National Geographic News
Photo of a bike in motion.

A bicyclist enjoys traveling through the streets of Amsterdam in the Netherlands.

Photograph by Angelo Cavalli, Corbis

Anik See in Amsterdam

for National Geographic

Published May 3, 2014

This month millions of Americans will pedal out onto the nation's roads during National Bike Month. But for the nation's roughly 800,000 bicycle commuters, May won't be different from any other month.

Frustrated with rising gas prices and overcrowded roads, a rising number of commuters have turned to cycling. Since 1990 their ranks have nearly doubled in the largest U.S. urban centers, with cities such as Portland, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., seeing increases of more than 400 percent.

Not coincidentally, bike-sharing initiatives in those cities are also booming. And since New York introduced its bike-sharing program last year, road safety has improved, with cyclist deaths cut in half.

This is welcome news for city politicians and urban planners, who increasingly view cycling as a remedy for a range of mounting transportation and environmental problems.

If you don't count the metal and rubber used to produce them, bikes offer carbon-free transport, and they require much less costly infrastructure than cars do. Furthermore, research shows that although improving cycling infrastructure does slow down car traffic, it actually makes the roads safer for motorists as well as cyclists and pedestrians.

Then there are the health benefits: A recent study in the U.K. concluded that on average, regular cyclists have the fitness level of someone ten years younger, are half as likely to suffer from heart disease, are 27 percent less likely to have a stroke, and are likely to live two years longer.

But none of this is news to the Dutch, who have long been recognized as pioneers in the modern cycling movement. Amsterdam has emphasized bicycling infrastructure since the 1970s and now effectively serves as a case study of what works and what doesn't. The Copenhagenize Index, which every two years measures the world's best biking cities according to 13 criteria, has ranked Amsterdam number one since its ranking began in 2011.

Photo of people riding bikes and walking on a street in the Netherlands.
This photo (ca. 1940-1960) shows a busy street full of bicyclists in Volendam, the Netherlands.
Photograph by Philip Gendreau, Bettmann/Corbis

Roots of Dutch Bike Culture

But it wasn't always smooth pedaling in the Netherlands. The history of Dutch cycling has seen its own share of ups and downs. In the 1950s, almost 85 percent of trips made in the Netherlands were by bike. But by the early 1970s, with car ownership on the rise, the number of trips made by bike had plummeted to about 20 percent.

With fewer bicycles on the road, deaths of cyclists and pedestrians escalated. Activists organized mass protests demanding safer roads for non-motorists and a rethink of the country's transportation policies.

This growing movement happened to coincide with the world oil crisis, which had provoked the Dutch government to implement a fuel conservation policy, effectively shutting down driving on Sundays. With the public calling for new answers, Dutch leaders realized there was only one way to solve their traffic problems: reduce speed limits and make driving less attractive. It made sense in a crowded country with centuries-old, already-dense cities that had nowhere to expand.

The largest city, Amsterdam, was a driver's nightmare of narrow streets and canals built for pedestrians and horses, not for cars and parking. The government gradually began to adopt policies that would lead to the centers of most cities in the Netherlands being car-free while also creating an infrastructure that would promote cycling.

Photo of the Dutch bicycle regiment.
The famous Dutch bicycle regiment stands ready to defend the country against the Nazis in April 1940.

Urban Biking 2.0

Cut to present-day Amsterdam, where the car is "machina non grata" and where biking is not a choice but a necessity. The Netherlands now has a formidable cycling union, which represents the interests of the nation's 13 million bicyclists, lobbies for better biking infrastructure, and wields significant power in urban planning.

The country's cycling network features stoplight-free and intersection-free bicycle highways designed for regular and electric bikes (some of which can go up to 25 miles per hour, or 40 kilometers per hour) for travel between urban areas. Public education curriculums include bicycle traffic school. The nationwide bicycle-sharing system features racks of bikes at nearly every train station.

Furthermore, cycling is safe. Though helmets are rarely used, accidents are few.

But cycling in Amsterdam—where there are more bikes (880,000) than people (800,000)—is not for the faint-hearted. Some 70 percent of trips to the city are done by bicycle, which has led to a serious overcrowding problem when it comes to bike parking.

Despite this, Dutch politicians of all stripes are looking to the bike as the future of transportation. In last month's nationwide municipal elections, even the right-wing parties touted the bicycle as the future, calling for more bike parking in city centers and near train stations, fewer red lights for cyclists, and better networks for long-distance commuting.

Their cycling platform fits neatly within the national consensus that supporting a comprehensive biking infrastructure is cheaper than building roads, requires less maintenance, and reduces carbon emissions, plus it saves on health costs because populations stay fitter longer. (It's not uncommon to see octogenarians tooling around Amsterdam on bikes.)

To be sure, the Dutch aren't writing off cars completely, but they are doubling down on a cycling infrastructure that's even better than the one they already have.

