BUILDING THE CYCLING CITY – A BOOK REVIEW

‘Building The Cycling City – The Dutch Blueprint For Urban Vitality’ 

Penned by Melissa and Chris Bruntlett, the book carries an interesting narrative of how the Dutch cities took a wise call of adopting a ‘humble bicycle’ as a sustainable model for transportation. The Authors have beautifully crafted in words ‘a romance between people of Dutch cities and their unspoken love for cycling’. 

Published by the Island Press, the book traverses through a historic past – and reveals a journey of urban planning in Dutch cities, motorized centric policies, defiant politicians and car owners, macro environment factors – all stacking up against concerned efforts by determined citizen groups and those who believed in ‘sustainable living’. It took over five decades of transformational efforts – a strong will combined with people’s movement who had their say in policies for creating the best bike infrastructure in the world.

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A women riding a bike while carrying extra load (picture: modacity)

But the turnaround was not an overnight magical event, they had their share of hurdles to meet. Continuous and concentrated measures by cycling advocates, open-minded politicians and some smart thinking and innovation in design planning all led to a more livable and safe cities for the Dutch. The nation practically rebelled against the technocrats who were once more focused and favorable towards building wide roads for cars and parking lots before they took on a corrective course post civilian intervention.

Each of the city went through a strenuous phase before creating its own mark and to become ‘fietser friendly’ (cyclists are known as fietsers in Dutch). With special infrastructure projects that gave exclusive pathways to the fietsers, commuters took the streets on a bicycle in a big way. Cycling is one common thread that binds the nation while the cities still go onto hold its cultural and demographic fabric. The authors through the book, raise compelling examples from five Dutch cities, where they travelled for research, as ‘blueprints’ for creating an accessible urban cycling culture for the cities who are sinking in congestion crises.

Five  Cities:

Amsterdam, post world war two, the Amsterdammers were desperate to revitalize their city after a long neglect encountered during German occupancy. Modernized planners were happy to oblige selling them a model of growth. Plans were drafted to move housing in the city outskirts from where they would commute to the city centre for business and economic activities. The entire transportation model favored roads and highways for cars. After suffering at the hands of automobile dominant roads and congestion, a citizen activist movement was born demanding the city centre to be closed for all motor vehicles and instead be served by a fleet of bicycles. Eventually, the demonstrators took to the streets and with a newly elected deputy mayor of traffic and mobility in 1978, Michael van der Vlis who represented the voice of the cycling activists became a turning point. The Mayor involved suggestions and people’s participation to make Amsterdam what it is today.

Groningen, way back in 1960’s, urban planners were moving towards building huge roads that encouraged mass-motoring right through the center of the city. It was Max van den Berg who entered municipal politics with an intent to stop them from ruining his town. Under his leadership, Groningen was split into four districts where cars had restricted access. Later, the apprehensions of critics was cleared as the city center of Groningen got filled with bicycles and pedestrians over a period of time. And now, it has become a vibrant and successful model for cities around the other parts of  Netherlands.

Astoundingly the Rotterdam city was bombed by the German army during world war two. The city planners had a blank canvas in front as they set out to rebuild and modernize their transport infrastructure with an approach to put more emphasis on usage of cars. The city landscape shaped itself with modern architecture and skyscrapers. But with cohesive attempts by advocates and planners, they were able to remodel the city transit system by accommodating dedicated bike lanes and pedestrian walkways.

Utrecht, a medieval town, came across a situation where authorities were in haste to transform the place into a modern city during 1960’s. It’s stunning beauty was nearly sacrificed at the altar of the automobile, an ‘improvement’ that was reversed once residents came to the stark realization that a car-first city and human-scale city are mutually exclusive.

Eindhoven, when electronics giant Philips – once a city’s largest employer shut its plant and left the town in 1993, Eindhoven found itself in extreme economic crises. So it reinvented itself – to a city of technology, design knowledge; and from a car township to a more cycling centric destination.

The Dutch citizens now follow a remarkable lifestyle with cycling, walking and bike sharing always being in the forefront and this culture is seamlessly getting passed onto the new generations. As highlighted in the book, they even have official cycling training institutes where the kids are certified to ride. The ‘Urban Cycling Institute’ brings knowledge of cycling from science and helps students to put into practice. With this legacy, the new generation silently continues to discharge their roles and duties for the environment. The Dutch take pride in what they are doing but never show-off even in a slightest way. They are quite unpretentious.

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Common scenes of bike sharing in Netherlands (picture: modacity)

Looking at a few statistics, the Dutch have built thirty-five thousand kilometers (35,000) of fully separated bike infrastructure that equals to a quarter of their one lakh forty thousand kilometers (1,40,000) of their road network. Seventy percent of their urban street traffic drives with a speed restriction of thirty kilometers per hour or less. In Netherlands, the number of bicycles (22.5 million) exceeds the number of people (18 million). It is a country where citizens take four point five billion bicycle trips per year during which every man, woman and child pedals an average of one thousand kilometers while the adolescents cycle almost two thousand kilometers.

It’s a phenomenal feet achieved by the Dutch and what they have done is a benchmark for the rest of the world in executing eco-friendly transit, building safe cities and serving the needs of people. The book comprehensively captures the trials and tribulations met, with ‘restorative measures’ applied by the Dutch, a resultant of which they have now become the bike capital of the world which is an inspiration for many. The book is recommended to all the cycling advocates, city and town planners, city design architects, municipal corporations, road traffic and safety departments, companies and officials involved in urban infrastructure development, politicians, citizen activists, people concerned about environment and every one who believes in making our cities more livable and seeks better quality of life.

The book can be bought online from the Island Press

The extension of this article continues in the upcoming blog – ‘Can Mumbai Echo The Dutch Blueprint?’ 

A short video of 20 seconds showing cycling in Dutch (video: modacity)

 

Author: Vijay Malhotra, Mumbai

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5 thoughts on “BUILDING THE CYCLING CITY – A BOOK REVIEW

  1. Thanks for that Vijay. It’s important to understand that the Dutch cycle friendly lifestyle of today came about as as result of cycle activism and reaction to car-centric cities.

    1. Hi Helen, the authors of this book have just began their Australia tour of walking and cycling conferences and also for their book launch in your country. They will be holding talks so do attend if you get a chance.

  2. Mumbai City will have to quickly think on adopting such eco-friendly initiative. Else it’s on the verge of becoming the most congested urban city in the world for road travellers..

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