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The Dutch Love Cycling So Much That Their Bike Lanes Can't Cope

The Netherlands’ cycle lanes are overcrowded, says a new report.

In the Netherlands, riding a scooter in a bike lane could soon be illegal (FaceMePLS/Flickr)

Cycling is now so popular in the Netherlands that its bike lanes just don't have the space to accommodate all riders, says a new report. According to the country’s SWOV Institute for Road Safety Research, cycling infrastructure in Holland is getting seriously overloaded. The Dutch lane system may well be exemplary compared to most other countries, but as bike paths fill to capacity during rush hour, crashes are becoming more frequent.  

The problem is partly a by-product of success, evidence of cycling’s ever-growing popularity in a country where its place in everyday life was already substantial. In Amsterdam between 1986 and 1991, the city already saw 470,000 trips by bike on an average day. Between 2004 and 2008, that number grew to 604,000 per day, and is still growing now. That growth can be counted as a triumph, but infrastructure improvements are lagging behind. By last year, Amsterdam had become so short on bike parking that it announced a plan to build new lots underwater and on artificial islands in its inner harbor. Now the SWOV’s research shows that riders are being squeezed into bottlenecks where the pressure of numbers means they can no longer opt to ride at the speed of their choice. Partly as a result, the proportion of road crashes that involve no cars at all is rising.

According to the SWOV’s argument, some of these accidents are happening thanks to poor road habits among riders. When they set up cameras at four major bike lane intersections in the Hague, they recorded a catalog of bad behavior. Footage showed 20 percent of cyclists using their phones while riding—though most of these were listening to music rather that texting. A large majority of riders (80 percent) pulled out of lane to overtake without looking behind them, while 5 percent of riders went as far as cycling in the wrong direction entirely. You can arguably get away with some of this behavior on a quiet, underused  path. On a packed thoroughfare shared with thousands of commuters, it can land you in hospital. In fact, the report notes that 1,000 cyclists are hospitalized annually after collisions with other cyclists. This could well be enough to deter some from venturing out on two wheels, but it’s worth noting that the toll of serious accidents is still tiny given the numbers using the system. The Netherlands, after all, is the world’s only country where bikes actually outnumber people.

So what’s the solution to this increasing overcrowding? One small measure already underway is banning scooters from cycle lanes. Under current rules, scooters with small engines are permitted on such paths provided their speed goes no higher than around 15 miles per hour. Now there are moves afoot to shut them out for good. Scooters only account for 7 percent of bike lane traffic, however, so changes like this are fine-tuning rather than a paradigm shift. To turn things around and truly give Dutch cyclists space to turn or breathe, the country needs to widen lanes by reclaiming more of the roadway from motor vehicles, at least in cities. This seems like a logical next step, but for some pro-cycling voices, the political climate is such that Holland risks pedalling backwards. Mark Van Woudenburg of the urban design blog Amsterdamize writes that, given cycling’s popularity, the degree of city space given up to cars in his hometown is still wildly disproportionate:

In Amsterdam, 70% of trips in the city center are by bike, yet only 11% of public space is allocated to that mode. Cars, by contrast, account for 25% of trips, yet are given 44% of space. Recently the VVD rubberstamped the budget to create 2500 more car parking spaces in the center—extremely expensive underground spaces constructed beneath canals. That’s a plan which does away with 23 years of policies to remove car parking.”

The Netherlands may have long been envied as one of the world’s most bike-friendly nations, but if they want to keep that title untarnished, it seems they may have to push a little harder.

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