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
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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 !).

Friday, 18 March 2016

Making driving more convenient: Assen's FlorijnAs project attempts to reverse decades of improvements for cyclists.

Readers will have noticed that my blogging slowed down somewhat in 2015 and has not really picked up again this year so far. There are a number of reasons why, but the main reason for blogging less is that there is less good news for cyclists in Assen and across the Netherlands in general now than was the case eight years ago when this blog started. The good ideas have mostly been documented on this blog - see past posts (in the section on the right). This blog post describes a large scheme in Assen which is damaging the city, but please do read to the bottom as there's a long way still to fall.

Traffic in Assen in May 1979. Many readers will see similarities between this film and the appearance of their own city. I certainly see similarities between the film and British cities. Before and after images of some of the same locations can be found here and here.

As the danger of cycling increased, people cycled less. 1978
was the year when things finally turned around, infrastructure
started to improve safety and people started cycling more.
There is no support for the fictional "safety in numbers" idea
in this data. The much lower cycling modal share of the more
recent period compared with the 1950s and 60s and the
continued decline in injuries against relatively little
cycling growth during the 80s and onwards is the direct result
of infrastructure separating cyclists from motor vehicles
In most countries, bicycles reached their peak in the first half of the 20th century before being pushed aside in the second half of the 20th century. The year in which the Dutch cycled the least was one year before the film above was shot:1978. Why had cycling become less attractive ? Because policies which favoured cars had resulted in Dutch roads being clogged with motor vehicles. I think the film illustrates the answer very well. Cycling conditions were unpleasant because cyclists were only rarely separated from motor traffic.

The resulting conditions not only made cycling unpleasant due to low subjective safety scaring people away from cycling, but also led to the highest number of deaths per km travelled by bike that was ever recorded in the Netherlands.

The "Visie Aantrekkelijke
binnenstad 2030" from 2011
promised an increasingly
Autoluwe future for Assen,
but that's not the direction
we're heading in.
Dutch cities belonged to drivers in the 1970s. A policy change resulted in a second revolution on Dutch city centre streets which reversed this. The rest is history: City centres were returned to cyclists and pedestrians, and because the rest of the country was covered by a comprehensive grid of safe cycling infrastructure this enabled safe access to the city centre, even by children riding their own bikes.

It was only by implementing policies which prioritized cycling and deliberately improved the safety of cyclists that conditions in Dutch cities were changed from the unpleasant scenes seen in the film above. There are twice as many cars in the Netherlands now as there were when the film above was made, but cycling is far more pleasant and far safer these days than it was then.

However this doesn't mean the battle was won and that everything is going well. In fact, some of the lessons of the 1970s and 1980s are now being ignored in the Netherlands. New infrastructure which makes cycling less convenient and less safe is now being built.

Local paper: Parking garages are now
full due to the change in policy.
But who benefits from this ?
The FlorijnAs project in Assen is changing a lot of the infrastructure in the city in an adverse way. It's difficult to find anything positive at all about this project.

But the income from the
parking has fallen because
many drivers only use the
free supermarket parking
tickets (short term)
Last year's change in car parking policy has also led to problems for cyclists (I predicted this last year). Removing the out-of-town-center free parking and replacing it with half price (€6 for the whole day) inner city parking has, you won't be surprised to read, led to far more cars being along the inner ring road and into the inner city.

The increased parking in the centre has not benefitted the council because while the car parks and roads leading to them are now busier than they were, the total income from car parking has actually dropped by €100K per year as a result of the new policy. It also doesn't benefit shop-keepers because now that drivers use only the free tickets from the supermarkets to quickly do their shopping, they don't wander around to other shops and spend money there as well. The out of centre free parking used to enable this. Of course this policy which brings more cars to the city centre certainly doesn't help cyclists.

To add to the woes of the businesses in the centre of Assen, the council is supporting the building of an outlet centre on the outskirts of the city which of course will offer free parking and will help to ensure that out-of-towners use Assen's shops even less than now.

Below you'll find examples of how access to the city centre has been compromised from several directions:

From the North

The Molenbrug provides part of a main route to the city centre for people from the North-East. The narrowing of the bridge had already taken place when I wrote about this bridge last year, but at that time we still had a traffic light to stop cars. Now that the traffic light has gone as well, cyclists have less priority and worse safety than in the past. The removal of separate pedestrian facilities here also means that at busy times this bridge demonstrates all the problems which come from shared pedestrian and bicycle facilities.

