woensdag 10 april 2013

The Dutch Cycling Culture and how it is maintained dispite cars and mopeds

So, I claimed to know my country. Well, please find below my opinion, part I. On why The Netherlands have a high bicycle use. As a result (NOT the other way around), we have a unique cycling system that cannot be transferred successfully to almost any country in the western world.

Please note that I’m a scientist by background and not a lobbyist of any kind. Therefore, my post will be longer and less fun than some others, but I’ll try.

First of all, and this is important for my story, my background is from wealthy Dutch middle class (my father was a general practitioner). I’ve studied at a university. My experience is very much a standard experience that will be recognized by many Dutch of the same social background living in De Randstad (see below, I’m very average). Probably my own family and my parent’s moved a bit more through the country than average. With 4 brothers and sisters, my family was relatively large and the period of children depending on my parents spanned a staggering nearly 40years from 50ies until late 80ies, eventhough we all left home before the age of 19. As a parent, I’m very average Dutch with 2 kids only 2.5 years from eachother. So, besides some own experience, my family experience dates a bit further back than average.

Why is this important? Well, I’m sorry to say, but I’m from the social group that holds the power in The Netherlands. Wealthy, white, highly-educated middle class, working as decision makers in trade, industry and government alike. This group comes in traditionally high numbers and is still increasing (41% of 25-35yrs has a Bachelor degree or higher  http://www.rijksoverheid.nl/nieuws/2012/09/11/oeso-opleidingsniveau-neemt-verder-toe.html). They represent a high economical value. In the end, this group has the most democratic and economical power and can make and break any decision, provided they act as a group. Well, they typically do act as a group more than they would admit. Check out my lobby story on my previous post, and you will see that any lobby not serving this group, would get bit and pieces only. They can quickly turn into a pack of wolves, but usually act like sheep.

Two pictures of the same social group: highly educated middle class is in power. They usally are like sheep, but can turn into a pack of wolves. In the end, they always get what they want.

This highly educated group has roughly De Randstad http://nl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Randstad_(gebied) as its reference point as a student. De Randstad is roughly the provinces Noord Holland, Zuid Holland and Utrecht. It’s the beating economical heart of The Netherlands, and pushed The Netherlands forward to become and stay one of the wealthiest countries in Europe since the late middle ages, with an interruption of poverty in the 18-19th century and WWII (check out yourself). The Randstad and specifically the area of Utrecht showed a systematically higher economical growth over a long period 1970-2000 than anywhere else in The Netherlands, and hard to beat for most EU regions. http://www.economicboardutrecht.nl/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/TNO-2012-R10397-Economische-Verkenningen-Regio-Utrecht_3.pdf, figure 2.2. De Randstad has two tentacles attached, one into Brabant and one into Gelderland. A South East-ward connection from Randstad Rotterdam/Dordrecht to Brabant Breda, Tilburg, Eindhoven and ‘s Hertogenbosch. Eastward a connection from Randstad Utrecht to Gelderland Ede/Wageningen, Arnhem, Nijmegen. Funny enough, Nijmegen connects to ‘s Hertogenbosch again.

A map of The Netherlands, and a close up of De Randstad with a bulb plot to indicate town sizes. 

De Randstad holds roughly for 50% of the Netherlands in any calculation on economical, demographic or educational numbers. This Randstad, Brabant, Gelderland region (RBG-region) holds 80% of the country. Believe me, the RBG-region dictates The Netherlands. A simple example, but for cycling oh so relevant one, are the schools for higher education. http://nl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lijst_van_hogeronderwijsinstellingen_in_Nederland.

50-60% of higher educational institutes and universities is in De Randstad. 79% is in the RBG-region. For generations, all students are being educated in this region. The oldest Dutch university is located here (Leiden, since 1575), with most other traditional universities (e.g., Utrecht, Amsterdam, Delft, Nijmegen). Groningen is the exception, but in a way Groningen is actually an RBG-island in up north of The Netherlands. This is the area where students are at the age of 18-24 or longer, this is their reference point for the rest of their lifes, this is what these future decision-makers are going to impose on the remaining 20% of the country, this is where they establish their old-boys networks. Not just now, not just after WWII, no, for 500 years this is already into the basic design of The Netherlands.

