Beyond the Woonerf, Evolution of Cycling in the Netherlands

After being dazzled by the prevalence of bicycles here, once my head stopped spinning, I couldn’t help but wonder “how did this come to be?”

We got some of the answers yesterday with presentations from Amsterdam’s bicycle coordinator and a representative of an NGO whose mission is to help other countries adapt the Netherland’s learnings to their own situations.

So where did they start? In 1950, following WWII, the Netherlands had 3.5 million bikes and 90,000 cars. As cars began to proliferate, there was an attitude that “the bikes are in the way of the cars” and an effort began to construct some 1,400 kilometers (km) of segregated bike paths.

At that time, most home-to-work trips were within cycling distance.

During the period from 1950-1975, auto trips expanded from 4.5 billion annually to 89 billion, while cycling stayed about level. However, while km cycled stayed level, fatalities while cycling tripled as auto-bike conflicts increased, in part where segregated bike paths crossed roads.

In the 70’s, the Dutch had a sort of awakening, driven by the oil crisis, rising environmental awareness and predictions of the costs of building roads to accommodate rising auto use.

From 1975-1985 km cycled went from 9.5 billion annually to 12.5 billion, driven by the build out of the segregated paths, addition of bike parking in city centers and rail stations and limitations imposed on auto parking in major cities.

The Dutch began to think that perhaps the cars were in the way of the bikes!

This transit was facilitated by several factors:

1) The national government provided 80% subsidy on bike facility capital projects.
2) Bicycle coordinators were appointed in each city and formed a network, eventually producing a handbook standardizing bike facility design.

In the 90’s the approach evolved again. With the recognition that intersections between segregated bike paths and and roads were a major source of conflict and safety, a movement to integrate bikes back into roadways began, resulting in the urban fabric we see today with bike facilities on almost every street. The learning has been that as drivers become aware of bikes, safety increases. As km cycled increased, overall accidents go DOWN. We are seeing an echo of this in Portland where as bike miles go up, accidents have stayed relatively constant.

Indeed watching a street operate here in Amsterdam is a bit like watching a ballet – all the dancers, cars and bikes, know they roles and weave together very skillfully and very safely, despite very close proximity. I almost wonder if someday they will reach the point of cultural integration of cars, trams (streetcars) and bikes where physical delineations will no longer be necessary and they will operate seamlessly on a web of nothing more than social understandings.

As one of our cab drivers said about the prevalence of bikes, “it’s just a matter of getting used to it.”

One of the Dutch innovations talked about much in America is the Woonerf, an extremely “traffic calmed” street that favors bikes and peds. I was very surprised to hear one of our hosts say they they are no longer constructed. The Woonerf was a phase, a way of raising consciousness of the interaction between peds, bikes and cars. Once the awareness had been created, the physical tools were no longer needed!

So how can we apply these lessons in Portland? We don’t start from the same base of cycling that the Dutch did, but we have made some of the same decisions (e.g., to not build the Mt. Hood freeway and invest in transit instead).

What are the transformations of awareness that we need to create to move Portland (without a lot of support from the national government) to the next level of cultural integration of our modes? What physical infrastructure can help lead to these mental changes?

10 responses to “Beyond the Woonerf, Evolution of Cycling in the Netherlands”

  1. An important clue may be here: “perhaps the cars were in the way of the bikes.”

    I have traveled in many countries where bicycles are the dominant vehicle. In China, for example, bikes outnumber motorists perhaps 10 to 1 or more, depending on the city. Where bikes prevail there is a cultural acceptance that bikes are primary and motorist are secondary. This likely happened by the chances of history, as in Amsterdam. There is little challenging of bikes by motorists – it simply would not questioned that the bikes have the full right to travel safely and at their own natural speed.

    We might consider how to artificially create this cultural change. The Woonerf might be a good means of innoculation. I like the idea of bike “boulevards” where a low traffic through street (like SE Clinton or SE Lincoln) is designated as more than a bike route, but as a route where a bike as primary vehicle is designated and bikes have legal right of way over all motor traffic.

    Another related observation of bike behavior in traditionally bike oriented cultures is that the average bike commuter in other countries rides much slower than the bike commuter does here and they rarely wear special bike apparel. Our bike history has its roots in bikes either as childhood toys, or biking as an athletic activity. Many of our cyclists ride specialized bikes, they ride fast, and wear colorful logo covered lycra clothing. This can make it a bit harder for some motorists to make the mental leap to their becoming a non-recreational biker. It might be useful for dedicated bikers to break out of the lycra wrapped speedster image in order to provide a role model that is more attainable by “average” folks who have no interest in speed or sweaty challenges.

  2. Everyone here rides in street clothes, and generally they don’t where helments. And the planners tell us that they target 15 kph (9 mph) as the average speed for bikes.

  3. Apart from having a series of vicarious thrills reading what you’ve written, I heard two other insights about constructing paths for bikes over autos and why wonnerven were originally built when I so happily visited Holland.

