For a nation known for their wooden shoes, it's a wonder the Dutch have also come to lead the world in getting about on two wheels. But in any city centre in Holland, it's not the industrial sound of the engine and horn that dominates but the pleasing mechanical rhythm of bike wheels turning.
As we approach the 2016 London Mayoral election, we are again asked what sort of city we want and, for many of us, improved cycling infrastructure and culture are key. This is why the London Cycling Campaign (LCC) 2012 election campaign, 'Love London, Go Dutch' (which we helped to create at Forster) was so successful. It resulted in some of the major cycling projects we're seeing across London today; like the East-West and North-South segregated Cycle Superhighways and 'Mini Holland' programmes. But we still must turn to the Netherlands for inspiration to make London a truly great cycling city.
The LCC has just launched 'Sign for Cycling', its Mayoral elections campaign, and it will be calling on candidates to commit to make London safe and enjoyable for cycling in three key ways:
1. More safe space for cycling on main roads and at junctions - Londoners, and children especially, need more segregated cycle lanes, allowing for safe, direct journeys that don't force people to share space with fast moving or heavy motor traffic.
2. A 'Mini Holland' for every London borough - Waltham Forest, Kingston and Enfield have recently been given funding to make their town centre's more cycle-friendly and encourage more local trips to be made by bike. London's next Mayor must make this funding available to every London borough to transform local areas and enable more local cycling and walking trips.
3. End lorry danger - lorries currently pose the greatest risk to cyclists, which has to change if we want more people to stay safe when cycling in the capital. The next Mayor must ensure that only the safest, smartest lorries are used on London's streets.
If there is one essential message we can learn from Holland, it's that it takes time to make a change and it requires brave decisions. In the 1970s in Holland, protests took place against the way town centres were being given over to motor vehicles and causing huge numbers of deaths. The 'Stop de Kindermoord' (stop the child murder) campaign and formation of the Fietsersbond Cyclists' Union helped lead to cycling being placed at the heart of town planning, one bike path at a time.
Now, there's a complete system that integrates with the wider transit network and Holland boasts around 30,000 km of cycle paths and almost 5,000 km of special cycling lanes (all this for a population of 17 million people). This, naturally, ensures more people cycle - it builds confidence and convenience. Kids ride to school, older people cycle to the shops, even the King cycles. In the UK, 2% of journeys are made on bike. In Holland, it's over 20%, rising to 38% in Amsterdam and even 61% in the university city of Groningen.
In fact, (as I outlined in a recent article for Soigneur) Groningen faced fierce opposition when it placed bikes ahead of cars in its plans but now it's a source of pride and a place of innovation - there are plans for traffic lights with rain sensors to give quicker priority to cyclists on wet days and heated cycle paths to protect cyclists in the frost. There are many examples that show that building a cycling culture is an ongoing commitment. Near Eindhoven, the world's first solar cycle path has been built; a short stretch that soaks up the sun during the day and lights up at night in the style of Van Gogh's Starry Night. Nearby is the Hovenring, a floating circular cycle bridge elevated above the rest of the traffic, proving great design is both practical and beautiful.
It's exciting to see new infrastructure popping up in London that is finally of Dutch standards, but we deserve more. In London, as many as 9% of deaths are caused by air pollution. Cycling regularly can help prevent cancer, heart disease, strokes, diabetes and mental health problems - we need to help encourage more people onto their bikes. For every km cycled, society enjoys a 16p profit while driving results in a 10p loss... the reasons for improving cycling in London are endless.
If I was to stereotype London as lazily as I did our Dutch friends at the start, what might I say? Scrap that. What about - how would I want us to be seen in the future? I'd want people to say we were a city on the move, pedalling ahead. A city of bikes.
Just as Holland wasn't built in a day, neither will London. And it is the work of organisations like the LCC that are so vital to ensure we get the London we want. Join them in campaigning to ensure the next Mayor is on the right path. To get the London we want, we need to Sign for Cycling.