A number of action groups, consisting of both local cycling activists and national environmental action groups, came together in 1975 to create the Cyclists’ Union as a national platform.Footnote 25 This national platform stimulated the exchange of best practices and tried to coordinate actions, but the dominant organizational model was that of local branches advocating for improved cycling conditions in a specific city or region. The most active members of the Cyclists’ Union tended to be young (in their twenties or thirties), university-educated, and with left-leaning political sympathies. For instance, the founding members of Dooievaar were young architecture students: Eisse Kalk had studied human geography and political science, Marten Bierman of De Lastige Amsterdammer was an architecture student, another key figure in that action group was the sociologist Henk Bakker. Many of the members engaged with new ideas about politics and city planning.
This is in line with what political scientist Hanspeter Kriesi has concluded about New Social Movements in the 1980s in general: their support was broad, but the active core was constituted by more radical and progressive members of the middle class (Kriesi 1989: 1102). Support for action groups like the Cyclists’ Union or Stop de Kindermoord was large, and while the core of the active membership might have belonged to a specific demographic, the support for traffic safety and cycling was much more widespread. As an illustration, the 55-year-old businessman F.H. Markerink volunteered in 1975 to organize a Cyclists’ Union branch around Enschede. His only daughter had been killed in a car accident and, although he did not want the Cyclists’ Union to become “too political,” he also thought the existing Cycling Safety interest group VVN (Veilig Verkeer Nederland) to be too cautious in its lobbying activity for traffic safety.Footnote 26 For action groups to be successful, it is important that they can credibly claim to be the true representative of the people whose interests they defend. In the case of the Cyclists’ Union, the many groups that constituted it, the founding of numerous local branches, as well as the decade of cycling-related activism made this claim plausible to a broad public.
The main claim of the Cyclists’ Union was that the Dutch government was negligent in protecting “weaker” participants in traffic and “captive” cyclists against the hostile environment of car-centric cities. In a programmatic text from 1978, the Cyclists’ Union described themselves as “the catalyst for people who think traffic and the living environment should be more geared to the weakest groups in society.”Footnote 27 The group wanted to stand up for what they called the “traffic poor,” stating that “it is no accident that the weakest in society are also ‘captive cyclists’ [gedwongen fietsers] and therefore also the weakest in traffic.”Footnote 28 Schoolchildren, housewives, those who could not afford a car, or did not drive for other reasons, were all listed as groups that had to use the bicycle. At least some Dutch politicians agreed with this analysis. Social Democrat MP Jaap van der Doef saw the same “immobility” and “modern pauperization” caused by a society which one-sidedly provided access for car drivers, thus excluding all groups who could not (afford to) drive (Smaal 2012: 245). In Germany, the Allgemeine Deutsche Fahrrad-Club (ADFC, founded in 1979) similarly argued that cyclists were particularly vulnerable in traffic (Engler 2020: 359–60; Levels 2020).
Like Dooievaar and other bicycle advocates, the Cyclists’ Union used demonstrations to gain attention for its claims and put cycling back on the political agenda. In the early 1970s, activists in countries like the USA, UK, and France, organized bicycle processions to protest against the car (Furness 2010: 60–63). In the build-up to the official foundation of the Cyclists’ Union in October 1975, a series of mass demonstrations in big cities took place. Under the header “Amsterdam Autovrij” (Amsterdam Car-Free) three protest rides were first organized in 1974, drawing increasingly large crowds (Feddes & De Lange 2019: 78–80). Famously, in June 1977, during the “Wereldfietsdag” (World Bicycle Day), protesters lay down on the Museumplein portraying traffic victims. Over time this type of activism diminished somewhat, but still in 1982, the Amsterdam branch of the Cyclists’ Union organized a protest against the proposed closure of a cycling path on a bridge. Protest culture around the bicycle has declined ever since, in sharp contrast to other countries, such as the USA, where Critical Mass emerged in 1992 (Furness 2010: 78–107). This divergence can be attributed to the fact that cycling activists in countries like the Netherlands or Denmark, where cycling already had a place in mobility and politics, quickly gained attention for their problems. Protest, primarily meant to garner public support and pressure politicians, was no longer a necessary action strategy. In contrast, in more car-friendly countries with less of a cycling culture, protest remained often the only viable means of cycling activism (Furness 2010). In the Netherlands or Denmark, activists started to write alternative plans for cyclists that ended up forming input for policymaking. Martin Emanuel has shown how the Danish Cyclist Federation (DCF) developed a bicycle plan for Copenhagen. While not officially adopted, he writes that “planners did use the proposal as a blueprint to develop the bicycle network in Copenhagen in the following years.” (Emanuel 2019: 512). These different cycling activist cultures reflect both different cycling cultures and political traditions.
