Roman Mars [00:00:01] This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars. In the early 1970s, when Maartje van Putten was 21 years old, she lived in an apartment with her young kid in the middle of Amsterdam. It was right on a busy road and there was always a lot of traffic.
Maartje van Putten [00:00:18] I remember there was a nearby school, and you could see before 9:00–before the school start–children on their bikes crossing that road to go to school on the other side of the busy road.
Roman Mars [00:00:31] Maartje worried about the kids on their bikes.
Maartje van Putten [00:00:33] Once in a while there were accidents.
Roman Mars [00:00:35] And one day she heard a collision out on the street.
Maartje van Putten [00:00:37] Some people were screaming, and other cars had to stop, and you could hear their alarms and things. So, then you run to the window, and you see what’s happening.
Roman Mars [00:00:47] A girl, about eight years old, had been trying to cross the street and got hit by a car.
Maartje van Putten [00:00:52] She was luckily not so seriously hit that she had to be transferred to a hospital. But she was hit, and the bike was broken. And there was at that time, an old lady–someone as I am now–an old lady with an umbrella like Mary Poppins sort of type.
Roman Mars [00:01:12] Maartje watched as the Mary Poppins lady approached the driver of the car. She took the point of her umbrella and she poked it right into his stomach.
Maartje van Putten [00:01:20] And she was screaming at him. And I was standing at the window, and I could see what was happening. That kind of thing, you know, you don’t forget.
Delaney Hall [00:01:32] In the early 1970s, this kind of collision was all too common.
Roman Mars [00:01:37] Producer Delaney Hall.
Delaney Hall [00:01:39] There were more cars on the Dutch roads than ever before. And the roads were getting more dangerous. Growing numbers of pedestrians, bicyclists, and drivers were dying in wrecks. People like the Mary Poppins woman, Maartje, and many, many others were getting fed up.
Maartje van Putten [00:01:55] That was exactly the feeling we had. Something went wrong over time. We said, “What did we do over the years? And why is it that the car is always number one?”
Delaney Hall [00:02:08] I have never actually been to the Netherlands, but this story doesn’t fit with my impression of the country. It was surprising to me to hear that cars were ever number one in a city like Amsterdam.
Roman Mars [00:02:21] Today, the Netherlands has a reputation as a kind of bicycling paradise. Dutch people today own more bicycles per capita than any other place in the world. The country has more than 20,000 miles of dedicated cycling paths. International policymakers make pilgrimages to the Netherlands to learn how to create good bike infrastructure.
Delaney Hall [00:02:40] But none of that was inevitable. It wasn’t something that magically emerged from Dutch culture. In the 1960s and ’70s, back when Maartje was a young mom, it looked like the Netherlands would follow the same path as the United States. The Dutch had fallen in love with cars, and they were rebuilding their cities to make room for them. Bicycles were fading away.
Roman Mars [00:03:05] But then in one of the great comeback stories of our time, bikes fought their way back.
Delaney Hall [00:03:11] And one of the reasons why was Maartje.
Roman Mars [00:03:15] The Netherlands is an amazing place to ride a bike. The country is as flat as a pancake, and temperatures are mild for a good part of the year. So, when bicycles first started getting popular in Europe in the 1920s, they really took off in the Netherlands, launching the country’s first golden age of cycling.
Ruth Oldenziel [00:03:34] We have images of that–of the 1920s and ’30s–people enjoying the city. We have moving images of these cyclists going back and forth over the tram tracks and really being playful and enjoying the city.
Delaney Hall [00:03:49] This is Ruth Oldenziel, a historian who studied cycling in the Netherlands. And she says that in the 1920s and ’30s, bicycles became the main form of transport for many Dutch people. Some cities even started building bike paths.
Roman Mars [00:04:06] The popularity of cycling dipped briefly during World War II, but then continued its climb into the 1950s. And because streets were relatively safe during these decades, kids got used to a surprising degree of freedom.
Maartje van Putten [00:04:18] We were always outside. And we played in the streets.
Delaney Hall [00:04:23] When Maartje was a girl, she and her friends learned to ride bikes as soon as they possibly could. By four or five years old, they were riding independently through their neighborhoods.
Maartje van Putten [00:04:33] Streets were our territory.
Delaney Hall [00:04:36] They’d zoom around on bikes and gather at the one house in the neighborhood that had a television. It was the first TV Maartje had ever seen. The kids would just toss their bikes in the yard and go inside to watch kids shows and eat cookies.
Maartje van Putten [00:04:50] Neighborhoods where kids grow up without traffic–kids learn to know each other, they meet each other, and you do it.
Roman Mars [00:05:02] But in the 1950s and ’60s, things started to change. There was a new wave of urban planners on the rise, and they saw bikes as a relic of the past. World War II was over. Europe was rebuilding. People were buying lots of cars. And Dutch cities with their narrow cobblestone streets would need to be totally redesigned to make way for the vehicle of the future.
