The maximum distance most commuters are prepared to cycle to work is 7 to 10 km. Photo © Holland-Cycling.com
This summer State Secretary of Infrastructure Stientje van Veldhoven announced that within her term of office she aims to get 200,000 more commuters to use the bike - or the bike combined with public transport - instead of the car. Her secret weapon: the e-bike.
At the moment the 17 million people living in Holland own 23 million bikes. Two million of these bikes are e-bikes and this number is steadily growing. Over 30% of every new bike that is sold is an e-bike. No wonder the Dutch take the bike so seriously when it comes to improving the nation's health and combatting traffic congestion and air pollution.
Over the past decades much has been done to encourage bike use among commuters, from improving bike infrastructure and bike parking to introducing the OV bike scheme and financial incentives. If the bike traffic jam, a relatively new phenomenon, is anything to go by, the measures have been a huge success.
Now van Veldhoven has allocated 100 million euros for her plan to get more commuters out of their car. 74 million euros is to go towards improving bike parking facilities at train stations and 26 million towards new cycle paths. Local authorities will have to co-fund these projects.
So what is the State Secretary planning to do that hasn't been done before? Increase the radius of the bike commute. More than 60% of the commuters live less than 15 km from their work. Currently the maximum distance most commuters are prepared to cycle to their work is 7 to 10 km. As soon as the distance is more than 7.5 km only 15% of the commuters opt for the bike and 70% for the car. This is the group that van Veldhoven is targetting.
When colleagues hear your cycle ride into work takes longer than half an hour, they tend to think you must be very sporty and fit. And indeed, long-distance bike commuters are traditionally the cycling fanatics who you see in all weathers sweating away on a flashy 'fast' bike, such as a racing bike or even a recumbent.
As this is not everyone's cup of tea, this is where the e-bike comes in. The e-bike is seen as a faster and more comfortable alternative to the regular bike. With the extra pedal power and speed of the e-bike, van Veldhoven hopes to persuade less keen cyclists to get out of their car and travel longer commuting distances by bike.
Van Veldhoven thinks employers should play an important role in encouraging their employees to swap the car for the bike. She has enlisted the help of a dozen large businesses, local councils and provinces to promote her e-bike trial campaigns.
One of the participants is the UMC hospital in Utrecht. Employees were given the opportunity to try out the e-bike for free for a week to see if it would work for them. Attractive financial incentives are to make the switch more appealing. Of the 300 employees that took part, 120 got themselves an e-bike.
Trail campaigns alone are not enough, warns Erik Verhoef, Professor of Spatial Economics at VU University Amsterdam. Cycling should become cheaper, as well as easier and faster than commuting by car. We need to ensure that cyclists can benefit from the speed the e-bike potentially offers by making cycle routes faster. 'Especially in urban areas, due to busy traffic, there is little difference between riding a fast e-bike or a regular bike. To really exploit the technological innovation of the e-bike, we need cycle highways.'
A cycle highway is a broad cycle path, where cyclists can easily overtake each other and have priority over motorised traffic at crossings. There are already more than 30 cycle highways in Holland, but according to the Dutch Cyclists' Union the practical benefit varies. For example, on some routes cyclists have to regularly stop at traffic lights. This pretty much defeats the purpose of a cycle highway.
To improve the network of cycle highways van Veldhoven has allocated a budget of only 26 million euro. There are already some doubts as to whether that will be enough. Compared to the 2.6 billion euros the government is spending on motorways in 2018 alone, it is merely a drop in the ocean.