50 years behind the Netherlands…and counting

dutch cyclists

On a trip to the Netherlands last week, we didn’t see a single cyclist. Just tens of thousands of people using bicycles to get about.

We didn’t see a single item of high visibility clothing and spotted only four riders wearing helmets. Most interesting was the healthy disrespect the Dutch appear to have for their bicycles; left overnight in great lines, the bikes jostle up against each other in all weathers and frequently blow over in the wind. Of course it’s of no matter to their owners as, for the most part, the bikes are worth no more than a couple of hundred euros. Most Dutch folk appear to regard their bikes in the way we in British relate to washing machines; indispensable so hardly a lifestyle choice and definitely not a sport. Coupled to this pragmatic approach to cycling in the Netherlands is a notable absence of conspicuous displays of wealth.

Perhaps it’s their Calvinist heritage, but there’s an equality in the use of cycles that’s at odds with the widely held British view that bicycles are toys for either children or middle aged men in Lycra. In the Netherlands there is no cycling gender imbalance and parity across all social-economic groups. When all of this is combined with world-class infrastructure, the result is towns and cities that are cleaner, more efficient and healthier for their inhabitants.

Dutch cycle commute

The reason all this matters is that we here in Britain see up to 36,000 deaths a year caused by particulate air pollution, not to mention the myriad other social ills caused by a near total dependence on cars. The crisis has prompted Public Health England (PHE) this week to urge the government to introduce ambitious policies including a redesign of key urban areas and a ban on drivers idling outside school gates.

The pleas from PHE are likely to fall on deaf ears as there is no political will to spend the necessary funds. Certainly we have yet to fully accept the economic benefits of good urban planning. While we were in Rotterdam we spoke with a civil engineer whose office overlooks the triumphalist architecture of the city’s main railway station. The huge concourse is largely pedestrianised and served by trams and a subterranean cycle park with 7,000 spaces which are accessed by bicycle travelators.

Looking down at the inter-modal hub far below, he told us “of course, all this infrastructure is terribly expensive, but we know that for every euro we spend on it, we get a threefold return in terms of reduced healthcare costs, efficiency and well being.”

Little wonder we almost 50 years behind the Netherlands…and counting.

ETA cycle insurance

Ethical cycle insurance

On the face of it, one cycle insurance policy is much like another, but the devil is the detail. How much excess you will be charged is just one of the things that varies wildly between providers. Another is so called ‘new-for-old’ replacement – many insurers use this term, but if your bicycle is more than a few years old, devalue it severely. This means you are left out of pocket when you come to replace it.

With ETA cycle insurance, however old the bike, if it’s stolen you get enough to buy a new model.

For over 29 years we have been providing this kind of straightforward, affordable bicycle insurance. Little wonder The Good Shopping Guide judges us to be Britain’s most ethical insurance company.


  1. Howard Cheesman


    The country with the fewest people wearing helmets has the safest record for cyclists. Why? The answer is complex but part of it is to do with the fact that the Netherlands put the infra structure in postwar for safe and dedicated cycling. Here the car is king and attempts to accommodate bikes all have to be retro fitted or in other words botched together. Some cities have managed it however (Newcastle and Cardiff spring to mind.) Until all development is governed by a dual use philosophy as a minimum prerequisite, we will not have transport routes that are safe for all.
    PS. The Netherlands joke is, how do you spot an English cyclist? They are the only ones wearing high-vis and helmets!

  2. Gavin


    I totally concur with this this piece. I was in the Netherlands in October… you can only marvel at the place (likewise Switzerland and it multi-modal transport structures). I’ve witnessed, first hand, a large amount of the change in the NL. I used to often pop over the border in the 1980’s when I was with the British Army in (as was) Fed. Rep. Germany. I saw the gradual change and the emphasis put onto cycling at the expense of cars.

    For the record I disdain garish clothing too; 80% of my cycling ridden in normal clothes… I’ve never worn a helmet – ever.

    In the Busted Overweight American-obsessed dis-United Kingdom the populace and its pathetic crap Governments are hooked on the internal combustion engine as a junky is to heroin. So nothing will change here anytime soon.

    I wish I was born Dutch…. and I’ll have an EU passport to boot!

  3. Peter


    There is absolutely nothing wrong with cycling as a sport, both on and off road; it’s a fantastic way to keep fit (mentally and physically) and can be great fun. When cycling at high intensity it also makes sense to wear specialist clothing (runners never seem to be criticised for not running in their ‘normal’ clothes) and to make sure you can be seen easily.

    It also makes a lot of sense to keep bikes under cover when they are not being ridden. The drivetrain, and other parts, of a bike left outside in all weathers will quickly rust leading to expensive repairs and replacement parts, hardly an environmentally friendly approach. There is also, of course, the increased likelihood of corroded parts failing and the inherent danger associated with that.

    Whilst I fully support moves to encourage more people to use cycling as a practical way of getting around and carrying out their daily tasks, I am getting sick of the ETA’s apparent contempt for people who use it primarily as sport. And I certainly never expected to be criticised for looking after my bike to make it last longer

    • The ETA


      Hello Peter, what makes you think we have contempt for people who enjoy cycling as a sport?

      • Peter


        The whole tone of the above article gives me that impression but specifically the sentence, “Most Dutch folk appear to regard their bikes in the way we in British relate to washing machines; indispensable so hardly a lifestyle choice and definitely not a sport.” and the implication that specialist clothing should not be worn.

        This is not new though, over the years I have seen several similar articles on your website.

        • The ETA


          Thanks for the clarification, Peter, but I don’t think that line shows contempt for cycling as a sport. Cycling is a wonderfully broad church, but the point we’re trying to make here and elsewhere on our website is that if the goal is to get people using bicycles as transport, then its portrayal primarily as sport is counterproductive – a standpoint that’s held by all involved in the promotion and delivery of cycling in the Netherlands.

  4. Paul rashid


    I think the uk polititions have there heads in the sand its a joke the streets and roads are to narrow i feel we are living on top of each other i have traveld the world and saw some nice places and lovely citys but the uk as a whole its to far behind on all aspects of life style from litter to recyeling ect i love cyceling but its a death wish on the uk roads now

  5. Beverly McFarlane


    Most Dutch people have two bikes so that the rusty old workhorse is left on the streets and the weekend/holiday tourer is lovingly cared for indoors or in the shed. The level of bike theft in cities is astronomical, hence riding a rusty old one lessens the pain if it is stolen. Shortage of actual street parking means that it is also liable to be impounded by the council and you’ll have to pay to have it returned.

    The drivetrain of most Dutch bikes is completely sealed, making them less susceptible to rust, than in the UK. Generally in town, speeds are slower than here, as bikes and loads are heavier. On coastal cycle routes however, speeds can be very high and helmets and lycra are often worn. God help you if you get in the way of these cyclists! Many, many people in the Netherlands now ride ebikes and you won’t find these lying in the streets overnight. While infrastructure is better than the UK, don’t try to fool us into thinking it is all hunkydory. It is not!

    • The ETA


      The Dutch themselves would be the first to admit their provision for cyclists isn’t perfect, but that doesn’t alter the fact that it’s many decades of Britain

  6. Louisa Radice


    I have a suspicion that the second photo was taken in Denmark – KBH being an abbreviation for København [Copenhagen].

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