Get On Your Bike To Save Money On Gas—And How Dutch Cycleways Were Paid For With…Gas

Cycle activists in Oslo, Norway, have erected a banner in a supermarket gas station pointing out that cycling runs on cornflakes. The banner—erected next to the column with exorbitant fuel prices—features a bicycle icon next to “00.00.”

“Free fuel for cyclists today,” tweeted @Sykkelmafiaen

“No, wait, it always is,” snarked the activist.

If you drive a gasoline-powered car you won’t need reminding that the costs of motoring are currently rising; rising thanks, in part, to global oil shocks caused by President Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

To save on gas there are calls from across the northern hemisphere for 1970s-style speed limits to be introduced. Such reductions lasted in the US and the U.K. for some years following the OPEC oil crisis of 1973; motorists in Britain were even issued with fuel ration books.

The potential fragility of mass motorization was brought vividly to life for Dutch people in this period because the Arab oil embargo affected the Netherlands far more than any other European country. The Netherlands was targeted thanks to its being home to the oil company Royal Dutch Shell.

Faced with dwindling oil supplies, the Dutch national government decided that the best way for the nation to conserve fuel would be to limit Sunday driving. All of the country’s 3 million motorists were instructed to stay at home on Sundays, with the only exceptions being diplomats and 16,000 motorists belonging to “essential professionals,” such as doctors.

To promote a travel mode that didn’t require oil, Prime Minister den Uyl rode his bicycle through the grounds of his official residence in front of news cameras. The first no-drive Sunday was held on 4 November, 1973.

Cities went quiet; people held picnics on motorways. The no-drive days were later halted, but people had magically done without their cars for whole days without ill effects, and they had enjoyed riding their bicycles, too.

During the oil crisis, sales of bicycles doubled.

The following year a new lobby group was formed to rid Amsterdam of cars. “Amsterdam Autovrij”—Car-Free Amsterdam—staged a mass bike ride in May 1974, and 1,000 riders turned up. The following month 2,000 turned up. In October 1974, a “die-in” was held, with a minute of silence to honor killed cyclists and pedestrians.

Three thousand riders turned up at the event in 1975; it attracted 4,000 in 1976. On 5 June, 1977, 9,000 Amsterdammers staged a “die-in” in front of the Rijksmuseum, the national museum.

Fifteen thousand riders took part in the 1978 event. Four days afterwards, members of the newly elected city council said they believed the city’s Traffic Circulation Plan majored too much on private motoring, and in November 1978 a new plan was adopted—this called for the reduction of motor traffic, and car parking spaces in the city center, with more space given over to cyclists.

“In the coming years,” the revised plan stated, “the policy must strongly focus on improving conditions for cyclists.”

A variety of earlier protest groups had played a part in creating a culture of street-level awareness for everyday cycling. This–slowly–changed minds and influenced policies. From the mid-1970s, more investment was made in cycling infrastructure across much of the Netherlands, with federal policies put in place that entitled municipalities to receive payment for 80% of the costs of new cycling infrastructure.

But where did the Dutch get the cash to expand the nation’s cycleway network? From Groningen, that’s where. Or, more specifically, from underneath the region surrounding the city of Groningen.

A mammoth reserve of inland natural gas was discovered close to the city in 1959. The Groningen gas field turned out to be the largest natural gas field in Europe. Its discovery was a boon for both the Dutch government and Dutch citizens.

After it came on stream in 1963, Groningen’s gas paid for a great deal, including the famous social welfare policies of the Netherlands. The national potverteren—or treat-like “spending pot”—also helped pay for much of the other immense infrastructure projects of the period, such as the Delta Plan’s flood defenses, and the expansion of the country’s motorway and cycleway networks.

With gas revenues—and the influx of overseas investment cash—Dutch people became richer, and bought more cars, but they also bought more bicycles. In 1960, 527,000 bicycles were bought in the Netherlands; by 1972, that had doubled to 1,086,000.

Today, Groningen has one of the highest cycling modal-shares in the country: up to 60% of journeys in the city are cycled. Journeys that don’t cost a cent in gas.