Thursday, 13 December 2018

Daddy, what did you do in the climate war ?

100 years old and subtly updated for the war that we're facing now.
Do you remember the 8th of October 2018 ? That was the day when the world's newspapers carried stories about the IPCC's latest report on climate change. We were told that we faced catastrophe if we do not take serious action, starting right now, to tackle climate change within 12 years. We were informed about the most serious issue in the world right now which will affect everyone, or at least everyone's children and grandchildren. Our generation will be held accountable for what we did or did not do.

Do you also remember the 9th of October 2018 ? That's the day when nothing out of the ordinary happened. Everyone carried on as usual, doing what they usually did, continuing to cause the problem that they'd been warned about one day before. It's been much the same every day since. Perhaps our grandchildren aren't important after all ?

It's time to take action
2018: We're on course for the highest CO2 emissions ever in one year, growing by 2.7% in a year when emissions should be dropping. This is caused by ever increasing use of fossil fuels. Support renewables but the most important thing is to reduce fossil fuel use.
Last week we learnt that rather than emissions dropping, as they must, they have actually continued to rise. Why ? Because we're burning more coal, oil and gas than ever and driving more cars than ever. While we like to think of ourselves as "green", we're actually making the problems worse and doing so at an ever increasing rate. Climate change is not being tackled and we have very little time left to reverse the course that we're on.

How quickly can we reduce our CO2 emissions?
Starting in 2019 we need to reduce our emissions by 18% a year in order to achieve zero emissions in 2050. Each year that we take no action we create a larger problem and time is very short. Source.
If we start in 2019 then we need to reduce our emissions by 18% every single year from then onwards. We could have made this easier for ourselves by starting years ago when we already knew there was a problem, but we did not. The generations before us did nothing, my generation has done nothing and those younger than myself also are mostly doing nothing. We have all let our grandchildren down.

Humans are making the world on which they live uninhabitable for their own species because we are lazy and greedy. We think we can consume ever more of everything forever, but we cannot. We have already created climate changing effects which have changed the lives on millions of people and these effects will become more serious unless we reduce our emissions to zero by 2050, which is what we need to do to limit the effects to the 1.5 C change which is thought to be tolerable.

Who is causing most damage ?
US emissions per capita have been more than double those even of other developed nations for decades. This is not responsible. It is not sustainable.
Those of us who live in the developed western countries need to the take the lead because we are the people who have done most to create the problem.

We are responsible and we have done almost nothing to resolve the issue. The slight declines in our very high emissions are in large part due to having exported our most filthy industries to countries in Asia.

We are still the people with the largest emissions. We are also the people with the luxury to be able to do something about it because it's easier for those who consume to excess to cut back on their consumption.

In particular the finger has to pointed in the direction of the USA because that country's citizens have the highest impact on our planet. We should also point our fingers at the top ten percent of the richest people on the planet because if they reduced their emissions to the same level as the average European that action alone would reduce emissions by a third. But we should also note that average citizens of the EU and other developed nations also have impacts which are far from sustainable and China and India have large populatins and are catching up fast.

We all need to change what we do in order to reduce our emissions. We cannot expect to carry on with "life as usual", as we did on October the 9th, because with our current actions we are waging war against our own children and grandchildren.

Put pressure on government but also take individual action
None of what is above should be news to anyone reading this. The path that we're on has been obvious for decades. We are on an unsustainable course, sucked into a trap called growth. Many people have taken individual action, but not enough people have done this.

What can an individual do ? You'll have to fin your own path but I can tell you what Judy and I have done:

I was laughed at for refusing to fly for work in the early 90s. Then, as now, the bicycle was my main form of transport. Though we owned a car for many years, we rarely used that or any kind of motorized transport and since we got rid of it three months ago we've made all our journeys by bicycle and foot.

We have always tried to make our home energy efficient. We started with insulating our home in the UK more than 20 years ago and since we moved to Assen eleven years ago we have taken at least one step each year to improve the energy efficiency of our home. The walls, floor and roof have been insulated. We've installed HR++ double and triple glazing in our home. We have gas fired central heating but this is controlled by timer so it comes only only for a few minutes before we rise in the morning and then in the evening. Because our home is well insulated and our thermostat is set at 17-18 C, we use far less energy than the average for heating our home. This has also had another happy side-effect for us this week: Energy prices are rising in the Netherlands in part because of taxes designed to encourage more economical use. Dutch news sources report that the average increase in energy bills this year will be quite steep, costing the average household hundreds of euros more per year. We received our estimate this week and it shows no increase at all. We'll remain at the same already much lower than average figure per month because we improved the efficiency of our home. It's a good example of where doing something to save energy also saves money.

Dutch electricity is still 85% sourced from fossil fuel. Anything
which plugs into the Dutch grid is powered in this way. Most
countries are quite similar.
We installed solar panels on our roof nearly seven years ago which generate hundreds of kWh more electricity than we use each year. This means that the electricity company pays us for electricity. If we count our overproduction of electricity on summer days against our gas consumption on winter days we are not far off being "climate neutral" but "climate neutral" is unfortunately not nearly the same as being independent of fossil fuels: When the sun goes down our electricity comes from the grid, which in the Netherlands is generated 85% by burning fossil fuel and of course our heating system still burns gas directly. This is why it is still very important for us to reduce our consumption of both electricity and gas in any way we can.