Ruth Oldenziel [00:05:26] We have a lot of historic cities, Amsterdam being one, and, of course, a city in order to accommodate cars–you had to destruct a lot of neighborhoods. And so, there were these ridiculous modernist plans to basically erase historic neighborhoods to make space for cars.
Delaney Hall [00:05:48] There were a number of plans proposed in the 1950s and ’60s. In one case, the Dutch car lobby hired an American traffic engineer by the name of David Jokinen. He was supposed to come in and revolutionize The Hague and Amsterdam.
Roman Mars [00:06:04] In Amsterdam, Jokinen wanted to demolish a number of the city’s working-class neighborhoods. He also wanted to fill in one of the city’s iconic canals with concrete in order to build a six-lane highway into the city center. Jokinen assumed that, just like in the U.S., most people would want to live in the suburbs and drive to work.
Delaney Hall [00:06:23] Many people were not into this plan. They didn’t want to see the old city torn down and transformed into a landscape of concrete tower blocks and mega freeways.
Ruth Oldenziel [00:06:35] He became the perfect enemy of the local movement. You know, he was this brash, stupid American who was ignorant about local situations.
Roman Mars [00:06:46] To his opponents, Jokinen was like this cartoonish supervillain city planner, and he helped unite a misfit coalition of groups who rallied together to fight against his modernist schemes. These very different groups would ultimately help launch the cycling revolution in the Netherlands.
Delaney Hall [00:07:04] First, there were the local elites, who had deep roots in Amsterdam. Like the NIMBY preservationists of today, this group of old money Amsterdammers loved the historic character of the city, and for many decades, since the country had begun to industrialize, they’d been advocating to protect historic neighborhoods and buildings.
Ruth Oldenziel [00:07:25] They were really proud of their city. They were organizing. They were supporting preservation of the city. Old stuff.
Roman Mars [00:07:35] Alongside the preservationists, a number of more radical movements began to take shape, including a group of anarchists called “Provo.” They declared their opposition to, quote, “capitalism, communism, fascism, bureaucracy, militarism, professionalism, dogmatism, and authoritarianism.” To give you a sense of their vibe, they once published instructions for how to make a bomb out of a pineapple.
Delaney Hall [00:07:59] The Provos were not fans of the new wave of modernist planners. They didn’t want their cities becoming car-centric machines. One of them denounced traffic as a pagan God that the Dutch sacrificed multiple people a day to. At first, the Provos were mostly protesting in the streets. But as they got more popular, they moved into politics, even winning a number of seats on the Amsterdam City Council.
Roman Mars [00:08:24] There, they proposed a number of policies to rid the city center of cars, including what was one of the first bicycle sharing programs in the world–the White Bicycles.
Marco te Brömmelstroet [00:08:34] And the white bicycle was simply a Dutch, rickety, upright bicycle–one gear–nothing special.
Delaney Hall [00:08:41] This is Marco te Brömmelstroet, a professor at the University of Amsterdam and a co-founder of the Urban Cycling Institute. And what he describes is pretty different from your average corporate Citi Bike program of today.
Marco te Brömmelstroet [00:08:54] By painting it white, people could offer their bike to the community. And those bikes would not be locked; they would be free floating through the city. And basically, everybody could join.
Delaney Hall [00:09:06] For the Provos, the bicycle became not just a practical transportation device, but an important symbol. If the car represented speed and capitalism, then the bike represented the opposite–something slow and humble.
Ruth Oldenziel [00:09:22] The Provos said, “The bicycle is nothing.” “De fiets is niets.” It rhymes. And what they were playing on was this notion of the bicycle being very vulnerable.
Marco te Brömmelstroet [00:09:37] The symbol of the bike really was about a whole new way of organizing society. And it was picked up especially by artists.
Delaney Hall [00:09:47] One of the most visible examples of this was in 1969, when John Lennon and Yoko Ono spent their honeymoon in Amsterdam. This was their famous Bed-in for Peace.
Yoko Ono [00:09:58] Revolution through violence.
John Lennon [00:10:00] I don’t believe in that.
Yoko Ono [00:10:01] We don’t believe in that…
Delaney Hall [00:10:02] Where they lay around in a bed for a week and had lots of iconic photographs taken. In those photos, you can see John and Yoko in bed, in their white bathrobes, with a white dove and a bird cage sitting nearby, and in front of them… a white bicycle.
Reporter [00:10:18] Why did you choose Amsterdam to stay seven days in?
John Lennon [00:10:20] Because it’s one of those involved in the youth center with the Provos and the White Bicycles. The details, we don’t know–we just pick up the vibrations, you know?
