The Minister of Transport, Tjerk Westerterp, opened the Netherlands’ first so-called Demonstration Cycle Route with a cycle tour and “some festivities” on Thursday 21 April 1977. Only 19 months after he announced he wanted to build such routes at the opening of the parliamentary year in September 1975. Two cities accepted the offer of getting a “free” modern cycle route: Tilburg and The Hague. Tilburg was the first to officially open it. The minister was in a hurry. This was weeks before the elections for a new national government. The minister wanted to show the voters that he cared for cycling and that he acted to get road casualties down. Not everybody was pleased with this cycle route though.
Korte Heuvel in 1978. Two types of on-street cycle lanes on either side of the street. The drivers of the vans and the car were kind enough to demonstrate why on-street cycle lanes are inadequate. (Still from the film by Leif Larsen.) Korte Heuvel in 2018. The street has transformed from a shopping street to a street with only café’s and restaurants. Car traffic is completely banned here. Cycling can still take place, but as guest in a pedestrian space. Some politicians in Tilburg would like to forbid cycling in this street.Tilburg and The Hague are the two cities in the Netherlands that got a Demonstration Cycle Route in the 1970s. A showcase of what modern cycling infrastructure would have to be like. Why were they built? And what did it mean for cycling in The Netherlands? I went back to the original route in Tilburg recently and in the video with this post I compare what I filmed now with images of the newly built route that were taken in 1978.
A newspaper at the time of the opening (Volkskrant, 19 April 1977) noted that the Minister of Transport jumped to the opportunity to show the public that he really cared for cycling, a month before the general elections. He had taken money from the national road building budget: 25 million guilders of the budget for 1976. This was called a lot of money but to compare; that same year 889 million guilders were reserved for roads and their maintenance. At first some legislators protested that the national government would spend money on cycling infrastructure that was up to then considered to be a municipal affair, but this bold decision to use road money for cycling infrastructure was taken shortly after the absolute low point of cycling in the Netherlands in the 1970s. In 1971, 400 children died on the roads in the Netherlands in all crashes combined. A high percentage of these children died cycling to school. Politicians of all parties eventually agreed something had to be done to make cycling safer. In 1975 the Cyclists’ Union (Fietsersbond) was founded and that same year the minister came with this plan. But even on the occasion of the opening the journalist noted: “Real cyclists know that the minister tries to have his cake and eat it. He tries to stimulate cycling but does not really want to cause too much pain to car traffic. A clear choice could be disadvantageous.” That the word “real” was used is no coincidence. The Cyclists’ Union used that word “real” in its name at the time. The Cyclists’ Union was very critical of these demonstration routes. It did not like them at all. Union representatives thought this was a solution that was especially too expensive. In the newspaper “Het Vrije Volk” of 21 April 1977 a spokes person is quoted: “This is an example of what not to do. This way it will take until long after the year 2000 before things to improve cycling are done in every city.” This article doesn’t say what the Cyclists’ Union wanted instead, but from other sources I know they wanted simpler solutions that were cheaper and quicker to implement at a larger scale.
In 1978, a year after the route was opened. The ANWB urged the national government to come with a fund for the years to come, to cover the costs for more cycle routes like the one in Tilburg. Because it proved to be so succesful. In an editorial in their magazine Kampioen they write that in Tilburg ridership had increased with a spectacular 75%, “it is clear that the critics who claimed this was all too much were wrong” they add triumphantly. Unfortunately that fund never came. In fact just last week the appeal to the government to spend more money on cycling infrastructure was repeated by Carlo van de Weijer, the Director Smart Mobility of the Technical University in Eindhoven in a column. The return on investments for the bicycle is so good that it is incomprehensible that we spend so little on it.