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Cycling is such an integral part of daily life in Amsterdam, that we don't give it a second thought. However, from a scientific standpoint, it's a subject that raises numerous planning, cultural and social geography questions. All of these questions were discussed during the University of Amsterdam's summer programme Planning the Cycling City.

According to Marco te Brömmelstroet, programme coordinator for Planning the Cycling City, Dutch scientists have never had more than a passing interest in cycling. ‘The problem is, it's like brushing your teeth: it's so normal for us that we don't think about it. It definitely says something that the most influential book about cycling in the Netherlands was written by an American.’

Bombarded by questions

It will come as no surprise then, that the summer programme was created in response to international queries. Te Brömmelstroet relates, ‘We've been bombarded by questions from scientists and policymakers in Europe and elsewhere over the last few years. Just as we used to go to Paris or Munich to see how they solved their road congestion problems, their policymakers now come here to learn about bicycling. I could easily give monthly tours of the city.’

Cycling professor 

To Te Brömmelstroet, himself an impassioned cycler, their interest offered the perfect opportunity to study cycling scientifically for once. He then quickly became known as the country's ‘cycling professor’. One of reasons that cycling appears to be so popular in the Netherlands, he discovered, is because of the dense railway network. ‘People have to commute between cities to get to work and tend to ride their bikes after arriving at the station, which means you don't have to rely as much on cars.’ Notably, he has also drawn the tentative conclusion that spatial policy has forced out the so-called ‘meadow shops’ (weidewinkels), i.e. large supermarkets located outside the city, which has greatly encouraged cycling in the Netherlands. ‘Often, our supermarkets are small and dispersed throughout the city, so it's easier to get to them by bicycle than by car.’

Your first date on the back of a bike 

However, there is also a social aspect, i.e. the role bicycles play in Dutch lives. ‘Cycling gives us so much freedom, because we can easily travel relatively far and parking is of little concern (except at the stations, a subject to be revisited in the summer programme). And take your first date, for example. He or she rode on the back of your bike and had to hold on to you, so you had real intimacy straight away. Later on, you rediscover the city with your child, as you ride with him or her on your bike. The pleasure of cycling, and the feeling of belonging play an important part in our cycling culture.’

Eighteen euros for every euro spent 

Cycling also has many economic advantages, says Te Brömmelstroet. ‘Bicycles are a great value. This is also referred to as bikenomics. Every euro invested in cycling yields 18 euros in health-related benefits and other positive effects. Actually, there are very few downsides to cycling. Mostly, it's a joyful phenomenon.’
At the same time, Te Brömmelstroet cautions international students and policymakers to remain realistic. ‘Our cycling culture cannot be transplanted to a random city with one particular formula. Just laying cycling paths won't automatically produce the same effect, not without a complex, time-consuming cultural shift.’

Returning home with even more questions

Instead, he provides the summer school participants, mostly students from North America, Europe, Asia and Australia with a wealth of information on many key aspects. Above all, he hopes they return home ‘having more questions than they started with’. ‘There is so much we don't understand about the subject, so I hope the summer school becomes the impetus for both Dutch and international research agendas.’