The main goal of Dutch cycling activists became the production of bottom up, user-generated knowledge to compensate for the knowledge gap that existed among urban planners regarding cycling. Once protest activities had succeeded in convincing government of the urgency of the problem, a dialogue between activists and government was established. The second step in the Cyclists’ Union action repertoire was to address the knowledge gap engineers had regarding cycling. Data about cyclists and their travel behavior and preferences was much scarcer than that about drivers. To the extent that they existed, government reports on cycling gave no insight into (subjective) dimensions of safety, comfort, route choice, and so on. The engineer P.B. van Gurp, director of the National Traffic Academy in Tilburg, drew attention to this in 1977 during a congress on cycling facilities. He noted that the interest in cycling was visible in the increasing stream of cycling memoranda (local) authorities published, but also concluded that: “A good picture of the most important cycling flows [fietsstromen] and bottlenecks is usually missing.” (Van Gurp 1978: 18). In addition, “there is insufficient understanding of the traffic safety problems which cyclists experience and undergo.” (Ibid.) It was exactly this knowledge gap which the Cyclists’ Union set out to address.
The Cyclists’ Union’s activism was based on the belief that the true experts on cycling were cyclists themselves. In cycling through urban streets every day, cyclists developed qualitative, experiential knowledge about the entire cycling experience, ranging from the safety of the route to the quality of the road surface and the parking facilities at public institutions. A true pro-cycling policy should be based on this type of knowledge, and not, or not exclusively, on quantitative traffic counts and studies of traffic flows. By virtue of its membership basis, consisting of ordinary cyclists, the Cyclists’ Union could provide this type of knowledge to local policymakers and secure its place in the policy coalition. In a guideline to the bottleneck approach, the Cyclists’ Union emphasized the danger of a quantitative approach. It was impossible to “objectively” state how much motorized traffic was acceptable on a road that cyclists also used. The dangerous appearance of objectivity that numbers provided could easily replace the lived experience of everyday cyclists, warned the Cyclists’ Union:
Numbers cannot lie, but liars can play with numbers! Do not let yourself be tempted into a quantitative approach in your confrontation with the government. It is of much greater importance to make clear that when it comes to cycling there is only one expert: i.e., the cyclist himself/herself. The cyclists themselves know best which situations are dangerous, which shorter connections are needed, which barriers need to be removed […] Where the government is doomed to fail given its technocratic approach, the Cyclists’ Union can be strong.Footnote 29
It was therefore a central conviction of the Cyclists’ Union that making cycling policy without talking to cyclists themselves was ineffective and would not address the central concerns of cyclists. This was also why, for instance, some branches of the Cyclists’ Union queried their local councilmembers about their own preferred mode of transport. The Cyclists’ Union found it highly problematic if urban policymakers did not cycle because “only cyclists themselves know the problems of cycling through the city.”Footnote 30
The process of acquiring legitimacy as a governance partner by gaining credibility as lay experts is, in an international perspective, not unique to the Dutch case (cf. Epstein 1995: 417–49). In his dissertation on the transnational circulation of French cycling activism, the French political scientist Maxime Huré discusses action groups’ self-legitimization in depth. He concludes that the role of user associations is important in the production of local expertise for municipal politics. (Huré 2013: 117) Huré’s focus is on the adaptation of expertise from countries with high cycling levels, like the Netherlands, to local circumstances in Belgium or France (Huré 2013: 158–59). What distinguishes the role of expertise as an action form in the Dutch context is that it is truly user-generated. This is due to the fact that the Dutch organizations operated in a context in which sizeable portions of the population still cycled. As a result, the type of knowledge these organizations created was not so much technical knowledge about how to construct cycling infrastructure or how to manage cycling governance. This knowledge was already largely available within Dutch government circles, where the construction of cycling infrastructure had continued without interruption from the 1920s, albeit with ebbs and flows. Instead, the Cyclists’ Union focused collecting and advocating for knowledge about the routes everyday cyclists took, the obstacles they faced on their journeys, and the bottlenecks that had to be prioritized as a result. In other words, the more advanced state of Dutch cycling was mirrored in the expertise they produced. Nevertheless, what unites the French action groups Huré studied with those across Europe is that the quest for legitimacy and recognition from policymakers in order to gain access to decision-making processes. In both French and Dutch cases, being seen as knowledgeable actors—acquiring “epistemic credentials”—is essential to their success (Stone 2012).
