Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Fiets4daagse - a Drents phenomena

Fietsvierdaagse start. Peter's bike and mine amongst
thousands of others (mostly behind the people on the right ;-)
A four day organised bicycle ride, the Fietsvierdaagse, is organised in Drenthe every year. It's a social event, not a race and around 15000 people take part each year. A variety of different length routes are available every day, varying from 25 km for the RollOn Route (aimed at people with disabilities and guaranteed accessible by any type of assisted bicycle) through to the 100 km Sport edition. It's something to look forward to every year and we've taken part in this event most years that we've lived in Assen, usually taking our time and riding one of the most popular distances (40 and 60 km each day).

Though 15000 people are taking part, on the 100 km route
you see relatively few other cyclists except at places where
this route overlaps one of the others.
Judy and I couldn't possibly do the whole ride this year because a study tour which we're hosting for a group of students from an American university overlaps with the days of the Fietsvierdaagse, but it's a shame to miss the event altogether so I wanted to do at least a part of it.

On the more popular distances, the Fiets4daagse is all about gezelligheid. Speeds are low and it can take quite a while to cover a short distance. The longer routes attract fewer / sportier people so it's possible to take part without the ride taking all day. It was a 100 km route which I rode around with a friend this morning, lots of discussion along the way, still gezellig, but as this took less than four hours we were back in time to finish eating lunch at home. It was a different way to enjoy the event and a lot of fun. The weather was fabulous, but I did slightly underestimate how much I'd drink at a temperature of 34 C so I was a little dehydrated by the end.
What do you get ? A flag for your bike, and a card to get stamped at each organised stop.
However, as explained above, for most people the Fiets4daagse isn't normally about getting around in any hurry at all.

After the 50th edition of the Fiets4daagse, our local TV station made a really nice documentary last year (in Dutch of course). This features footage from the first event, in 1966 with just 239 riders up until last year. Look out also for such things as footage of cycle-path construction in the 1960s, members of the royal family taking part and "borrowing" a large decorative steel bicycle from elsewhere in the country:

And here's my impression of the event from 2012 when we rode the 40 km route each day with family, including my mother who visited from the UK to take part:

The wonderful conditions for cycling through the countryside here are a large part of the reason why we chose to live in Assen.

Monday, 11 July 2016

A traffic light design which enables safe turns across traffic for everyone

Poor cycling infrastructure designs struggle when it comes to allowing cyclists to make turns across traffic (a left turn in continental Europe / USA) in a manner which is both convenient and safe. In some cases, designers simply don't really try and this results in such abominations as centre cycle lanes leading into advanced stop lines (bike boxes) on the ground. There are also examples of designs which are promoted quite hard but which don't really help people to cycle because they make turns inconvenient, dangerous or in some cases both inconvenient and deadly dangerous.

The new junction on the day it opened. The cycle-path widens
to nearly 4 metres in width to accommodate cyclists going
straight on as well as those turning left. Note traffic lights
for cyclists. The green for straight on is almost always lit.
This only goes red to allow cyclists to emerge from the right.
On the other hand, there are also good examples, though these are not necessarily so easy to find. Some designs improve both safety and convenience for cyclists. One solution for traffic lights which I'm particularly enthusiastic about because it has a very good track record is the simultaneous green junction, however there is no one design of junction which fits all locations and other good designs are possible.

This new junction demonstrates a very good way to design for asymmetric cycle traffic. In this case, almost all cycle traffic heads head straight on across the junction and they have a nearly full time green light. Only the relatively small number of cyclists who turn left are stopped by the traffic light in the video and this introduces only a short delay until it can stop all conflicting motor traffic and remove all danger from the left turn.

Crossing in the opposite direction is also convenient. Note that
right turning motor traffic is stopped when cyclists have a
green light and all straight on motor traffic is to the left of the
thick white line. There is no conflict in this direction either.
The old junction in this location featured on my blog in 2012. This already worked well, but it stopped cyclists heading straight on relatively frequently and did not allow for a left turn to be made by bicycle. The old junction was built on land and did not incorporate a bridge. The new bridge had to be built to enable re-opening a canal which was filled in decades ago and the new junction is on top of that bridge.