Rather than forever buying new things to replace old things we try to keep everything as long as we can and repair what we have. We are not "fashionable" so buy clothes when we need them and don't throw them away unless they are completely worn out. When my daughter got married this year I wore the same suit as I got married in 26 years earlier (it still fits). Almost everything can be repaired. Between Judy and myself we repair everything from worn clothes and furniture to electronic items such as hifi components and our inverter and of course that includes our bicycles.

We try not to buy anything which isn't necessary. We're not buying presents this Christmas because there is nothing that any of us actually need. In the past it was a bit different when our children were small, but we're all adults now. Of course we do look forward to spending time with our children. That time together is precious but unwanted gifts are not required in order to enjoy time spent together.

We don't take holidays. No-one has an entitlement to two weeks in a sunny place during the summer, nor during winter to escape the cold. No-one has an entitlement to "weekend breaks". These are completely unsustainable habits formed in the last few decades. Such holidays are inexpensive in large part because the cost will be paid by future generations. Instead of living in a place from which we needed to escape each year we moved permanently to a place where we wanted to spend the rest of our lives.

Perhaps the most important decision which we took, to reduce our load on the planet, for our own health and also for the well-being of animals, was becoming vegan 25 years ago. Since then we've sustained ourselves, our children and our (rescued) dog on a vegan diet, which is significantly less carbon intensive than a diet which includes meat or dairy products.

As time goes on it's becoming more difficult for us to find things that we can do in a more sustainable way but we are still trying to reduce our impact. One of the things which we changed quite recently is that we now encourage others also not to make unsustainable journeys, particularly over longer distances such as internationally:

Please do not come on a study tour
One of my early photos of Dutch infrastructure. Still a good
example by many countries' standards, but the Netherlands
uses better surfaces for bikes these days.
Twenty years ago, when I started campaigning for Dutch style cycling infrastructure to be built in the UK, it was difficult to find information about it and pictures which illustrated how it worked.

There were not yet any good online resources to use. I made Video-8 and VHS recordings and also used an early VGA resolution digital still camera to take photos when I visited the Netherlands and returned with them to show people in the UK in an effort to encourage change.

Later, we began to encourage people to make the same journey so that they could see how well everything worked for themselves. This was especially so after our first organized formal study tours in 2006, offering a service which no-one else offered anywhere. We thought that if we encouraged people to make the journey to the Netherlands so that they could see this infrastructure for themselves they could return to their home country and campaign for change there. The hope was that this would have an overall positive benefit despite the environmental cost of the journey. I started this blog two years after the first study tour and at that time it was unique. The idea was to keep people who had been on the tour updated with new developments. The blog quickly found a larger readership outside of study tour participants and the blog ended up advertising the study tours to a wider audience.

From three years ago we started to try to discourage visitors from visiting from longer distances and last year we stopped actively encouraging people from anywhere at all. The last study tour, booked in 2017, took place early this year. After that we stopped encouraging more bookings.

We enjoyed hosting people from far and wide on our study tours and we thank everyone who came on a past tour for doing so. I hope that they found the experience helpful and that it has helped them to campaign successfully in their home countries. However we have now changed our practice and we no longer accept study tour bookings. We have stopped hosting study tours for two reasons:
  1. There is no environmentally responsible way of continuing to do this. Making international journeys is not compatible with preserving our climate.
  2. There is no longer a need to come to the Netherlands to find out about what makes cycling attractive, convenient and safe in the Netherlands.

The situation now is very different to how it was when we started doing this twenty years ago. I now encourage people not to make the journey. Please do not travel to the Netherlands to see us, nor to see anyone else. Please do not go anywhere else either. It's simply not necessary to do this any more.

Flying or taking a ferry merely to cycle far fewer kilometres than motorized vehicles will transport you, even if you're making that journey to find out about cycling infrastructure, is amongst the most unsustainable thing that any of us can do. It's also completely unnecessary because these days you can see everything you need to see on a mobile phone or computer screen at home.

There is more information about cycling infrastructure online now than anyone could possibly read. There are more videos of cycling infrastructure than anyone could possibly watch. This blog includes many good examples of cycling infrastructure. So does my youtube channel. There are also many other blogs and youtube channels which sprung up after this blog, several of which are far more popular than I am. You can make use of all of this information from multiple sources, from people with differing opinions, all of it free of charge, and you can make use of it while consuming less of your time and money and with a considerably smaller carbon footprint than would be the case for making a journey to the Netherlands to see it first hand.

Aviation has grown with a curve which looks exponential. It's
still growing. No technology can make this sustainable.
Let's not fly to cycle
The unbelievable rate of growth of aviation is one of the leading reasons why the CO2 emissions caused by human beings continue to grow rather than shrink. On average, every person on the planet now flies 1000 km a year even though a minority of the world's population ever fly at all.

Taking a ferry instead doesn't give a free pass either as that pollutes even more.

While a train may consume a little less it is also unsustainable because they are either powered by diesel or by electricity from the same grid as everything else. i.e. in the Netherlands the trains are 85% powered by fossil fuels. In the UK it's typically around 60% except on the windiest of days.

One of the most egregious greenwashing attempts this year was
the painting of one of the largest aircraft in the world with a
"save the coral reefs" design. This won't save anything.
There are of course many claims made by those who do marketing for travel companies. For example, the Dutch railways claim to run trains on "100% green electricity" but in reality they can't possibly do this. On still nights when there is no solar or significant wind energy those trains still run on the same time-table. Like many organisations which claim to be green they are using an accounting trick to pretend that buying credits for green electricity is the same as consuming green electricity. Shipping companies also get press for similar claims and so do aircraft manufacturers and airline companies. It's all greenwash.

