How The Netherlands Built a Biking Utopia


This edition of the newsletter is adapted from a YouTube video I just released on the same topic. The written version is good, but personally I think the video is much better. I hope you’ll check it out.

The Netherlands used to have as much traffic as America

Today the Netherlands is known for having some of the best biking infrastructure in the world. Its cities, like Amsterdam, The Hague, and Utrecht, are often praised for their sustainable city planning and design.

As a result, The Netherlands has far fewer transportation emissions, obesity rates, and traffic fatalities than the United States. (More on all this below).

But this European country wasn’t always a utopia for cyclists. Here’s what Amsterdam looked like in the 1970s:


At first, when I saw these images I thought they were flukes. Just a few pictures of the rare car-choked street. But I soon learned that cities like Amsterdam used to have just as much traffic and air pollution as cities in the United States do today.

After learning this, I became obsessed with this question: How did the Netherlands go from having traffic-clogged cities to having some of the world's best bike infrastructure?

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The first golden age of biking in the Netherlands

The 1920s and 1930s were the first golden age of Dutch biking. In 1930, there were 2.7 million bikes in the country compared to just 68,000 cars.

“The bicycle was very practical,” said Marjolein de Lange, co-author of Bike City Amsterdam. “It was affordable for many people, the distances were not so large, and it was faster than going by foot.”

But World War II changed everything for cycling in The Netherlands. In 1940 the Germans invaded and began a 5 year long occupation of the country.

During the occupation the Germans imposed tire rations, which made it difficult to buy a new bike or repair an existing one. They also stole bikes from Dutch residents. The exact number of bikes stolen is disputed, but some estimates put it as high as half of all bikes.

Because of all this, cycling traffic fell by over 50% during and after the war.

But the war had another major influence on cycling. According to one estimate, 60% of all Dutch transportation infrastructure was destroyed during World War II. Roads, bridges, and tunnels were all bombed during the invasion. Some cities, like Rotterdam, were completely flattened.

All of this destruction forced The Netherlands to rebuild their country almost entirely from scratch.

The Netherlands took inspiration from the United States

With this blank canvas, the Netherlands didn’t immediately set out to build a biking utopia. In fact, the opposite happened. Like many countries around the world, the post-war era was a golden age for the personal automobile.

In 1950, there were 139,000 cars in The Netherlands. 20 years later there were 3.4 million.

There were a few reasons for this dramatic growth. First, cars got a lot cheaper making them more affordable to middle class Dutch people. Second, the Netherlands became very wealthy. Between 1945 and 1970, GDP per capita in the country grew by a factor of 5. Another major reason for this growth was the fact that the Dutch government built infrastructure for cars.

In order to do this, they took a lot of inspiration from The United States.

In the 1960s, the Dutch government hired an American planner named David Jokinen to help modernize the city of Amsterdam. As the number of cars grew, roads in the city had become congested. And Jokinen had a plan to fix this problem.

So what was his plan?

He wanted to demolish working class neighborhoods, build massive highways and even fill some canals with concrete to turn them into roads.

A rendering of the “Jokinen Plan”


Jokinen was far from alone in his grand modernist aspirations. All around the world, city planners were thinking of ways to demolish old urban neighborhoods and replace them with modern infrastructure.

“Stop murdering the children”

But as the number of cars rose in the Netherlands, so did the number of people killed by cars each year. By the 1970s, 3,000 people were being killed by cars every year.

“That was really cause for outrage all over the Netherlands,” de Lange said. “The outrage was especially focused on children being killed in traffic.”

In 1971, 500 children were killed by cars. One of those children was Simone Langenhoff, a 6 year old girl who was struck and killed by a car on her way to school. In response to the tragedy, her father, a journalist, wrote a front page article with the provocative title “Stop de Kindermord” or “Stop Murdering the Children.”

The article inspired protests and eventually an entire movement.


The next year, something else important happened. In 1972, the Dutch government released a report showing that it would cost billions to continue building roads and highways. Nearly every politician at the time agreed that this kind of spending just wasn’t feasible. They all agreed that the country needed to look at alternatives to cars.