How strong is this social group of students? Very strong. Having a moped as a student is simply not done. More practical? easier? faster? No argument. Mopeds are stinking shitty things for the working classes. As student at the university or at 2nd school, you’re supposed to have a bike. On this bike you’re supposed to swirl through city center traffic, not minding cars, buses, traffic lights, biking lanes or whatever else invented by any dull engineer trying to make traffic safer. Drunk or sober, you’re invincible on your bike (or dead, highest biking death toll is amongst this age http://www.rijksoverheid.nl/nieuws/2012/04/19/lichte-stijging-verkeersdoden-in-2011.html ). On a bike, you go together to school, to university, to sports, to shop, to get drunk, to the movies, to theatre, to friends and family. You're taking your girlfriend home on it (yep, 2 adults fit on 1 crappy Dutch student bike), you're having...uh...let's keep it decent. If you don’t have a bike as a student, it's not easily accepted (take your own bike!, unless you’re visiting from another town). If you don’t have a bike, you’re not part of the group. And damn, you want to be part of the group if you’re 16.

A large group of 2nd school children on their way. Note how they ignore closing railway trees. Desperately wanting to be part of the group can get you killed. No matter what, you've got to have a bike. 

Our fine fleur future decision makers. Students on a bike.

I know that this student bicycle habit existed already in 1945: my father used bikes with his friends at university, so did I, so did my brother and my sisters. It became a fashion statement in the sixties, when all working class hero's bought themselves a moped, but the students did not. Only one brother became a petrol head, and it gave him a working class image that still pops up in the family, even though (or may be because) he’s the richest of all.

So, the masses of our future fine fleurs, our future decision makers, act like idiots on their bikes in the RBG-region. All of them come to the insight at the age of 25-30 that this way of biking might be not so smart, especially when they start thinking that their own kids might start doing the same. All of them start thinking that biking safety should be improved. All of them try desperately to make their own kids behave safer than they did themselves. So did my father from the early 50ies until the late 80ies, so do I. Useless efforts while trying to change the minds of the students, but good in e.g., road design. However, to be honest, road improvements hardly affected the university students: the true inner cities of the RBG-region (with the highest student biking density) hardly improved on biking safety over the last 25 years in my own experience. There’s simply no space for better designs.
It is of ridiculous simplicity to suggest that a single event out of nowhere saved biking in the Netherlands, like a British lobbyist blogger does http://www.aviewfromthecyclepath.com/search/label/stop%20de%20kindermoord. Of course cycling went down during the 50-70ies, because every family could finally afford a car! The fact that the government didn’t think about biking during those decades was simply because they suddenly had to accommodate a massive amount of cars in a densely populated area (read my post on significance of 02 feb 2013 to get inspiriation on the thinking mistake of Cyclepath). The government forgetting cyclists didn’t prevent the students from biking at all, they didn’t bother about safety. None of them got a car (totally unaffordable and socially hardly accepted)….only their parents did. Mind you, this was baby boom generation. Besides an explosion of cars on the road, there was also an explosion of students at schools and universities…and on bikes in city centres. They all went by bike, dictated traffic in these areas. They still do and there was never ever any doubt on it. It’s just that their highly educated-decision-making parents got fed up with too many road kills of their own kids by their very own cars. The pack of wolves started efforts to reduce road kills in general (Stop the kindermoord was just one of the many actions, and is not going to make it into history books), got what they wanted and went back into sheep again.
This chain of events was inevitable from Dutch social perspective. Many cars and many students was a new situation, but it never endangered bicycling by students at all. Solutions were created, some of them new, some of them not entirely. A lobby was hardly necessary, an entire Think, Plan, Act, Evaluate was quickly established, just within the very same social group and building on existing systems and old boys networks. The same pack of wolves rightfully enforced extra mirrors on trucks a few decades later. http://nl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dode_hoek_(auto) Not all working class truckers liked it...and trucks killing cyclists never endangered the concept of bicycling either.