The Weiersbrug is one of six new bridges in Assen which began construction at the end of 2014. Five of those bridges are now complete and one remains to be built. I've been critical in the past of some aspects of the huge FlorijnAs project in Assen, but it has also brought improvements for cyclists in some locations, such as here.

An older implementation of the same idea, with inadequate
lane sizes and not enough space to make the turn. This was
recently removed from the area around Assen railway station.
Not a new idea, but a top class implementation
The idea of cyclists waiting to turn left at a traffic light in this way is not in itself new. However, this new junction brings a level of refinement which makes it comfortable to use. This new junction works far better for left turning cyclists than did the an older implementation of the same idea which was recently removed from the railway station area of Assen.
The junction shown in the video with a blue arrow showing the route taken by left turning cyclists in the video. While cyclists make this maneouvre or any other across the junction which could result in conflict with motor vehicles, red traffic lights hold motorists to remove the conflict.
Book now
Come and see
This new junction opened in May on the second day of a follow-up study tour. There is new cycling infrastructure to see every year in Assen and the programme changes each year to allow for what has changed. Future study tours, such as the tenth anniversary tour in September, will feature this junction amongst other pieces of new infrastructure.

True mass cycling, inclusive of all members of society, including children, older people and those with disabilities and where everyone makes all types of journeys by bike, is only possible with the very best cycling infrastructure. Be inspired by the best, not those things which really ought to be ignored.

Saturday, 2 July 2016

A tour, two tenth anniversaries, and a very sad computerized SMIDSY

Ten years ago today, my friend Terry and myself started our ride from John o'Groats to Land's End in the UK. While we rode, I sent one photo per day to the 12 year old daughter Eliza from my phone (using MMS - remember that ?) and she wrote up the ride as we were on the road. When I got home, Eliza said she'd like to do the same thing and to be honest the thought of that actually horrified me. As I wrote about before, we had many close calls during our tour and I didn't want my daughter exposed to the risk. However, the desire to go on such a tour remained with her.

Eliza Hembrow and Sander Marskamp setting off to ride their Ronde van Nederland.
Today, Eliza and her boyfriend Sander, who have already travelled the world together have set off to conquer the Netherlands. They'll ride all the way around the country, which is a similar distance to LEJOG, following their own route to pass places and people that they'd like to visit. I've no fear for their safety on a tour in the Netherlands. This time it's plausible for them to do updates on the road so Eliza and Sander will update their own blog daily during the ride. Follow their blog.

I love my oma t-shirt now available
from our webshop
Sander has a business designed, printing and selling organic cotton t-shirts using all vegan materials. Some of these are now available in our webshop.

Both Eliza and Sander are riding proper steel touring bikes which are older than they are. We know the history of Eliza's bike as this is a Claud Butler mixte frame bike made of 531 steel which Judy used to ride. With a little occasional attention, bikes like this last forever. We overhauled both bikes in the last few days and with new tyres, new bar tape, new panniers, mudguardschains and oil these bikes are riding as if new.

Lunch time
In an update at around lunchtime, Eliza sent us a photo. She'd bumped into that same Terry with whom I rode LEJOG ten years. While Eliza and Sander head South, Terry is heading North towards us.

They met each other on a cycle-path about 50 km south of here while heading in opposite directions on the same path. Cycle-paths in the Netherlands form a grid which covers the entire country.

To give away:Hundreds of free bicycles
Brexit special !
Yes, I know the brexit fallout has been getting everyone down. It's affected us quite badly too. Brexit also pushed up prices for British customers. We'd like to help by sending British customers food parcels. For a limited time and while stocks last, if you spend over €30 (ex VAT) in the webshop and use the "brexitfood" or "freepasta" discount codes at the checkout then you can add a bag of bicycle shaped pasta to your order for free. You don't have to be British or in the EU to get free pasta. This offer is available worldwide.

