A message to my ma and oma

Can you see how our mothers were duped? Car makers told them womens lib meant going to work to buy second cars, to spend whatever time they had left driving kids off to soccer. Genius. Not only did the car makers sell twice the number of cars, but they freed the road of all remaining obstacles, literally and physically, between themselves and their ambition of complete car dependence.

One of the very few places car makers failed was in the Netherlands, largely due to the actions of 1970s mothers. Dutch mums took to the streets, demanding protected cycle tracks to protect children from the growing volumes of cars. Genius! By making the streets safe for children to transport themselves, they did not double traffic, diabetes, their own weariness, emissions, the road toll, or any of those evils our mothers doubled, because our mothers were duped. Duped by cynical advertisers, who distorted the message of second wave feminism.

Forty years on, and look at what has happened to women of my mother’s age in every car nation. The women pictured above, protesting against a protected cycle track in Brooklyn New York, are of the very same generation who won cycle tracks in the Netherlands. Forty years on, and they can’t remember their own kids having bikes, or cycling when they were children themselves. They don’t remember how their fathers and grandfathers commuted. Bicycle transport seems like something from Mars.

The way they protest, you would think the Dutch were exporting their brothels, not their know-how regarding safe streets, where mums and their children can move without relying on cars. I wish I could somehow release these women from the spell they are under. They might take to the street campaigning for cycle tracks, for their own use, their daughters’ and their grandchildrens’.

I wish too that more Dutch people of my age saw their bike network as more than some hand-knitted jumper their mum made, to be kept beneath their more fashionable clothes. In my field, architecture, the Dutch have pushed every boundary in the past 30 years, while letting bike infrastructure go along according to unquestioned norms.

Coming from a country where my non-sportive wife spent the past decade riding 12km to work every day, I can’t believe people in Haarlem take the train in to Amsterdam, when the Netherlands is, quote, a “nation of cyclists”. Why doesn’t the bicycle highway between the two cities have a roof and wind breaks, and why aren’t employers providing secure parking so their employees can travel from further away on valuable bikes?


Instead, the Dutch are bottling up troubles with bike parking at stations, and not capturing the opportunity bicycle transport affords for calorie burning and the building of cardio vascular fitness. Maybe this blog post should be addressed to Dutch women of my mother’s age. They might want to paint some more placards and have one last hurrah. What do you say oma?

(Dutch readers will find more on the topic in this story in Trouw from last Friday).

About Steven

I'm on a mission to put cycling on the agendas of architects, urban designers and fellow academics, who see the potential for bicycles to change cities and buildings. My PhD is in architectural history and my interdisciplinary research spans art theory, philosophy and cultural studies. I teach architectural history and theory and design studio at The University of Tasmania, Australia, and formerly worked as an architect designing large public housing projects in Singapore. My favourite bikes are a titanium racing bike I use for racing, a Velorbis retro commuter for riding to cafes and work, a single speed ultra light Brompton that I take with me when I travel on planes, a 29er hard tail mountain bike that I get lost on in remote places, an old track bike that scares me, a 1984 Colnago Super with all original campagnolo components that is plugged into a virtual realm that I train in, and a Dutch-made Bakfiets, that could easily replace half of the bikes I just mentioned.
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