Students become parents and the cycling cycle starts all over again. Protective mothers on bicycles over the years. The same people as on previous pictures, but different moments in life.
Uppermiddle class statements: prime ministers on bikes (top: Kok in 90ies, Bottom: Rutte nowadays). The link, prime minister Van Agt arriving at the airport with his bicycle. He doesn't carry it himself. In the same days, Margareth Thatcher was the prime minister of the UK.
Think about it what you want. But it's NOT about promoting bicycles. It's social pressure.
What did we learn so far (this is definitely NOT all) about cycling in The Netherlands:

ü      The RBG-region is what counts here; forget about the rest of the country.

ü      Cyclists in The Netherlands have the strongest lobby behind them: high numbers of wealthy decision makers

ü      Mopeds don’t.

ü      Cycling is a socially binding (upper)middle class statement, coming with extremely high pressure (including risky behaviour) amongst students, especially in the RBG-region.

ü      This social pressure exists from generation upon generation and without interruption, certainly directly after WWII, but most likely already before.

ü      Road safety and student biking are totally unrelated. Safety is no argument at all for students deciding to use a bike or not. Nor is parent’s opinion. It is only for their parents to decide for better roads.

ü      Cycling is therefore into Dutch student culture. As students inevitably become parents in the most powerful social group, it does deliver generations of decision makers that know the best and the worst about biking. Obviously, these will protect their offspring as a pack of wolves and the circle of protecting cyclists is closed again.

If you’re not Dutch, tick the boxes that are applicable for your country. I would be surprised if it would be more than a single one and I can predict the one you picked: Mopeds don’t have a lobby. Although related to the success of bicycles in The Netherlands, it’s not going to help you any further in developing cycling in your own country. Sorry.

You don’t fully grasp the point? You disagree to the story? I can understand, that’s called differences in culture. Most likely, it also means you’re not part of the social group that holds the power in The Netherlands (duh, you’re not Dutch if you didn’t get it).

Next post on what’s making cycling in the RBG-region so incredibly convenient, especially for students: the breeding grounds for such a cycling culture. Two main aspects: physical and social geography. Maybe later post on a massive army of Dutch planners. Finally, a post with my own cycling history, for fun and supporting the stories above.

Note afterwards
Were all students conquered by the cycling army? No, a small group fiercefully resisted the usurpers and got themselves a 2CV 'ugly duck'. This was rightfully pointed out by Quezzzt, although his father had one in a totally unrelated way. From the sixties onwards, having an ugly duck was a left-wing arty farty student statement that resulted in the most colorfull participants in traffic...being also the slowest, it was actually a kind of hyperbicycle...

It's truely making the roads less interesting to watch since they disappeared. Is that why we're not having any 'berm toerisme' anymore?

Anyway, the use of cars by students was finally stabbed to death in 1991, by the introduction of free public transport for students, a year after Citroen stopped production of the 2CV, seemingly a French visionary decision.

Named after its beak-like hood and its distinctive sound...check out this hilariously sounding video on someone trying to start his 2CV in the cold. Everytime he tries to let it run stationary, it almost stops...but he knows how to treat an ugly duck... http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q5Aalk3U2gY 
Oh, I am missing this sound...I'm feeling old now...

Bermtoerisme: Go out on a sunny sunday afternoon, park your car next to the highway and start watching cars, while eating a sandwich with a glass of milk. Our family never grasped this concept. Did they try to spot ugly ducks?! Or was it another social group?!
Anyone familiar with the A1 nowadays, knows that almost the same is still happening on a daily basis, but the people don't bother to get out of their cars anymore...and they changed the name of the game: traffic jam.


24 opmerkingen:

  1. And here i was, thinking students ride half wrecked bicycles because they are just too poor paying for anything decent.

