Pedal Power

As cries of ‘Stop de Kindermoord’ (stop child deaths) rang through the narrow streets of the Netherlands in 1971, the Dutch government formed a plan to transform their urban centres into a paradise for those on two wheels. As Leeds continues its plan of introducing bike-centred infrastructure, we can look to the Netherlands to see why these changes are so important and how to make them effective in the long term. 

In 2016, Leeds Council set out their plans to be a city where car ownership is not a necessity and low-cost, sustainable transport is accessible everywhere. Whilst much of this plan has not yet come to fruition, particularly in the realm of the railway network (with the recent HS2 U-turn), there has been movement in improving bicycle infrastructure. Large sections of the main routes into the city centre have gained segregated cycle lanes, vital in improving safety. Furthermore, the city centre itself is crisscrossed with road works implementing new lanes of Dutch-style bike paths.  

These ambitions face public opposition, as demonstrated in the public consultations’ negative comments on plans for new bike lanes. Many myths have arisen around bicycle infrastructure, often accusing segregated lanes of increasing congestion, and local governments across the UK, including Leeds, have been too slow to tackle the concerns publicly. Studies have shown that increased congestion in areas that have developed bike infrastructure is more likely caused by recent increases in private hire vehicles, whilst bikes provide far greater road capacity in the long term.  

Reducing car traffic benefits all road users in terms of safety, reducing the road fatality rate significantly. This underscores the need to prioritise alternative modes of transport in the United Kingdom. However, a greater argument needs to be made if the car culture of the UK is to be changed. A recent study has shown that cycling prevented 11,000 deaths each year in the Netherlands, and led to the Dutch having a life expectancy half a year longer than other comparable European nations. In a city of comparable size to Leeds, such as Den Haag in South Holland, they see only 5000 pollution-related deaths a year compared to 20,000 in Leeds, according to Breathe Life 2030, and are far closer to the World Health Organisation (WHO) pollution guidelines. These public health improvements have come as a consequence of an integrated, sustainable transport system, of which the bike is the cornerstone. 

As was identified in the 2020-21 Leeds Equality report, transport is one of the key barriers to equal opportunities. Cycling provides a cheap and cost-effective means of transport in comparison to cars, particularly during a time of high fuel prices. This breaks down the obstacles facing those on lower incomes and allows greater access to jobs in the centre of the city. For every £1 invested in cycling infrastructure, there is an estimated return of £5-6 which is much higher than other major infrastructure projects such as HS2, which struggles to get above a £2 return. So how should Leeds move forward if it is to truly see a citywide transport transformation? 

As can be seen in the Netherlands, transitioning to a non-car-centric system of urban transport requires more than safe cycle lanes. The lack of convenient cycle parking spaces in Leeds is a concern. Any street in any village or city in the Netherlands will be covered in bikes, parked in designated spaces or in expansive underground cycle storage facilities beneath stations and canals. Whilst there has clearly been an increase in parking spaces, it is piecemeal and half-hearted, and in my opinion, nowhere near enough to bring the fundamental changes necessary if the ambition is to see over half of journeys on two wheels.  

Urban design must also favour the bike. Most journeys in Dutch cities are faster and more efficient under pedal power, through the design of roads and low-traffic neighbourhoods, which force cars to take longer journeys. This encourages alternative methods of transport whilst also reducing traffic and making cycling safer. Despite its improvements, Leeds still heavily favours cars, with the plans drawn up by the council proposing limited, designated routes for bikes, forcing all cyclists onto specific routes. This is the complete opposite of most Dutch cities, which see cars siphoned away onto designated routes around the city, whilst almost all roads are accessible for bikes. 

Cycling is not simply better for the environment; it is a weapon for social change. Whilst initiatives like ULEZ are effective in reducing pollution, new bike infrastructure can have a similar impact without harming lower-income communities. If the positives of the last half century of Dutch urban planning are to be seen in the city of Leeds, then the path towards two wheels must be accelerated. Through a concerted effort and the correct investments, Leeds can be a beacon for greener, healthier and more equitable transport in the UK. 

All articles and opinions posted give the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Leeds Think Tank, the Leeds University Union, or the University of Leeds.