The most dangerous junctions in Assen are uncontrolled crossings. One of them is further along this route to the North West and caused a fatality in 2009.

Read more about how the Molenbrug used to be.

From the North-East
Assen's roundabouts are all of a particularly safe design except for the two new roundabouts which resulted from the FlorijnAs project. These use an inferior design without a central waiting area which makes them dangerous for cyclists to cross. How did Assen lose the ability to construct safe roundabouts ? In this case, the new roundabout has replaced what was a direct priority non-stop through route for cyclists so this also causes an extra delay on a busy cycling route.
This road is being doubled in width. For motorists there will be two lanes in each direction plus a wide verge in the centre with attractive trees and a new row of car parking spaces which can be seen on the left of this picture. For cyclists, the new scheme brings the cycle-path on the left which is being built a fraction under the supposed minimum width of 3 m.
Cycling infrastructure should support side-by-side cycling because this makes cycling more sociable and more attractive. This path is on one of the busiest routes in Assen but at under three metres wide this has been built too narrow for side-by-side cyclists going in both directions, too narrow for safe overtaking. and the lamp-posts are ludicrously close to the path itself. To the right, six lanes for drivers (one parking + two driving lanes + a verge + two driving lanes), all of which are wider than the cycle-path.
Jan Fabriciusstraat provides access from the East to the city centre. This very wide and busy road has space for multiple vehicle lanes, a grass verge in the centre for much of its length and pavements (sidewalks) of up to 10 m in width, yet cyclists have nothing but a 1.3 m wide on-road cycle-lane which is magnetically attractive for parking trucks. This is an example of wide pavement syndrome.

Also Jan Fabriciusstraat. Cyclists turning left have
to make a 130 degree turn on a very narrow path.
Where parking is provided, it is parallel to and right next to the cycle-lane, placing cyclists in danger from drivers who are concentrating on parking. The cyclists in the second photo who are heading in the wrong direction are children on the way to school. They are riding in this way because the planner of this street somehow couldn't find any way to enable a safe and convenient journey to be made by bike from the road next to the tall building on the left to the position where I am standing. Note that where the woman in red is standing there was once a wide good quality cycle-path which was removed when this street was redeveloped.

Read more about Jan Fabriciusstraat

From the East
Assen's railway station, built in 1989, is currently being demolished to make room for a new building. Most cyclists and most drivers in the station area do not have the railway station as their destination but are passing through, so direct through routes are important for both cyclists and drivers.

This video shows the direct routes South to North and East to West which existed across the station area at the beginning of 2015. They're old-fashioned, but efficient. The East-West route dumped cyclists into Stationstraat, a road which was also used by busses, but it was a wide road and unpleasant overtaking events were rare.

The new station plans include a tunnel so that drivers will benefit from an improved direct through route past the station. Cyclists making through journeys have their route made less direct and have to "share" a pedestrian area. Those heading East to West will then have to "share" a newly narrowed road with busses. Also note that for cyclists the infrastructure of the future is built of bumpy tiles, not of smooth asphalt.

The architect's impression of the new station. This is a road which will be used by taxis and busses en-masse. Anyone dropping off a train or bus passenger by car will do that right here in the middle of the picture in this shared space. Cyclists will have to make their way through this.

According to the architect, people will bring cats to the station. I suspect this will never actually happen in practice.
South East

South East: Zuidersingel (which leads into Oostersingel) was narrowed and resurfaced in 2013 as part of the works which gave us the unpleasant Kerkplein shared space. The result of this work is that cyclists now find themselves used as mobile traffic calming devices. As I type this, the Zuidersingel layout is already being copied around the corner in Stationstraat as part of the new station development. As a result, the problems for cyclists which already exist in Zuidersingel/Oostersingel will also be seen in Stationstraat which is part of the main route to the city centre for most people who live in the East of Assen. It seems to be taking an awfully long tome for people to realise that "sharing" really doesn't work on busy through routes.

