Are the Dutch replacing their bikes with cars?

SUV and mini cooper in amsterdam

North American cyclists are busy envying the Dutch love and use of bicycles for transportation but is everything so rosy in the Netherlands? Jonathan Maus of Bike Portland recently posted an piece about Loek Hesemans, the Senior Policy Officer at the Netherlands’ Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport. Hesemans recently visited Portland, OR and Vancouver, BC with the goals of learning how policymakers there promote and plan for bike use, and examining the role bike culture plays (or doesn’t) in increasing ridership.

For our Dutch and Danish readers “bike culture” seems to be when people who ride bikes identify as “cyclists” (or even better specific types of cyclists), hanging out together, writing about bikes/cycling, custom-building and taking pictures of their rides, and generally being “into” bikes and cycling. Ironically “bike culture” is a phenomenon of a place where few people cycle. In a place like the Netherlands where most people cycle, the machine and activity are generally regarded with the same degree of interest and reverence as washing machines. Either Cycleliciousness or Copenhagen Cycle Chic had a nice piece on cycling culture from a Danish perspective. I just can’t find it right now.

Here is a good summary of Heseman’s research in Pricetags.

Hesemans observations largely seem very insightful and some of the photos and examples are priceless. However there is one key “statistic” mentioned that doesn’t seem correct. According to Maus, “Hesemans estimates that country-wide, the number of people that ride is less than 30% — and he says, due to several factors, those numbers are trending downward.” There are some elements of truth here, but I don’t buy it entirely.

I’m not going to provide thorough statistics to back up my statements but what I’ve read and seen paints a different picture:

  • Car use is definitely increasing in the Netherlands: more kilometers, the average car size is growing and traffic is getting worse. This you can see here from the CBS (Dutch Statistics Bureau). And also here. Its the same here as practically everywhere else in the world.
  • Certain groups of immigrants definitely cycle much less than the “native Dutch”. Doing my best to avoid ethnically charged statements here I’ll just say it straight: Dutch residents of Moroccan, Turkish and Caribbean descent tend not to ride bicycles, at least not past the acquisition of a license to drive a scooter or car. Foreigners of the “educated expat” type seem to ride bikes just as much as their Dutch neighbors.
  • According to the CBS a resident of the Netherlands makes on average a little less than one trip per day by bicycle. This is somewhat lower than for cars but an order of magnitude higher than any other means of transport. See here. Thus if only 30% of the population cycles then they have to be averaging more than 3 trips by bicycle every day.
  • More than 85% of people in the Netherlands own at least one bicycle. This also from CBS.I’ve also read that the average Dutchman owns 1.8 bicycles.
  • The rural areas of the Netherlands have become car-oriented, though there are still almost always bike paths and cyclists to be seen. Only a few decades ago the Netherlands was a much less wealthy nation and there were far fewer cars. Friends who grew up in the countryside here all tell me about fighting the wind and rain during long slogs to and from school each day and old photos show farmers, preachers, milkmen etc. all getting around by bike. They mostly drive cars for transportation now, but practically everybody still rides bikes sometimes: around the village to do groceries, to drop the kids off at the kindergarten…
  • In the Dutch cities most factors suggest that cycling is on the rise. Some cities such as Groningen are extremely pro-bicycle in their policies. Many others such as Amsterdam, Den Haag, Delft, Haarlem, Leiden and Utrecht are simply less outspoken in their cycling policies. Excellent cycling infrastructure is ubiquitous, auto traffic is closed to considerable areas of the city and most people get around by bicycle or public transport or perhaps a scooter.
  • There are actually some people who get around the cities with personal cars, but (at least amongst those I know) they’re seen as quite strange. Its extraordinarily inconvenient and expensive to drive a car in the city here. Thus even the occasional rich shopping-district mom with her SUV (yep, even here!) probably has a bike and rides it fairly regularly. Perhaps mostly when the weather’s nice?
  • So I’d guesstimate that amongst Dutch old and fit enough to ride bicycles, perhaps 50-70% do so with some regularity.

    11 Responses to “Are the Dutch replacing their bikes with cars?”

    1. Scott Mizée Says:

      Thanks for posting this, Henry.

      It is an interesting phenomenon indeed. One of the many issues entwined in globalization. My dutch born father and I read Mr. Hesemans’ report with interest when it came out in December. I look forward to seeing more discussion and results come from it.

      Portland, Oregon

    2. Loek Says:

      Interesting. With the 30% I was referring to the mode share (the percentage of all trips by bike) though, not to the percentage of people who ride bicycle in the Netherlands which is much higher, probably close to Henry’s estimate. I believe Jonathan misquoted me here.

    3. henry Says:

      Hello Loek,
      Thanks very much for your reply – Its rather an honor actually.

      Judging from the CBS statistics I read through the 30% of trips made by bicycle sounds about right. At least its unlikely that it’d be much lower. There seem to be more trips made by car than bike (by perhaps 50%), but then all other modes were very small in comparison to cycling and driving. Thus 50% of trips by automobile, 30% by bicycle and the last 30% a combination of walking, train, bus, tram, scooter, jet-ski and hovercraft. Mind you, I didn’t do any statistical analysis here. These are just educated guesstimations.


