Active Mobility: Why the Netherlands Excels

We are not fit.

This is because modern, urban lifestyles have banished physical activities out of our everyday life, which poses a great threat to human health.

Many public transport systems worldwide are built to do the bare minimum — to get people to work and take them back home in the evenings.

When sustainability is mentioned, active mobility should be in the conversation as well.

The sad news is that active mobility is not practised enough in many jurisdictions lacking the requisite infrastructure to service this form of movement.

Active mobility is defined as the transportation of passengers or goods using non-motorized means.

Public transport is always a learning process; hence we must look at the Netherlands to understand why the country is the world leader in active travel.

A research report authored by Eliott Fishman, Lars Bocker, and Marco Helbich titled Adult Active Transport in the Netherlands: An Analysis of Its Contribution to Physical Activity Requirements is our goldmine in this instance.

The paper notes that the European country is big on active travel, particularly cycling, but observes that not much research has gone into quantifying the wholesale amount of physical activity through everyday walking and cycling.

Relying on data gathered as part of the Dutch National Travel Survey (2010 – 2012), the paper investigates the degree to which Dutch cycling and walking contribute to meeting the minimum level of physical activity — 150 minutes of mild intensity aerobic activity throughout one week.

The investigation found out that

  • Dutchmen and women complete 24 and 28 minutes of daily physical activity via walking and cycling, 41% and 55% above the normal recommended level.
  • 57% of the entire sample did not record any cycling or walking.
  • Active transport corresponded with age, urban density, income, bicycle ownership and air temperature.
  • Car ownership, on the other hand, had a significant negative relationship with physical active travel.

The major takeaway from the report is that active mobility plays a major role in combating sedentary lifestyle diseases.

Infographic for Active Transport in The Netherlands. {Image Source: Iunera}
Infographic for Active Transport in The Netherlands. {Image Source: Iunera}

The Dutch experience provides other countries with a highly relevant case study in the creation of environments and cultures that support healthy, active living.


Pressure to Improve Public Transport

Now that we have learned what the Netherlands is doing right as far as public transport is concerned, other research reports give more insight into the country’s public transport.

A study dubbed DataDriven Improvements in Public Transport: The Dutch Example authored by Niels van Oort, Daniel Sparing, Ties Brands, and Rob M.P Goverde observes that due to budget constraints, political considerations, and fierce competition, there is growing pressure on public transport authorities to improve efficiency.

It is thus of utter importance to them to be able to identify bottlenecks, inefficiencies, and potentials in their public transport service.


The paper singles out recorded operational data as a viable tool to help operators and authorities to improve consistently.

An Overview of Dutch Public Transport

What is public transport in the Netherlands like?

A report published by the Dutch Ministry of Transport, Public Works and Water Management titled Public Transport in the Netherlands helps us get a birdseye view of shared mobility in the country.

As per the report;

  • 4.5 million trips are made every day in the Netherlands via bus, metro and tram, while 1 million are made by train and at least 14.5 million via bicycle.
  • The average distance of travel in the Netherlands is marginally below the European average.
  • In urban areas, public transport accounts for as much as 40% to 50% of journeys which is more than half the journeys in Amsterdam made by public transport or bicycle. It is important to note that the distance covered by trains in Netherlands is above the European average.
  • The report observes the explanation for this is that a large section of the population lives in urban areas and the train has the upper hand as a means of transport over (medium) long-distance trips between cities.

Different Modes of Public Transport in the Netherlands

The most common modes of public transport in the Netherlands are buses, trains, trams, and metros.

The Netherlands has embraced digital payments for services while only Rotterdam, The Hague, and Amsterdam have rapid transit systems.

The OV-chipkaart is the smartcard used to pay for services across all major modes of transport.

The OV-chipkaart

The ‘OV-chipkaart’ is the same size as a bank debit/credit card and contains an invisible chip. The smartcard is usually loaded with credits in the form of Euros with which passengers can use to travel anywhere within the country.

Bus Transport

The bus is the most common mode of transport in the Netherlands. This is largely because bus services in the country are pretty efficient both in urban and rural areas.

All outlying villages in the Netherlands are connected by bus services, while cities and larger towns have their own extensive bus networks that provide seamless travel.

A key point to note about bus services in the Netherlands is separate classes of travel are not offered.

Coach Travel

Because the Netherlands is a compact country, taking a coach wouldn’t necessarily be the first option on many people’s minds for moving between major cities and towns. Nonetheless, a coach is very convenient to cover longer distances. It is also cheaper compared to taking a train or hiring a car.

Data Corner

A report authored by the International Transport Forum dubbed Big Data and Transport: Understanding and Assessing Options states crowdsensing based on mobile phone usage can help map out “hot locations” and congested spots.

The report observes that the crowdsensing works in real-time which will in turn help authorities to regulate traffic and the flow of resources within the city, based on real-time dynamics in cities like Amsterdam.

When the system was exhibited at the 10th International Architecture Exhibition of the Venice Biennale, researchers at MIT SENSEable City Lab supplemented the mobile phone-based evaluation of urban dynamics with data based on the instantaneous positioning of buses and taxis.

This provided real-time information about mobility, ranging from traffic conditions to the movements of pedestrians throughout the city.


The visualisations provided a qualitative understanding of how the aggregated data of network mobile phone usage and public transit location information can be used to provide valuable services to citizens and authorities.