    Part their own fault ofcourse for spending what money they have on alcohol, drugs and partying. And renting their outragious overpriced 2 m2 student chambers ofcourse.

    Funny then when they do get their first jobs, the bicycle is quickly abandoned in favour of a company lease car. On the highways over 80 % are cars are no older then 3 years. And of those, almost all are company leased cars as even high educated people cannot all afford 40k every 3 years along with expensive houses or appartments. Lower educated people do not have company leased cars....they drive company owned vans, or light cargo type cars. Or their own, older vehicle.

    One would swear such high educated people would lose all interest in bicycle riding and bicycle infrastructure faster then you can blink an eye if that isnt part of their very busy life anymore...

    In short, i do not buy the (whole) story.

    Sure, in large dense populated cities traffic is a problem. Parking your lease car is often a problem, or at least the permit to do so being outragiously expensive. Air quality polution is a good other one. Having a (folding)bike there is mostly practical. For women it's the cargo bike then. It has not so much to do with status or culture, it is born out of nessesity. But ofcourse, one can observe that lower educated people do not live in luxury appartments in inner cities and therefore will not be seen on cargobikes and folding bikes as much....

    The higher educated that have the unfortune not being able to use company leased cars, because of their living envirmoment, move themselves by folding bike to the trains. These people are my cargo, to be delivered 1st class to Amsterdam South buisiness park, or the same at Schiphol, Rotterdam, Eindhoven, The Hague and more...

    I do not think they will care much for cycling infrastructure as their buisiness towers are raised right next to train stations and these are historically in the center of most cities, as are the luxury appartments.

    You are right they will never travel by bus, that is for the lower classes...

    You should note school going children have often no choice to go by bicycle....maybe the conclusion the cyclepaths are mostly there for their safety is more to the point ? Parents will push for these cycle infrastructuren, not for their own use, but for the safety of their children....not unimportant.. ;-))

  2. Hi Quezzzt, Of course you're not buying the full story because you were having a moped. ;-)
    The point is not that over half of the former students jumps into company lease cars and goes making money in trade and industry nowadays, not at all interested in this kind of issues. The point is that there is a significant sub-group of former (left-wing) students, esp in the late 60ies, that were and are involved in city planning, infrastructure and politics. Isn't weird that the prime ministers I showed are not only a social democrat(Kok), but also christian democrat (Van Agt) and even a liberal(Rutte)? The latter two are typically not so much interested is this kind of things...

  3. To put it differently. ALL decision-makers in politics, city planning and infrastructure over the past 40 years did have a bicycle as a student and used it on a daily basis. Primarily by social pressure and lacking money to have a car as alternative. The underlying mechanism that could result in this situation is in a next post.

  4. You are trying to tell me treehugging hippies build our bicycle infrastructure ? ;-))

    So this has nothing to do with the popularity of the bicycle in the years right after the war because people in general didn't have much money. In those years of rebuiling everything and the bicycle being omnipresent, wouldn't that have encouraged infrastructure specially for the bicycle ?

    At that time - although in Germany there were automobile highways since the '30 - people didn't know yet that automobiles would become that affordable it would be transport for the masses. It seems logical they saw it important to maken infrastructure for an important means of transportation at the time...

  5. Cycling infrastructure can only be invented after the appearance of massive numbers of cars. Before cars, there was just roads. Roads for walking, for carriages, for incidental cars handcars, bicycles alike. The very first separation was parallel roads in the thirties in NL. Not specifically for bicycles, but for hand cars and dog cars doing door-to-door sales holding up other carriages and an incidental car. They are much wider than cycling lanes and can be found n front of larger houses for....upper middle class...

  6. ....and exactly, this has nothing to do with post WWII rebuilding, starting with bikes for the masses, followed by mopeds and finally cars. All that time, students just did their bicycle thing and increasingly (by their very increasing numbers) dictated the traffic in the innercities. Their increase IS a result of post WWII rebuild. After cars, people could afford to send their kids to university, moving into upper middle class. My family did the same, but then in the late twenties. Grandpa had a Ford T, being head of finance of the Dutch mines, but the son of a Frisian house painter who was able to send 1 kid to school...

