Tag Archives: bike design

Dutch Cycling Lessons in Dublin

29 Apr

Don’t be too proud to take lessons. I’m not.Jack Nicklaus

Dutch often serve as a role model for cycling. Urban planners study Dutch towns for their ‘cycling infrastructure’. Designers call out Dutch bicycles for their sleek and simple style. Policy makers ascribe the Dutch cycling success to its nation of ‘natural cyclists’. In short: the Netherlands is a place where cycling has always been part of the country’s fabric.

The truth, of course, is different.

The Netherlands has not always had a ‘cycling infrastructure’. Today, 40% of Amsterdam traffic may take place by bike, but in the 1960s, Amsterdam was dominated by cars. The economic prosperity after World War II led people to flaunt their wealth by buying a car – thus leaving the bike behind. Urban planners followed the trend, and set up broad roads through ancient city centres — until cyclists made up only 10% of city traffic. Only later did Dutch policy makers realise this made cities overcrowded and less liveable. It has taken several decades to reverse the trend.

Cars on the Canals

Designers point out the stylishness in Dutch cycling. Matte blue men’s bikes serve as props in shop windows, accentuating pinstripe patterns of bespoke suits on display. Billboards feature female models – with auburn hair, tight hazelnut trousers and tweed jackets – leaning into racing green bikes with brown leather saddles. Street Style Magazines showcase modern versions of the traditional Dutch bike, and trendwatchers call out those bikes for their ‘urban credibility’, ‘new roughness’, or ‘artificial realism’.  It’s all a recent trend though; primarily, the Dutch have always seen cycling as something purely functional.

VAN MOOF - a 'new style Dutch bike' - wins Eurobike Award 2009

Finally: there is no such thing as a ‘natural cyclist’. The Dutch are not born with an innate ability to cycle. Cycling is something people learn by doing; even in the Netherlands. It does help that cycling lessons have been a regular item in Dutch elementary schools.

Picture from a Dutch magazine, showing how bike lessons went 'back then' ('vroeger'), in 1964.

The main lesson here: Dublin is more similar to Amsterdam than most think. Dublin has a history of cycling, just like Amsterdam. Similar to the Dutch, the Irish only started replacing bikes with cars when economic prosperity increased during the Celtic Tiger. While this has initially decreased cycling, cycling numbers have recently increased again. Dublin may yet make the same rebound as Amsterdam did after its 1960s low point.

Furthermore, Dublin also has a keen eye for cycling style; like last year’s Dublin Cycle Chic fashion show and the city’s new Dutch bicycle and fixed gear shops demonstrate.

Finally, Dubliners are as natural on their bikes as the Dutch are – in part thanks to the Green Schools, who organize bike lessons for kids, distribute bike helmets, and set up bicycle powered smoothie makers.

The Irish may yet give the Dutch a run (or a cycle) for their money.

1961: Cyclists on Dublin's Dame Street and South Great Georges Street (photo by Charles W Cushman).