Because of their numbers, motor vehicles now create far greater problems across the world than they used to. It's no longer just a problem confined to a few big cities, but something that has spread across countries and continents to endanger the entire planet. The two most significant things that we can do to reduce our footprint on the planet are to sharply reduce both our use of motorized transport and our consumption of meat and dairy products. Given the state we're in, with climate change now discussed alongside nuclear weapons as a threat to us all, is it not time for us all to do both of these things ?

Let cycling be a solution, not merely part of the problem
Cycling should rightly be part of the solution to climate change. Unfortunately, the way in which many people use bicycles makes them anything but a solution. If we fly to cycle, or drive to cycle or take the train to cycle then we reduce cycling to an accessory to those same motor vehicles as are responsible for a good part of climate change. A little bit of cycling at the end of a long journey by motor vehicle does not undo the harm done by the motor vehicle. Let's stop the habit of flying, driving and taking the train to cycle and ride our bicycles from our homes to our destinations.

The impressively huge cycle parking facilities at Dutch railway stations are not a sign of a truly sustainable transport system. Railway station cycle parks and full trains are evidence that thousands of people make regular journeys in an unsustainable manner and those bicycles have been reduced to an enabler of journeys by motor vehicle. If the owners of those bikes could make their entire journey by bicycle then they wouldn't park their bike at a railway station. Large railway station cycle parking facilities are evidence of an addiction to motorized transport.

Good planning would reduce the majority of journeys to cycling distance. If we're not planning in such a manner which does this then we will fail to reduce the use of motorized transport. Note that even in the Netherlands, 90% of the distance which the population covers every year is in a motorized vehicle. That's about as good as it gets anywhere in the developed world right now but making only 10% of our journeys by distance by human power simply isn't enough for us to meet our climate goals.

Wake up, bloggers and campaigners. What is a cyclist?
There are many popular blogs and youtube channels written by people who fly far more kilometres each year than they cycle. Why is this seen as aspirational ?

  • Those who fly more than they cycle should be recognized as aviation enthusiasts, not cyclists.
  • People who drive more than they cycle as drivers, not cyclists.
  • People who take the train more as train enthusiasts, not cyclists.

This blog has from the beginning been about cycling. If we are to claim that we cycle then let us adapt our lifestyles so that we can make entire journeys by bicycle rather than making small parts of our journeys by bicycle. It is only by thinking about how to remodel societies to encourage journeys of cycling distance that we will truly wean ourselves away from motorized transport and therefore away from the modes of transport with which every kilometre that we travel brings us slightly closed to making conditions on our planet incompatible with the human race continuing to exist.

What did you do in the climate war ?
We face the possibility of making our planet into a place where our grandchildren can no longer live. How will we be judged by future generations?


Notes Far too much emphasis is being placed currently on the idea that electrification will solve our problems and that the electricity will come from renewable resources. The numbers don't add up for this. One example: there is not enough space in the Netherlands to erect a sufficient number of wind turbines to provide enough electricity even to cover our existing use, let alone the greatly increased amount of electricity that we would need should electric cars become mainstream. This is the case even without taking into account the lack of storage mechanisms required which make it impractical anyway. Every electric car sold adds to consumption and makes it more difficult for the Netherlands to shut down its fossil fueled power stations.


The EU's current target for 2030 is an eight percent increase in CO2 emissions due to transport relative to 1990. This is not an example of heading in the right direction. Only a reduction in use of motorized transport can lead to a reduction in emissions.

Tuesday, 4 December 2018

Enough of cars... Overuse of motorized transport is destroying everything.

Le Curé: "I don't like cars".
Three months ago our car reached the end of its economical life and we took it to be scrapped. I'm not missing it. I never used it much anyway.

When we first moved to the Netherlands we brought our car with us from the UK but after we arrived it didn't move a single centimetre until more than three years had passed and we finally got around to registering and insuring it.

Even longer ago, when I eventually learnt to drive I was 27 and I only did so then because it was forced by circumstances.

Cars never appealed to me. I had a car for somewhat under less than half of my life, didn't use it much, and becoming car-free again isn't so much a change as it is a return to normal. The effects of Brexit have cost us twice as much as the price of some new cars, but if such a windfall arrived I wouldn't rush out to buy a replacement.

I arrived at the car dismantler in the silver car and I went home
on the red bike. At least the Netherlands recycles 98% of what
is in a scrapped car
Managing without a car
Giving up a car isn't difficult if you didn't use it much anyway. Neither Judy nor myself have ever been particularly enthusiastic or high mileage drivers. We've always chosen to live close to places that we needed to go to regularly such as work and shops and by ensuring that our regular journeys were within walking and cycling distance we freed ourselves from having to drive everywhere.

Our car was built in 1998 but we bought it in 2007 with 84870 km on the odometer. On its final day the odometer showed that it had covered a total of 115300 km in 20 years and 3 months since its first registration. Over 11 years and 8 months we had driven 30430 km. That's an average of 2600 km (1630 miles) per year for Judy and I combined. In fact we drove slightly less than that because neither of our adult children own their own cars and they sometimes used it too.