    My sponsor — a Professor of Engineering — said that because Holland doesn’t have an auto industry there’s been less encouragement in federal policy to accommodate them as we have in the U.S. And, there was discussion of creating an auto industry in the 1960s/1970s which did lead to increased road development…plus an increased standard of living

    Secondly, woonerven emerged in part as an experiment which is a frequent occurance with Dutch streets which are continuously reconstructed because of thir high water table. That is, streets are always being tinkered with to preserve them from water, and woonerfs became a fashion during one of those periods of experimentation.

  4. At the end of the second paragraph in my posting above I meant to say that an increased standard of living also led to an increase in auto trips …not that roadway development led to a higher standard of living.

  5. That’s right. And, oftentimes, the road project simply involves turning teh pavers over.

  6. It’s interesting reading you comments about the Dutch bike and car situation in the Netherlands. I’m Dutch and recently moved to Portland.

    A few comments:
    You have to understand that there is one big, very basic difference in the bike infrastructure in the Netherlands and the USA, and that is the state of mind.

    Everyone you’ll see driving a car in Holland has started out driving a bike as his/her only way of transportation. -EVERYONE- needs to learn to ride a bike when you’re 3-4 years old. Reason for this is that there are no school buses, no parents who drive you to school. As a 4 y.o going to pre-school you will of course sit on the back of you mom’s or dad’s bike or ride you’re own bike accompanied by one of your parents.

    Most children at 6 – 7 y.o will ride their bike alone to school. I’m sure you have seen the large groups of kids when school is out, riding bikes in groups, sometimes very dangerous 3 or 4 next to each other taking up a lot of space on the road.

    On the contrary to the US it’s not common in Holland to have 2 cars in a family. Most families will have 1 car that serves for transportation for long distances.

    Driving permit age is 18 in Holland, until that age you either ride your bike or ride your scooter(from age 16 and you’ll need a permit too).

    You’ll see a lot of young moms riding bikes with a small child on the front on a bike in a child seat, sometimes even a child on the back as well and even have 2 shopping bags with groceries on the bike.
    For pics see:

    Very popular the last few years are the ‘fietskar’ (bike cart) to transport the kids, groceries, dog etc.
    For pics see:
    Luggage or groceries:
    Seats for toddlers to place in the carts:

    As you can see from the prices, they are expensive, reason for this is that they have to be extremely safe and sturdy and are subject to very strict regulations.

    The first choice of transportation in Holland is a bike, cars would be second. Towns were build with a infrastructure for bikes in place from the start. Cars came later, on the contrary to the US where infrastructure of a town or city is build for cars from the start.

    Holland is a very small country with a lot of people living and working(approx 18 million) if all people who are legally allowed to drive a car also would drive there would be no space to live anymore. Car pooling(sharing) is very much promoted, employers (or the tax system) only reimburse public transport as commute cost where driving your car to work would have to be paid by yourself.

    Families with children, having a one salary income are still very much the norm, one of the parents will stay at home. Part-time work for parents is also very much standard, a lot of alternative ways of work sharing will be created like ‘duo-baan’ (dual-job) where you will share a job with a colleague who will work half of the full time position. All of this is heavily subsidized and promoted by the government with child day care etc, because of this it’s less common to have 2 cars simply because the budget wouldn’t allow it.

    Holland did have it’s share of car industry, which ended somewhere in the 80’s. (Opel, DAF) However, it’s not the industry that decides how the country is governed and developed, on the contrary to the US, but the people, for the people. Politicians do not depend on contributions from the industry for their elections as this would only cloud the way they would govern.

    So the biking situation in Holland is something that is heavily embedded in your upbringing, it’s part of your life like driving everywhere by car is embedded in the US way of life.
    Unfortunately for people living on a limited income or wanting to downscale, being without a car in the US is nearly unthinkable while being without a car in Holland is a common situation and does not have to be disruptive.

    Feel free to ask me anything you want about the biking in Holland. I, like many other kids rode my bike to school all the way through University, rode my bike with child in front and shopping bags and cartons with milk on the back, in rain, snow and ice storms. ;-) Raised a bike riding child. So I think I qualify as an experienced bike person ;-)

    I must say that living in Portland now I feel seriously limited in my movements, I’m not free to go anywhere, anytime I like to as it’s not safe to ride my (Dutch) bike here and we only have one car at the moment that my husband needs to commute to his job and to be honest, doing my shopping on my bike would get me strange looks from others ;-)


  7. Christine, thank you for your comments giving a fuller picture of bicycle life in Holland.
    I do hope you’ll try shopping by bike – it’s not so strange. We have groups in Portland who move friends’ belongings from house to new house (a video of this is available at Many of us living car-free find ways to use bikes for just about all our normal hauling needs.
    You’ll find many bike-friendly folks at the Shift Bike Social on Wednesday, December 7th (

  8. Christine, I am curious about a bit more info on Holland and the bike way of life. What about inclement weather? Do people there still ride avidly when there is rain and they arrive to work a soaking, muddy mess? Isn’t bike riding in such weather unsafe?

    I am also a bit envious of the way of life there regarding what you say as industry having less of an effect on how a country is governed…too bad that is not the way here.