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Is cycling so successful in Amsterdam because it’s as flat as a pancake?

By Alan Davies - posted Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Infrastructure is often cited as the explanation for Amsterdam's astonishingly high bicycle use. And so it is, but what gets overlooked is topography. Hilly cities can't do as well

I was in Amsterdam for six days last month. This is the city where cycling averages a phenomenal 38% mode share across all trip purposes.

It's good to be reminded of what can potentially be achieved and to try and figure out how they did it. So I took a (completely unscientific) straw poll of ordinary Amsterdammers, asking them why they thought cycling levels are so high in their city.


They gave reasons like the high standard of cycling infrastructure, the high cost of driving, the relatively short cycling distances, and the long tradition of cycling in the Netherlands.

All eminently plausible reasons. But they also prefaced their explanations with words to the effect "of course it's flat" as if it were so obviously the most important explanation it didn't need further elaboration.

Flatness doesn't usually get much emphasis – and in many cases doesn't even get mentioned – in discussions about the potential of cycling as a mode of transport in car-oriented cities like Australia's.

It's clearly not a sufficient condition for high levels of cycling; plenty of cities with relatively flat topography nevertheless have levels of cycling an order of magnitude below Amsterdam's. There's obviously more to it.

But is it a necessary condition for the extraordinarily high mode shares seen in places like the Netherlands? Unfortunately, I haven't seen any data that isolates the effect of topography.

This writer says it's a myth cycling can't do well in cities with hills. He reckons even San Francisco isn't a problem:


I rolled up and down the hills of San Francisco on a one-speed Biomega, together with friends on upright bikes. I was unimpressed. And I'm just a normal schmuck in normal clothes, not some Captain Spandex MAMIL.

Seriously? I lived in downtown San Francisco when I was a student; those hills are bloody steep (c.f. Bullitt). Stick to the water's edge and it's flat but those hills are daunting for anyone other than sport cyclists.

There's a sound argument that cycling can nevertheless still grow in hilly places if the right policy choices – like improved infrastructure – are made, but winning a really high mode share in such locations seems unlikely.

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This article was first published on The Urbanist.

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About the Author

Dr Alan Davies is a principal of Melbourne-based economic and planning consultancy, Pollard Davies Pty Ltd ( and is the editor of the The Urbanist blog.

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