Bicycle traffic in practice and policy in the twentieth century

  • Soort:Onderzoeksrapport
  • Auteur:A.A. Albert de la Bruhèze en F.C.A. Veraart - Stichting Historie der Techniek
  • Uitgever:Rijkswaterstaat (RWS-serie nr 63)
  • Datum:15-04-1999

Details historical comparison of bicycle use in 9 European towns.


  • The report is the result of a study conducted by the Stichting Historie der Techniek (History of Technology Foundation) on behalf of the project group Masterplan Bicycle of the Ministry of Transport, Public Works and Water Management (V&W). The study was set up to answer the frequently asked question why we in the Netherlands cycle so much more than our neighbours. Having said that, bicycle use varies in different parts of the country and even in similar-sized towns. This begs the next question: how can these local differences be explained?
    The study compared the historical development of bicycle use in Dutch towns and other towns in Western Europe. For the case studies, medium-sized towns in terms of Western European were sought with (big) differences in their present bicycle use. Mainly for reasons of the availability and accessibility of historical sources, the following were selected: Amsterdam, Eindhoven, Enschede, south-east Limburg (Kerkrade and Heerlen), Antwerp (Belgium), Manchester (UK), Copenhagen (Denmark), Hanover (Germany), Basel (Switzerland). Through these nine local studies, an attempt was made to answer the central question: what is the historical explanation for the present similarities and differences in bicycle use in a number of Western European towns? For all nine towns, an extensive survey was conducted in libraries and archives. Due to differences and gaps in the available data, not all the explanatory factors of similarities and differences have been examined to the same extent or in the same way. The data material made it even more difficult for each town to reconstruct a trend line of bicycle use over the period 1920-1995. The further back in time one goes, the less quantitative research data were available. And if statistics were available, comparing them was often a problem. Based on data about modal splits and counts, trend lines for the development of bicycle use were reconstructed for each town. In these 9 trend lines, the following developments were clearly visible:
    • Clear similarities: a general trend in bicycle traffic and bicycle use is visible in the towns studied. All nine towns show relatively high bicycle use until the end of the 1950s, albeit at different levels, followed by a decline in the 1960s and stabilisation or further rise from the middle of the 1970s.
    • But there are also clear differences: in the four Dutch towns and in Antwerp and Hanover, before and during the 1930s there was a high level of bicycle use (above 60%). Amsterdam, Eindhoven and Enschede have the highest percentage of bicycle use also in the later periods. In south-east Limburg, Antwerp and Hanover, an earlier and sharper decline is visible. In Copenhagen and particularly in Manchester and Basel, bicycle use was relatively low even before the Second World War (under 50%). In Copenhagen, after a relatively limited decline, bicycle use rose sharply after 1970. In Basel bicycle use stabilised after 1955 while in Manchester a steady decline is visible.

    Based on the research results, a general explanatory model of historical bicycle use can be produced. This explanatory model shows which (more and less compliant) mechanisms are responsible for creating the level of bicycle use. The emphasis lies on policy related to local affectable factors and image-forming on the one hand and the more or less established factors of morphology, spatial structure and transport alternatives (car, public transport and scooter) on the other hand.
    Policy is a crucial factor in bicycle use in relation to image-forming in policy development. New social discussions and developments are the focus of attention in policy and possible future developments are anticipated. The result of the ‘attention’ and anticipation process is expressed as ‘images’ and opinions in the planned and implemented traffic policy. In the phase between plan development and policy implementation, these images can be significantly reviewed. The time between plan development, decision-making and implementation is easily extended. It then takes some time before the results of the implemented decisions are observed, a point that can be called ‘delay time’.
    Transport alternatives are also important factors. The availability of transport alternatives seems to have a significant effect on bicycle use. Traffic policy constantly has to consider all methods of transport. In some towns – including Antwerp, Manchester and Hanover – we have seen that the car had priority in traffic policy, meaning that policy choices affected other modes of transport and their use. In towns where traffic policy took other modes of transport into account – including Amsterdam, Eindhoven and Copenhagen – the policy choices and the effects of these choices were totally different.
    Morphological factors and spatial structure are also important factors affecting bicycle use. The model shows that these factors in themselves not only affect bicycle use, but also indirectly affect the perception and image-forming of policy makers. Policy makers have ideas about the advantages and disadvantages of these factors. Consequently, policy measures are to some extent based on these perceptions which are in turn affected by wide-ranging social discussions. In this respect, morphological factors are important in that specifically in the two towns located in hilly terrain (south-east Limburg and Basel) the scooter took over part of the bicycle market in the 1950s.
    The study shows a delay before the results of policy are seen. On the one hand, there is a long time between the planning and the implementation phases. On the other hand, effects of policy measures only become visible many years later. For example, in Amsterdam plans were made back in the 1970s for the development of a bicycle infrastructure, but those plans were only implemented at the end of the 1980s and 1990s. Due to the involvement of so many actors in the development and implementation of policy and because policy is related to broader policy aims and consultative structures, policy cannot be changed in a day. The results of implemented policy can also have long-term effects (residual times of policy results). Nor can they be changed from one day to the next, for example by new policy measures. This is even the case for policy choices from the 1950s and 1960 which continue to have an impact through 'follow-up' measures in the 1970s and 1980s right up to the 1990s. In part, therefore, future bicycle use is probably already established because it is historically, spatially and morphologically determined.

    On the one hand, it has been shown that there are considerable similarities in the historical development of bicycle use. An important part of bicycle use today is rooted in history. However, it should also be emphasised that within this range, there are still considerable differences which are also relevant. It can also be stated that these differences seem to be largely dependent on the local spatial and traffic policy and the strongly related local image-forming about the role and value of bicycle use. This dependence plays a role in the longer term, however. For spatial policy and image-forming, this is certainly not a surprising conclusion. Obviously changes can only be introduced very gradually. However, this study shows that traffic policy really does have a relevant impact, but then in the longer term. Policy choices from the 1950s and 1960s continue to have an impact through 'follow-up' measures in the 1970s and 1980s right up to the 1990s. Bicycle use after 2000 may still reflect the various policy lines set out in each town since the 1970s.

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Bicycle traffic in practice and policy in the twentieth century

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