Dutch question their cycling progress

Bike use is still streets ahead of UK

The sheer number of cyclists in some Dutch cities is causing problems

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The Netherlands has long been held up as a paragon of bicycle-friendliness. However, recent comments from the Dutch Cyclists’ Federation and Dutch Tourism Federation suggest that having a vibrant cycling scene and a well-used cycling infrastructure bring their own difficulties.

“Sometimes there are so many people at the traffic lights that there are jams; not everyone has time to cross the street in one go,” said Hugo van der Steenhoven, president of the Dutch Cyclists’ Federation in a recent interview, adding: “We’re victims of our own success.”

More alarming were the words of Frand De Kok, of the Dutch Tourism Federation (ANWB), who said: “More people also means less safe cycle paths.” However, analysing Dutch cycling stats and comparing them with UK figures suggests the picture is more complex than these comments suggest, especially if cycling casualty rates are compared to other transport modes.

According to figures from the Dutch Central Office of Statistics (the CBS), the number of cyclists killed in the Netherlands has remained pretty stable over the last few years (2004: 180 / 2005: 181 / 2006: 216 / 2007: 189 / 2008: 181 / 2009: 185). Department for Transport figures show that in the UK it has fallen steadily (2004: 134 / 2005: 148 / 2006: 146 / 2007: 136 / 2008: 115 / 2009: 104), although the wider group of cyclists killed and seriously injured has risen slightly.

Of course, these statistics don’t tell the whole story, as cycling is much more prevalent in the Netherlands than in the UK. The Dutch cycled 14.9 billion kilometres in 2009 against the UK’s 5bn, from a population about a quarter the size, living in a country one sixth the size. With so many more cyclists on the road, more accidents are inevitable.

When the rate of accidents per kilometre is looked at, the Netherlands still has an enviable record. Research by the UK’s national cyclists’ organisation CTC for their ‘Safety in Numbers’ campaign suggests that countries with the highest levels of cycling per person – Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands – have the lowest level of deaths per kilometre.

The Netherlands has around eight deaths per 100 million km cycled and the UK has around 25 per 100m km. The typical Dutch person cycles 800km per year while in the UK that figure is less than 100km.

While the number of cyclists killed has remained stable in the Netherlands and fallen in the UK, the number of car drivers killed has dropped steadily and substantially in both countries over the same period. The number of pedestrian fatalities has fallen dramatically in the UK but not in the Netherlands, although per head of population, the Dutch fare much better than the British.

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SWOV (the Dutch national road safety research institute) have said that only 20 percent of cycling accidents involve motor vehicles. The other 80 percent involve only an individual or other cyclists. It’s been estimated that around 50 cycling deaths a year (ie. between a third and a quarter) result from non-motor-vehicle collisions.