Last weekend, collecting a large table for Judy to use for craft
projects. We always have done this because even if you have
a car it's no more difficult to transport things like this by bike.
Large objects don't fit well into the back of an average car.
When we used our car it was usually as a small van or bus for an exceptional journey which we couldn't make by bike. It was never used for everyday journeys such as shopping, commuting, taking children to school or for our business. The many bicycle components which we send to customers worldwide always begin their journey by bike.

Though there are always other ways to do things, once we had it it didn't cost all that much to keep and it had the advantage over a rental that we could put messy things in the back without losing a deposit. Sometimes it was genuinely useful and convenient: It transported us from our old home in the UK to our new home in Assen, our adult children moved between rooms in shared houses before they found flats to live in long term, and a couple of times it covered half its annual distance in just one week when we went together on holiday to visit family in the UK. But even including some of these longer journeys our total distance never added up to very much. 2600 km a year works out as something around 30 hours of driving per year. It's only possible to run up high mileage in a car if you sit in it for a lot more time than that, you have constructed your life around using it, and you drive more or less every day. We have always cycled much more than we drove.

A subsidy for zero emissions ?
Our car probably had the lowest emissions of any in the city. Our emissions were low because we filled the petrol tank infrequently. Now that we've replaced it with no car at all, our emissions from personal transport have dropped from much lower than average all the way down to zero.

85% of Dutch electricity comes from fossil fuel sources.
No vehicle charged with Dutch electricity can achieve
"Zero emissions" but they still receive a subsidy. Other
countries are similar. e.g. while writing, British electricity
was 65% fossil,14% nuclear,2% wind,2% from NL.
The Dutch government subsidizes purchases of new electric cars to the value of €6000 and offers other tax advantages. Similar subsidies are available all around the world for scrapping old cars and buying new ones. The best that any alternative fuel car can do is pollute fractionally less than the one it replaced. This attracts a generous subsidy even though a background of rising use means that the energy consumption and resulting pollution will continue to rise even with slightly more efficient cars.

These subsidies are only ever available to people who buy another car and who commit to continuing to pollute by continuing to drive. No subsidies are available to those who stop driving and stop polluting or for those who never started.

Having received €50 scrap value for our car and having stopped driving we will continue to pay tax as usual, some part of which will be used to subsidize people who continue to drive and continue to pollute.

Bicycles genuinely have zero emissions
Odometer of one of our bikes a few
weeks ago. One bike and one rider,
more km in 9 years than four drivers
over 11 years in the car.
Cycling and walking are the only truely zero emission means of transport. Cycling is more effective because a bicycle amplifies the effort of a human so that we can go much faster, over longer distances and comfortably carry weight well in excess of that we can carry when walking. This makes cycling a great choice for everyday transport. A person on a bike can travel 5000 km per year using no more energy than that which we have to consume just to achieve the recommended daily amount of exercise. No external source of energy is required. No charging of a battery or filling up of a petrol tank.

The most efficient vehicles on the planet are Dutch, they're human powered and therefore have zero emissions, but they receive no subsidy from the Dutch government which is sadly more enthusiastic about subsidizing imported electric vehicles which can never be emission free because 80% of Dutch electricity comes from burning fossil fuels.

Los Angeles: already defined by traffic-jams in
the 1950s. A template copied around the world.
Enough of cars
Driving is seen as socially normal. Driving tests don't require particularly high skill because they're intended to enable so many people as possible to take part. Only the very most obviously poor drivers, or those who are especially nervous on the day of the test, will fail. Like most people, I passed first time despite no special ability and with an obvious lack of experience. This immediately meant I was qualified to take a remarkably wide range of motor vehicles onto public roads without any further education being required (very slightly curtailed when I swapped my British driving license for a Dutch license and the maximum vehicle weight dropped from 7.5 to 3.5 tonnes). I've never been fined for a speeding or parking offence and I've never crashed into anyone. We have, however, had two of our cars written off by other people crashing into them (one when it was parked, the other when we were stopped at a red traffic light)

Driving should not be viewed as socially normal. Motorized transport is one of the main factors which is destroying the conditions on this planet which we require in order to live. By rapidly consuming resources which can't be replaced we're also reducing the options available for our children and grandchildren who will have a hard time living on the planet which we have left for them. There is no other place for us to live other than on this planet but we are risking making our only home into a place where human life will be difficult at best.

A state of life that calls for another way of living
Genuinely excellent new cycling infrastructure in Assen.
Infrastructure like this, removing interactions with cars,
makes it much easier to use cycles as everyday transport.
The risk of making human life impossible seems to me to be rather a high price to pay for something which it seems almost no-one actualy even enjoys doing. Driving is so boring that people regularly fall asleep behind the wheel.

When it isn't inducing sleep, driving a car means paying for fuel, for maintenance, for tax, for insurance and for parking. Driving also means stressful queues in traffic jams, searching for parking spaces in cities, road rage, insurance claims after crashes and also the sorrow caused by more than a million deaths in car crashes every year.

Even drivers who never crash their cars still cause deaths: The death rate from air pollution due to cars (car exhaust and particulate pollution which largely comes from tyres) is four times so high as that from crashes.

"Shared Space". Presented with a pretence about "sharing", it's
really about unfettered motoring. Until a pedestrian crossing
was retrofitted here, pedestrians couldn't safely cross the road.
Where is the social good in any of this ? We would all be better off if we lived such that we didn't need cars. We'd all be better off if we stopped designing the places where live as if cars were the most important things in them.

