Changes in commuting habits in the Netherlands significantly reduced traffic congestion, despite traffic almost returning to pre-pandemic levels. Bicycles as a commuting method grew more than cars in 2022.
The Netherlands is known to be a cycling country where 85 percent of households own at least one bicycle, helped by adapted road infrastructure with many dedicated cycle lanes for exclusive use by cyclists. But the popularity of cycling has again increased in the country for going to work, even if the car remains the preferred transportation method for Dutch commuters regardless of the commute’s travel distance.
The number of commuter journeys by car, bicycle and public transport increased by more than 7.5 million per week in 2022 compared to 2021, according to the National Traveler Survey published on March 8.
Commissioned by the ministry of Infrastructure and Water management, the National Traveler Survey has been conducted annually with 13,000 respondents since 2019 to gain insights into commuter traffic in the Netherlands.
This increase in commutes in 2022 is due to the end of measures to fight the COVID-19 pandemic and many workers’ return to the office. More than half of the increase in commutes, 4 million out of the 7.5 million more journeys per week, is made by car.
A better distribution of mobility decreased traffic congestion
However, the use of bicycles between 2022 and 2021 grew faster in relative value (+17%) than the number of journeys by car (+14%), indicating that there has been a slight change in the population’s commuting habits. Public transport grew by 30 percent but is compared to a much smaller starting basis and explained by the avoidance of public transportation during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The car remains by far the preferred method of transportation with 65 percent of the journeys from or to work, 23 percent by bicycles and 10 percent by public transport in 2022, a split that was not studied in 2019 to compare with pre-pandemic data.
But the research considers the changes in transport methods significantly reduced road traffic congestion and hours lost in transportation.
The study shows that traffic on highways for commute journeys only decreased by 1 percent in 2022 compared to 2019, making it almost back to pre-pandemic levels in terms of traffic. So, the Dutch are far from abandoning the use of the car.
However, traffic jams on main road networks shrank by 20 percent in the same period. The study considers it is almost entirely due the new ways of commuting adopted by the population. A better distribution of mobility resulted in a decrease between 15 and 20 percent of the lost hours in car commuting, the study excluding other factors such as the use of the car for other motives as having a major impact.
Other than the increased use of bicycles in the population, different commuting habits, for example related to more flexible working hours, also explain the new mobility distribution. Workers have more flexibility in arranging their workweek, although rush hours have remained the same but the study doesn’t explore this point in depth.
As for remote working, people worked from home 1.1 day per week on average in 2022, which is still more widely adopted than before COVID-19 broke out (0.8 day per week in 2019) although lower than in 2021.
These changes in behavior also resulted in a reduction in carbon emissions. According to the survey calculations, carbon emissions of all transport modes combined for commuting decreased by 8 percent in 2022 compared to 2021, saving 0.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. The car fleet became more efficient to some extent (-1.8% of carbon emissions), but the number of kilometers traveled by car is the main reason for the saving (-6.6%).
Convenience and travel time decisive in the choice of commuting method
Carbon emissions from commuters in 2022 amounted to 6.1 MtCO2eq, of which 5.8 Mt was due to cars with single commuters. Shared mobility – be it by bicycle, motorbike or car sharing – has increased slightly from 15 percent in 2021 to 17 percent in 2022, but most people don’t use shared mobility at all. Overall, carbon emissions of transport from individuals remain influenced by journeys different from a commute, such as for recreational or other business purposes.
Convenience, accessibility and travel time play decisive roles in the choice of transport method, according to respondents.
Without concluding on a clear trend, the study noted that the average travel distance between home and work increased in recent years to 22.7 kilometers (14.1 miles) in 2022 (+15% to 2019). And distance is a major factor in the choice of transport method. Four out of ten journeys of up to 7.5 kilometers (4.7 miles) are now completed by bicycle, which is more than in previous years.
The main reason why workers do not cycle to work is that the workplace is too far (41%). As such, greater commute distance could significantly impact, if households relocate farther from their workplaces for instance. In addition, bad weather conditions are decisive for 23% of employees not using their bicycles.
One of the main reasons for new bike commuters is because it is economical transportation. Money-wise considerations, such as if people don’t pay for fuel, have a car or their public transportation pass paid for by the company, strongly influence the commuting method.
And while a closed bicycle shed at work is a strong incentive for using bikes, free parking space available is also an important motive for people to use their cars. This recently penalized the environmental performances of a country like Ireland in a recent evaluation from the OECD.
Fewer traffic jams and carbon emissions, but road safety worsened
The minister for Environment, Vivianne Heijnen from center-right Christian Democratic Appeal, welcomed the report showing that “more and more people are taking the bike to work” but also stressed that “once again, it appears that employers hold the key to making cycling attractive.”
On the other hand, with provincial elections coming in mid-March in the Netherlands, the Mobility Alliance, a lobby group of 26 traffic organizations and transport companies advocating for freedom of movement in the Netherlands, recently published a manifesto asking local officials to invest in better accessibility of public transportation in provinces. The number of bus stops and lines significantly decreased in the last five years, especially in rural areas, the investigative platform Pointer from the Dutch public broadcast KRO-NCRV recently reported.
Commuters using their car explain they can’t use alternatives, such as their journey cannot be made by bicycle, or don’t want to because of convenience, comfort or travel time, for instance.
Comfort, or its lack of it, is the first reason commuters decided to stop cycling between 2021 and 2022. Nevertheless, people who go to work walking or on bicycles are most often satisfied or very satisfied by their transportation method. It is the opposite for people using cars or public transport.
On the downside of the changes, the new traffic conditions have worsened road safety, according to the study. Casualties from road incidents decreased slightly since it most often occurs when motorized vehicles are involved; they go the fastest and are used for the largest travel distances. But the number of serious injuries has grown with the higher use of bicycles.
This seemingly paradoxical consequence already occurred in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite a reduction in traffic and deaths on roads in 2020, the Netherlands recorded its highest number of cycling deaths in 25 years. And the number of fatalities was higher during periods of lower traffic intensity.