dinsdag 9 april 2013

Why a cyclists lobby will never be successful outside The Netherlands in the current world

After having read a very interesting post on 'A view from the cycle path' on what to copy from the very good Dutch cycling infrastructure to e.g., the UK and what not, I bounced off a few idea's indicating that it might not be such a good idea to just copy anything from any country to another, and more specifically not the Dutch cycling infrastructure. The summary of the answer was that I didn't know my own country so much. Well...let's see.

The short answer to the question why a cyclists lobby will never be successful in e.g., the UK and many other countries has to do with the very nature of lobbies in democracy. They are only successful if it concerns:
1-  a lot of people
2-  a high (future) economical value

In a democracy any lobby not concerning the two above, just get bits and pieces. Unfortunately in the UK, cyclists are not a lot of people, nor do they represent a high economical value. 

If you disagree with this mechanism, then please consider some other small lobbies that have goals you disagree with, before you make up your mind. You and I might like cycling, a large portion of the UK population might actually be totally indifferent or even hate cyclists. 

If you think this answer is too short, then read on.

There might be an exception to the above for the unintended weak (ill, elderly, children, animals), but even that's limited. If it does not concern the two above or the  unintended weak, then such lobby is close to being seen as extraordinary, too expensive or even extremist. If a small lobby is successful, it's only on a short term, or it's soon seen as undemocratic. People putting themselves willingly into a weak minority position are considered as idiots, that might get bits and pieces to execute their weird and dangerous hobbies.

Cyclists are putting themselves willingly into a vulnerable minority position in the UK...I'm not suggesting they are idiots, but I'm indicating they will be considered as such by the masses.

If you think this answer is too short then read on. Don't get me wrong on this section below, I'm NOT cynical. I'm 100pct in favor of the democratic mechanism described below, but unfortunately, in this case it just doesn't work out for something I personally consider a good cause, cycling.

Then how does it go, such lobby of the willingly weak minority? Of course they got a point in this case. Cycling is healthier, better for the environment and reduces traffic congestion. But, poor cycling safety by poor infrasturcture prevents it from becoming a big success, at least that's the story. So, one day a politician gets entangled by such a lobby. By default, democratic polititians never like to get involved into small lobbies. They always have to defend themselves against the masses of the majority the next day. In democracy, that means (luckily in general) that you loose the battle as lobbyist in the long run and go home with only bits and pieces.
Anyway, one might get a local politician enthousiastic about the cycling infrastructure idea, on the back of the Dutch example. Well done! We are going to change London/Stockholm/Berlin into Amsterdam cycling paradise! No, you don't. The next day, the officials get the request to calculate what has to be done for getting the cycling infrastructure to Dutch standards. At best, the guy pulls out an old report and makes a little update. At worst, a whole committee is installed, visiting The Netherlands, spending a fortune (where does that money come from? well, from the wallet of the masses), only to come to the conclusion that nothing is the same in The Netherlands and that they would need significant budget to get anywhere near.  Whether this is right or wrong (it's partially right), it doesn't matter, that's just the 1st impression you get from any foreign country. So, they report to the politician it's going to cost a lot. Oops, but that means that I will have less budget for improving roads for cars, or for public transport. How on earth am I going to defend that towards the petrol heads, the elderly taking public transport or the children taking the schoolbus? Well, you don't. As a good politician, you give the willingly weak minority some bits and pieces. So, another stretch of a useless cycling lane is put somewhere in the outskirts of a city. Useless and just confirming towards the masses that no money should be spent on cycling lanes.

Is the cycling lobby outside The Netherlands then on a dead end? I'm afraid so. They missed the starting gun, somewhere in the seventies (instead, they were listening to Pink Floyd's 1973 album Dark Side of the Moon, asking themselves whether they were missing one). But to be honest, I don't think there was a starting gun at all for most countries other than The Netherlands. Cycling is just a too inferior way of transportation in most cases to make it something useful for the masses, once first mopeds and then cars have become economically available. For now, one has to wait for a break through change in circumstances. Increasing petrol prices, bad economy for years, electrically assisted vehicles with some kind of a biking option, who knows what.

The question is then why this inferior cycling is still popular in The Netherlands, whereas it failed in nearly any other western country as a dominant way of transportation, and is about to fail in e.g., China and Vietnam? Are the Dutch so much brighter and more visionary than other people? I'd love to say yes of course, but that's just rubbish. Was it just coincidence then? Of course not.

It is very much into the social geography of The Netherlands, and especially in its economical heart, De Randstad, roughly the provinces Noord Holland, Zuid Holland and Utrecht. This area makes cycling actually something handy.

Also, there is not a single reason to it, but an entire chain of factors why it's so handy here. If one of these factors is not available in a country, cycling will fail as dominant transportation. The Netherlands is unique in that sense that all these factors have come together here, and, maybe with a bit of luck, we did hear the starting gun in the seventies. But I don't think that was luck, in my view that would have happened no matter what. Cycling is now in our veins for 80 years without interuption. The way of cycling has changed over the years and it will change in the future, but it will not easily disappear from the Lowlands.

Next post on those social geographic reasons.

I'm sorry for the couple of Dutch blunt remarks, but this is the way I think about the topic. Please make me happy showing a real example of another country where cycling is becoming a brilliant success in reality. But please hold your ideas about how it might become maybe a success in the distant future somewhere someday in another country if those stupid politicians would finally listen. That didn't happen for 40 years guys, and, sorry to say, but under current circumstances, the chances are decreasing every year that something would improve for the cyclists outside The Netherlands.

