London cycling and the “by chance” success of Amsterdam

Cicli Elios Condorino Vintage cycle - red

A new book about the cycling cultures of Dutch and other European cities offers some valuable guidance for London.

For many London cycling activists and politicians with transport responsibilities the Netherlands is the touchstone nation for urban cycling policy, as demonstrated by the London Cycling Campaign’s ongoing “Go Dutch” theme and Boris Johnson’s borough-centred “mini-Holland” schemes.

How did Amsterdam come to be such a beacon as a cycling city and what can London learn from it? Professor Ruth Oldenziel of Eindhoven University a Dutch person and a cyclist, just so you know is co-editor of a new book called Cycling Cities: The European Experience.

The professor’s Amsterdam cycling story is not of the city’s authorities introducing a visionary type of street design and everything proceeding from there, but one arising from the interplay of a range of factors over time, during which cycling policy was never more than “makeshift” and change has been untidily incremental.

Cicli Elios Vintage city bike - grey

Amsterdam’s counter-culture, allied with its preservationist movement, reclaimed the city’s cycling heritage as part of its resistance to motor-domination and redevelopment.

Oldenziel attributes this to a combination of a determined social movement, a stubbornly strong cycling tradition, Amsterdam’s compact layout and a “pragmatic mix of pro-cycling and car-limiting policies,” of which the curbing of motorists has “proved the most effective”.

The book looks at what has happened to cycling in 14 European cities, identifying five main factors explaining why it has thrived in some and faded in others: the nature of the urban landscape; the availability of alternative modes of travel, including public transport; cycling’s place within wider traffic policies; the effects of social movements; and cycling’s changing cultural status, from the transit mode of poorer people to what it is today.

Cicli Elios Vintage city bike - Navy blue

Oldenziel, who had pedalled round parts of the capital during the afternoon, told me her research had found that traffic-calming measures have represented the best use of public money in European cities in terms of encouraging cycling.

Cicli Elios Condorino Vintage cycle - brown

Although the Amsterdam story she tells includes periods of conflict between trams and the demolitions required for subway construction on the one hand and cycling on the other, Oldenziel would prefer the interests of pedestrians, cyclists and public transport users to be allied and complementary.

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