As debate rages in Sydney about the proposed “WestConnex Motorway” – at the same time that the city is becoming more and more clogged with traffic congestion – it’s worth revisiting a feature published in the current issue of RIDE Cycling Review (#66). We speak to the Dutch consul general in Australia, Willem Cosijns, about cycling, traffic, and making legislation that has a positive effect on community. Here is the online version of that story.
For the Dutch consul-general in Australia, cycling has many benefits. Ultimately though, it’s part of a ‘transport mix’ that can make cities more enjoyable places to live in. Willem Cosijn didn’t come to Australia planning to spruik what he’s learned about riding in the Netherlands but he’s found himself as a spokesman just the same…
– By Rob Arnold
“There’s a word for that and it’s a Dutch word. As far as I know there’s no English translation: gezellige.” We’re talking about cycling and I offer my interpretation of a repetitive theme that emerges during the chat.
“Gezellige. Yes. That’s true,” replies Willem Cosijn. “We’re experimenting with bike lanes to this day and it continues to improve the quality of life.”
“It’s innovation through necessity – to bring enjoyment into the equation makes a city or country more liveable.”
“Yeah, it’s true.”
The exchange is in the office of the consul-general of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Australia. Cosijn has been in the job for a year. He’s based in Sydney. He lives on the northern beaches and works in Bondi Junction. He tells me that he would like to ride to the office just like he did in Holland when he was one of the staff for Queen Beatrix. He loves the bike and believes in the many benefits of cycling. “I live 20 kilometres from my office. If it was safe, I would go on the bicycle just to have the workout. I enjoy being outside. And, well, it’s work on the body. That’s what I’ve got to do with this job because I’m getting fatter and fatter.”
For a self-confessed fat man, the 49-year-old is thin. He has ridden all his life. Only now he finds himself in a city in which it’s not possible for this cycling enthusiast to get to work on the bike without fearing for his safety. It’s sad but he’s not sitting around moaning about it. Cosijn is active in his quest to try and share the Dutch transport experience.
“People are always saying, ‘Yes but…’, ‘however’, and so on… there is always an excuse. You have hills. That’s true, but we have rain.” He laughs at the thought of the cycling he’s done in the wet and cold in and around his hometown of Leiden. He’s not looking for excuses but he wishes riding in Australian cities wasn’t as dangerous as it is. “I’ve seen cycling all around the world, in hilly places, hot places… everybody is looking for excuses not to implement a cycling policy and it is ridiculous to do that here because Australia is one of the best places where you could cycle.”
Before taking on his post in Sydney, Cosijn worked for Queen Beatrix (who abdicated in April 2013, and her son Willem-Alexander is now the king). Did she ride a bike? He looks at me as though I don’t understand something: in the Netherlands everyone rides. “All the members of the Dutch royal family have a bike and they use it. The former Queen is 75 so I’m not sure if she would be often on the bike. I’m not sure because that’s in her private life. But yes, I’ve seen with my own eyes: when the son visited his mother, with his wife and children, they travelled by bike.
“Imagine, they leave this beautiful palace, the footmen open the door and then they get on the bicycle and they ride to another beautiful palace. I like that.”
I’m nodding as he speaks. It’s easy to do. What he says is logical. For me it also drags me into my recollections of life in the Netherlands at the beginning of the 1980s. My family moved to Zwolle – roughly in the middle of the small country – in 1979 and we lived there until New Year’s Eve in 1982. That was a time of significant change for the country. Cycling was part of a revolution. It wasn’t an easy one but it was a logical one and the dividends of a national movement are evident everywhere in modern Holland. They call it the ‘Cycling Country’ and most assume it has always been that way. Not true: it was a cultural change by governance.
The Dutch have made it possible for cycling to be part of everyday life, for the bike to be more prevalent than the car in most cities, and for riders to be safe in traffic. But it had to come from changes to legislation and a holistic approach. Cosijn nominates the 1980s as the period when law changes began to have an effect but it was the absurdity of the situation in or around 1975 that pushed the government to do something about the problem of traffic. So what was the final catalyst? “That was actually just public pressure. It’s a democracy, as you know, and it just became unacceptable: cycling in the Netherlands was very dangerous.
“On the other hand, we had the same thing that you have here in Sydney and that is the congestion. Every good spirit is killed by too many traffic jams. And that’s what we had as well. That really urged the decision makers to look at this transport infrastructure and then they decided that there must be enough room for public transport, for cars, and for bicycles as well.”
Of course it helps that the Netherlands is far smaller than Australia (yet has a similar population). “That’s true… the Netherlands is two-thirds the size of Tasmania – but when you look at the places where the people live here, it’s densely populated big cities. That is exactly the same as in the Netherlands. Therefore, that is creating the same situation where you actually need to improve your traffic and you need to look at public transport and bicycles.”
