About 27% of trips in the Netherlands are by bike. But one of the first things my urban planning professors in the Netherlands pointed out to my group of urban planning students from the US, China, Poland, Latvia, Georgia, etc. was that the country's superior bicycle infrastructure hasn’t been in place as long as many people think. The transformation into a country with such superior bicycle infrastructure has come in just the past few decades or so.
Yes, as I wrote yesterday, Dutch citizens gathered together to build separated bike paths over 100 years ago. However, that didn’t turn the country into a bicycling giant. (Just as it didn't do for the United States.) When the mass-manufactured automobile came along, the Netherlands did what many other countries did — it built its cities for the automobile.
Needless to say, that resulted in very polluted cities, vulnerability to gas price spikes, the deaths of children playing or walking in the streets, the pacing over of parks, and an overall hit to quality of life for many citizens.
In late 1972, a strong “Stop de Kindermoord” (stop the child murder) campaign was started in the Netherlands, aimed at urban planning and legal fixes to transportation design and transportation laws that resulted in many kids being killed by cars (over 400 kids were reportedly killed in one year from automobiles). Earlier in 1972, a TV documentary focused on the difficulties of kids who wanted to play in the streets of an Amsterdam neighborhood but were threatened by the wide use and domination of cars. The documentary apparently hit an emotional chord nationally, and it may have been what sparked the “Stop de Kindermoord” campaign. The documentary also focused on pollution that came from the invading automobile traffic. Here's a 10-minute segment of the 1972 TV documentary, to which the good folks at Bicycle Dutch added English subtitles:
Beyond these 1972 efforts, a familiar oil crisis sparked other bike-oriented efforts the following year. “From November 1973 to January 1974, the Dutch national government prohibited the use of private motor vehicles on Sundays,” Angela van der Kloof writes on People for Bikes. “This policy was meant to prepare the public for the scarcity of oil predicted ahead. The Netherlands, like the United States, was boycotted at this time by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.” (Absolutely no cars were allowed on the roads on Sundays — it was not simply one street that was off limits, but all of the country's roads.)
Large-scale bike rallies were also organized in order to “take back the streets,” as we might say today. (The Bicycle Dutch blog notes that similar protests are going on nowadays in London, Moscow, and other cities around the world.)
Overall, to be simplistic and concise about it, the 1970s became a period when the Netherlands shifted to a more balanced transportation approach that gave room, infrastructure, and funding to bicyclists and pedestrians.
Following decades resulted in even bigger booms in bicycle infrastructure, as well as bicycle transportation. Apparently, people liked the opportunity to bike peacefully and safely on protected bike infrastructure, so they decided to just build more and more of it.
As Angela van der Kloof writes: “Take heart, planners and advocates: giving people the chance to experience the pleasant pace, sociability and joy of riding a bike can also cause them to re-examine their notions about cycling, about the streets themselves.”
For more information, statistics, and historic video clips, watch this 6½-minute video about “how the Dutch got their cycle paths.” It's a great video — unfortunately, it can't be embedded, but it's better big anyway.