A guest post from former business journalist and urban freewheeler Charlotte Dudley who interviewed Mark Wagenbuur during his recent visit to Australia.
Make cycling normal again says visiting bike ambassador
The prolific blogger behind the Bicycle Dutch website said if Australia made it safe, useful and normal for people to ride bicycles they would, especially for short distances.
“Humans are not naturally inactive, they’re made inactive by their circumstances. If active travel is a viable option you immediately take your natural habit again and you move,” said blogger, filmmaker and newly minted Dutch Cycling Embassy ambassador Mark Wagenbuur.
Wagenbuur, whose short films about cycling in the Netherlands and elsewhere have been viewed millions of times, visited Australia recently to meet with transport planners and officials in Brisbane, Canberra and Perth.
He said Australian cycling planning should focus on bikes for short distance trips to local destinations such as schools and train stations.
Wagenbuur, whose own 50km daily commute starts with a leisurely 2km bike ride to the train station, said creating a network of slow speed local streets around schools and rail stations would support more short cycling trips. It would also shift the perception of cycling from a sports activity to a means of transport for ordinary people.
“It’s the same all over in Australia. Everybody seems to wear Lycra,” he said.
“Riding a bike is not seen as a normal activity. It’s seen as a sport. And you have to dress up for it. The whole perception needs to change.
“I was in Brisbane for three days and I only saw one child on a bike and that’s really telling you something. That’s a shame, it tells you it’s not safe for everyone.” (For more impressions of Brisbane by bike, see Bicycle Dutch’s 2013 film. He also did one on Sydney.)
Common Australian cycling initiatives such as painted lanes, encouragement campaigns and maps don’t get people on bikes with Wagenbuur saying the key is in creating narrow, slow speed suburban streets of 30km/h where bikes and cars can comfortably share the road. On higher speed roads dedicated infrastructure that separates bicycles from car traffic is necessary.
“A lot of people still think Dutch cycling means cycle paths everywhere and that’s just not true. You don’t have to have separated cycling infrastructure everywhere; just on some key roads,” he said.
‘Cultural’ Dutch biking a myth
Wagenbuur also rejected the notion that the Dutch ride bikes for cultural reasons.
“It’s a myth that the Dutch cycle because it’s somehow cultural or we’ve always done it. No, the Dutch cycle because it’s easy, cheap and convenient.”
“After world war two we embraced the car, the car was the future. There were big plans for highways right through Amsterdam but when they started tearing down buildings, then people started to ask what’s going on? The whole idea of what a city was started to shift.”
With a new mindset about cities and a skyrocketing road toll, which included many child deaths, it wasn’t until the 1970s that the Netherlands shifted away from car-oriented transport planning, he said. The new “people-friendly” approach focused on narrower, slower and safer streets and made bike riding possible for people of all ages and abilities.
(This history is explored in Wagenbuur’s short film How the Dutch got their cycle paths).