So, what would Cosijn advise Australian cities that they should be looking to do? “I would advise a decent transport mix. And that is to say that you have to make it attractive for people to use the bike. You make it attractive by creating safe, recognisable bike lanes that are consistent.
“It’s strange,” he says about his experience of riding in Sydney, “that in one street there is a bike lane and a little further on, it’s gone! And then, two blocks further up, ‘Oh look, there it is again.’” It’s a lack of cohesion between the various authorities that govern the roads that creates such inconsistency. There are multiple layers of government that all have their own objectives and policies, from local council level to national, and even if they all worked in unison there are still more hurdles to overcome. In NSW, for example, it’s the Roads and Maritime Services (RMS) that has ‘ownership’ of intersections; if a bike path doesn’t fit with their scheme then a break in the path’s flow is the solution.
According to Cosijn, someone who has lived with the benefits of good planning and application, it is possible to make cycling safer but there are fundamentals that need to be adhered to. “It has to be recognisable and consistent, safe and then it will go very easily.
“I think there are really a lot of people who say it’s flat in the Netherlands and so of course most people will be on the bike over there. Every country has its own challenges. Our country is flat, it’s true, but we have crap weather.
“I’m not sure about the percentages but I think that in Amsterdam, the greater city, around 70 percent of people go to their job on a bicycle. It is fresh, it is nice, it is emotionally better, it’s more fun! For people on public transport, the job is finished when they arrive at their own house but when you use the bicycle, the job is finished when you leave work and you’re on your own bike – it’s an emotional thing.”
Gezellige. On the bike you can be in charge of your own destiny. Of course it’s more enjoyable to do without fear for your safety. And even for someone like Cosijn who has lived with the benefits of cycling all his life, there are places which simply don’t suit the act of riding.
“I really think that Sydney is one of the best cities in the world – I really mean that. It is a beautiful city, a fantastic city. I’m very lucky that I can live here for a couple of years but the room for improvement is, for me, the transport mix. And that is that cycling is an integral part of transport.”
Sentiment such as this is why the consul-general has been active in community cycling events since his arrival in Australia. Cosijn wants to share the experience of cycling and show what’s possible when the proper infrastructure exists.
“I’m here for a broad trade development job,” he says of his original remit. “I wasn’t very much into pushing Dutch knowledge on cycling because, as a matter of fact, I expected it to be completely in order. And I don’t want to be a wiseguy but there is room for improvement. The thing is that the usage of cars and the use of bikes and use of public transport is integrated. So, although we like our cars, we like our bikes as well so we use them a lot. And it’s safe. That is one of the things that makes a difference.
“What actually struck me when I started working here in Sydney is that it’s dangerous. I don’t have a death wish.
“Although the bike is a fantastic means of transport, you have to create the right environment for everybody to be happy.” And that currently doesn’t exist in Sydney.
“Let’s not be misunderstood,” Cosijn insists early in our discussion, “the Dutch love cars. Everybody speaks about the cycling country – which we are, I think the biggest in the world by far – but we really like our cars as well.”
That’s true globally. There’s passion for the automobile. People can’t get enough of it – in Sydney, Leiden, Zwolle or elsewhere. There’s a difference when it comes to Australia and the Netherlands though, a significant one. “Cycling in the Netherlands is completely accessible,” explains Cosijn. “There was a recent picture in a newspaper showing the difference of how an American president and the Dutch prime minister arrive at their respective offices. Mark Rutte regularly rides his bike to the Binnenhof, Dutch Parliament, while Barrack Obama turns up at the White House with an entourage of five helicopters.
“That’s the difference. Cycling is completely embedded in our culture, it’s completely part of it.
“What makes cycling for us perhaps a little bit easier is that all the car owners have a bike as well so they know what a bikie is thinking. That is a difference but with us it changed in 30 years and that’s nothing. It may look like an endless period but it’s not, in fact.”
‘Build it and they will come.’ That’s how he sees transport in the modern era. And that old adage relates to cars as well as bikes. “I don’t want to comment on politics but when we think ‘tarmac’, we think about bike lanes as well,” he says of the Dutch approach to roadways. “We don’t think of tarmac for cars only because in the end it is not a solution. You’ll get the congestion at a certain point.”
Has a new road ever alleviated congestion entirely? It simply makes the congestion bigger. Cosijn nods. He can’t see how making more traffic can possibly solve the problem. “It creates the opportunity for more cars to join in the traffic. And that’s it. That is what we have and that is why we want to explore the options.”