Photo of a girl riding a bike.
A bicyclist speeds past a row of townhouses in Amsterdam.
Photograph by Jon Arnold, AWL Images/Corbis

Importing the Dutch Model

London's mayor, Boris Johnson, is eager to see his own sprawling, traffic-choked city embrace pieces of the Dutch model. In March, he announced plans to create "mini Hollands" in three of the city's boroughs, investing £90 million ($150 million U.S.) in the process.

Johnson, who cycles to work, wants to increase bicycle commuter numbers by 400 percent by 2026. The project will include a car-free section in the center of one borough, as well as separated bike lanes and "Dutch-style" roundabouts that keep cyclists and motorists separated in what can be treacherous intersections.

Separated bike lanes and similar features are crucial to growing the ranks of bicyclists, says Carolyn Szczepanski, spokesperson for the League of American Bicyclists and founder of a program called Women Bike. She notes that research consistently shows when cities install "protected lanes" that have some sort of physical barrier, such as a line of plastic cones, to separate them from car traffic, they attract more new riders and more female riders.

"To effectively change a city's biking culture in the way places like Amsterdam and Copenhagen have, the focus can't just be on fit young guys commuting to work. It has to be about integrating bicycling into daily life, shopping, going to school, running errands, et cetera. For that kind of change, you need women," she said. "And making female riders feel more comfortable on the roads is definitely a game changer in getting them to embrace bicycling."

Critics point out, however, that what works in the Netherlands and Europe doesn't necessarily work everywhere else. In Los Angeles, the discussion about implementing segregated bike lanes actually has had some bike activists arguing against them, on the grounds that they are not safe enough in that particular city. In Australia, tension between cyclists and motorists is increasing as cyclists make themselves more present on urban roadways; a recent opinion piece in the Australian responding to that rift stated: "We have no equivalent of Amsterdam and should stop pretending we do."

In addition to road-sharing issues, there are financial challenges. Earlier this year Montreal, the only North American city on the Copenhagenize Index, announced that Bixi, the company that supplies its bike-sharing program, is bankrupt. The city, which is owed $34.5 million by Bixi, has taken over the operation of the popular program, after a $98 million bailout package it provided in 2011 failed to keep the firm afloat.

Perhaps in some places, bicycling nirvana may have to wait, or simply exist in some other form.

Anik See is a writer and radio producer based in Amsterdam and an avid long-distance bicyclist. Follow her on Twitter.

Remigius de Souza
Remigius de Souza

City Beautiful by Bicycle by Energy Conservation by Reducing Pollution by Health Conservation.... ADD ON MANY MORE BENEFITS

tao observer
tao observer

european cities = charming (mostly) - designed for people

american cities = ugly (mostly) - designed for cars

it is a choice. 

In America, we can do better.

Rodolfo Alonzo
Rodolfo Alonzo

Amsterdam always seem a ahead of the curve. They have high graduation rate, low teenage pregnancy. Low rate of crime and violence. They know they are a diverse Country of people. Unlike America where it seems you need to be either black or white to be in a TV commercial. Drugs are a non issue, no need for War there. I am sure they have Religiious zealous. Just do not hear too much about theirs flying into Skyscrapers, forcing their beliefs by AK 47s, or just handicapping the population with one bad apple/Politician blinded by the Light. If I wanted or anybody for that matter decided to ride a bike. Can you ride your bike safely. My answer would be NO. A 2 lane road with no shoulder is a dangerous road to travel. I use to have a real nice bike and rode up to 20 miles a day for the exercise. If my little Town gets bike savvy then I will purchase a bike. Sounds too expensive developing a bike town after the roads are in place.

Sherry Berry
Sherry Berry

You can try to implement the same things in NYC and it still would be chaotic. I think its because of the mindset and the more laid back lifestyle whereas New Yorkers are constantly trying to catch up so you can see bicycles speeding left and right and bumping into pedestrians. I loved the hotel where we last stayed at in Amsterdam ( because they have bicycles for guest use

Fra Rei
Fra Rei

The Europeans live in much denser cities in general.  Many multi-unit apartments and the streets are better designed for bike traffic.  As well every citizen abides by the cyclists code of conduct.  You would have a very difficult time changing the American mindset of move over buddy I am in a bigger vehicle.

daniel burns
daniel burns

Hoping Beijing will implement this kind of bicyclist-friendly policy to ease the gridlock and heavy haze.

Ashleigh Elson
Ashleigh Elson

Loved bicycling in Amsterdam... then moved to Toronto was was too scared to cycle anywhere downtown. Now living in Waterloo (outside Toronto), I'm loving the cycling possibilities of a smaller city!

Amsterdam Trips com
Amsterdam Trips com

Thanks for mentioning the OV Fiets system.  It appears to be very cost effective.  I will definitely try it out next time when in Amsterdam.

David Hembrow
David Hembrow

@Sherry Berry @Fra Rei  Actually, you're both very wrong about density. Large American cities are far more dense than Dutch cities. Density does not correlate at all with cycling modal share:

You're right that "the streets are better designed for bike traffic". However, this didn't come about by chance. It's the result of a change in policy which started in the 1970s. Before that time, Dutch cities were as clogged with motor vehicles as those anywhere else:


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