Ten year Study Tour anniversary
It's not only ten years since I rode from Land's End to John o'Groats but also ten years since we organised our first cycling study tour in the Netherlands. The anniversary open tour is in September. Book now.

In other news, I dare say many of you have noticed the news that a Tesla car with self-driving feature has been involved in the first fatality in a self-driving car. Sad news for all those involved. First off, I think it fair to say that I think there is good reason to believe that automation will result in fewer fatal car crashes than human drivers currently do. However, as cyclists we should note how the crash occurred: "Neither Autopilot nor the driver noticed the white side of the tractor trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the brake was not applied." This crash is not only the first recorded lethal incident due to a self-driving car but also appears to be the first lethal computer controlled SMIDSY ("Sorry Mate I Didn't See You") incident. If the computer can't see a truck under all conditions, can it see a cyclist ?

Drivers who report not having seen a cyclist often genuinely have not seen and processed the presence of that cyclist. This can be for reason of lack of attention, bad light, being blinded by sunlight. Human failings. In this case, the error was not made by a human but by a computer which managed not to notice a truck because it was blinded by sunlight. Just as with human drivers who have made errors in the past, in this case the computer simply continued to drive at the same speed until the collision occurred.

I think this automated SMIDSY rather reinforces the point which I made a while back that perfect driving can never happen. Training of drivers, threatening huge fines and even replacing them with automation will not result in perfectly safe driving. The only way of keeping cyclists safe from the danger of motor vehicles is to remove the danger of motor vehicles from where cyclists are. This can be achieved by building cycle-paths, or by unravelling routes so that cyclists encounter very few motor vehicles - that being a form of segregation without cycle-paths.

Saturday, 18 June 2016

Drenthe: A beautiful province with exceptional conditions for recreational riding

Drenthe is one of only two Dutch
provinces considered to be a five star
cycling region. Read more below.
One of the great things about living in the Dutch the province of Drenthe is that at any time we can get on our bikes, go out and ride, and make use of the wonderful network of recreational paths which zig-zag across the local countryside.

On this blog and on the study tours I mostly concentrate on the cycling infrastructure in the cities and towns because this is what encourages a high rate of everyday cycling and therefore a high cycling modal share. However, recreational paths are also important. They're part of what makes cycling enjoyable and attractive. What's more, these paths join seamlessly with a grid of cycling infrastructure which covers the entire country so they are easily accessible by bike. This makes it safe to begin at home. People are not made to think that safe cycling requires taking their bikes somewhere by car before they can ride them.

First some photos from today's short ride. This was no long tour, and it was nothing out of the ordinary for me: A 32 km out and back ride before most people had got up and before I got on with the rest of my day.

Stopping by some flowers

The Netherlands is of course well known for flowers. This country is the world's biggest exporter of flowers and bulbs, but a huge producer of other agricultural products as well. The Netherlands is the world's second largest agricultural exporter

Of course, this doesn't mean that everywhere is cultivated. Far from it, actually. For instance, this is a large area of heath which I passed through on my ride. The cycle-path here is on no-one's main route and was constructed in a deliberately "rustic" style. Unfortunately, the heavy rain we've had this week resulted in it being a bit mushy so progress was slow for a few kilometres. The surface merely hinders strong cyclists. Sadly, for some people this makes it unaccessible.

On the main route back, smooth cycle-path well separated from the road on the other side of those trees. This is part of some people's commuting route which is preserved to a high standard even during works on the path.

It was mostly quiet at this time, but other recreational riders were also out and about.

Back into the city. Just two kilometres left before I'm home, I've been out to the countryside, returned to the city, interacted with absolutely no cars at all and it's taken less than an hour for this really pleasant experience.
A five star province
Earlier this week, the local paper brought with it a local government publication about Drenthe as a cycling province. Given that the province genuinely has done much for recreational cycling I think it's reasonable to boast a little about it.