And the options are plentiful. The secret lies in where to look. “They may say at a certain point, ‘We have a junction with a lot of bicycles and a lot of cars, we should solve it.’ They list the limitations, the things you have to reckon with, and they give it to private enterprise and they come back with a solution.” To Cosijn it’s so logical. “It’s possible to have fantastic bridges – a split level remedy…”
He considers a recent innovation and interrupts his own commentary. “Ah, I just remembered: cycling bike lanes are part of our infrastructure. We like them and we like to do fun things with them. We have something that’s brand new: the Van Gogh fietspad…” A bike lane named after an artist. “This Dutch designer was told, ‘Make a new bike lane. Make it attractive. Make it fun to use as well. And Daan Roosegaarde, a designer from the Netherlands who is pretty well known, made a bike lane with a painting by Vincent van Gogh. At night time, you can see it because it’s a glow-in-the dark work.” Gezellige.
“It’s nice! It’s safe, it’s beautiful… and it’s for cycling.”
Cycling innovation continues in the 30-plus years since a deliberate effort was made to turn the Netherlands into the cycling country. Still, it was the basics that facilitated the change and turned Holland into a haven for bike riders.
“From 1975, to mention a year, you see that the average income increased rapidly so the tally of bikes rose incredibly fast, and the number of cars as well,” explained Cosijn. “And we reached a certain point in the Netherlands where the number of traffic incidents and fatal accidents became unacceptable. And then policy makers turned the key and said, ‘We really have to do something about that.’ That was the start of Dutch cycling infrastructure and policies.”
The 1980s have served the Dutch transport system well. Had it not been for policy changes at that time, the nation may be like many others now: searching for solutions with the hope that people will accept a cultural change – if not a spiritual one. It has to come from the ground up: tarmac for all, rather than motorists alone. It was a halcyon time for Dutch cycling, the activity would become the nation’s main transport option… and cyclists from the low-lands were at the top of their game in competition. There’s an impetus to reinvigorate the sport in the Netherlands and investment has been made to encourage people to visit the country. There’s the Grand Départ of the Tour de France in Utrecht in 2015 and plenty of other reasons that cycling lures people to the country that will be host to two stages of the 102nd Tour.
Cycling is sport and transport. It’s obvious but for many citizens of the Netherlands, the main attraction of the bike is that it allows them to get around. Still, like in 2010 when Rotterdam hosted the Grand Départ of the world’s biggest bike race, huge crowds are expected in the central city this coming July. The Dutch see the appeal of competition but it doesn’t mean that’s how they ride.
It wasn’t until he lived in Sydney that Cosijn had ever worn cycling-specific clothing. “For me cycling is a way of living because it’s so completely embedded in my transport. [But] one of the things I notice when I look at cycling in Australia: it’s all about lycra. I bought my first lycra here! I’ve never ever worn lycra until moving to Australia because cycling is for us all about transport. It’s not that it’s a sport. And that is one of the differences.
“Although I really like fast cycling – it’s nice and I would love to do it – it’s not why I ride. If I did, then I’d dress up to be prepared, to be sweaty. But if I was using a bike just to get to one place or another, I would do it in my suit.”
He rides and he encourages others to do so as often as he can. He helped organise the ‘Orange Peloton’ in Sydney’s Spring Cycle and says he will happily be part of initiatives aimed at getting people to understand the benefits of cycling. Cosijn has experienced the difference a change in policy can have on a nation and it’s only natural to want to share that with others. The investment by Utrecht to host the Tour is one way of encouraging people to experience a true cycling culture. “It’s very important for tourism. And it actually displays the Dutch know-how for cycling infrastructure. Utrecht is the city where they built the biggest cycling storage facility in the world. [The aim is to accommodate as many as 30,000 bikes.] The city is very much centrally located in the Netherlands; they’ve got trains from Utrecht to any place in the country, and it’s a very nice place.
“There’s a big infrastructure there and the Tour will help to display Utrecht… and, for me, it helps push the ‘Dutch brand’ and Dutch knowledge.”
Safety is a key concern and one of the first initiatives put in place was legislation that stacked things in favour of the cyclist. “It’s a big thing and it’s part of the law: when a car hits a bicycle, the motorist has to prove that they didn’t make the mistake. It’s turned around – it’s reversed [from laws in other countries]. That is interesting. But that is all.
“Cycling in the Netherlands is safe. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t accidents, of course there are accidents – there always are. But it is very safe. There’s the discussion here about helmets [in Australia] but that doesn’t exist in the Netherlands.” The band-aid solution didn’t appeal to the law makers at a pivotal time in Dutch politics, instead they looked at the bigger picture. The onus was on the government to make a viable transport option safe enough for everyone to do without a need for helmets. “Where we can separate a bike lane from the road, we’ll do that so that other transport can be unaffected and the cyclists have their own way.
“When I worked at the palace, I’d go there by bicycle. It was 22km door-to-door and I enjoyed it because it was a fresh start and fresh ending to every day.”
– Rob Arnold