Delaney Hall [00:10:33] The Provos eventually inspired other groups, like the Troublesome Amsterdammers and the Kabouters, who created something called “The Car Elimination Service.” They would ride their bikes through the city, blocking traffic and reclaiming the streets for bicycles.
Roman Mars [00:10:50] But even though the preservationists and the anarchists were a formidable alliance in the war on cars, in the big picture, the automobile was still winning. Between 1960 and 1970, the number of cars in the country quadrupled and the rates of bicycling plummeted. Traffic casualties were way, way up.
Delaney Hall [00:11:09] By the early ’70s, over 3,000 people were dying in traffic collisions every year in the Netherlands. Hundreds of those people were kids, and even more of them were getting injured. The kind of collision that Maartje witnessed from her apartment window had become commonplace.
Roman Mars [00:11:28] This was true all over the world as cars became more popular. And in many places, like the U.S., people learned to just tolerate this new baseline of traffic-related injuries and deaths. But that didn’t happen in the Netherlands. The Dutch decided that losing that many children to cars was a price they were unwilling to pay.
Delaney Hall [00:11:51] The catalyzing event happened in October 1971, when a six-year-old girl named Simone Langenhoff was cycling to school near the city of Eindhoven, about an hour and a half south of Amsterdam. A driver speeding around the bend in the road hit and killed her. Her father was a prominent journalist named Vic Langenhoff. Here he is in a documentary from the ’90s.
Vic Langenhoff [00:12:29] At first you are so broken that you can’t really think of what you would do about it. That only came after a year.
Delaney Hall [00:12:38] A year later, one of Vic’s other kids was struck by a car, and thankfully they weren’t seriously harmed. But when Vic was approached by a group of Eindhoven parents who’d been campaigning for safer routes to school, he decided to write an article about his experience. It ran on the front page of the newspaper he worked for.
Roman Mars [00:12:59] He wrote that society cared more about advertising products to kids than protecting their actual health and safety. He said that children had to navigate unsafe roads because there was no business interest pushing to make the roads better. “Is there no pressure group?” he wrote. “Then let’s make one.”
Delaney Hall [00:13:17] A stark headline ran at the top of the article: “Stop de Kindermoord.” “Stop the Child Murder.”
Maartje van Putten [00:13:25] That article on the front page–the whole page–with thick letters.
Delaney Hall [00:13:30] Here’s Maartje van Putten again. She still remembers seeing Vic’s story in the newspaper when she was a young mother living in Amsterdam in that apartment on the busy road.
Maartje van Putten [00:13:40] I think he was confronting the readers with this sort of language, as “This is what we do with our children. How crazy are we?” Angry–he was angry. And people reading it got angry, too if you realized what was happening. So, it was an alarm bell.
Vic Langenhoff [00:14:04] Well, that story–it hit like a bomb. I then received so many responses from all over the country from parents whose children had also had accidents or near accidents.
Maartje van Putten [00:14:16] And I was one of those that called him. Can we help? Can we do something?
Roman Mars [00:14:23] Not long after he published the article, Vic traveled to Amsterdam. He met with Maartje and a number of other parents, and they decided to organize a protest using tactics similar to the Provos and the Kabouters. This time, instead of rowdy anarchists, it was a bunch of parents and kids.
Delaney Hall [00:14:39] They decided to stage their first action on the exact street where Maartje had witnessed the Mary Poppins woman chastising a driver for nearly killing a kid.
Maartje van Putten [00:14:50] This big street in front of my house where those accidents were sometimes happening–we said, “We have to block it during rush hour.” Shall I show you the picture?
Delaney Hall [00:15:04] The day of the protest, they showed up and went out into the street. They made a big circle, holding hands. In the picture, it looks like they’re skipping or dancing.
Maartje van Putten [00:15:16] It’s mostly women. A few children. You see here? I’m the one in the middle here. This is me. And I think we were… I’m not sure if we were singing, but very friendly. And the police let us do it. They let us do it. That was also the mood. The society understood what we were doing.
Delaney Hall [00:15:37] That image ended up on the front page of the main newspaper in Amsterdam the next day. And quickly the movement began to grow. They took their name from the headline on Vic’s article.
Roman Mars [00:15:55] Maartje and her group in Amsterdam received some funding and rented an office. Other groups of parents sprang up in other parts of the country. They all operated independently, but they kept in touch with each other and shared ideas about how to generate attention. Vic Langenhoff again.
Vic Langenhoff [00:16:15] Yeah, every time another kid got hit by a car, we were on top of it right away to offer some comfort, but above all, to immediately identify what caused it. What is the situation like in that town or province? And then immediately another action would happen, and people became active on the spot as supporters. That worked like a snowball.