We got into this state because problems which were seen very early on in the history of motoring were ignored. The first car crash fatality resulted in a judge saying that "this must never happen again" but others did not heed his call. Rather than taking action when problems such as pollution and congestion were first observed, cities around the world instead repeated the same mistakes of treating this threat as an inevitability and trying to adapt themselves to cope.

The Netherlands provides some excellent examples of where policy has been turned around, but prioritization of motorized vehicles can still be seen here too. To this day, the Dutch government spends vastly more on infrastructure for cars than on infrastructure for cycling. Cyclists are sometimes put into dangerous situations for the convenience of motorists. Even the world's leading cycling city pushes bikes into undesirable conflict.

Cars are not the only problem
We need to reduce our emissions to zero. Rapidly. Dillydallying
with a few percent here and there can't achieve this yet even
the IPCC seems mostly to be ignore the potential of cycling
in favour of expanding car use with slightly more efficient cars
A few months ago I watched a TV interview in which a representative of an aircraft company stated that every human on the planet now averages 1000 km of flying per year and they're expecting this to continue to grow. What used to be a small cause of pollution because few people did it has now grown into something ar more significant due to exponential growth of flying since the 1950s. While modern aircraft are vastly more efficient than older models and also far more efficient than ships, no efficiency improvement is meaningful when seen against this rate of growth.

We all make our own excuses, but we've all got to stop relying on powered transport. Cars and aircraft are not the only problems. If we make the same journeys using different modes of powered transport then the problems remain. An individual's impact per km may be slightly lower by switching to train or bus but it remains an impact and we need to cut our emissions to zero, not just by a few percentage points.

Powered modes have similar consumption per passenger mile. You can
argue with the figures in this table if you wish, but even if they're out by
a factor of 4 the resulting per km consumption remains a problem. Switching
from one mode to another can only make a very small difference. Making
fewer and shorter journeys is far more important than changing modes.
Every form of powered transport pollutes.
Travel so much as you want by foot or by bicycle every year and you do not trash the planet by doing so, but if you fly, drive or even take the train all of those modes consume about the same amount of energy per passenger km and all are problematic. Changing between modes against a background of ever increasing transport is at this stage akin to moving deckchairs on the Titanic.

It hardly makes hardly any difference at all which powered mode is used. We need to travel much less in order to leave behind a planet on which our children and grandchildren can live.

Every single km has a cost.
Everything starts with individual action. Yes we need to lobby government and try to change the action of large companies but in large part we're the customers of that government and those companies. If we provide the demand they provide the product. If we reduce our dependency on externally powered devices which use engines and motors to push us around and start to use our own muscles then we have made a change to the market served by those actors.

If considering a journey over a distance which can't be covered by human power alone, how do we justify that we should do this at the expense of all those who will come after us ? Is there genuinely a greater good which will come from that journey ? Do such journeys need to be made at all ?



Addendum: If I always felt like this about cars why on earth did I ever learn to drive ?
Getting a driving license is widely seen as some kind of right of passage. "Cartwheels turn to car wheels," a metaphor for a child becoming an adult. Not everyone sees it that way of course and even as a child I did not. I saw cars as yesterday's technology, smelly and inefficient and I held out from bothering to learn to drive for as long as I could. This turned out to be until I was 27: Judy was pregnant and a car was the only sensible way of reliably being able to travel at any time day or night from the village in Cambridgeshire where we lived to the closest hospital to our home.

It was only 15 km between our home and the hospital, so not an extreme distance. Shortly afterwards my regular cycle commute grew to 20 km each way. But the hospital trip was not a journey that either Judy or myself thought she'd want to make by bicycle so I quickly learnt to drive so that we could be sure about what we'd do on the day. When I drove to hospital I immediately found myself on the wrong side of the parking policy which attempted to deter driving by charging a lot for parking and allowing payment only for short periods by advance tickets from a machine in the car park. This policy existed in almost total absence of infrastructure which made cycling into a safe and pleasant experience for everyone and therefore was completely ineffective: the car park was more or less permanently filled. Because of this policy, brought in in with total disregard for the surrounding chaos on the roads, the arrival of our daughter was interrupted by having to repeatedly leave my wife to "feed the meter".



As soon as they could sit in the seats of this tricycle, this is how
we transported our now adult children for all our short journeys.
If a good alternative to driving had existed then we'd have used it. I was forced to learn to drive because Cambridge and Cambridgeshire were (and still are) built around cars as the main means of transport.

I'm not an advocate of driving but I remain against the idea of charging patients at hospitals for car parking as any part of an attempt to change behaviour. No-one visits hospitals for fun. There's always stress and it's quite possibly some kind of family emergency. The other 364 days of the year are a better time to educate people about transport and that is best done by providing world class infrastructure which encourages people to cycle instead of drive for their regular journeys. In an emergency people will naturally turn to whichever form of transport they have become used to and what they will be used to is whatever works best on the infrastructure provided in the area. Note that here in Assen where extremely good cycling infrastructure enables cycling for a far wider range of journeys, the hospital provides good access by bike and many visitors use it but there is also free parking at the hospital for those who arrive by car. While many people make a high proportion of their everyday journeys by bike, few Dutch women in labour travel by bike to give birth.

