Dutch campaigners explain why the Netherlands is now so cycle-friendly

When LCC visited the Netherlands in 2011, we met Dutch campaigners active in the 1970s who explained how state support nurtured new street designs, starting the long-term transformation of the Netherlands into a bike-friendly nation. Mike Cavenett writes.

This article first appeared in London Cyclist magazine; photos from the Dutch National Archive.

If you’ve ever visited the Netherlands, you can’t help but wonder why Dutch streets are so much more cycle-friendly than ours. The question becomes more intriguing when you remember that the UK and the Netherlands are surprisingly similar in terms of culture and climate, wealth and education, while our geographies aren't a million miles apart either.

Interestingly, our two nations have a fairly similar history of cycle use up to a point, with bikes being the predominant mode of transport in both countries before World War II, yet falling into widespread decline during the 1950s and 1960s as the popularity of the car increased.

These broadly similar paths continued until the 1970s, when our transport policies diverged significantly. At this time, Dutch urban planners started to implement the measures that have created the world’s most successful cycling nation; while here in the UK, we continued to plan our towns and cities largely around the needs of motorists.

It might be surprising to learn that cycle lanes weren’t the first bike-friendly features Dutch planners added to their towns and cities. No, long before the huge network of bike lanes arrived, planners worked to make residential areas safer, particularly for children. The early 1970s saw the arrival of the people-friendly home zone, or woonerf (plural woonerven).

Pioneered in the town of Delft by Joost Vahl, an innovative transport engineer of Hungarian descent, a woonerf is a street built on the principles of shared space. In Delft, shared space between walkers, bikes and motor vehicles was a necessity due to the many narrow canalside streets and the refusal of private property owners to sell their ‘stoops’ of land to the municipality to create space for separate pavements.

PHOTO Steven Schepel (above-left) was one of the first presidents of Stop de Kindermoord. He's now retired from the Dutch ministry for transportation after a successful career that included establishing the principles of 'sustainable safety'. 

Vahl’s experience working in the confined space of Delft’s narrow streets prompted him to experiment with traffic-calming measures in new residential developments. The town combined existing traffic-calming methods — humps, bends, street surfacing, signage and low speed limits — to create large areas of people-friendly streets.

At the same time as these innovations were taking place in Delft, a crisis was taking place on Dutch roads. In 1971, deaths by motor vehicles reached record levels, with 3,300 people dead, 500 of whom 
were children. 

One victim of road death at this time was the child of respected journalist Vic Langenhoff, a senior writer on national newspaper De Tijd, based in the south of the country. Langenhoff wrote a series of articles, the first of which used the dramatic headline ‘Stop de Kindermoord’ (Stop the Child Murder) and called for children to be taken to school by bus, in order to reduce their exposure to danger from motorists.

But it wasn’t long before more experienced campaigners contacted him and a policy of reducing road danger at source was agreed as the best way to tackle the unacceptable rise in road crash deaths.

PHOTO Dick Jansen (above-right) was a civil enginner employed by Stop de Kindermoord as one its early technical advisors, encouraging Dutch municipal authorities to adopt people-friendly street designs. He now works in the town of Haarlem as a welfare manager. 

‘Stop de Kindermoord’ was a powerful message, and it gathered widespread support among mainstream commentators and young urban political activists. In Amsterdam in the early 1970s, there were already organisations with the aims of demotorising cities, improving public transport, preventing the bulldozing of heritage sites and controlling pollution. These campaigners opposed the statist interventions of the Left and the laissez-faire economics of the Right, both of which they felt threatened the quality of urban life.

Straddling the mainstream and the radicals was influential campaigner Maartje van Putten. A young mother from a wealthy and influential Amsterdam family, she was also involved in the burgeoning feminist and progressive transport movements.

Quoted in a Dutch magazine interview, van Putten said of that era: “Automobile traffic in Amsterdam had increased dramatically. On our street there was 
a primary school and children were 
run over frequently. When I saw Langenhoff’s article I thought: my God, what kind of society are we creating?” Not long afterwards, at the age of 23, van Putten was appointed President of Stop de Kindermoord, an organisation now dedicated to tackling the high level of death and injury on Dutch roads.