My message is, those politicians are not necessarily bright or stupid, they simply have different priorities and they should. If you go for sustainable transportation, pick one that fits your country. One that fits the needs of the masses. Probably it's there already in some form or another. Maybe it's cycling, but probably not.

In the mean time, keep on cycling and make others enthousiastic. I'm hoping so much I'm wrong.

10 opmerkingen:

  1. Interesting post. Looking forward to your explanation of the "entire chain of factors why it's so handy here...".

    met vriendelijke groet,
    Paul (Mooi Geel Is Niet Lelijk)

  2. Hallo Magic,

    I'm afraid you are completly right about this issue........

    Greetings, Adri.

  3. There a cities in the world with a million population that have more bicycles ( and mopeds ) then in the whole of the Netherlands...where to look ? India...Pakistan, Vietnam, a lot of other countries in Asia.

    Most of these people do not ride a bicycle volentarely, but it's the most efficient transport they can afford. Would they have more income, they would wish for moterised transport inmidiatly.

    Infrastructure is not nessesarely a point there....everyone uses the same road.

    More close and in the European Union is Greece. There too under pressure of the economical situation in many cieties the bicycle is reinvented and increasingly popular. Those users prefer to have cheaper transport aswell, but would abandon it again when their income increases.

    In short, the bicycle is a poor man's transport in most countries in the world. And apparently it's use is grossly underestimated. But it's not the same as it is here, where bicycles have become luxury sports or healthy livestyle products. We are simly economically more ahead and discovered our health is degrading when using too much automation. As will the upcoming nations, but only after motorized transport would have been as available as it is with us.

  4. @Quezzzt, that's exactly what economy does in most other countries. In Asia, you're already too late to see bicycles...they're thrown into the bin and replaced by mopeds and cars in China, Vietnam, Indonesia...I didn't see too many anymore 5 years ago in Indonesia. My brother got into a moped traffic jam in Vietnam of well over 15km...
    Greece is a good example of the opposite indeed. Being one of the worst cycling infrastructures of the world, bad economy forces anything to happen there.
    I'm regarding the health aspect as a next catalyst in the Dutch cycling culture too. Especially in combination with electrical support (weird logic there but that's the way it works...), it is changing transport habits here. But it's not an essential need to make cycling a success.

  5. Although the succes of the automobile is to an important degree due to the succes of infrastructure that evolved with it, the same is not nessesarely true for the bicycle :

    The city i live in is one of the most recent existing ones that was actually designed on a drawing board and not historically evolved. It has a bicycle infrastructure that is almost completely seperate from motor traffic. Bicycle bridges cross over motor traffic lanes. This bicycle infrastructure has its own streetlights and has green surroundings werever possible in a city. You encounter no traffic lights untill deep in the center of the city. It is perhaps the fastest and safest bycicle infrastructure you can get in a city.

    Is this a huge succes that attracts ever more people to take a bicycle ? ...No, not at all...this infrastucture is all but abandoned, mostly school kids make use of it, given they have no other choice. Here and there ofcourse some other bicycle users and ofcourse scooters, but the latter ones are often restricted to the motor lanes and are not allowed on the bicycle infrastructure. But the bicycle infrastructure is never intensively used. I think the most frequent uses are actualy people that are walking the dog for most of the bicycle infrastructure net in and around the city...

    What went wrong ? My opinion is that people if they have the choice ( money ) prefer the most fast an easy way : moterized transport. As soon as people reach 16 years, many do choose motorized transport and abandon their bicyle. And this on a drawing board designed city was designed for much more growth and inhabitants than it actually got. They realised excellent 4 lane motortraffic lanes along each living zone so traffic jam is virtuelly non existent here. You do not encounter many traffic light untill in the center of the city. And ofcourse, no bicycles are in your way. You can approach the center with a legal speed of 70 km/u.

    With such an excellent and fast motor lane infrastructure, people are actually ecouraged to take a motor vehicle. And they do. Even the bus public transport system is very fast because of the 4 lane infrastructure. There is no reason to take a bicycle if you do not prefer it at all....

    My conclusion is that only a better bicycle infrastructure wont cut it per definition. There are more conditions that need be met. Hopelessly daily jammed traffic for instance, and/or a financial need to use cheaper transport.

  6. Spot on Quezzzt, You've hit one of the prerequisites abundantly available in NL: crappy medieval infrastructure of many towns, in combination with a lot of other factors.

  7. We in Canada have seen improvements in infrastructure for cycling and have seen great increases in numbers of cyclists. We have a long way to go, to be even close to the Netherlands. It's our weather that slows things down.

  8. @Kevin, indeed climate is an important factor. Would you indicate the improvement as bits and pieces, or as actually something like a significant investment ascompared to transportation improvements for eg cars? What purpose does the improvements serve? Recreational, commuting, shopping, going to school? Multiple of the above? What I've seen on your blog is mainly recreational, right?

  9. Just watch bicycles with electric engines (Pedelecs). It will increase amount of bicyclists on public roads. Making relatively cheap semi-velomobiles with electric engines would do the job too - You could feel more confident on the public road (but please those semi-velomobiles not as low as typical velomobiles, it must be at least the height of Velayo).

  10. Very interesting remark you're making about the combination of pedelec with velomobile with good visibility, Maciej, thanks. I like the Velayo for its clear design statement.