Such information “can give city dwellers a deeper knowledge of urban dynamics and more control over their environment by allowing them to make decisions that are more informed about their surroundings, reducing the inefficiencies of present-day urban systems..


Train Travel

Train travel is the most convenient for covering long distances in the Netherlands.

It is the most preferred mode of transport by the locals largely because the country’s rail network is in good shape.

The Netherlands ’ train network is one of the busiest in the world.

One advantage that cities and towns in the Netherlands have is proximity to a railway network, although connections are limited in the northern part of the country.

Trains in the country are operated by NS (Nederlandse Spoorwegen), which offers two types of trains: The Sprinter and the Intercity.

The Sprinter is slower and makes stops at all local stations, whereas the Intercity only makes stops at major stations which ensures a quicker and more comfortable journey.

Data Corner

Railway operators in the Netherlands, such as Dutch Railways, have found a better way to go about real-time monitoring as well as to manage travel information and the services provided by maintenance and control unit staff.

Now you can download the travel planner app and see where all the trains are. It is the same in all the trains, so it’s very easy for us to deliver new applications, and that is a really big change from the past. No other train company does that.


Tram Transport

How about the tram experience?

Trams are the quickest way to snake around crowded city centres. They are also loved for the experience as they are modern and give riders a panoramic view of cities, attractions, and landmarks.

Four cities in the Netherlands have tram systems: Rotterdam, Amsterdam, The Hague, and Utrecht.

Amsterdam is home to the country’s most extensive network with 500 stops along 15 lines.

National Geographic has described Amsterdam’s Tram Line Two as one of the best trams in the world.

In Focus: The Amsterdam Tram

Amsterdam’s tram network has been expanding since 1875 and currently includes 15 lines and approximately 200 kilometres of rail lines.

The city’s trams are decked out in blue and white and are famous for a signature bell that rings to attract the attention of cyclists and pedestrians in the vicinity

Amsterdam’s tram is operated by GVB, the municipal company that also runs the other mass transit options — metros, buses, and ferries.

The Amsterdam Tram ferries passengers across the capital. The tram is decked out in blue and white and is famous for a signature bell that rings to attract the attention of cyclists and pedestrians in the vicinity. {Image Source: Wikipedia}

Data Corner

A study report titled Using Big Data Analytics to Predict Maintenance Requirements published by management consulting company PA observes that Big Data is being applied to predict maintenance requirements for trams more accurately.

The study was done by tech consulting company PA for an unidentified European city’s transport organisation.

For a pilot project focused on tram brake incidents, we brought together data from a range of sources: logs on engine condition, speed and time logs on how trams were being driven and data on the state of the rail network.

Then we built a model to identify the patterns in the data that occur prior to a brake incident. We also trained the tool to get better at this the more data we added


“The results were astonishing. The tool correctly predicted 67% of brake incidents, outperforming the industry standard by a factor of ten. Our analysis showed that targeting preventive maintenance more accurately and reducing the need for emergency repairs; the transport organisation could save around €250,000 a year.


Metro Transport

Three cities in the Netherlands have metro systems. They include Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and The Hague.

Amsterdam Metro

The Amsterdam Metro is a rapid transit system that runs underground through the capital city.

The system has a total of 58 stations grouped across five lines.

The Amsterdam metro was opened in 1977 and currently has a length of 50.5 kilometres.

The line connects Amsterdam to Amstelveen, Outer Amstel and Diemen.

Other modes of transport like buses, trams and ferries complement the metro system.

The Rotterdam Metro

The Rotterdam Metro is the most important public transportation system in the city.

The network has a total of five lines and 62 stations. Cumulatively, the network is 78.3 kilometres long.

It is also the smallest metro in the world.

The system was opened in 1968, and at the time, it was the only metro in the Netherlands.

The Rotterdam Metro. The network has a total of five lines and 62 stations. {Image Source: Wikimedia Commons}

The network is operated by the public company- Rotterdamse Elektrische Tram (RET).

The Hague Metro

The Randstail, as it is known, is the tram and metro service in The Hague.

It offers transport in The Hague and connects it to other cities and towns like Rotterdam.

It has four lines and facilitates connections to buses and trams from multiple companies.

The line was inaugurated on October 29, 2006.

Data Corner

One of the ways Big Data is being applied in Dutch railways is captured in a report dubbed Railway assets: A potential domain for big data analytics, which notes that the technology is being used for proactive maintenance.

One of the applications of maintenance on railways was carried out by Dutch railways on Axle Box Acceleration (ABA) measurements with 1 terabyte of track degradation data for performing adaptive and self-learning mechanisms.


Proactive Management

“Our analysis showed that targeting preventive maintenance more accurately and reducing the need for emergency repairs, the transport organisation could save around €250,000 a year.”

Management Consultancy Firm PA stated in a report where it detailed the results of a study commissioned by an unidentified European City’s transport organisation.

It is also not just about monetary gain. It is also about using data to enhance performance.

Why shouldn’t an operator improve their services by a factor of ten as seen in the tram example?

Proactive management is about using existing resources efficiently and fixing something before it gets worse or damage occurs.

The good news is that major companies have seen value in Big Data and use it to optimize operations.

It is only a matter of time before everyone else follows suit.