How the Dutch do it: fewer train stations with bike-centric catchments.

Marco te Brömmelstroet  (Urban Cycling Institute / University of Amsterdam, etc. etc.) was in Sydney recently, as the drawcard speaker for an evening of talks called How the Dutch Do It.  I know what you’re thinking, that being told “How the Dutch do it” with cycling, makes you feel like a poor African kid being told how the first world runs its schools. Worse still is being told how the Dutch did it, by all these dudes who were babies during that country’s 1970s protests. Our generation, wherever we are, have done nothing compared to our hell-raising parents, all wanting a bit of this biff:

So yes, I’ll admit, there’s a sanctimoniousness and disingenuousness about the Dutch bicycling story as we have heard it preached on occasion and dropping a gravelly G (as in Gggrroanigan or Gggrrezella)  in a bike planning forum can be like dropping a fart. I would encourage you though to think of the Dutch and their cycling advice as you might think of the French and their philosophy. As much as your pride says, “knock them down a peg,” you only hurt yourself when you do, and maybe all you need are some humble translations.

With magnanimity befitting his station Marco sent me his presentation for my humbling translation into terms the free-reading swine of bicycledom may understand. Shall we?

greater-amsterdam sydney

With the above overlay Marco showed that Sydney is the same size as Amsterdam. By “Amsterdam” we’re referring to a daily commuting zone. Think of it this way: Mum, Dad and 2 kids can live anywhere there and have their choice of jobs, ballet classes, tattooists, or whatever the hell attracts them to live in a city rather than a small tropical island.  (In actual fact they have access to half of the country but let’s stay with the focus of Marco’s talk, which was Greater Amsterdam).

So what makes greater Sydney (and hundreds of cities just like it) a car-centric beast and greater Amsterdam a city that’s defined by train and bike transport? If you say hills, I’ll summons your grand daddy from the grave to give you a whipping for every time he rode up a hill on his fixed gear without a word of complaint. Then Marco would call in some Dutch kids to whoop your arse for every headwind they’ve battled to school.

The difference is that, in Amsterdam, if a patch of land isn’t within a few kilometres of train line, it will not be subdivided for housing. All the unserviced space is still farmland. I mean, just look at that green!


The municipalities of Sydney have permitted suburban land subdivisions to occur anywhere. As long as there’s a strip of asphalt, come on in suburban developers and knock yourselves out.


What that does in effect is create a lot of the black space you see in the next map. In Amsterdam that would be green space and occupied by a hand full of people. In Sydney it’s where you find the working poor who battle to get anywhere by the only means available to them, their cars. In the process they fuck the whole system. It would be nice if they just kept their cars in the black but they drive near the train stations making it impossible to get to the darned things via any means other than walking.


A station people can only arrive at by foot can serve an area of around 1 square kilometre—a 500m walk from any direction. So by rights every 5km by 5km swathe of Sydney should have 25 stations, one for each square kilometre.


We go five times faster by bike with no extra effort (15km/ph as opposed to 3km/ph), so can travel 2.5km to a station in the same time it would take us to walk 500m. Suddenly you get a situation where just one station can serve an area that would need 25 stations if everyone was on Shanks’ Pony. That doesn’t mean you have 25 times as many people lining up to get onto each train. It means running trains 25 times as frequently—hypothetically—cutting wait time from everyones trip time. More time is saved by the train stopping five times less often. Get it? I’m not explaining it twice. More frequent trains with less stopping and a 5-fold widening of the catchment zone along the train line. Where can I buy some!


Like most metropolitan rail networks Sydney’s was modelled on London’s from the second half of the 1800s—before anyone could have properly thought about cycling. Sydney’s, like London’s, has stations every kilometre, each to pick up another handful of people from a small walkable radius. Start/stop, start/stop… a trip takes forever.

In the late 1800s the Dutch were building rail lines with a different brief.  The goal was to connect many cities, not expand one. So where our trains hop between garden suburbs, theirs sprint between cities.

1932-2 railwaysnetherlands1880-2

Having fewer stations has sharpened their minds about cars. Australian town planners can wank on all they like about cars providing an essential amenity and contributing to the messy vitality of urban life, but every car within a 3km radius of a train station is stopping people getting to that station by the most beneficial means to the collective, which is cycling. You need Manhattan or Parisian densities (>50K per sq/km and no daylight) before you can talk about similar numbers of people reaching a station by foot. You can try getting people to the station by car, but Dr. Who’s Tardis couldn’t cope with the parking. You can bring them by bus or tram, but those have to stop every 200m—how boring! Nothing beats bringing people to trains on their bikes.