Roman Mars [00:16:47] Vic eventually left the movement. He was busy with parenting and writing, but he encouraged Stop de Kindermoord to keep going. And Maartje became the organization’s first chair.
Delaney Hall [00:16:58] Like all good protest movements, Stop de Kindermoord was good at highlighting the madness of the status quo. The parents involved would show up at protests carrying images hand-drawn by their kids, showing scenes of traffic violence.
Roman Mars [00:17:11] And while the group was asking for something pretty basic–for kids to be able to move freely and safely through their cities–they were still trying to upend the dominance of the car. And they sometimes faced opposition.
Delaney Hall [00:17:28] In the Amsterdam neighborhood of De Pijp, a group of parents and children wanted to close the street to cars so that kids there would have a place to play.
Roman Mars [00:17:36] In a documentary made in 1972, you can see people dragging a barricade into the street to block cars. And then a driver getting out and angrily dragging it away. Then two adults shoving each other in the street.
Delaney Hall [00:18:00] Maartje says that this kind of thing happened a lot.
Maartje van Putten [00:18:04] You saw aggressive reactions of the drivers of cars, maybe on the way to work, opening the window, screaming to us, “Go away! What are you doing here?”
Delaney Hall [00:18:16] But she says that just as often, people walking by would stop and help the protesters.
Maartje van Putten [00:18:22] They were really going to the windows of those cars and screaming back, saying, “Could be your kid tomorrow!” And it created really big discussions. And we had this all over the place, not only in Amsterdam but also in other cities.
Delaney Hall [00:18:38] One thing that struck me, as I interviewed old activists and watched protest footage, is how unexpectedly joyful a lot of it seemed. I mean, the group was serious, obviously. They called themselves Stop the Child Murder. But they also managed to make their work seem fun. For instance, they inspired Dimitri van Toren, a famous Dutch musician at the time, to write a song for the movement. It got a lot of airtime on Dutch radio stations.
Roman Mars [00:19:19] And the group staged a bicycle ride from the center of Amsterdam to the Prime Minister’s house in the outskirts of the city.
Delaney Hall [00:19:25] One of them had a street organ on wheels.
Maartje van Putten [00:19:28] In the Netherlands, you have those organs on wheels. And having the music in the street so people came out of the houses. “What’s happening here?” Some also took their bikes and joined us.
Delaney Hall [00:19:46] When they arrived, the Prime Minister greeted them in the front yard, served the kids cookies, and invited them to come to his office later. Maartje says they eventually spoke for a couple of hours about traffic safety. By this time, partly thanks to the protests, it was becoming clear to the Dutch government that there were real drawbacks to fully embracing the car, not just in terms of casualties but also the huge expense of building roads.
Roman Mars [00:20:14] In 1972, a Dutch research group released a study predicting it would cost billions of dollars to build out the infrastructure required for cars. The study’s political effect was huge. Pretty much everyone agreed that building that many roads wasn’t feasible and they needed to look for alternatives in the form of bikes and public transit.
Delaney Hall [00:20:34] And then, a turn of geopolitical events helped the whole country see what life could be like with fewer cars.
Roman Mars [00:20:42] In late 1973, the oil crisis hit the Netherlands. The Dutch government wanted people to use less gas, and so they created a series of Car Free Sundays, where they banned the use of private vehicles.
Delaney Hall [00:20:54] There are incredible pictures from that time of kids riding their bikes down empty freeways or people having picnics in the middle of wide roads with live flute accompaniment. Bus and train use soared. Maartje still remembers how different Amsterdam smelled on those days.
Maartje van Putten [00:21:14] It must have been a much more healthy air because the cars in those days had still lead in their petrol. I remember one was when it was snowing. In those days we still had real snow. Kids were out on the streets in the snow, making snowballs, you know, with carrots as a nose–in the middle of streets! It was great.
Roman Mars [00:21:38] The Car Free Sundays gave everyone a chance to experience street life in a new way. Bicycle shops sold out of bikes as people rushed to buy them again. And all this momentum helped set the stage for the next phase of the Dutch cycling revolution.
Delaney Hall [00:21:52] For a long time in the Netherlands, the conversation around pedestrian and bike safety had focused on the behavior of pedestrians and cyclists. The emphasis was on making sure you use the correct hand signals and understood traffic laws. Maartje says that one of the country’s main traffic safety groups took that approach. They were called Safe Traffic Netherlands in English.
Maartje van Putten [00:22:15] That group was focusing always on–especially for children–behavior. Put them in a yellow coat, all the drivers will see them. You know, this sharp, yellow, plastic coat.
Delaney Hall [00:22:31] But for anyone who spent even an afternoon with a young child, the limits of the behavioral approach are pretty obvious. When it comes to impulse control, an excited kid ranks just below a dog that has seen a squirrel. And if you’re the adult responsible for their safety and there are two-ton hunks of metal hurtling by, it makes you stressed. Maartje says she used to drill her kids.
