Our government could learn a thing or two by going Dutch

Ann Fitzgerald

Ann Fitzgerald

If you see someone wearing a bike helmet in Holland, chances are that it is either a child who has not yet succumbed to peer pressure and 'lost' it, a professional, or, a tourist.

We got to spend a few days in Amsterdam over the mid-term break and I was amazed at the apparently cavalier attitude to bike safety.

There were bikes of every shape and size - we even saw one with a wooden frame - and, presumably because of the flat terrain, the majority are High Nelly in style, and people zoom around sitting bold upright, bodies at a right angle to their lower arm.

There were no helmets or hi-vis jackets, which have become pretty standard fare here. Instead, lots of cyclists were talking on the phone or wired into headphones, or using no hands. As for the transport of kids, some were standing on the back carrier, with just their hands on the cyclist's shoulders.

However, I subsequently discovered research has shown that a good cycling infrastructure, as exists in Holland, is far more important to cyclist safety than things like helmet wearing.

And though Holland - where 17 million people own 18 million bikes and one-quarter of all journeys are by bike - is now the place that every other country looks to in terms of cycling, the development of its 35,000km network of cycle-ways has not been without its problems.

Cycling was popular in Holland from the late 18th century but, from the 1950s on, increased prosperity led to mass motorisation. Coupled with the inadequate separation of bike and vehicular traffic, this led to the death of a horrific number of cyclists, 3,300 in 1971 alone.

Then the 70s oil and economic crises along with severe traffic problems in larger cities saw politicians and regional authorities change their view of cycling and it is now an integral part of transport policies.

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Like Ireland, private land ownership rights dominate in Holland. Unlike Ireland, cycle-paths are considered essential infrastructure.

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