If you’re itching to hear that the Dutch aren’t so clever and only ambled arse backwards into a genius system of transport with lessons for all the world’s cities, here’s your moment. Until recently they never really thought through the implications of having thousands of people arrive by bike every day at their stations. So people were doing weird things like leaving beater bikes somewhere in Amsterdam, even if they lived in Eindhoven, so they would have a bike to use when they went there. Plus parking your bike near your home station could be a nightmare. In just the last few years NS (their rail authority) introduced the OV-fiets system to give you a bike for around AUD$5 when you arrive at your destination, and are building secure bike parking at the city you left.

Amsterdam Centraal will be the biggest and last of the big regional stations to get a fast-in/fast-out secure bike parking station for thousands upon thousands of bikes. It’s like the car parking problem, but possible, where parking that many cars at a station is not. Marco made the point in his talk that the success of the bike/train system is inducing further demand, giving people an appetite for travelling all over the country each day. That’s great for the economy, but will require more bike sharing (perhaps peer-to-peer) to stop stations needing space for hundreds of thousands of bikes. But compared to feeding America oil, it’s a very small problem.

The system is efficient, but if it only served the 2 million people of greater Amsterdam (population 2 million) you might say, ha, Sydney has 5 million. But the system actually connects the 7 million people of the Randstad conurbation comprising Amsterdam, Utrecht, The Hague, Rotterdam and all the smaller centres between.

Here’s what Sydney would need to do to import it.

  1.  shut down 4 out of 5 stations along all its train lines, and upgrade the 5th ones with tonnes of efficient and secure bike parking.
  2. give driving short shrift within the 25 square kilometre catchments of each of those stations. That means traffic calming, 30km/ph limits, the removal of mid block car parking, the removal of parking in general, millions of bollards, bike-first roundabouts, protected bike lanes, etc etc..
  3. encourage dense 100% affordable housing developments within those 25km/square catchments, so any poor folk still left out of the catchment areas (despite them now being five times as large) have somewhere to move to when their house price plummets after driving as an option has been totally screwed.

You could say thinking like this is too radical, but Sydney is radically broken. The last time I heard Marco speak (he was my warm-up act, if I recall) it was to a much bigger group of people. The audience included penniless students and people who had come for the evening from all over the Netherlands. That was at the Pakhuis de Zwijger in Amsterdam. Dave from, showed a map after Marco’s talk in Sydney of the areas in that city you would need to be living in to have gotten to the venue that night in 30 minutes. They’re the areas where apartments are worth over a million. The poor weren’t invited.


That night it was a talk. The next day it might have been a retailer’s sale. The next night it might have been somebody’s gig. It might be a specialised university program trying to attract students. It might be your office needing qualified staff. But without transport for 80% of the city, the whole place might as well be broken up and put onto islands. It is using the creative potential of one million people and using the other 4 million as cleaners. Now you could say that is roughly the same split that worked for ancient Rome—1 patrician for every 4 plebeians and slaves—but at least there the haves and have nots lived cheek by jowl. Sydney can’t even make use of its poor.

We have a lot of smart people in Australia, about the same per capita as the Netherlands. The difference between us stems from the fact that people learn about cities from the cities they live in. Dutch planners, architects, transport planners, etc., have smarter teachers. When I talk to an average disinterested built environment professional in the Netherlands I always think, hooray, this person is making sense. Ideas like pulling cycling to back streets and away from arterials (decoupling), and giving cyclists the grid, not just a route, come from their mouths like telling the time. Meanwhile my many brushes with Australia’s top brass in the field have left me shaking my head in disbelief. The former are B-grade students of intelligent cities. The later are duxes of dumb ones.

It would be better to be dull yet live in a city that is intelligent in the way it’s laid out. At least you would have a dim understanding of something worth knowing. My greetings to school teachers in Holland and Manhattan. You may be C level students but your learning comes from A level cities—next time someone accuses you of just thinking you’re smart because you hang around kids, tell them you might not be Australia’s chief planner but you’re not learning off a cornflakes pack either.

Marco te Brömmelstroet  (Urban Cycling Institute / University of Amsterdam, etc. etc.) is an A-level student of an A-level city—not even the Dean of the Harvard GSD can say that! Marco cracks his nut daily over the role cycling plays in greater Amsterdam (2million peeps) and talks on occasion about the region of Randstad (7million people). However you group them the urban regions that include Amsterdam function as unified and economically powerful units connecting large populations. Doing that with fewer cars is good for the planet, of course, but the real fruits are these: innovation capital status; high happiness rankings (those always dominated by bicycling cities); the joy of not owning a car for 75% of all people; and fast commutes for the whole population, not just the rich NIMBY’s who hog the prime spots.