Bike Week 2021

As its Bike Week 2021, we thought you’d be interested in what our author Steve Melia has to say about the myths that stop us cycling in this extract from ‘Urban Transport without the Hot Air’ published by our sister imprint, UIT Cambridge

You’ll Never Get People Cycling Like the Dutch Over Here


  • Cycling will only ever be a marginal form of transport.
  • People only cycle a lot in the Netherlands (and Denmark and Germany – don’t mention Switzerland) because it’s flat and it’s “part of their culture”.
  • You can’t transfer ideas from those countries to places with different cultures where hardly anyone cycles – they won’t work.
  • “Pedestrians and cyclists should generally be accommodated on streets rather than routes segregated from motor traffic” (DfT).


  • In European cities with the lowest levels of car use, cycling generally accounts for more trips than public transport.
  • Rates of cycling in the Netherlands – like most European countries – were falling rapidly until national policy changed in the 1970s.
  • Seville, a city with no culture of cycling for transport, followed ideas from Northern Europe and increased its rate of cycling tenfold over three years.
  • Rates of cycling in Cambridge compare with the best of European practice – and several other UK cities have shown how rapid increases are possible.
  • European cities with the highest rates of cycling all have comprehensive networks of separate cycle routes.
  • Most non-cyclists in the UK cite separate cycle routes away from traffic as a change most likely to persuade them to give cycling a try.

Over three summers from 2006 to 2008, I took off on my bike, cycling 5,000 miles across seven European countries, visiting cities with the lowest levels of car use, cities like: Groningen, Freiburg, Basel and Copenhagen.  I was struck by the importance attached to cycling in the transport planning of these cities, the quality and coherence of the cycle routes and the sheer number of bikes on the streets.  I interviewed several transport planners, asking some of them: how did you manage to achieve all this? The senior transport planner in Groningen explained that the mayor, councillors and traffic engineers are all regular cyclists, so decisions were made by people who understand.  The answer to that question prompted another: how did cycling become ‘normalised’ there in the first place? As I would gradually discover, the lazy assumption of British politicians and even some transport professionals that it was ‘always part of their culture’ was a convenient myth, used to justify another: that things could never work like that over here.

After returning from each of these trips I wrote several articles for cycling magazines and Local Transport Today challenging the conventional thinking on cycling policy.  One of these articles coined a term which would gradually enter the lexicon of transport planning: ‘filtered permeability’. 

Filtered Permeability = Separating different modes of transport to give an advantage to some over others

This principle, which I observed across most of the European cycling cities was very different to the UK approach, based on shared streets, shared pavements and a presumption against separate cycle paths.  The few voices raised against that approach were marginalised at the time: it would be a few years before they were taken seriously in mainstream transport debate.

Coming from a country like the UK, it’s not easy to appreciate how cycling can be central to transport policy.  The following graph shows the proportion of people who cite cycling as their main means of daily travel in selected E.U. countries.

Figure 7‑1 European rates of cycling (as the main means of daily travel)

Switzerland was not included in that survey: national rates of cycling in Switzerland are slightly lower than Germany but higher than the E.U. average.  The greatest potential for cycling as a means of transport is to cover those short-to-medium distances, where rapid travel by other means is not available or not appropriate, particularly in urban areas.  If we look at cities rather than countries, the importance of cycling becomes clearer.

Figure 7‑2 Modal shares of European cities with low car use

In three of the four continental cities cycling carries more trips than public transport: in all cases, cycling and walking together account for substantially more.  Comparable statistics for British cities are not usually available: the Census only asks about travel to work.  One exception is London, where Transport for London (TfL) conducts its own surveys.

London has comparably low car use, for different reasons. The low level of cycling partly reflects UK transport policy over the years, but cycling and public transport may also substitute for each other.  The comprehensiveness of the public transport network in London carries more trips than would be possible in a smaller city.  Although far fewer people cycle in London, increasing their number has become an important objective for TfL, particularly in the central areas, where the tube network often reaches capacity with station barriers closing at peak times.  The upgrade to the Underground network which began in 2010 was budgeted to cost £30bn – nearly £5,000 for every adult living in the Capital.  If many people were to cycle instead of using the tube at peak times, it could save a lot of money.

Three of the European cities above are relatively flat.  Freiburg is mainly flat, although some of its suburbs creep up the foothills of the Black Forest.  A flat terrain undoubtedly helps, but it is not a determining factor.  There are flat cities with few cyclists and hilly cities with many: Heidelberg, with a 25% modal share is one example.  On a more modest scale, closer to home, Bristol has recently increased its share of cycling to work to 8%.

Another favourite myth, or excuse for inaction, relates to weather: of course they can cycle in all these all these other places because they have better weather than us.  In reality, Amsterdam has a similar climate to Manchester: Danish cities are considerably colder.  If we look across Europe, it is the colder, wetter countries of the Northwest where people cycle more than the warmer dryer countries around the Mediterranean.

So why have some cities and countries been so much more successful in encouraging cycling than others? As with most transport problems, part of the answer is very simple, and part is rather complicated.  The first and most obvious reason relates to cycling infrastructure.  Study after study in the UK has found the main factor deterring non-cyclists is the fear or dislike of mixing with traffic.  The main factor which would persuade them to give it a try would be continuous separate cycle routes, which protect them from traffic

 Separating cyclists from traffic does not mean building separate cycle paths on every street.  Separation can be done by strategically blocking streets to through traffic.  Through a combination of quiet streets and separate cycle paths, the Dutch (in particular) have gradually built a network which enables most people to avoid traffic almost all of the time – and to do so without significant detours.  Indeed, cycle routes are often more direct than the alternatives for general traffic.  Transport authorities in some of the larger Dutch cities measure the proportion of journeys where the bike is faster than the car, with the aim of increasing this over time.

This is the principle of filtered permeability.  Cities like Groningen and Freiburg have built a fine grained network of cycle routes and at the same time have limited the number of through routes for motor traffic.   Closing their city centres to through traffic with extensive pedestrianisation has helped this process.  Natural barriers such as rivers and manmade barriers like railway lines are crossed by bridges and underpasses for cyclists and pedestrians only.  Roads are blocked off to through traffic but kept open for cyclists and pedestrians in a coherent way, creating on-road cycle routes with long straight stretches instead of the continual twisting and diverting typical of British cycle routes.

Cycle parking is taken seriously: although there isn’t always enough of it.  Elaborate underground or multi-storey staffed cycle parking facilities are available in the centres of most European cycling cities – often by the main railway station.

Cycling infrastructure is never perfect, in any city, but there is greater consistency in design standards across Northwest Europe, with wider paths, higher design speeds and greater priority over side roads and general traffic.  The shared pavement, stopping at every side road or driveway can still be found in some parts of Germany but has been gradually disappearing across the Netherlands and Denmark.  Three-way separation of cyclists, pedestrians and general traffic is a key principle in most of these cities, with on-road cycle lanes being progressively replaced by hybrid paths.

Another favoured excuse amongst British highway engineers is that ‘continental cities have wider main roads’.  This is true in some places, although much of that width has been taken away from general traffic: opportunities are often overlooked, where these might reduce capacity for general traffic.

Where sufficient width is not available, particularly in older historic areas of cities like Amsterdam, selective road closures, or one-way streets with cycling contraflows are widely used.  Cycle paths through pedestrian areas are more common, allowing cyclists to continue at their normal speeds with fewer interruptions – anathema to many British transport professionals, who prefer sharing of space, with all the conflicts, delays and discouragement to cycling (and walking) which that entails.

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