A few months before the founding of the Cyclists’ Union, in March 1975, activists already asserted that ideally local cyclists should come together to design the main cycling routes through their cities.Footnote 31 In the second half of the 1970s, this is exactly what happened in many Dutch cities. The Cyclists’ Union branches often worked with what they called a “bottleneck memorandum” (knelpuntennota), quite literally mapping the greatest problems for cyclists in the city in detail. These were not so much concerned with congestion, as the word might suggest, but with any experience of cycling that was in some way compromised or constrained by road or traffic conditions which made cycling dangerous, unpleasant, or slower than it needed to be. The activists used this approach in many cities. One specific example is the town of Amersfoort, near Utrecht.Footnote 32 The action began with the founding of a new group, which announced its presence by formulating a general critique of the city’s traffic policy in 1975. However, since this critique “was not very elaborate, we never heard anything.”Footnote 33 Shortly thereafter, some council members demanded a cycling policy document from the city government which the local engineers duly produced. The Cyclists’ Union Amersfoort objected to this memorandum on the grounds that it was “seen and written from behind a car window.”Footnote 34 In other words, and as discussed above, the perspective of cyclists on the traffic problems of the city were absent from this policy document. As it lacked input from cycling experience and did not account for data on cycling, the document did not satisfy cyclists’ concerns.
To formulate a better counterproposal, the activists handed out 3,000 questionnaires to cyclists in the city. The questionnaire was also printed in the free local paper and distributed at high schools.Footnote 35 This resulted in 300 responses. The questionnaire asked cyclists to describe points where they felt unsafe, where road surfacing was poor, where waiting times at junctions and traffic lights were long, and so on. Meanwhile, the group also managed to convince the city council to postpone official discussion of the city’s memorandum so that the Cyclists’ Union could finish their proposal and deliver input for the final policymaking phase. Using the detailed input from the questionnaires, the activists used maps of the city to indicate which streets were unsafe and which crossings had to be redesigned in favor of cyclists, among other issues. They also devised an ideal cycling path network through the city. The report on the Amersfoort plan in the Cyclists’ Union internal magazine De Ketting (The Chain) included detailed instructions on how to compile, duplicate and distribute the memoranda, including the costs of this process.Footnote 36 The Amersfoort branch stressed two points: First, good contacts with council members were indispensable. Without these connections, the activists would not have known what went on behind the scenes and they could not have delayed decision-making to allow for consideration of own memorandum. Secondly, they noted that their earlier attempt with a general critique of policy had been a failure, but the more concrete counterproposals of the second memorandum had been more effective.
