Those struggling to agree on a cycling policy for Sydney should perhaps look to Amsterdam, writes Paola Totaro.
THE Dutch have long been known as a free-wheeling nation, open to foreigners, cool about sex and drugs and wedded to a relaxed and healthy lifestyle.
Now Amsterdam's citizens have managed the unthinkable for a major Western city: they do more two-wheeling than driving, abandoning their cars for bikes.
It may seem a pipedream for car-dominated Sydney, but statistics compiled by the Dutch capital's municipal authority show that in the city centre, 57 per cent of all movement is done by bicycle. Even in new suburbs and on ring roads, close to 40 per cent of all trips are taken on two wheels.
The congestion that paralyses Sydney's centre each day has been relegated to history in the Netherlands capital. Thirty years of strategic spending and pro-bike policies have led to car speeds being lowered to 30km/h, parking spaces removed and replaced with trees and the cost of the remaining street bays set at a prohibitive €5 ($7) an hour.
Every day 350,000 bikes take to Amsterdam's roads. Like a scene from a Dr Seuss book, odd two-wheeled contraptions whizz by, laden with children and shopping. Old people as well as small children cycle and it is not uncommon to see Amsterdammers riding one-handed as they talk on mobile phones or hold an umbrella in pouring rain.
And yet not one of them wears a helmet.
Unlike Sydney, where debate over the efficacy of helmets rages, Dutch authorities believe the best way to encourage safety is to invest in bike-friendly infrastructure and to discourage cars. Pedestrians, bikes and cars are separated, speeds are low and safety is examined at school.
But despite the high ratio of bike use, the country has the lowest accident rate in Europe for cyclists. Seven riders die annually and about 100 are seriously injured.
Ria Hilhorst, the transport policy adviser to the City of Amsterdam, says Dutch people "would not like the feeling" of riding with a helmet.
"We know that if that were imposed on people, they would not ride their bikes,'' she said. ''We believe that the best way to promote safety for cyclists is to build infrastructure to keep them safe.''
Pascal van den Noort, the executive director of Velo Mondial, a Dutch sustainable mobility organisation , says cycling is a part of Dutch culture.
"It is a daily means of transport: work, school, shopping, leisure,'' van den Noort said.
"Ninety per cent of Amsterdam's roads and streets are bicycle-friendly routes. There are 400 kilometres of bike lanes separated from other traffic. The goals are to keep the city accessible, healthy, safe and liveable. Cycling improves the quality of life and road safety."
The city's cycling infrastructure is impressive: the cycle-and-pedestrian Nescio Bridge, which spans the busy Rijn Canal, is the country's longest and links the residents of the IJburg district, a newly built eastern suburb, with the ''mainland''. Cyclists can also use a ferry between Central Station and the north of the city free of charge and there are 230,000 unguarded bike parking spots and 13,000 with security in the city. All are strategically placed and feed into public transport, creating park-and-ride hubs.
Hilhorst said the first time bike use exceeded cars - but only just - was in late 2008. This achievement, one they plan to exceed, took almost 30 years of strategic policy decisions - many of them initially politically unpopular - as well as continuing investment.
"Over the past 20 years, we removed a lot of parking spaces for cars, planting trees to stop parking, [putting] poles and other things in the way. We raised the cost of parking," she said.
"We have invested money in public transport, in creating safe parking for bicycles around stations and all over the city."
The sheer volume of bikes is striking. The city of 757,000 people is home to 550,000 cycles - more than twice the number of private cars (218,000). The city is also physically perfect for bikes, with flat topography, relatively short distances and streets very narrow for cars.
The downside is that the city is also the European capital for bike theft and about 10 per cent of all bikes go missing each year. Police now have their own cycle beats, a city inspector has been appointed to monitor the trade in second-hand bikes and track illegal sales, and free engraving is available.