Maartje van Putten [00:22:58] “Just cross the road, looking to the left, looking to the right.” You train them.
Delaney Hall [00:23:02] And while putting a yellow coat on your kid and teaching them to look both ways is, of course, not a bad idea, it was also clear to Maartje that the educational approach wasn’t nearly enough. And more than that, it was asking the wrong people–parents and little kids–to solve the problem.
Maartje van Putten [00:23:20] If you focus only on that, you don’t discuss how is the road constructed, where is the space for the bikers, and how is the behavior of small children taken into the design of a road.
Delaney Hall [00:23:36] Instead of trying to change how people acted, they needed to build something different.
Roman Mars [00:23:44] By the mid1970s, the Netherlands had taken steps towards making the country’s roads more friendly to cyclists. Some communities started charging steep prices for parking in their central districts, or they just banned cars from those areas outright. And others had started building special residential neighborhoods called “Woonerfs,” which means “living street.” Those areas required cars to move slowly, at the speed of pedestrians and cyclists.
Delaney Hall [00:24:09] There were also some intriguing experiments with bike paths happening in places like The Hague, Tilburg, and Delft. But still, for many cycling activists, it felt like the change was too slow and too piecemeal.
Tom Godefrooij [00:24:26] Well, you can change the world if you want to. And we have found out that that’s not always true, but to a certain point, you can–if the time is right.
Delaney Hall [00:24:35] This is Tom Godefrooij.
Tom Godefrooij [00:24:37] I’m a Dutch guy.
Delaney Hall [00:24:39] A Dutch guy who studied architecture and was an early member of what’s now known as the Fietsersbond.
Tom Godefrooij [00:24:46] The Dutch Cyclists’ Union.
Roman Mars [00:24:47] The Dutch Cyclist’s Union was established in 1975. And if Stop de Kindermoord helped put traffic safety on the national agenda, it was the Cyclist’s Union that really pushed for the creation of better cycling infrastructure, street by street, town by town.
Delaney Hall [00:25:04] Members of the Cyclist’s Union sometimes took street design into their own hands. As an example, Tom told me about a number of one-way streets in the middle of Den Bosch, the town where he lived. The one-way streets were fine for cars, but they made it so that cyclists had to make long detours to get where they wanted to go.
Roman Mars [00:25:24] Cyclists in the city decided they wanted a designated contraflow lane that would allow them to ride in the opposite direction of traffic. They talked with the city. Nothing happened.
Tom Godefrooij [00:25:34] So at a certain point we said, “We have to do something about it.”
Delaney Hall [00:25:38] In the middle of the night, a group of ten or 12 cyclists went out to the street themselves and started carefully painting a bike lane by hand.
Tom Godefrooij [00:25:47] And we were nearly finished. The police arrived and they said, “What are you doing, boys?” And we said, “Well, we are doing some work for the municipality.” We had to do still four meters. They let us finish the job, and then they took us to the police office and said we should never do that again.
Delaney Hall [00:26:06] Tom still cracks himself up thinking about this whole escapade and how they taunted the city about it.
Tom Godefrooij [00:26:13] Oh, we also sent them a bill for doing the work. And then they said, “Yeah, we were planning to do it. Now we have to do it again.” And then we said, “Well, you can use ours. That’s no problem.”
Roman Mars [00:26:26] As the 1970s gave way to the 1980s, the Cyclist’s Union moved from this kind of direct action into something a lot more mundane but arguably more influential: Data gathering.
Delaney Hall [00:26:38] The Union had realized that city planners didn’t have the kind of information they needed to make the best decisions about cycling infrastructure. And so, they set out to survey their members in meticulous detail about all the problems they faced when biking.
Tom Godefrooij [00:26:54] Too narrow road space available for cycling. Traffic lights which were not adjusted to the needs of cyclists. Different crossings of roads, which are very dangerous. High speeds.
Delaney Hall [00:27:06] Eventually, the Union developed a lot of expertise on what kind of road design was best for cyclists. And they eventually assembled a design manual with guidelines. It was written in a style that would be familiar to traffic engineers.
Tom Godefrooij [00:27:21] And then we went to the Ministry of Transport and said, “Well, we have made this, and we think that this should deserve further development.” And it took some years, but they said, “That is a very good idea.” They took over the responsibility of the project.
Roman Mars [00:27:37] The first official government version was published in 1993. It codified all kinds of things that cycling activists had been advocating for nearly 30 years.
Delaney Hall [00:27:46] And I just want to pause here to contemplate what an amazing feat this was. It was ordinary cyclists, organized by the Union, that helped to write the Bible for bike-friendly road design in the Netherlands. It’s the same manual–with some updates–that’s in use across the country today and that people from all over the world hope to emulate.