Friday, 19 October 2018

Over the hills and far away - Drenthe has built a hill for cyclists

Steve, Peter and myself on "our" new hill: The "Col du VAM". It's the highest point in Drenthe at 4800 cm above sea level !
Each week, a small group of recumbent cyclists ride together from Assen on short touring rides. This morning three of us went on a 70 km round trip to ride up a new hill which Drenthe has created for cyclists of all kinds to ride over. "Our" new hill is now the highest spot in the province, reaching 48 metres above sea level. If you want to climb higher than this in Drenthe then you have to do it more than once.

Posing in front of the visitor centre before we properly begin our second descent.
This hill has been quite a long time in the making. While professional cycle races have also used the hill for many years (watch a video of Marianne Vos on the hill five years ago) it's been closed to everyday cyclists with a gate at the bottom because there was a potentially dangerous conflict on the only path which used to exist between pedestrians and cyclists descending quickly. That's why the general public were restricted to walking until yesterday when the new cycle-paths over the hill were officially opened.

Optional cobbles on the climb. There are a lot of
these around Drenthe for cycle-racers to use.
In total we now have 2.1 km of cycle-path on this hill which provide several routes up to the top and back down again. The climb has an average gradient of 10% and a maximum of 15% so it's a fairly good challenge. I've enjoyed riding over many larger hills in the past, but never before has there been a hill like this which was made especially for cycling over.

The quality is excellent: Wide and incredibly smooth asphalt paths are provided both for the ascents and the route back down again (where it's even more important).

It's really well thought out: A one-way system is used to prevent conflicts between those climbing and descending.

There is even a section of Kasseien (Kinderkopjes) to allow those who wish to to emulate their heroes in the Paris-Roubaix and other classic races, but because that's not everyone's cup of tea it's provided as an optional extra for those who want it while the rest of us can ride on asphalt.

Peter chasing someone else towards the steep part of the
descent. We saw many other cyclists on the hill today. I
expect it'll be even more popular on sunny Sundays.
My recumbent touring bike isn't really set up for hills. I've use a single front chainwheel with 60 teeth and the largest sprocket on the cassette at the back has 28 teeth so there's a minimum speed which it's possible to cycle at because going any slower will mean that I'll stop and never get started again and would have to push. As it worked out, all three of us reached the top, twice by different routes, without any problems in a reasonable amount of time.

The descent is marvellous, a unique experience in this area. It's deliberately been made less steep than the climb but 60 km/h is reached before you know it. This gives your brakes some work to do before the corners, but you always have the security of knowing that going off the asphalt doesn't mean crashing into anything hard because there's grass on both sides and you also have the certain knowledge that no car will ever get in the way of your safety as you descend because there are no cars allowed here.
While we were eating sandwiches at the top, this chap arrived over the cobbles with a handbike, having ridden from a village 10 km away to go over the hill. Cycling should be for everyone, including people with disabilities.

The visitor's hut at the top has an explanation of what lies beneath
It's Rubbish !
The VAM-berg is actually a pile of rubbish. Literally. It's a landfill site which has now been turned into a useful facility. It's not only useful to us cyclists, but these days, between 4000 and 5000 cubic metres of useful gas are extracted every hour from the waste. A fifth of the gas is burnt in a power station next to the hill while the rest of it is injected into the gas pipelines of the Netherlands and used by consumers at home to cook and heat their homes.

Recreational cycling and hills
Hills are not a problem for cyclists, they make cycling more enjoyable. If you go up a hill on one part of your journey, you get to ride back down again a little later on. No hill lasts more than a few kilometres. On the other hand, flat countryside means you can ride all day long against an endless and unbroken headwind, which costs you just as much energy as a hill without the reward of a descent.

Recreational cycling is often overlooked by cycling campaigners, but it is important as it provides more options for cycling. In my case it's one of the things which helps me to remain healthy. Recreational riders don't need much special infrastructure. They mainly use the same infrastructure as is used by local people to make everyday journeys. We just typically use more of it in a single day, benefiting from how everything is joined up across the Netherlands. Cycling infrastructure which doesn't allow people to make longer journeys also won't really allow them to make short journeys everywhere.

Our route to and from the VAM-berg included new sections of top quality cycle-path which are so new that I couldn't use them when I last cycled in this direction a few weeks ago. Other sections were part of a route which I've used for more than ten years to collect stock for our webshop from a supplier 40 km away.

Elsewhere, priority should first be given to providing infrastructure which allows specifically for everyday journeys, focusing on city centres and safe approaches to them, but a comprehensive cycling policy results in more than that. Journeys in any direction will be possible if a comprehensive go-everywhere grid of high quality infrastructure is built. In that context, a mere 2 km of cycle-path which exist for no reason other than to allow people to smile as ride up and down a hill especially built for them appears as part of a comprehensive policy. It should be seen everywhere, but actually it's only seen here.

This is an excellent and unique piece of infrastructure, in a province which prides itself on being the best place in the world for cycling.

As part of the official opening event, local school children rode up the hill and left pictures behind which are now on display in the visitor's centre.

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Zwolle: The Dutch city which changed its roundabouts from one unsafe design to another unsafe design

I've written three times before (1, 2, 3) about how the roundabouts in Zwolle cause danger for cyclists. Each time, I've pointed out that the use of the "priority" roundabout design in that city results in those roundabouts always featuring as the most dangerous sites for cyclists in the entire city.

The top ten list of most dangerous locations for cyclists in
Zwolle according to the Gemeente. Three are roundabouts.
This has now been confirmed by the local government (Gemeente Zwolle) itself, which admits that the most dangerous place for cyclists in the city is the roundabout pictured above at the junction of the Burgemeester Roeienweg and Pannekoekendijk.

