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August 2, 2011 / clayliesstill

Britain and the Netherlands – is it a fair historical comparison?

Vole O’Speed has produced a well researched and interesting post examining the historical divergence in planning of cycling infrastucture.

The comparison is compelling but somewhat telescopes the story and I think greatly overplays the significance of campaigning groups. The Dutch had a huge headstart in having a much higher base level of cycling – don’t forget that cycling was already down to a less than 3% of traffic by the early 1970s in the UK but was 10% of traffic in NL – as well as a much greater legacy of constructing quality cycle tracks. In addition the overall proportion of travel that is made by bike has declined in both countries over the last 50 years.

Simplistically, the various ‘actors’ influencing the construction of quality cycle tracks (assuming that land can be made available) could be explained using the tacky force analysis diagram below, where solid lines represent direct influences and dashed indirect ones.

Yes, activists are important, but other key ingredients are political commitment, funding and skilled officials following sensible regulations and guidance. In the UK all of these forces are weak; in the Netherlands nearly all are strong.

Even within the ‘campaigning’ sphere there are several other players whose impact should be remembered and who Vole O’Speed’s post has omitted, presumably simply for a lack of space.

Firstly, whereas – as Vole O’Speed says – in 1906 CTC was not permitted to admit motorists, the Dutch equivalent, the ANWB, was and over time became almost wholly a motoring organisation. There was therefore a greater vacuum of ‘cycling leadership’ into which Fietsersbond emerged in the 1970s offering a more vibrant, anti-car and pro-sustainable transport by bike alternative.

Having said that, from the 1960s onwards CTC was actually quite supportive of cycle paths. From what I’ve seen of the old CTC materials it supported the attempts to provide better quality cycle facilities in the 1980s in the midst of a significant revival. Sadly most of the demonstration infrastructure projects in places like Portsmouth were ripped out once the cycling bubble burst on the greedy point of the thrusting Thatcherite boom.

The nearest equivalent to Fietsersbond is Sustrans, which started in the late 1970s as Cyclebag, a local campaigning group in Bristol. However, the approach they took was very different and clearly has been less successful than their Dutch, being based on an autarchic vision of inchoate ‘Big Society’ do-it-yourself infrastructure (in fairness to them they did lobby Bristol City Council for several years to no avail).

The other organisation that emerged in the 1970s was of course the Cycle Campaign Network, of which John Franklin was a key figure. He formed CCN in opposition to CTC because the latter wasn’t really campaigning and what campaigning it was doing was rather too pro-segregationist for his taste.

Fietersbond emerged in the Netherlands but the equivalent in the UK was a load of local campaigning groups (LCC and Cyclebag) which went on to different roles in life. Clearly there are differences, but the differing financial support and political commitment to cycling as a form of transport appears to me to be the really fundamental difference.






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