Cycling is gaining ground on driving, in the big cities too

13 June 2017

In the vast majority of Dutch towns and cities, people use their bike more often than their car.  

In 71 Dutch towns and cities (with a population of more than 50,000), the number of inhabitants  cycling already exceeds those travelling by car, at least for distances up to 7.5 kilometres. Although driving is still the preferred means of transport on longer distances (7.5 to 15 kilometres), cycling has a substantial share and that share is growing. These are some of the findings of a study conducted by Goudappel Coffeng transport consultants and DAT.Mobility’s IT experts. The analysis does not cover travel by public transport.

The study was prompted by a publication earlier this year that bike use in Copenhagen had overtaken car use. “We knew that this was also already the case in the Netherlands,” says Richard ter Avest, an urban mobility consultant with Goudappel Coffeng. “We were surprised by that ‘news’ from Denmark and decided to investigate the situation in the Netherlands. Actual figures will make it clear.”

Bicycle nation par excellence

The Netherlands is the number-one cycling country. Since the 1970s policymakers have put in significant efforts to encourage cycling and make cycling in urban and rural areas safer. We have since become the world’s number one cycling nation, thanks to effective rules and regulations, smart designs, the rise of a cycling culture, and a felt need to work together.

Mobility data

Using data from the Mobility Data Study for the Netherlands (OViN data), we mapped bike use for the period from 2010 until 2015. We looked at bike and car journeys travelled by town and city residents. As stated, travel by public transport and journeys on foot were left out of the analysis.

There are three persistent myths around cycling in the Netherlands:

  1. “Amsterdam and Utrecht are the only cities where people cycle a lot.”
  2. “It’s logical that it’s only people in the big cities that cycle a lot – there’s no space there and car parking charges are often high.”
  3. “Cycling is not an option for distances over 7.5 kilometres (4.5 miles), even in the Netherlands.”

Large towns, short journeys

“The reality is entirely different,” Ter Avest argues. “Of the 76 largest towns and cities in the Netherlands (with a population in excess of 50,000), 71 have already seen bike use exceed car use on journeys shorter than 7.5 kilometres. Cycling has a slightly lower share in the southern province of Limburg because of the hilly terrain. At the same time, the rolling hills there attract large numbers of sports and recreational cyclists.”

High cycling share in small towns too

City dwellers are not the only ones who cycle. There are numerous smaller towns (with a population of twenty-five to fifty thousand) where people choose cycling over driving. Although bike use is less substantial there than in the cities, there are dozens of smaller towns where the proportion of bike journeys to car journeys is 60%-40%. This may be due to the shorter distances, but there are also regional differences. In fact, income and religion appear to play a role – in the catholic South people cycle less often and incomes are higher. Bike use is higher in Amsterdam and Utrecht than in Rotterdam and The Hague. We also found that in smaller towns people are more likely to cycle to larger adjacent towns to go to school or work, for example from Zutphen to Deventer, Oisterwijk to Tilburg, and Voorschoten to The Hague.

1 in 3 journeys over longer distances are by bike

Cycling already accounts for a substantial number of regional journeys between 7.5 and 15 kilometres. One in three journeys are by bike (normal or electric) and two in three by car. Again, our study did not cover travel by public transport. The share of cycling is expected to increase over the next few years, driven by the construction of regional cycle highways and the spectacular increase in sales of electric bikes (“e-bikes”). Ter Avest: “In a few years’ time, we expect to see the first few towns where bike use exceeds car use for longer distances.”

The Dutch are about the only people to cycle outside built-up areas. Richard ter Avest: “That’s because we have good cycle paths and low speed limits on rural roads (60 kph zones). Also, in other countries school pupils are given free bus passes and do not have to cycle at all. However, cycling is better for your health and more fun. And it’s more environmentally friendly (no CO2 emissions).“

Thanks to these excellent statistics, the Netherlands is still the number-one cycling nation in terms of bike use. “We have a particularly strong track record on longer distances. This is how we keep our cities and the countryside accessible and liveable. Investing in infrastructure and construction is cost-effective.”

The figures show the proportion of journeys travelled by bike and by car in towns and cities.


Download bike versus car cities < 7.5 km Download bike versus car large cities 7.5-15 km Download bike versus car smaller cities < 7.5km