How to facilitate cycling in the urban environment: the Dutch approach

Cities are growing all around the world, which leads to traffic jams. Therefore, metropoles want to get people out of their cars. Besides public transport, cycling could contribute to this goal. Most of the large cities are experimenting with cycling. Unfortunately, they often do not have the knowledge that cycling nations like the Netherlands and Denmark have. By looking at the situation in the Netherlands, simple lessons can be learned and rookie mistakes can be easily avoided.

Cycling won’ get popular by itself. Effort and money are required in order to get citizens cycling to their work, their sports clubs, local shops, and their homes. A decent cycling infrastructure requires investments, which in the end will pay off (less traffic jams lead to a lower economic loss, cycling contributes to a better living environment and cycling improves the health level of the city’s citizens).

Stimulating citizens to cycle is only one side of the ticket: without decent cycling infrastructure that works, cycling promotion won’t work. People will not take a bike if it is less comfortable and takes much more time compared to other transportation methods (in most cases, the car).

In order to get citizens to take the bike, three important steps should be implemented in all city planning policies. The three steps are the key to success of the Dutch cycling policies. Don’t forget, only a century ago, the Netherlands wasn’t a cycling-friendly country. In hundred years, the Dutch cycling culture evolved and evolved. Nowadays, the Dutch cycling approach is considered as a huge success.

1. Create a consistent cycling infrastructure lay-out and implement it everywhere

It is important to create a consistent cycling infrastructure. In some cities, the style of the infrastructure changes over time. It is important to create a consistent timeless design that can be implemented in the next decades. Developing a large cycling infrastructure usually takes decades (remember that in the Dutch and Danish cities, the infrastructure also took decades to emerge).

Figure 1. After decades of development, the Dutch infrastructure is strong, and used a lot. The picture is taken in Houten, near the city of Utrecht.

In the Netherlands, there are five levels of cycling facilities. The higher the level, the more attractive the cycling infrastructure is. In some cases, because of space issues, it is not possible to reach level 5, but it is recommendable to check whether it is possible to upgrade the cycling infrastructure in the streets to the next level.

  1. No specified bike facilities: no cycling infrastructure is available. This level is only suitable for 30 km/h zones (and similar 20 mph zones). Because of the low car speed (and usually space issues), it is possible to combine car and cycle traffic.
  2. Bicycle suggesting strip: when you have serious space limitations, but you want to make the suggestion that the street is also used by cyclists, this level is suitable. It can be realized with striped marks, or a different kind of paving.
  3. Bicycle strip: in the eighties and nineties popular in the Netherlands for 50 km/h streets. Nowadays, level 3 is prefered in these kind of situations. However, when dealing with space limitations, this level is recommendable. Usually in the Netherlands, this bicycle strip is colored red, and marked with stripes. Cars are allowed to pass this bicycle strip.
  4. Bicycle path: suited for 50 km/h roads. In the Netherlands, this bicycle path is always colored red. The path is marked with a continuous line. For cars, it is not allowed to drive on this path.
  5. Seperated bicycle path (see figure below). Always used where cars are allowed to drive at a high speed, or in crowed spaces (city centers). Can be both one-direction and two-direction. Always executed in red concrete (in the Netherlands). The path is quite wide, to make it possible to pass other cyclists.
Figure 2. New level 5 biking path to Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands.

2. Make cycling a safe transportation method


  1. Prioritze bicycle traffic at crossings (see figure 3). It will save cycle travel time, and make it more attractive. But it makes cycling also safer. A common rule: the more vulnerable the commuter, the higher the level of priority (pedestrians — bicycles — cars).
  2. Create safe infrastructure, with the highest level possible (as mentioned earlier). Infrastructure mainly determines how safe cycling is. Commuters will relatively easy adopt, as long as the infrastructure is consistent and clear.
  3. Seperate cycling traffic and car traffic at crossings and roundabouts. Make cars turn first, before they pass the cycling pathts. This will make it easier for cars to see cyclists (it results in an angle of 90 degrees, instead of 180 degrees) (see sigure 4).
Figure 3. Priority for bicycles at a roundabout. Picture: Fietsberaad.
Figure 4. The black car first makes the turn, and will pass the bicycle path after the turn. It provides a better view on the bicycle path, making the crossing safer for bicycles. Picture: Fietsberaad.

3. Make cycling more attractive compared to other transportation methods

Make cycling faster than other methods by prioritising cycling lanes, create cycling highways to interesting destinations (universities, connect suburban areas and city centers, large business ares).

  1. Prioritize cycling traffic above car traffic. People will notice that cycling has advantages, especially in crowded areas (the travel time will be shorter).
  2. Start with constructing cycling infrastructure to popular destinations (universities, public transport stations, shopping centers, etcetera). Less popular areas can be added to the network later.
  3. Create cycling parkings at strategic places, and priotize it above car parking (see figure below). For example, at the central station of Utrecht (330,000 inhabitants), new cycle parkings are located directly in front of the station. Actually, the car parkings require a longer walk to the station than the cycling parkings.
Figure 5. The city of Utrecht is building new cycling parkings below ground level. The parking on the picture is built as we speak and is designed to store 12,500 bicycles.

But, how?

Actually, it is quite easy. Implement biking facilities when you redevelop a street, or an area. Start small. As soon as citizens discover the advantages of the bike infrastructure, they will start using it. As soon as citizens start using the infrastructure, new infrastructure can be added to the network. All it takes is courage and a long breath. Take the challenge to make your city more liveable!