By all accounts, Dutch campaigners of the era were a formidable bunch, but they also had favourable conditions within which to work. Dutch motorisation had taken place extremely rapidly after WWII, as the nation rebuilt its shattered country with wealth from natural gas.

The huge increase in cars had a shocking effect on the nation’s road fatalities, pushing the death toll to nearly twice the rate it was in the UK. Crucially, although cycling had declined massively post-WWII, it had started at such a high rate that it never dropped below a 20 percent share of journeys nationwide. These factors helped create a ‘perfect storm’: a highly emotive issue about which to campaign and bring about mass support for change.

The Stop de Kindermoord organisation expanded rapidly in the early 1970s, with support for its ideas fuelled by many marches involving parents and children. Demos were carefully managed, providing maximum impact in the media, including early television.

Alongside Stop de Kindermoord, this was also the time when the Dutch cyclists’ union was created. It was launched in a blaze of publicity when the national motoring organisation sued the nascent group for lampooning its name. The cyclists lost their court case, and had to change their name, but they gained 30,000 members nationwide in a short space of time. 

Stop de Kindermoord’s campaigning strengths were allied to a sympathetic hearing from national transport advisors. Goverment officials came to Delft, where the experiments with de-proritising motor traffic and creating people-friendly streets were at their most advanced.

There, they recruited Steven Schepel, who had worked under woonerf-pioneer Joost Vahl. Schepel was given the crucial role of technical advisor within Stop de Kindermoord, promoting child-friendly street designs to the regional authorities, with his salary paid by the national government.

When Stop de Kindermoord’s Maartje van Putten stepped down in 1976, Schepel became the next President: “One of the important things was that we came with feasible ideas. We not only made noise at the right moment, but we demonstated that it would be possible to make streets better places. And we never said don’t drive a car; we fought the bad consequences of too much car traffic.”

The Dutch system of municipal government meant that ‘missionaries’ like Schepel played an important role in spreading the word to local officials about progressive road danger reduction techniques, and also creating local campaigns to support these ideas. Civil engineer Dick Jansen, who was also employed in this role by Stop de Kindermoord said: “We were frontline soldiers, put in place by the national government so local authorities would get involved in this new kind of thinking.”

The woonerf approach can still be seen in many Dutch residential streets, which retain a sense of place that’s distinct from busy arterial roads. Moving from a main road to a residential area frequently involves a change in road layout, including texture and colour. And even though the woonerf has fallen out of favour in today’s era of higher-density housing, what has been retained is the key principle, articulated simply by Schepel: “In places with good housing people should drive very slowly.”

‘Separate when necessary’
Road safety and mass cycling protests continued throughout the 1970s, given impetus by the energy crises, which put more pressure on the national government to improve facilities for sustainable transport. Regular car-free Sundays, a response to the oil shocks, reminded citizens of the pleasures to be had from city streets devoid of motor traffic.

The decades that followed saw the widespread implementation of cycle lanes on busy roads and between urban areas, as the Dutch applied the lessons they’d learned at the local level all over the country: “Mix modes of transport when possible; separate when necessary.”

Crucially, the introduction of cycle lanes was allied to other improvements for cyclists, such as widespread reductions in speed limits, as well as changes in the law that gave greater priority to cyclists at junctions. The law of stricter liability became enshrined in Dutch statutes too.

Eventually, in the 1990s, Stop de Kindermoord merged with several other road safety groups, but by then their work was largely done: they’d created a cultural shift that saw cycling and walking treated with the same respect as motoring, and roadspace allocated accordingly.

The lobbying combination of embattled parents and professional campaigners had convinced decision-makers of the wisdom of reducing road danger and increasing cycling. Allied to the national government’s willingness to turn these campaigning groups into centres of street design excellence, it laid the foundation for the Netherlands’ incredible cycling successes.