With cities getting clogged, in the early 1970s, we decided to take control of car traffic and preserve cycling. We created a public bike network and bicycle highways, and capped the city speed limit for cars. MR ROELOF WITTINK, DIRECTOR, DUTCH CYCLING EMBASSY

India has been witnessing a trend of rapid increase in personal motorised vehicles, in the backdrop of inconvenient public transport systems and unsafe roads for pedestrians and cyclists. As planners look to devise policies to reverse the trend amidst concerns on safety and climate change, there could be some lessons from the Netherlands, which adopted policies to encourage cycling. Business Line caught up with Mr Roelof Wittink, Director, Dutch Cycling Embassy, a public private body that promotes cycling, during his recent trip to India. Excerpts from the interview:

When did your country first start promoting cycling?

In the 1950s and 1960s, the Netherlands witnessed a period of growing motorisation. In 1970s, the environment for cycling was not very good anymore. Cars dominated the roads and streets. At that time, we started thinking about our clogged roads and how to plan for our future. We realised we had to open up our cities, remove buildings, fill in our nice canals. That would have meant lot of investments. Then we decided not to do that.

In the early 1970s, for the first time, we said we had to take control of the car traffic, and preserve cycling. That might also be the stage that India might be in now.

What were the steps taken to encourage cycling?

We took several steps. We made cycling plans, invested a lot in cycling infrastructure and network of routes so that people have good cycling facilities in all places. This took many years, and we sill can improve on that.

But it was important we started to think about the needs and interests of cyclists and that we had a perspective about the measures required to organise our transport system to increase the road-share of cyclists.

There were cars, two-wheelers and other motorised forms of public transport, and we had to work out a compromise.

We decided to limit the speed of cars in city areas. Majority of roads in the city areas in the Netherlands have speed limits of 30 km per hour.

We limited the space for cars on the roads. The outcome was that we created better traffic flow, because people were encouraged to use bicycles, which occupy much less space than cars. Our cities became more livable in, we got better quality air, and the local economy was growing as there were a lot more people on streets.

What is the vehicle ownership pattern?

In the Netherlands, most of our people use a combination of bicycles, cars and public transportation. There are very few people who use only bicycles, or only cars.

When you think of a trip, you consider where do I have to go? Is it accessible by car, public transportation or by bicycle, or is it a combination. We have a public bicycle system connected to the railways. We have folding bikes. All this helped in facilitating the use of bicycles.

What is the average distance that people use bicycles for?

It varies and can go up to 20-30 km. For longer distances, people are using electric bicycles. We are investing a lot in bicycle highways between cities. These bicycle highways are 20-30 km, and do not have traffic lights outside the cities. Cyclists can get a speed of 15-30 km per hour. There, congestion starts outside our cities. If you take car, you run a risk the spending as much time as on a bicycle.

How did you integrate cycling with the public transportation system?

Public transport is important for longer distance. Cycles were used as feeder options. In the Netherlands, 40 per cent of passengers at train stations come by bike, and 15 per cent of passengers coming out of train stations leave by bike. So, they have a second bike to go for work from the station, or they carry a folding bike or they use a public bike.

The workplace of many people could be 50 km away from home. They take a bike to station, take the train for 45 km, and again use bike in the last few km.

The parking charges at the station?

They are designed to encourage cycling. I pay $30 a year for bicycle parking. There is an annual membership, and we pay about $2 per trip for hiring a cycle. That system runs without subsidy.

Who offers the public bike system?

The Railways. Every station, barring some very small stations, has bicycles. Railways devised a policy that allowed carrying some bikes. That's how foldable bikes came in, bikes that fit in between seats. In Netherlands, we have 17 million people and 18 million bike rides per day.

When you started implementing rules, such as limiting intra-city speeds, didn't you face resistance?

We started this experiment in residential areas because the residents protested against high-speed cars that led to accidents. The neighbourhoods became unsafe, you could not even walk or sit outside.

We started with something — woonerf — a Dutch word that never has been translated. The concept was we bring down the speed of cars almost to the level of pedestrians. There was not much resistance because everybody felt that, in the neighbourhood, around the house, kids should get a chance to play.

Then we realised there no need to reduce speeds so dramatically because even if you bring down the speed to 30 km per hour, the chance of fatal accidents goes down significantly. That was the point when there was wider acceptance. But every country has to develop its own model.

(This article was published on January 15, 2012)
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