Roman Mars [00:28:09] “The effectiveness of the cycling movement in the Netherlands was a sort of perfect storm of historical factors,” says historian Ruth Oldenziel.
Ruth Oldenziel [00:28:18] There’s not one thing that’s sort of the silver bullet. You know, if you have a compact city, you have cycling? No. Or if you have a great social movement, you have cycling? No. Where you have cycling paths you get cycling? No. So it has to come together. But what’s unique in the Netherlands is this high rate of cycling, the memory that people had, they knew what they were defending. And it was threatened.
Roman Mars [00:28:47] In the Netherlands, you had the historic preservationists fighting against the destruction of old cities, then the anarchists imbuing the bicycle with symbolic meaning and political importance, then Stop de Kindermoord making traffic safety a moral issue for the entire country, and then the Cyclist’s Union becoming engineering nerds and actually changing infrastructure across the country.
Delaney Hall [00:29:09] It’s an incredible sequence of events, which also makes it hard to duplicate. But at least in the Netherlands, the results have been dramatic. By many measures, it is now the cycling capital of the world.
Roman Mars [00:29:22] But there have been tradeoffs. The cycling movement was so successful that in many ways it disappeared into the government bureaucracy. Activists from the Cyclist’s Union moved into jobs within the Ministry of Transport.
Delaney Hall [00:29:35] And Stop de Kindermoord eventually merged with Safe Traffic Netherlands, the group that was all about getting your kid in a yellow jacket. The merger caused much bitterness for the remaining members of the group, who felt like their activist edge was being dulled.
Roman Mars [00:29:51] The result is there’s no longer much of a cycling movement in the Netherlands trying to push things further still. And so, the numbers have remained stubbornly fixed over the past two decades. Today, 27% of trips in the Netherlands are made by bike.
Marco te Brömmelstroet [00:30:05] Which is very impressive.
Delaney Hall [00:30:07] Here’s Marco te Brömmelstroet again.
Marco te Brömmelstroet [00:30:09] But it’s also very stable. Already for 20, 25 years, this number is 27%, which means that 73% of all trips to the Netherlands are not done by bicycle. And that is something that we now almost have to accept. We lost the activist’s voice. That’s something that we lost.
Delaney Hall [00:30:28] For Marco, it feels like the Netherlands had a shot at building a real utopia. The cycling movement had a chance to kick cars out of the city entirely and to make streets public space again. But instead, they settled for coexistence. The country now has excellent transit infrastructure across the board for buses, trains, bikes, and cars.
Marco te Brömmelstroet [00:30:52] But that was not why John Lennon was in bed with a bicycle. That was not why the counter movement came with the white bicycle in the ’70s. And this is something that I feel that we have lost. And this is something where I keep fighting to bring back.
Delaney Hall [00:31:06] It’s amazing to me that even in the Netherlands, there are people who think the country hasn’t gone far enough. Marco says the vanguard of the cycling movement is in other places now, where they’re pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in ways that he can’t imagine the Netherlands doing anymore.
Roman Mars [00:31:24] There’s Barcelona with its super blocks that emphasize walkability and green spaces–and Paris with its mayor who won reelection by promising to create a city where everything you need is within a 15-minute walk. They’re also in the process of closing the streets around schools to cars entirely.
Delaney Hall [00:31:43] To be honest, while I get that the Netherlands has lost some of its utopian momentum, it still looks like a utopia from where I sit. I ride my bike a fair amount in the town where I live, and I ride with my kids. Every time I do, I feel a little nervous and like maybe I shouldn’t–like maybe it’s even irresponsible, given the lack of bike lanes and the fact that drivers here just don’t have much awareness about bikes. And I mean, sure, I wouldn’t mind being at the cutting edge in a place like Barcelona or Paris. But I’d also take what Amsterdam or any city in the Netherlands has any day of the week. My oldest kid learned to ride a bike this past fall. At our local park, she kicked off on her pink two-wheeler and cruised down the sidewalk before wobbling to a stop.
Delaney Hall (field tape) [00:32:35] You were doing it!
Delaney Hall [00:32:39] She was grinning–so proud to be moving on her own. And I was so proud to see her do it.
Delaney Hall (field tape) [00:32:45] Oh, that was awesome. Way to go, kid! That was awesome!
Delaney Hall [00:32:52] And of course, I felt just a tinge of fear, too, which I hate. It’s the kind of thing that makes you want to call up some friends, maybe sit in the middle of a road, make some makeshift speed bumps, or put in a bike lane under the cover of night.