There are some interesting features in the publication. For instance, a feature about new mountain biking routes (mountain biking is not my sport but I'm hapy to see that there are ever more facilities), a suggestion that more smart lighting is on the way on cycle-paths ("street"lights which come on as you come close to them), and the recently implemented improvements to centre lines on rural cycle-paths to make them more visible in the dark. I also read that Drenthe is soon to have the world's first "biobased" cycle-path. I always welcome such experimentation, but of course we must be make sure that if it results in a change in policy this is genuinely for the better. I've noted before that while cycle-paths cause far less environmental harm than roads, there is a tendency for lower quality solutions which would never be proposed for roads to be proposed for cycle infrastructure with environmental reasons being used as a false, or at least misleading, justification. If there is a big win here there is more to gain by using the new surface on roads than on cycle-paths.

There are also some interesting figures. Unsurprisingly for this nation's least densely populated province, people who live in Drenthe cycle longer distances on average than those from other parts of the Netherlands. What may surprise some readers is that despite the longer distances, cycling is slightly more popular in Drenthe than in most Dutch provinces. The average Drent rides a bike on three days out of every four and 44% of short journeys are made by bike in Drenthe vs. 38% of short journeys nationally (for all journeys the figures are 29% vs. 27%). The reason why ? Well, just maybe it has something to do with the particularly attractive cycling conditions in this province: Drenthe has more cycle-paths completely separated from the road than any other province.

Perhaps the most disappointing part of the publication is where a representative from each council area within Drenthe makes their promise for the future: Most of the council representatives talk about improving infrastructure, encouraging even more schoolchildren to cycle, improving conditions for both young and old cyclists, or making cycling safer in the dark or during bad weather.

Sorry Assen, but "Try an e-bike" is not even close to having
 a full cycling policy, especially when the photo is taken next
to a yellow sign which informs about one of the many
(temporary) hinderences for cyclists in the city at the moment
Unfortunately, Assen's contribution in this section is weak: At the same time as the FlorijnAs project in causes more problems for cyclists than it solves, all cyclists are being offered at the moment is a scheme to encourage adult commuters to try an electric bike. Quite apart from why electric bikes should be singled out as the only type of bicycle which the council seeks to promote, when most people are better served by bicycles without motors, such promotional ideas have been tried again and again over the last few decades in many countries and the result has always been the same: Promotion and encouragement will always fail to increase cycling modal share unless accompanied by improvements in cycling infrastructure. Assen is lucky enough to already have cycling infrastructure which is at a standard somewhat above average for the Netherlands, but there is no point at which is "good enough" and at which development can stop. Encouraging more cycling requires the infrastructure to continue to improve, and certainly not for it to be eroded by the current wave of relatively car-centric development which is causing problems across the country at the moment.

Upcoming tenth anniversary study tour
Book now!
We organised our first cycling infrastructure study tour in August 2006. The tenth anniversary tour will take place in September this year. Exact plans have not yet been finalized, but we are planning a change to the way we organise the tours which will make this tenth anniversary tour different to those which have gone before. Book now to find out what works and what does not work for cyclists in the Netherlands, with no hype.

We also organise cycling holidays. Ride the most pleasant routes through Dutch nature !

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

A world tour of Drenthe: Cycling to England, America and Switzerland.

One of our first destinations was "America".
May has been a packed month for us, with study tours, holidays to organise and lots of parcels to pack.

However, Judy and I did also manage to find time to take a very short holiday on our bikes two weeks ago. We set off from home in Assen and took a route which made for a "world tour" around Drenthe, looping around between interesting places (especially if they also have interesting place-names) within our "cycling province".

As usual, we rode our recumbent touring bicycles. The comfort of recumbent bicycles make them ideal for touring.

May's changeable weather gave us two lovely sunny and warm days before we returned home with rain and a strong headwind, making us take shelter a couple of times and wish we had packed more warm clothing. Such is cycle-touring.

In the Drenthe version of "Amerika" there are more cyclists than drivers. This being a Sunday, it was no surprise at all to see lots of people wearing all the gear and riding sport bicycles. Sunday is the most popular day for sport cycling.

We then headed South, passing the first of the tjaskers that we saw on this trip. This is a simple type of windmill historically used as a water pump. The bridge is part of a recreational cycle-path through a nature area near our home. Happily, this had been upgraded just a few weeks ago - a pleasant improvement over the bumpy old bridge.

