Technology plays a vital role in today’s society. Materials are used in all kinds of industries, to provide us with food, products and energy

Ruth Oldenziel, employee

How do we allow for bikes in urban planning in the Netherlands? And how has the bike become an essential part of Dutch cultures?

As a historian and an American, I have a broad range of interests. While I was in New York to celebrate 400 years of Dutch-American links, I was invited by the Dutch embassy to take part on an orange Batavus in a ride along the Hudson river. But I wasn’t allowed to take part because I wasn’t wearing a Spandex suit and a helmet, and that strange orange bike only had three gears. This culture shock marked the start of a new research project into the bike as everyday means of transport, and into sustainability. This is one of the many research projects with which I occupy myself. I also looked at how kitchens became a diplomatic offensive between the Americans and the Russians in the 1950s. And at the political battle to make the first waste bin with recycling. I’m always fascinated by how apparently normal objects can contain more hidden stories and political intrigue than you might think at first glance. In other words, what I’m interested in is much more than just the design of material objects.


How normal is the way we use a bike?
The first thing visitors from other countries notice when they visit the Netherlands is the huge numbers of bikes. Here bikes are the most normal things in the world, and people hardly stop to think how the use of bikes has developed.

But international interest in Dutch bikes is growing. Cities from New York to Montevideo want to promote the use of bikes as the ultimate form of sustainable transport. They are highly interested in Dutch experience and expertise in terms of bikes and their use as a means of transport. The bike has a long history as an everyday means of transport, and in the past century the country has developed into the biggest bike user of all western countries.

But in fact we know very little about how that has happened – even though there is now so much international interest in our national means of transport. We are trying through our research to find the answers to questions about how our everyday bike use has come about. How have countries like the USA and Germany lost their pre-eminent positions? What’s the situation in China? How have we taken the bike into account in urban planning in the Netherlands? How have bikes become an essential part of our culture is the Netherlands? And what lessons can we learn from this for a better and more sustainable society, both here and in other countries? These are some of the questions we want to answer in our research into how bikes are used.

The origins of sustainability in the Netherlands
Almost every day we see reports about changes in the climate, the environment and biodiversity, and the huge challenges of making society more sustainable in the futures. But our modern society is a complex whole, and isn’t easy to understand. Technology plays a vital role. Materials are used in all kinds of industries to provide food, products and energy.

To understand the challenges of the future, and to enable us to make the necessary changes, we need to understand how this growth in our needs originated. A historical analysis of the material flows in the Netherlands will enable us to trace the complexity of the present situation, and the origins of our present sustainability drive. 

The historical analysis of material flows can reveal how scarcity and environmental problems were solved in the past, and how new problems arose. It teaches us about the ability and the speed of changes in society, and the role of technology, politics and the economy in this process.