Roman Mars [00:33:13] Coming up after the break, the bicycle related grudge between the Dutch and the Germans that’s been going on for almost 80 years. As a business-to-business marketer, your needs are unique. B2B buying cycles are long, and your customers face incredibly complex decisions. Isn’t it time you had a marketing platform built specifically for you? LinkedIn Ads empowers marketers with solutions for you and your customers. LinkedIn Ads allows you to build the right relationships, drive results, and reach your customers in a respectful environment. You have direct access to and build relationships with decision makers. 875 million members, 180 million senior level executives, and 10 million C-level executives. You’ll be able to drive results with targeting and measurement tools built specifically for B2B. Make B2B marketing everything it can be and get $100 credit on your next campaign. Go to linkedin.com/invisible to claim your credit. That’s linkedin.com/invisible. Terms and conditions apply. We are back with senior editor Delaney Hall to talk even more about cycling history in the Netherlands.
Delaney Hall [00:34:32] Yes, that’s right. More bike history! Yeah. I mean, I wanted to include just a little bit more because in the story, we skipped right over the 1940s and World War II. But there’s actually some kind of fascinating stuff from that era that I wanted to tell you about.
Roman Mars [00:34:50] I can see why you cut it out because–the listeners, aren’t privy to this–there’s almost a point in every single story where World War II is a part of the story, almost to the point where it becomes like a cliché.
Delaney Hall [00:35:04] Yeah, where we’re all slightly sick of it?
Roman Mars [00:35:04] Exactly. Exactly.
Delaney Hall [00:35:08] I know. I know. But this is actually an especially good World War II tangent, so…
Roman Mars [00:35:14] Okay, well, then I will allow it.
Delaney Hall [00:35:16] Okay, so by the time World War II rolled around in the Netherlands, Dutch cyclists, especially in Amsterdam, had developed something of a reputation for being rule breakers. They were known for just blowing through stop signs, riding slowly down the middle of the road, and annoying cars–stuff like that. They were sort of like a 1940s version of Critical Mass–kind of anarchic in their style. And apparently when the Nazis invaded the Netherlands in 1940, they were pretty taken aback by this behavior.
Pete Jordan [00:35:54] When the Nazis arrived, they were quite shocked and pissed.
Delaney Hall [00:35:59] So this is Pete Jordan. He’s an American who’s lived in Amsterdam for a couple of decades. And he wrote a book about the history of Amsterdam cycling called In the City of Bikes.
Pete Jordan [00:36:11] Here they were. They just conquered the country, and they expected to be respected. And yet the cyclists repeatedly ignored numerous rules that were implemented by the Nazis.
Delaney Hall [00:36:21] Even to the point where, Pete argues, one of the biggest forms of ordinary everyday resistance to the Nazi occupiers was the cyclists themselves, who were not going to change their ways just because the Germans were there.
Roman Mars [00:36:35] Wow, that’s so amazing.
Delaney Hall [00:36:36] Yeah. And the clashes between the Nazis and the Dutch cyclists only escalated. What happened was that in 1942, the Nazis first banned Jewish people from owning, renting, or borrowing bikes. And they required people to actually turn their bikes in. And then not long after that, it became clear that the Nazis had plans to confiscate bikes more widely. And when the word leaked out about it, it led to this mad scramble.
Pete Jordan [00:37:08] Thousands of people rushing to get their bicycles off the streets, hiding them in their apartments, hiding them in their attics. I found stories of people burying them in their backyards, trying to do anything to keep the bikes–of course, for themselves, but also not to fall into enemy hands.
Delaney Hall [00:37:26] And in the end, the Nazis were still able to get their hands on a lot of bikes, which they used for their own transportation. But they also melted them down and recycled the metal. Or in some cases they even used parts of them as ironwork–kind of like makeshift rebar when they were building bunkers.
Roman Mars [00:37:48] Wow. That is fascinating.
Delaney Hall [00:37:50] Yeah. So, when the war ended, the scale of Nazi theft was finally fully understood and quantified. And it turned out that over the course of their five-year occupation, they stole everything from factory machinery, hospital equipment, to library books, museum artifacts, and, of course, vehicles as well. So, the Nazis stole thousands of cars and trucks and millions of bikes. The Dutch Central Statistics Bureau estimated that there were 4 million bikes in the Netherlands before the war, and afterwards only 2 million of them remained.
Roman Mars [00:38:32] Wow. That is a lot of bicycles stolen by the Nazis.
Delaney Hall [00:38:35] I know. And it also shows you sort of the scale of bicycle use at the time. They could steal half of them and there would still be millions left
Roman Mars [00:38:45] Stolen bicycles left. Yeah, exactly.
Delaney Hall [00:38:47] And apparently, this bike theft proved to be an especially sore point with the Dutch. Pete says that starting in the 1950s, when German tourists would show up in the Netherlands…
Pete Jordan [00:39:01] And try to order a beer in a cafe or something, they would hear this reply: “Eerst mijn fiets terug.” “First, give me back my bicycle, and then I’ll serve you a beer.”
