The Netherlands has more cyclists than anywhere else on the globe. Just watch all the bicycles whizzing by in Mark Wagenbuur's Youtube video Bicycle Rush Hour Utrecht and it will make you dizzy.
Despite all the bikes already on Dutch roads, the government wants us to cycle even more - especially for longer distances on new high-speed cycle paths. The hope is that the bike highways will beat the traffic jams.
Ruud Maarschall’s reclining bicycle is known as the banana, thanks to its bright yellow colour and aerodynamic design. Nearly every day, he cycles the 68 kilometres from his home in Petten on the coast north of Amsterdam to his work near Schiphol airport. The bike’s aerodynamic shell keeps him nice and dry. Mr Maarschall may just be the cycling commuter of the future.
If everything goes well, he can make the journey in an hour and three-quarters, but it could be far quicker if there were no delays along the way.
“I’ve got to get the ferry across the North Sea Canal. That wastes time. The buttons you have to press to get traffic lights to turn green for cyclists are also a nuisance. Some traffic lights now have sensors, like those for cars. For some though, I still have to press the button and have to lift the cycle’s lid to reach out with my arm.”
Mr Maarschall also has trouble with bumps and holes in the road surface. It’s no surprise then that the Dutch government’s plan to construct a network of improved and quicker cycle paths between major cities is music to his ears.
The Dutch cyclists’ federation has been pushing for ‘cycle highways’, though it doesn't have speed freaks like Mr Maarschall so much in mind. The federation’s Wim Bot is thinking more of encouraging commuters on electric bikes.
“We envisage a role in The Netherlands for these cycle highways between cities 15 to 20 kilometres apart. Many people find cycling more than 7.5 kilometres too far. Electric bikes help make longer distances easier. We’re seeing bikes with auxiliary electric motors making an advance in commuter traffic.”
At the moment, a high-tech cycle highway running for tens of kilometres is not on the cards. Mr Maarschall’s cherished idea of a cycle tunnel under the North Sea Canal will also remain a dream; the 21 million euros earmarked by the government for work on the new cycle highways is far too small for this.
But traffic expert Richard ter Avest believes a much larger investment in a network of real cycle highways would actually make money.
“We’ve worked out that for every 100 million invested in cycle highways, you’d get a minimum of 200 million back. That’s because people would spend less time stuck in traffic jams. It’s also because people would be healthier, cutting healthcare costs. Environmental costs would also go down, and this makes it a good investment as far as sustainability goes. That’s all apart from the extra jobs created by the initial construction work.”
This kind of mega-investment would create a national network of cycle paths, similar to that which was built for cars in the 1960s and 1970s. Hardcore cycle commuters like Ruud Maarschall would see their dreams come true and more bananas would be seen whizzing through the Dutch countryside.