    4. John Power,Dublin,Ireland Says:

      Very Interesting but I think Mr Hesemans is wrong. What is that Song there are 5 Million Bicycles in Bejing ,I think there are 10 Million Bikes in Amsterdam there all over the Place in the Netherlands. We were the Same Years ago pre 1970 in Dublin with Bicycles everywhere then People got more Affluent and Bicycle usage fell off , and now the trend is for Suvs and People pick up there Children from School and they only live a few Hundred Metres up the Road. But now it is reversing and Bikes are getting Popular again because of the cost of Maintaining a Car on the Road and the cost of Fuel,and also People do not want to get Fat. So a lot of People Commute to Work and Shops by Bike now. The Government tried to bring in Paris type Sponsored Community Bikes. With Jc Decaux the French Advertising People providing Advertising on the Bikes but it is still in Discussion at moment and we do not know if it will go ahead.But our Bicycle Infrastructure is no where as good as the Netherlands ,they are only playing around with putting bits of Cycling Lanes in the City, and is still quite dangerous at Rush Hour in Morning and Evening. I think Mr Hesemans should come to Ireland and check us out, and put a Rocket under our Government Road Planners with a bit of bad Publicity about our Cycling Facilities. Good Luck.

    5. henry Says:

      Mr. Hesemans noted above that the 30% was a misquote in the article that I had based my post on. But I do believe his basic thesis that while bicycle use is increasing in many other places its not really doing so in the bicycle-mecca Netherlands. As I wrote in my post increases in cycling within the cities seem to be offset by decreases in less densely populated areas and the fact that many immigrants do not cycle.

      Heseman’s research is interesting because it seeks to learn whether the Netherlands can learn some lessons from the places where cycling is growing in popularity. Cycling is often taken for granted in the Netherlands and its likely that more active policies will more effectively stimulate cycling here.


      ps: I hope you’re enjoying showing Dublin how its done on your WorkCycles bike!

    6. John Power,Dublin,Ireland Says:

      Good Day Henry. A lot of People are showing a great Interest in your Azor Kruizframe,Pastoors Fiet, The Preachers Bike. One Chap says he likes the Handlebars the way they wrap around as he has Arthritis and it would make it easier for him to use instead of his Ordinary Bike. I referred him to the Work Cycles Web Site and told him of the costs of each Bike and Delivery Charges. They like the Schwalbe Marathon Tyres as our Roads are not consistently good and you come across a lot of Potholes. When I saw the Bike for the first time , i realised it was a big strong Bike and wondered how it would manage the Hills, but I could find no extra Strain when going uphill. In fact it is very good. It seems to have more of an Advantage and is very smooth. Unless you go along the Coast ,you will Eventually have to go uphill to get out of Town. It is no better or worse than a smaller Bike. I am no Eddie Merkzes or Steven Roche but i have always had Bicycles and Cycle most Days into Town and if a Hill is very Steep I will push a Bike uphill. The only time when Hills are a Problem is when I am in Howth or Wicklow and it is Mountaineous . I am Delighted with it it is very smooth it just Rolls along . You will probably get a few Inquiries from Dublin about the Bikes in Future.Thanks John.

    7. Velorution, London's urban cycle store Says:

      […] be interpreted differently, and I stand corrected. Incidentally my original source, was Workcycle (in this post), which I regard an expert commentator of the Dutch cycling […]

    8. BAKFIETS EN MEER » Blog Archive » Fresh cycling statistics from the Netherlands Says:

      […] Elsewhere the bicycle usage stats are separated. Here we see that the Dutch cycle, on average, 909km per year, which translates to 2.48km per head, per day. This has largely held steady since 1991, the earliest year shown in the chart. Thus, a definitive NO to the question posed in an earlier post “Are the Dutch replacing their bikes with cars”. […]

    9. AMSTERDAMIZE » Fresh Cycling Statistics From The Netherlands Says:

      […] Photo insert is mine.Elsewhere the bicycle usage stats are separated. Here we see that the Dutch cycle, on average, 909km per year, which translates to 2.48km per head, per day. This has largely held steady since 1991, the earliest year shown in the chart. Thus, a definitive NO to the question posed in an earlier post “Are the Dutch replacing their bikes with cars”. […]

    10. Marc Says:

      Even a cursory glance around places you mentioned where bike policy is weak, like Utrecht where I live, shows that many peole still cycle. I don’t recall visiting any other country where so many old people cycle. The fact that so many people have turned to scooters, particularly the Moroccan youth and (ahem) overweight young ladies, just reflects income growth and a culture of vehicle ownership, evident everywhere.

      Just compare the train station in Utrecht, with three or more enormous bike parks, and a hundreds of bikes outside, with most other European and US cities and most of the work of proving it is already done.

      The growth of car ownership and use is stil a worrying trend though. The Netherlands has been built around small vehicles and car growth is making the streets uninhabitable.

    11. henry Says:

      Thanks for your thoughts. I agree on each point. I have feeling (completely without hard evidence) that scooter riding is on the rise amongst the younger crowd, both allochtone and autochtone. Almost all of the teenagers who’ve worked for us or applied for jobs have shown up on scooters. When asked why they’d show up on a scooter to interview at a company that’s well known for its promotion of bikes they just shrug and tell me they don’t like riding bicycles. We tried “educating” a couple but have given up for the time being.

      But I’m not too worried; the Dutch are practical and like a good deal. As auto use becomes more expensive and impractical more people will chose to get around on bikes… and unfortunately scooters. Actually I wouldn’t have much problem with scooters if the 2 strokes would be replaced by quieter and cleaner 4 strokes and they’d just get them off the bike lanes. Yesterday evening I had three kids (two delivery boys, one girl) buzz me while riding with my 9 month old son. The girl even had the gall to yell “idioot!” at me while she zoomed past me within a narrow bike lane while I was signaling to turn left. Oh, and not that it matters but I don’t ride like a tourist or timid foreigner.

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