While we drank coffee, our bicycles waited by one of Drenthe's many swimming beaches.
Selfie on the cycle-path
Recreational cycle-paths often pass through areas with much wildlife and of course also livestock. Hence the cattle grid (veerooster in Dutch) and the warning sign.
Cycle-path past the Dwingeloo Radio Observatory. When it opened 60 years ago this 25 m dish was the largest radio telescope in the world.  Many fundamental discoveries were made here. 
The view in the opposite direction: Heath with cycle-paths through it. 
Riding along one of the cycle-paths through the heath, leaving the telescope behind
At the visitors' centre, a miniature radio-telescope with a miniature cycle-path heading away from it across the heath, all made of felt from the rare breed sheep kept on the real heath.
In the areas around the radio telescopes in Drenthe, signs are posted on the cycle-paths to ask visitors to switch off their mobile phones to avoid interfering with the scientific work.
These areas are also almost completely free of motor vehicles. This sign allows only horses, bicycles and wagens, and those only on their assigned paths.
Continuing the "World Tour". We also passed through "England"
We then had English tea.
Drenthe has steadily made improvements to many of the rural cycle-paths. It's truly a joy when conditions are like this.
Of course, sometimes cyclists aren't given quite so much space, but at least we didn't have to "share" with that truck while crossing this bridge. This is a newly opened link for cyclists which didn't feature on my old map.
Soon afterwards we were again able to ride on generously sized smooth cycle-paths
You can never cycle far in this area without coming across other cyclists.
According to my map, this is somewhere in "Klein Zwitzerland". Unfortunately, there was no sign next to which we could take a photo.
There's an award winning chip-shop in Hoogeveen. Unfortunately, it's difficult to reach it by bike. Many Dutch towns are currently not doing much to encourage cycling and Hoogeveen is amongst them. This very wide main shopping street in the town once resembled a motorway and catered for all traffic, but now not only are cars banned but also bicycles at almost any time when you might really want to cycle there. The ban is tedious for the thousands of people who shop by bike and is of course ignored by many. Given the space available here, there could have been no conflict.
The increasing quality of recreational cycle-paths is wonderful for touring cyclists, but cycle-paths in countryside areas, no matter how smooth and how pleasant they are to ride on, cannot encourage growth in utility cycling if conditions become worse for cyclists in towns and cities.
Part way home we went through Beilen. Shopping streets here demonstrates that even with a very narrow street it's possible to allocate cyclists and pedestrian separate space so that both modes can be accommodated with very little conflict. Hoogeveen has much more space to work with, but has achieved far less convenience for its cyclists.
One of my favourite cycle-paths on the last day of our holiday - smooth concrete through a forest.
Back in Assen city centre, which works in the same way as Beilen. We hosted two study tours this month, one of them a follow-up tour for people who've been before so that we could demonstrate some concepts in greater depth and show what has changed in the city.
A new bridge opened in Assen during the follow-up tour. We were amongst the first to ride across and use this new cycling facility. While I've criticized some of Assen's recent mistakes, Assen is still quite exceptional even by Dutch standards. This new junction is a good example of cycling infrastructure: A single-direction cycle-path expands to 3.8 m in width at the point where multiple lanes are required, thereby avoiding traffic jams for cyclists at busy times.
With the follow-up tour group we also looked at some bad examples. e.g. this village "shared space" in which steel footballs bolted onto benches either side of a road by a school are supposed to introduce uncertainty and make drivers slow down to a speed at which they're supposed to be able to anticipate the movement of children. Does this work ? Of course not. If it had then a resident who lives a little further into the village would not have felt the need to put their own "30 km/h" sign outside their house.
We've now taken several groups to see this almost brand new cycle-lane in Groningen. For new infrastructure, a narrow on-road cycle-lane on a 90 degree bend across which drivers always cut the corner is absolutely not good enough. The other side of the road is just as awful as this.
Back home to a delicious meal of bicycle-shaped pasta (click here to buy !).