If that wasn’t enough, another year later, gas prices skyrocketed due to the first oil crisis. Suddenly the price of oil went up by 300%. In a nationally televised speech, the prime minister urged people to use less energy and change their lifestyles.

He also announced a series of car-free Sundays which gave people a glimpse of cities would look like with less cars. As a journalist for The Guardian put it: “People were suddenly reminded of what life was like before the hegemony of the car.”

Children ride their bikes on the highway during a car-free Sunday


Early experiments in building bike infrastructure

In the 1980s a few Dutch cities began to experiment with new ways to get people out of cars and onto bikes again. For example The Hague and Tilberg built a few bike lanes and painted them bright red. But biking rates didn’t go up after they built these bikes lanes.

City planners learned that it wasn’t enough to just build a few dedicated bike lanes. No, they needed an entire network of bike lanes throughout the city.

Around the same time, Delft began running their own experiments. Rather than build a few bike lanes, they spent the equivalent of about 12 million dollars building a city-wide biking network. Bicycle use went up by 6% of driving went down by 3%. It was considered an early success.

In the 1980s, the Dutch government went on a bike lane building spree. Over the course of 10 years, the government built about 7,000 kilometers of bike lanes, growing the total number of bike lanes in the country by about 70%.

But despite the growth of this network, people weren’t biking that much more. In 1990 Dutch people biked 12.8 billion kilometers. 4 years later in 1994, they biked 12.9 billion kilometers, a difference of about 100,000 kilometers.

As Ton Welleman wrote in what’s now a famous study for the Dutch Ministry of Transport:

“The construction of a network of bicycle routes is insufficient in itself for bringing about a sustainable increase in bicycle use. The simultaneous execution of a policy discouraging car use is deemed necessary.”

In other words, if you want people to bike you can’t just make it pleasant to bike. You have to make it a pain to drive.

How Dutch cities discourage car use

Over the last 20 years, Dutch cities like Amsterdam and The Hague have done just that. One way they’ve discouraged car use is by making parking expensive.

“In the city centre, you pay seven euros per hour [to park],” de Lange said. “If it's expensive, people will think about going by car twice.”

But policies like this don’t just discourage people from driving. They also provide income for the government. And most Dutch cities use that income to fund bike and pedestrian infrastructure.

In addition to making parking expensive, Dutch cities also use a city planning strategy called “traffic calming” to slow down cars. The basic idea of this is to make roads more narrow, reduce speed limits, add bumps, and make it difficult to drive fast.

This makes driving less desirable. But it also makes it safer for pedestrians and cyclists. The result is less driving and more biking and walking.

Many cities have also begun converting roads into car-free zones. As the name implies, these are areas of the city where cars can’t travel with the exception of delivery trucks and emergency vehicles.

A car-free area of Amsterdam. Credit: Not Just Bikes


All of these policies are working

All of these changes have had an incredible impact on The Netherlands. In the 1970s about 500 children were dying from car fatalities per year. Four decades later in 2010, 14 children died, a decrease of about 97%.

Compared to the United States, the Netherlands has 3 times less car fatalities per capita. If the US could replicate this, we’d save 20,000 lives per year.

All of this biking is also improving people’s health. Everywhere in Europe, obesity rates are growing with one exception: The Netherlands. As Melissa and Chris Bruntlett point out in their book, Curbing Traffic: “Similar bicycling rates in the United States would save a staggering 125,000 lives each year.”

These policies have also cut the Netherlands carbon emissions. In the United States the average person emits about 5.4 tons of CO2 per year from driving. Dutch people, on the other, drive much less and as a result their cars emit 3 times less CO2 per capita.


Change doesn’t happen on its own

We often look at our societies as fixed and stuck in their ways. We think “The United States will always be a land of strip malls and highways.” Or we think the world will always run on fossil fuels.

The reality is that none of these things have to be true.

The Netherlands is proof that societies can and do change - and sometimes they can do it quickly. But as we saw, these transformations don’t happen on their own.

They happen because people like the activists that started the Stop de Kindermord movement. They happen because of smart decisions by government employees that rarely get the credit that they deserve. They happen because of people who show up to their local town meetings.

But the first step in making these changes and building better cities is believing we can do it in the first place.

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