Zwolle's local newspaper has covered this issue several times in the last year and this helped to prompt the local government to produce a top ten list of the most dangerous places in the city for cyclists.

Gemeente Zwolle's top ten list shows that they consider three of the ten most dangerous places in the city for cyclists to be roundabouts. The top location is precisely the same roundabout as I identified as being the most dangerous in the city when I first wrote about the problem of adopting unsafe roundabout designs back in 2014.

The top ten list of most dangerous places for cyclists in
Zwolle according to newspaper readers: Five roundabouts.
The newspaper also surveyed local cyclists who gave a subjective response about how unsafe various places in the city feel. They placed the most dangerous roundabout in fourth place and pointed out several other problematic roundabouts as causing a problem. The worst place according to local cyclists is the "Fietsrotonde".

The fietsrotonde opened in 2013 to claims of safety and much press coverage. Many people praised the new design but I did not because it was unproven. Instead, I pointed out in 2014 that the claims of safety for the fietsrotonde were premature, that I thought the design was confusing and that it gave little chance for recovery from error.

A little later in 2014 I unfortunately had to update my blog post to point out that it had already claimed victims.

Zwolle's Fietsrotonde. It requires perfect behaviour from all
users and much head swivelling from both cyclists and drivers
to predict what each other will do. That is why it's unsafe.
Update: Another crash
The subjective view of local cyclists that this junction is difficult to navigate safely is accurate and it results from the same problems as occur with the roundabouts in Zwolle: Cyclists must their "priority" by riding out in front of motor vehicles while relying upon drivers to maintain the safety of cyclists. This never feels safe and it never truly is safe. Drivers are frequently distracted, they often don't see cyclists until it is too late, and of course a fair number are simply not very skilled at driving so cyclists should never be expected to place their safety in the hands of drivers.

Crossing the road
When I wrote about Zwolle's roundabouts a second time (in 2015) it was as part of a blog post about the nature of the most dangerous locations for cyclists in several different Dutch cities. Amongst the most dangerous things that a cyclist or pedestrian can do in a modern city is crossing the road. At uncontrolled crossings our safety is very much in the hands of drivers and this is why uncontrolled crossings and junctions expose cyclists to great danger. While the safe roundabout design which I have been promoting for the last four years almost completely eliminates this danger to cyclists using the roundabout, the unsafe roundabout design as used in Zwolle offers only a very small improvement over an uncontrolled junction (research found just an 11% difference). It should be no surprise therefore that when I went looking for the most dangerous locations in various cities, I found that cities which had adopted the safe roundabout design (like Assen) did not have roundabouts amongst their most dangerous locations for cyclists, while those cities which used the less safe design frequently had roundabouts as amongst their most dangerous locations.

You'll note that Zwolle's local government listed many crossings (kruising) as well as roundabouts (rotonde) in their top ten list. If they had adopted the the safe design of roundabout then their list would probably not have included any roundabouts at all but instead would be made up almost entirely of crossings. Zwolle would have been safer for cyclists than it is.

It may seem quite a big request to make that a city should change its roundabout designs. In Zwolle's case they have actually made this investment. Unfortunately, though, rather than adopting the safer design they spent their money and time converting their roundabouts from one unsafe design to another and as a result they have not improved the safety of cyclists...

After being improved, the most dangerous roundabout remains the most dangerous
When I wrote about Zwolle's roundabouts in 2014, many people were quick to point out that the design of the roundabout was less than optimal. There was little distance between the cycle-path and the road. Claims were made that had this been otherwise, the roundabout would have been safe. We now know that this is not so. This particular roundabout has been changed in design quite radically yet it remains the most dangerous location in Zwolle for cyclists.


Both photos show the same roundabout and this is the same location as at the top of the page. Safe roundabouts don't look like either of these two examples. Neither the "before" photo nor the "after" photo are safe. I pointed out that the first was the most dangerous roundabout in Zwolle in 2014 and Gemeente Zwolle themselves have now pointed out that the "improved" version of the roundabout remains the most dangerous location in the whole city for cyclists in 2018.

Zwolle is now considering changing this design once more to try to make it safe. We should not keep making the same mistakes. There is a better alternative.

The truly safe design
This design is truly safe. Cyclists and drivers meet each other at 90 degrees so that sight lines are maximised. Speeds are reduced by camber on the road and the curves on the cycle-path so that both parties have as much time as possible to make decisions. Priority at the crossings is given to motorists because they have the greatest power to cause harm and the least "skin in the game". Cyclists are prioritized by having bidirectional cycle-paths so that they cross less often and because they can always turn right without considering motor vehicles at all. Please read the entire blog post from 2014 about why this particular design is special and watch a video which explains further.
Dutch cities which use this design see radically fewer cyclist injuries on roundabouts than Dutch cities which adopt the same designs as used in Zwolle.