  7. I can't resist...I know from inside information that local authorities (head of police, mayors, heads of schools) scare the ... Out of themselves at the start of each student year, praying for a low death toll. The newcomers don't know the traffic situation, are having lots of parties to celebrate the start of their student time......always a peak of accidents in september. Now who's deciding what in Dutch innercity traffic?

  8. I bike every day to Amsterdam with the quest

    it's always very busy with bicycle traffic

  9. Actually Magic Bullet, my father was head of the financial department in city hall ( Amerfoort ) and a decision maker like in your story. He didnt like bicycles and chose motorscooters ( post war models ) and cars like the Citroen 2CV in/afther his time as student ;-))

    Yet here i am ( on paper ) low educated, never was a student or decisionmaker and have driven mopeds, motorcycles and cars for decennia not even owning a bicycle. Your story has certainly recognisable elements but isnt airtight ;-))

  10. @ Quezzzt, Now I know the root cause of the crappy cycling infrastructure of Amersfoort ;-))
    Oh, how could I forget 2CV, I should add a photo & remark. Did it have flowers, or was your father from an older generation?
    Actually, you're brilliant: from petrol head to machinist with a velomobile. Did they think you went into an identity crisis because they couldn't put you into a box anymore? No recommendations to visit a shrink?
    There is a small indication in the post that my story isn't completely airtight, my brother became a petrol head too...I think these exceptions proof the story.

  11. No flowers and a very early model...i cant make the colour because the photo's are in black and white. I think it is dark grey.

    Theres a nice story to why he got a (new) car at that time where few people even had a car as a student in the first place....he actually passed the tests for fighter pilot but his parents forbade him to persue such a (dangerous, they had seen the battles over their heads of bombers on their way to Germany and back ) career. To make up for this huge dissapointment they pampered him with luxury and he was already a somewhat older student because of the interfering war...

    And yes my collegues are in shock still....they cant get their heads around me preferring a turned over glassfiber bathtub with pedals over a brandnew Citroen C1-like car.....a terrible waste of money, is their point of view ;-))

    Im not an enviromental activist treehugger either. I'm riding such a bike as i recognise that to stay healthy a human does need physical exercise. And the best exercise is what your model ( homo sapiens ) was built for in the first place, hunting larger animals. Now i dislike running and my weight lifting bench only provides a part of what a human needs...so cycling is the next best endurance exercise ;-)

    See..not a culture thing at all..with me everything need to be practical ;-))

    But ofcourse in general your story is recognisable in how things work in the world. Students and what they are acustomed to will have a huge impact on the decisionmaking they will later on do. And the conclusion that real power in daily life is to a surprisingly extend wielded by lower regional instances is probably right aswell.

  12. How funny, my mother was a dentist assistant/phone connector girl/nurse at the military airport Valkenburg directly after WWII. She had to cancel dentist appointments on a regular basis...a dead pilot doesn't have to do his teeth anymore...Note that this was at peace time. I suppose your grand parents were right.

    Indeed, velomobilist are as eccentric in NL as cyclists in the rest of the world.

  13. This makes nice reading, but I'm afraid it has a high Diederik Stapel content: plausible at first sight, but not holding water when examined closely. Nevertheless, it is worth researching which socio-economical factors in The Netherlands have smoothed the way for a nearly universal acceptance of cycling.

    This would be complementary to, and not excluding, the view of David Hembrow who considers the overall quality of cycling infrastructure as THE decisive factor for universal adoption of the bicycle as a means of everyday transport.

  14. Dear Wijnandt,

    Thanks for comparing me to Diederik Stapel, there are less flattering comparisons possible.

