” solution. In the Netherlands, every city is different, too; each has its own way. And you need to play the “long game”. Experience shows that citizens need to get involved if they want to change things and give priority to mobility that no longer puts the car at the center of all considerations.
We are currently experiencing this in Germany. In cities like Bamberg, Darmstadt and Stuttgart, citizens are calling for politicians to redirect their political decisions only by using the bike.
That's right. Democracy is not a spectator sport. You have to get involved. In the Netherlands, many of the activists themselves have gone into politics. That's why Groningen became one of the world's best cycling towns.
And we should be happy if 20- and 30-year-olds want to get into politics. We need their creativity and enthusiasm if we want to realize new ideas.