So here is a simple thesis. If the Netherlands has the highest cycling mode share in the world, then the Dutch city with the highest share must surely be the highest level of daily cycling in the world?
That’s the proposition put forward by the cycling officer of Zwolle when I was there for a meeting this week, putting Zwolle ahead of the internationally recognised Dutch leaders like Groningen and Utrecht.
Fortunately, a bike tour was included in our two-day meeting, so I had the chance to have a look for myself. Every visitor was supplied with a nice e-bike from a shared fleet launched in the city by Zwolse Deelfiets so we had an enjoyable group ride with participants from Belgium, Denmark and Germany as well as our Dutch hosts.
What to report?
Well after several visits to Dutch cities it is easy to find on what have become the defining features of Dutch infrastructure.
There were of course wide and well used cycle lanes.
Bridges and underpasses? Naturally, the country that prides itself as on its civil engineering and cycling provision scatter cycling bridges liberally, whether crossing under the railway, over the motorway or entering the city centre across the canal that rings the old centre of town.
The old city centre was a pleasurable car free zone where pedestrians and cyclists blended without conflict.
So far playing to the pattern.
But one thing in particular struck me and I asked our hosts about it as I rode. I have often written that there is a fundamental misunderstanding by many international cycling advocates and experts when they credit the entire Dutch cycling experience to segregated bike lanes.
If Zwolle is the cycling capital of the world then it is perhaps the case study that makes the point. Of course we rode great infrastructure, but by my estimate we rode far more of our excursion on bike lanes that were just painted lines by the roadside and long, long sections of Fietsstraat, cyclist priority shared use streets where cars or sometimes just buses are allowed, indicated only by the red asphalt surface of the street. Noticeably despite these being good connector roads the number and speed of cars was low, drivers presumably re-educated to avoid the cycling congestion.
Overall Zwolle proved the thesis that to get a high level of cycling countries and cities have to fundamentally change the relationship between drivers and cyclists, and when that can be achieved by prioritisation, regulation, speed management and enforcement cyclists can be confident around cars, especially when cyclists also have the advantage of high-quality preferential access under and over any barriers or to and through city centres.
The cherry on the cake? A Zwolle special, the cycling roundabout where cyclists take priority over the cars, on the roundabout, confidently bossing it over everyone else, a fundamental shift in the cyclist-driver relationship. I could have stayed and watched for hours!