In the early 2000’s, the government of Thailand launched the ‘’Global Thai programme’’. This gastrodiplomatic undertaking was meant to increase the global standing of Thailand by opening lots of Thai restaurants. The programme was a collaboration between different ministries and included prefabricated restaurant plans, market research on local tastes and accessible loans for anyone looking to start a restaurant.
The programme was a resounding success. The number of Thai restaurants in the world nearly tripled, and they have become a staple in nearly every major city. The Dutch government should take a similar approach when it comes to promoting Dutch cycling infrastructure around the globe.
Across Europe, the price of energy has recently seen an all-time high. Although the price of oil and gas had been rising steadily since late 2021, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has caused them to spike, leading many governments to enact temporary measures to keep fuel affordable, such as lowering the tax on gasoline. This, however, is a short-sighted measure. It does nothing to end dependence on fossil fuels and only exacerbates the climate crisis.
Rather than symptom fighting, governments should tackle the root of the issue: our society’s addiction to fossil fuels. One of the most direct ways to do this on a personal level is to decrease our reliance on cars. More than 60% of all CO2 emissions caused by transportation in the EU is produced by cars. In comparison, civil aviation’s share of 13.4%. seems modest.
It is clear that lessening our car-dependency has a number of advantages. But how do we get there? The Netherlands could play a vital role in this. About 39% of all trips under 5 km are done by bike in the Netherlands, by far the highest percentage in Europe, a testament to how well-developed Dutch cycling infrastructure is. However, this was not always the case. During the reconstruction of the country after the 2nd World War, many old buildings were destroyed to make way for the then to be believed transportation of the future: the automobile. Rotterdam, which was carpet bombed by the Nazis, and rebuilt post-war, is the best example of this. It is probably the most car-centric city in the country. Had this trend continued, all Dutch cities would have ended up with similar problems as other car-centric cities around the world.
In the 1970’s, things started to change. Firstly, there was a social movement which urged the government to stop the rapid growth of car-centric development, consisting of environmentalists and concerned parents. Under the banner of ‘’Stop de kindermoord’’ (Stop the child murder) they campaigned for safer streets, with more room for pedestrians and cyclists. On top of that came the oil crisis of 1973, which saw the price of oil increase explosively. The current fuel crisis could be a watershed moment for European urban design.
The Netherlands has proven that cities which are designed around being walkable and cyclable are much more pleasant places to live than car centric cities, which tend to be congested, polluted and noisy.
The Netherlands should take advantage of this perfect storm of conditions which make developing cycling infrastructure more attractive than ever. Thanks to decades long restructuring programmes, they have the skills, knowhow and expertise to help other countries develop their infrastructure, while avoiding the mistakes which were made in the past. Even though other countries are arriving late to the party, the Netherlands can help them pick up some dance moves. Similar to the Global Thai programme, the ministries of infrastructure and foreign affairs could team up, and launch a Global Bike Programme, which could assist cities who are looking to improve their cycling infrastructure, by sharing best practises, and sending experts to assess the local situation. If this proves successful enough, embassies and consulates could look into hiring ‘’bike ambassadors’’, permanent representatives of Dutch urban design abroad.
Granted, the Netherlands has some geographic advantages, such as the absence of hills, which is an obstacle mountainous cities will have to figure out themselves (such as in Stuttgart, where an uphill tram has a special bike rack).
The Covid-19 pandemic has already caused cities to rapidly expand their cycling infrastructure. Major cities such as Budapest and Milan have announced they will start massively investing in biking infrastructure. Paris has gone so far as to announce they will ban cars from the city centre by 2024 in an endeavour to make the city '100% Cyclable'.
Public health overall can be improved by better cycling infrastructure as sedentary lifestyles are increasingly linked with a heightened risk of cancer or other diseases, introducing more casual, regular and accessible exercises can help keep people healthy longer.
For years, the Netherlands has been one of the worst performing countries in the EU when to comes to combating climate change, but at the cross-sections of an energy and public health crisis, they have the opportunity to unleash a bike infrastructure offensive which make cities more liveable for everyone. There are already small projects, such as the Dutch Cycling Embassy, and there are local projects by some Dutch embassies, but they lack the scale to properly address the crisis at hand.
Just as the Global Thai programme enriched the global restaurant scene and cemented Thai food as one of the most recognised and well-liked cuisines in the world, a similar ‘Global Bike Programme’ could export best practises from the country with the best cycling infrastructure in the world.
By Floris Cooijmans