How the Dutch created cycle culture - and how Auckland can too

Lessons from the Dutch

A chat with Mirjam Borsboom, director of the Dutch cycling embassy, an organisation that shares insights and knowledge on how to become a cycling country.

How did cycling culture evolve in the Netherlands?

In the 1970s, we had a lot of accidents and people standing up to the government and saying ‘enough is enough, we want safe infrastructure for children’. So they changed their perspectives on how to design streets. Therefore, it was really practical – give one completely dedicated lane to cyclists. You don’t need to make every street have a cycle lane – it’s called the back street principle – it’s much nicer to cycle on a quiet street than on the main road anyway.

Three percent of Auckland kids ride to school; in the Netherlands it’s 75 percent. How do you increase kids – and adults – on bikes?

It’s a whole process, there’s not just one answer. We didn’t have a national cycling strategy and now we do again. Whenever you have a movement, and there’s a momentum right now [in Auckland], you need to take that and bring it further. I think we did that back in the 1970s. We wanted change, and people responded – top down. It took us 50 years, but it doesn’t [have to] take you 50 years if we share the knowledge, which steps we made – please do it in 10 years! We have three levels: hardware, software and org-ware. Hardware is the infrastructure – safe, dedicated paths for cycling but also parking facilities and cheaper bicycles. Software is more the mindset part, it’s about culture, education, stimulating programmes on how to ride. Org-ware is the inclusion part, the different organisations you need on the same table to make it happen: planners, architects, social scientists, people actually cycling, and living in the city.

How do you respond to people who don’t want to lose car parks for cycle lanes?

It’s always hard to change. You need to get people integrated with the whole process. In the Netherlands, evenings are hosted where everyone is invited. When you have these kinds of evenings, everyone will be there, everyone will give their opinion. The trick is to listen to those opinions and actually do something with that. Also, if there is maintenance to do on a street, maybe redesign it a little bit at the same time – it’s a great opportunity to include local inhabitants in the beginning of the process. That’s what we see more nowadays in the Netherlands. You need this discussion – you’re living in this street, what do you want? I think having a strategic approach to creating a network like Auckland is doing [is good]; Vancouver is doing that really well.

Your country already has a strong cycling culture – your prime minister rides a bike to work –  but are there any challenges?

The biggest challenge is parking. We have just built the world’s largest underground bike parking garage – for 18,000 bikes, in Utrecht. We know already it’s not enough. It’s a space problem. Get more clever with sharing – we all have our own bikes, I have four! And there isn’t a lot of space. Please leapfrog us and don’t get to a place where you have four bikes.