The Kerkplein Shared Space already serves as a barrier for people from the South who wish to enter the centre of Assen. With the new parking regime, the amount of traffic here has grown and with the extra traffic the unpleasantness of trying to negotiate this junction has also grown. Read more about the Kerkplein.
Luckily, redevelopment of some routes directly from the west into the centre of Assen occurred slightly before the FlorijnAs project started and therefore these routes were not in line to be redeveloped. However, they do lead into the areas of De Nieuwe Kolk and the Kerkplein, both of which cause issues for cyclists. Also there is one route from slightly North of West - which as it happens is our most direct route to the city centre, which is being disrupted. The existing primary cycle-route alongside the northern bank of Het Kanaal has been downgraded to a shared use secondary route and the well used footpath alongside has been made unusable to many people by the addition of steps
Constant conflict with pedestrians because while there is a separate pedestrian path, that path is so badly designed (it's down some steps by the water) that almost no pedestrians use it.
Because the corner radii are far too small, people have made their own path which after a few months already looked nearly as permanent as the real path. This is an indicator of badly designed / not fit for purpose infrastructure.
The replacement primary route is on the other side of the canal. Yes, it initially looks OK. However, the details are all wrong. Why have cyclists been short-changed in width once again on a primary cycling route when there is so much space available ? Why has the cycle-path been positioned so close to the road and so close to lamp posts ? Why is there a loading bay on the wrong side of the cycle-path when the empty shop which it is next to has its loading bay in a car park on the other side ? There is no reason to expect large numbers of pedestrians here so the pavement is overly generous.
Further along the same path cyclists have to give way twice to car park entrances. No priority on a primary cycling route. The old primary route on the other side of the canal worked better than this. Watch a video which shows what remains of the old route, which has been given a rougher surface than in the past.
What future for Assen ?
I am quite aware that some readers will look at the photos and videos above and wish that they had the same problems as Assen does. Clearly none of the problems shown above quite take us back to how the Netherlands looked in the 1970s. However, they all illustrate new problems which are being created for cyclists in this city due to cycling just not mattering very much to planners and motoring being given a higher priority. If this process continues then it could easily lead to a slow slide downwards in the cycling modal share. People don't have to experience much unpleasantness when cycling to make them give up.

Infrastructure which was built 5-10 years ago was of a higher quality than what is being built now. There is no good reason for this. Certainly not a financial reason as FlorijnAs is an astonishingly well funded project which has a total of €1.5 Billion to spend. The high level of funding combined with any downward change in quality is a serious concern as the extensive works of FlorijnAs will affect all cyclists in Assen and they already put the city back a small step so far as cycling is concerned.

I'm not very concerned as FlorijnAs isn't all of Assen and this still remains a city which overall is lucky enough to have amongst the very best infrastructure in the world. A few small steps backwards won't make a huge difference so long as the ambition to improve is found again.

As I understand it, Assen's previously stated ambition to grow cycling still stands. If this is more than mere words then the city needs to do better than what is shown above to retain present and encourage future cyclists.

What future for other cities ?
One of the problems with writing about the less good developments in this city is that some readers gain an impression that it is only Assen which is making mistakes. That is of course not true - it's just that I'm an trying to give an honest appraisal of the place where I live and there are not so many people doing this. Positive stories abound, including about things which are really not very good at all.

It's really not just Assen. This publicity shot from Groningen,
headed "further improvements in cycle facilties" not only
lavishes praise on horribly outdated advanced stop lines (bike
 boxes) but also uses a photo of the most dangerous single
street in the city 
as an aspirational image. I nearly fell from
my chair when I read this... Not what you want to emulate.
There is nothing uniquely Assen about any of  the problems illustrated above. The architects and planners who designed the infrastructure illustrated above are doing pretty much exactly the same thing in several other cities and other planners and architects are making other mistakes elsewhere. It's quite normal that things wax and wane in popularity. In the Netherlands at the moment, cycling is not the big thing which politicians are trying to improve. For that reason we should not be surprised that this period of time doesn't bring the best improvements for cyclists.

However it is important that the attitudes change before too much harm is done. Keep going backwards at this rate and in forty years time the Netherlands will once again look as it did in the 1970s.

Study Tours
Yes, there are study tours again this year. While this blog post points out problems within Assen, this is still a city choc full of good examples. We also visit Groningen, which like any city is also a mix of good and bad and has plenty of its own problems. The majority of both cities work well and this is reflected in the high cycling modal shares. In any case, looking at problem areas gives us an opportunity to demonstrate how what might be seen as rather small issues ("wish I had that problem") actually really are important if a truly high cycling modal share is your aim.

There are still some places available on the April tour, but you will have to be quick to book. Similarly, there are also still places available on the May follow-up tour (contact us for details) on which we demonstrate what changed since your previous study tour.

Our service is to demonstrate what is good and also show what works less well so that participants know what should not be emulated. It's important to bear in mind that not everything Dutch is good. From every period there are both very good examples and also some poor examples. We have nothing to gain from implying that any infrastructure which is less than excellent works well enough and you can rest assured that we do not gloss over problems. I hope that the above blog post makes that clear.