The bottleneck memorandum was a popular means of addressing the problems of everyday cyclists. At the national meeting of the Cyclists’ Union on May 1, 1976, at least eleven local branches were in the process of compiling one: Amsterdam, Arnhem, Amersfoort, Delft, Enschede, Haarlem, ’s-Hertogenbosch, The Hague, Maastricht, Rotterdam and Utrecht.Footnote 37 Within two years of its foundation, the Cyclists’ Union had widely adopted this effective method. As the Helmond branch noted in the mid-1970s: the questionnaires on bottlenecks that it collected were sent on directly to the municipality, “which usually then takes action.” They recommended this “simple but effective method” for Cyclists’ Union branches “which have good contact with the municipality.”Footnote 38 To help those local branches, a guideline for constructing bottleneck memoranda was written around the same time. Apart from reflections on the past experiences of a number of branches, the guideline reflected more generally on the goal of this form of action. The text noted that the various branches of the Cyclists’ Union generated many proposals for cycling paths and other facilities but “lacked the data to elaborate these proposals, or provide proof for them.”Footnote 39 The local Cyclists’ Union branch had to list all dangerous situations, barriers, missing links, and other deficiencies in the local cycling situation “in order to indicate where and how the government has to provide facilities for cyclists.”Footnote 40 From the beginning, the Cyclists’ Union saw itself as fulfilling an important role in cycling governance, namely by providing local authorities with the knowledge needed to make better cycling policy.
That the Cyclists’ Union saw knowledge production as one of its key responsibilities can also be seen in their unsuccessful request to the national government for subsidy. This attempt, in 1979, though indicative of the Cyclists’ Union more conciliatory stance towards the government, was in no way unique: government subsidy for action groups was a common phenomenon in the Netherlands (Koopmans & Duyvendak 1992; Koopmans 1992). Nonetheless, the justification the group provided is illuminating. With only six (part-time) paid employees, the Cyclists’ Union considered its central office understaffed. This meant that “the ENFB [Enige Echte Nederlandse Fietsersbond = Cyclists’ Union] is not sufficiently able to fulfill a part of the tasks” they aspired to.Footnote 41 The activities they listed were:
systematically processing relevant literature, orientation in activities and research of many organizations and institutions in the field of transport, translating for our purposes memoranda and research from among others the national government, reacting to national developments, setting up our own research, stimulating research in other organizations, attract interns and formulating study assignments.Footnote 42
Developing all these knowledge-focused initiatives was necessary “for a mature functioning of our organization and for our role in the entire decision-making.”Footnote 43 It is noteworthy that the Cyclists’ Union in this letter implies that power its ability to participate in the Dutch decision-making process was dependent on the knowledge they could bring to the table; thus the more playful happenings and protests of the early and mid-1970s were no longer held to be necessary or effective. In this development towards a more expertise-based type of activism, which consisted of producing reports and discussing them with governmental actors behind closed doors, the Cyclists’ Union quickly started to resemble the tourist organization ANWB in certain respects. Both organizations represented cyclists at different points in time, and both of them relied on expertise. Ebert (2010) has argued that in the Interbellum, the ANWB was much more powerful as a cycling advocate in the Netherlands than the bicycle clubs in Germany, which were divided along regional and class lines. Failing to form a unified front, these clubs could not claim to represent cyclists as a whole, something the ANWB could do and which helped it gain power. In the 1970s, if we extend her argument, one might expect that the existence of two, now rivalling organizations, might reduce the chances of success of the Cyclists’ Union. However, by 1970 the ANWB’s cycling advocacy had become a distant afterthought as the organization catered much more to drivers—the exact reason the Cyclists’ Union was founded.
In the final analysis, we need to distinguish between the everyday cyclists who may or (more likely) may not have been members of the Cyclists’ Union, and the leading figures within these action groups. The cyclists formed the true lay experts, while the activist leaders, who also cycled themselves and thus had this lay expertise as well, additionally possessed an intermediate level of expertise. None of them were trained traffic engineers, although some had training in architecture and urban planning (Dooievaar). Most leading figures, while academically trained, had backgrounds in the social sciences or humanities. This enabled them to write memoranda and policy documents in a style and jargon that might appeal to policymakers. It also meant that some of the activist leaders had a good personal relation, due to similar background and age, as some of the younger civil servants in local and national traffic departments. All this may explain why the Dutch activists were so successful, which is the topic of the final section of this paper.