How Amsterdam got its cycling revolution and why we’re still waiting
Guest post by William Manners
Visiting Amsterdam for the first time was an eye-opening experience. Staying in a district a bit outside the city centre, it was difficult not to wander around without constantly being struck by a sense that I had stumbled across some kind of Utopian model of the future.
A lot of this awe and wonder came, unsurprisingly, from the continual sight of cyclists. At times it felt as though you had been placed in a game of ‘Crossy Road’, with a continual stream of hazards flying at you from either side. For the most part, the sheer number of cyclists was a cause for delight. After spending a good amount of time writing about how wonderful the bicycle is, going to a place which has done so much to cater and support cyclists did feel a bit like arriving at a holy site after a long pilgrimage.
As much as it may feel this way, Amsterdam’s extensive cycling network did not appear by some miracle. A brief bit of research reveals that it was the result of committed activism combined with general popular support of cycling and politicians who recognised the potential of the bicycle to solve a range of different issues. The result of all this is a city where 35% of journeys are completed by bicycle. The effects? People who enjoy their morning commute to work, roads which are eerily quiet and a general sense of the wonderfulness of it all.
As with most people who cycle, leaving Amsterdam was accompanied by a feeling of ‘why can’t we have something like this where I live?’ Of course, the location and geographical features of Amsterdam make it much more naturally cycle-friendly than where I live in Leeds. However, lots more could certainly be done to implement Amsterdam’s system of cycling infrastructure in towns and cities around the UK. The question is: how can we make this happen?
The best place to begin is perhaps learning from how changes started to occur in Amsterdam, with the combination of activists, a general sympathy to cyclists, and politicians prepared to listen. As was the case in Amsterdam, I would say that the UK is also home to a large number of people strongly committed to promoting cycling. If my Twitter feed is anything to go by, there is certainly no lack of individuals firmly committed to and prepared to argue for building the type of infrastructure that exists around Holland.
I would say that what the UK is missing more than anything (apart from cities built on flat, low-lying land), is a more general popular sympathy and support for cyclists. Whilst there is no lack of committed individuals and groups at the bottom, and a number of people at the top who appear prepared to listen, there is not the general groundswell of opinion required to push through significant and substantial change. What is required is recognition of the many benefits that more people cycling brings to communities, cities and wider society, and a strong commitment to bringing these changes about.
The question then becomes how can we bring about this shift? The obvious answer is by getting more people cycling. More cyclists equal more people realising the benefits of the bicycle as either a means of transport and leisure activity, and a greater agitation for improvements in cycling infrastructure. However, this can quickly turn into a chicken and egg situation. My girlfriend will happily cycle in Amsterdam, but not in Leeds. She would only start cycling if she felt safe doing so, which of course requires a much greater investment in cycling infrastructure. To garner more cyclists requires a significant level investment which, as was discussed above, there is little popular agitation for, and as such is unlikely to happen.
This is not to say such an approach is hopeless- more people are now cycling in the UK than ever before, and with schemes such as the ‘Cycling ‘Superhighways’ in London, there is no reason to think that the ranks of British cyclists will stop growing. The results of this (in theory), should be more and more popular support for cycling. However, whilst the number of cyclists might carry on expanding, it seems highly unlikely they will reach levels comparable to the Netherlands and Amsterdam in the near future. To bring about a popular demand for ‘Dutch-style cycling infrastructure’, a wider range of approaches are needed to communicate the benefits of cycling to both individuals and wider society.
It is also here that I believe that cycling history can play a potential role. Much of the popular sympathy for cyclists in Amsterdam in the 1970s came from the fact that cycling had remained a fairly popular activity since the 1890s. Cycling as an activity was much more ingrained in the national and local culture than it ever has been over here.
It is my hope that the history of cycling can do something to change this. If a few years of speaking to friends and relatives about my research are anything to go by, there is very little popular knowledge about the UK’s cycling heritage. Before I started my research for my book, I too knew next to nothing about the UK’s cycling history.
However, having completed my book Revolution: How the Bicycle Reinvented Modern Britain, I now find it difficult to think of another invention which has done so much to meet both individual needs for liberation, enjoyment and freedom. At the same time, cycling has brought about wider changes which have benefited society as a whole. In my book, I aimed to communicate the many weird and wonderful effects the bicycle had on late Victorian society, from opening up opportunities for romance, allowing individuals to explore the British countryside, and helping shift conservative notions about appropriate ‘womanly’ behaviour.
Visiting Amsterdam hammered home to me that the story of how cycling can benefit both individuals and wider society is one which belongs as much to the present as the past. I believe that combining these two narratives can create an overarching tale which is relevant to cyclists and non-cyclists alike. It might not create new Amsterdams, but it might do something just as good.
William Manners’ book Revolution: How the Bicycle Reinvented Modern Britain is published by Duckworth Overlook Publishers on 31st May 2018 (RRP £20). Pre-order a copy on Amazon UK.
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