Delaney Hall [00:39:13] So the phrase is “Eerst mijn fiets terug,” and it means, “First return my bike.” And this really became a thing that Dutch people would say to German people over multiple generations.
Roman Mars [00:39:31] I’m so charmed by this. Okay, so this is something that still comes up to this day?
Delaney Hall [00:39:36] Well, Pete said it’s faded somewhat in the present day, but for a number of decades it was really a thing. And there are so many good examples in Pete’s book that might give you a sense of how it kind of built up over time. For example, he described how in 1965, the Crown Princess of the Netherlands got engaged to a German, and the two of them went on a tour of Amsterdam. It was like their way of introducing the new fiancé to the capital city. And apparently a couple of Amsterdammers, who were Jewish, made a banner that said, “Return my bike,” that they tried to send into the sky with 20 helium balloons. That did not work. Instead, they hung it from a bridge. And I don’t think that the princess or her fiancé actually saw it. But the point was very clear. It was like, “We don’t like this German dude. Give us our bikes back.” Then it seems like one of the ways the phrase got more popular is that in the 1970s, the phrase was adopted by Dutch soccer fans. So, for example, during the 1974 World Cup, the Netherlands ended up playing West Germany in the final, and fans in the stands held banners that said, “First return my bike.”
Roman Mars [00:41:04] Wow. They are persistent.
Delaney Hall [00:41:05] Yeah, they’re very persistent. And it seems like the use of the phrase continued at least into the ’80s or ’90s. Pete told me about the example of a friend of his who moved from Germany to Amsterdam in the ’80s. He worked as a music teacher in the primary schools, and apparently when kids heard his accent, they would regularly ask him to give their bikes back or to give their father or grandfather’s bike back. And the interesting thing is these kids were, at that point, very far removed in time and sometimes even geography from the wartime bicycle thefts.
Pete Jordan [00:41:45] And some of these children were so young. Of course, they were born long after the war. Their parents probably weren’t even born during the war. And many of these children had immigrant backgrounds. Yet somehow, they even knew to say that to a German–a native German person.
Roman Mars [00:42:03] And am I getting the right impression that this is kind of a bit–that this is an ongoing joke that they’re using, you know, this obviously really dark part of their history to kind of make some light of it?
Delaney Hall [00:42:18] Yeah. I actually asked Pete about this because I wanted to make sure I was understanding the context of it. And in his book, he acknowledges that this was a really complicated time in Dutch history. He talks about the ways that the cyclists resisted, for example. But there was also a lot of collaboration that happened between Dutch officials and the Nazis. And so, the first “my bike back” phrase grew out of that complicated history and the country’s genuinely dark and horrific experience of the war. But Pete said that his perception is that as time has passed, the phrase has become something more like a running joke–a dark running joke–in a lot of ways.
Roman Mars [00:43:06] Yeah. Well, this is so fascinating. I’m so glad I know about “Give us back our bikes first.” This is such a good part of the story. Thank you so much, Delaney. Appreciate it.
Delaney Hall [00:43:15] Well, thank you, Roman.
Roman Mars [00:43:20] 99% Invisible was produced this week by Delaney Hall, with research and production assistance from Lotte van Gaalen. Lotte also did her damndest to help us with the pronunciation of Dutch names and words. Any mistakes are purely our own. The story was edited by Emmett Fitzgerald. Original music by Swan Real. Sound mix by Martín Gonzalez. Fact-checking by Graham Hacia. Kurt Kohlstedt is our digital director. The rest of the team includes Chris Berube, Christopher Johnson, Jayson De Leon, Vivian Le, Jeyca Maldonado Medina, Kelly Prime, Joe Rosenberg, Sofia Klatzker, and me, Roman Mars. The 99% Invisible logo was created by Stefan Lawrence. Special thanks this week to OVT and VPRO Radio for allowing us to use excerpts of their interview with Vic Langenhoff and to Chris Bajema, who provided voiceover for Vic’s tape. Extra special thanks to Henk-Jan Dekker whose book, Cycling Pathways, really helped us understand the cycling movement in the Netherlands but whose interview didn’t make it into the episode. For anyone who wants a deep dive into this history, Henk-Jan’s book is excellent and very comprehensive. Finally, thanks to Stephen Schepel and Maarten Mansen. 99% Invisible is part of Stitcher and SiriusXM, now headquartered six blocks north in the Pandora Building… in beautiful… uptown… Oakland, California. You can find the show and join discussions about the show on Facebook. You can tweet me @romanmars and the show @99piorg. We’re on Instagram, Reddit, and TikTok too. You can find links to other Stitcher shows I love as well as every past episode of 99PI at 99pi.org.