    My point is (will be) that David Hembrow is making a couple of deadly scientific mistakes.
    1- The Dutch are not acting as a single, homogeneous group. They might be more homogeneous than the British, and therefore differences might be harder to feel from the outside, but that only makes David a Danish boy looking for storks.
    2- Student cycling culture and infrastructure is NOT related and therefore it's NOT complementary to David's ideas. Cycling outside the student cycling culture is actually under pressure in The Netherlands ('achterbankgeneratie'). A significant part of Dutch cycling infrastructure kilometers is hardly in use anymore. Simply because cycling is an inferior way of transportation.
    3- Please be a true scientist, examine my theory closely and do put it to the water. This kind of remarks alone just adds the the 'Magic' of Dutch cycling. I'm trying to demystify it.

  15. Magic Bullet it is ofcourse the scientific way to try burn a theory down with valid counter proof facts by other scientists.

    A theory only becomes accepted if no one can bring forth valid counter proof facts against the theory to prove its wrong. Doesnt mean the theory is right at all, but since no one then can prove it's not, it has to be assumed.

    Now this is probably what you meant with the remark at the end of your written piece so you are well aware of this....but...

    I have noticed by your past reactions you are sometimes short tempered, and i really had a laugh about the somewhat insulting remark on comparing your work with Diederik Stapel's. But yet you remain calm where i expected you to be furiated, wich would be less...scientific. So at least you gained +1 in my book of at least trying to explain how things work from you point of view and remain calm under inevitable comments saying you're all wrong ;-)

  16. Hi Quezzzt,
    OMG, is it so obvious? I honestly try to be friendly on any blog, but I miserably fail to hide my true nature ;-(

    In one way one can take it as an insult, but I am also flattered by the comparison of Wijnandt! Stapel might not be scientifically right in some/many of his statements, but he's successful, and I think he's very entertaining. Also, I'm as irritating as Stapel, stepping out of my own specialization and start telling others 'the truth', so I should accept the remark because it's true.

    The whole purpose of my posts on this topic is to be a bit provocative, like Stapel, just to make people think. David triggered me because he's postulating his 'decisive infrastructure theory' with even more boldness and was warning me not to use certain arguments, because 'he debunked them already' and 'you don't know your country'. I decided not to take these as an insult (...), put it into the box of British lobbyist language and I am taking a different approach indeed.

    To put it provocative again: everybody thinks he's right but nobody seems to notice that there are a couple of obvious flaws in his story. That does annoy me. The most obvious is that cycling doesn't function anywhere but in The Netherlands. He presents that as near coincidence, takes a technocratic approach ('Dutch cycling is not a culture') and states that other countries should take the Dutch as an example, and should not settle with anything less than the Dutch cycling infrastructure. To put it in his own words: I debunked the level of realism of his efforts to achieve anything like that already in my post on cyclist lobbyism.

    But I can put the best cycling infrastructure on the top of the Alps, in San Francisco or the in central deserts of Australia...and then what? Is everybody going to use a bike there to commute then?

    I think it's a proven recipee for failure and I could fill a separate post with examples on it, mostly related with attempts to export democracy and aiding developing countries. All serve very good goals, but just picking up systems and putting them somewhere else is simply a too lazy.

    In my approach, I'm having a pretty closed theory (posted only ~25%), with some rock solid numbers, and then it's shooting time indeed. I still believe it will hold.

  17. Such an interesting perspective! Any ideas about the burst of e-bikes nowadays? Is it my impression or are the users the influencial babyboomers(upper)middle class from the sixties?

  18. Many of them are indeed! :-) didn't realize that yet. The burst of e-bikes is an interesting development on its own. At first it makes the elderly Bb generation more mobile in a healthy way, in so far, that it comes with an increased death toll amongst older cyclists, higher frequency of use combined with higher speeds.
    As the e-bike is increasingly more difficult to distinguish from a normal bike, it's loosing its 'handicapped granny' scootmobile image quickly. Nowadays, a lot of younger people esp women, buy it as alternative for a bike or...moped. Subtle social difference.
    E-bikes are saving certain endangered types of cycling in The Netherlands, are giving cycling a new boost.

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  22. Thanks V.K. I'm pretty busy at work and in family life right now, but my next post will be on the typical Dutch bike. Work in progress...

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