Wednesday, 12 September 2018

Riding e-bikes does not lead to health benefits

A recent study ("Transport mode choice and body mass index: Cross-sectional and longitudinal evidence from a European-wide study" by Evi Dons and others) compared the effect of different modes of transport on the BMI of thousands of European commuters. Each participant provided details of their height, weight and age as well as their mode of transport, followed by a second survey 18 months later asking the same questions. The effect of different modes of transport on BMI could therefore be compared and the effect on body weight due to daily exercise related to mode of transport was ranked:
  1. Riders of normal bicycles, powered by human muscles alone. These participants had the best score, achieving relatively low BMI.
  2. Pedestrians were in second place. Walking is beneficial for the body, but walked journeys tend to be extremely short due to the time taken to cover distance so this limits the overall benefit.
  3. Users of public transport came in third. Almost all users of public transport get exercise walking to bus stops or train stations.
  4. Motor cyclists score similarly to people who use public transport.
  5. Riders of e-bikes came in second to last.
  6. Drivers of cars took the last place, with the highest BMI.
E-bike parked on the street in Assen. Note that the top gear is
selected. Almost all parked e-bikes are the same. Users select
top gear and maximum assistance from the motor, resulting
in so little effort possible being required from the rider.
It was noted by the researchers that walking or running even to a bus stop burns more calories than hopping onto a bike with a motor immediately outside the door. This is why even travelling on public transport gave more exercise than an e-bike.

Participants who swapped from driving to cycling during the study lost weight. For men, this weight was loss averaged 0.75 kg while women lost a little less.  On the other hand, the BMI outcome for e-bike riders, motorcyclists and car drivers in this study is extremely close. Using a motorised mode of transport does not give a health benefit.

Conclusion
E-bikes can genuinely be of assistance for people who are less active due to age or health problems as they allow those people to remain more mobile than might be the case without a motor, but it shouldn't be a surprise that the health benefits of cycling disappear if you fit a motor to a bicycle. The exercise benefits of pedalling are lost when you're no longer pushing the pedals hard.

If you're a healthy and able human then an e-bike is as bad for your health as any other motorized vehicle such as a motorbike or a car. We each need to exercise on the order of 30 minutes a day just to get enough exercise to remain healthy. On a human powered bicycle that equates to riding around 5000 km a year.

Update 13 September
This blog post does nothing but report on the study linked at the top. The scope of the study was changes in BMI due to using different modes of transport and the resulting personal health benefits, if any, which resulted. A few people have responded by telling me that they exercise while riding their e-bike. That's great but it has nothing much to do with the study. Neither the study authors or myself ever claimed that it was impossible to exercise while riding an e-bike.  This relatively long term study suggests that, on average when considering thousands of people's behaviour, those who choose an e-bike to make their journeys do not get significant exercise while those who ride human powered bicycles do get significant exercise.

Other effects such as local air pollution or CO2 footprint of different modes of transport are beyond the scope of the study.

Several people have criticized my use of the term "health benefits" in the title of this piece as if this didn't come from the study itself. In fact, it was taken directly from the conclusion at the end of the abstract: "Conclusions: Our analyses showed that people lower their BMI when starting or increasing cycling, demonstrating the health benefits of active mobility." It's quite clear that being active is the key. Also note that "cycling" in this case refers to human powered bicycles. The same health benefit was not found for riding an e-bike and the inference is that many people who ride e-bikes are significantly less active than those who ride normal bicycles.

The type of e-bike which the study refers to is a 25 km/h maximum assisted speed pedelec. Anything else is not a legal e-bike and would fall outside the scope of the study. You have to turn the pedals to make the assistance work on these, but you don't necessarily have to push the pedals very hard so it is possible to select top gear and do the minimum of work.

Average speeds of Dutch cyclists. There's not much of a
workout to be had even on an unassisted bike at 12 km/h.
You get less exercise if going barely faster with a motor.
Source: Mobiliteitsbeeld 2017 / KiM
Why does rider health not always benefit from riding an e-bike?
We can only speculate on this subject because there is no data. I suggest that it comes down to habit as much as anything else. In the past people have suggested changes of behaviour such as that drivers of cars could improve their health by, for example, parking their cars one km from work and running the last kilometre. A few people might do things like this, but the majority of car commuters drive all the way to their place of work as that is most convenient for them. I suggest a similar situation arises with e-bike riders: i.e. many could well begin with the intention of pushing the pedals harder, but they slowly find that it makes little difference to their journey time whether they work hard or let the battery do the work so it's easy to fall into doing less.

There are many e-bikes in the Netherlands and it is clear from watching how people ride these bikes that very many riders take the option of riding with an extremely low cadence in top gear and letting the motor take the strain. That the speeds of e-bikes are barely greater than the speeds of unassisted bikes supports this argument.

E-bikes for children ?
Dutch children have historically scored well for low obesity and good well-being in comparison with children from other nations. This comes in no small part due to the exercise of everyday cycling, to school and back, to visit friends and for other purposes. School children are increasingly using e-bikes are increasingly being given to school children, and manufacturers have been happy to push this demand, providing lower cost e-bikes for children (from €1200) and some manufacturers have gone as far as to suggest that the majority of children will have electric bikes within a few years. A child who is barely pushing the pedals will not get as much exercise as his classmates who provide all their own energy. I am not the first person to note that the relatively good fitness of Dutch people could be undermined by e-bikes.

Am I some kind of anti e-bike monster ?
Some of the more bizarre responses which I've received have suggested that I'm either part of the car lobby or that I'm part of the bicycle lobby. Neither is the case. I've simply told you the result of a study.

In the Netherlands, where I live, there are many classes of vehicles which use the cycle-paths. They do this mostly without causing significant problems for one-another, except in some places where the infrastructure is inadequate. These vehicles include, but are not limited to:
  • normal bicycles
  • racing bicycles
  • recumbents
  • cargo bikes
  • e-bikes (25 km/h, as considered by the study)
  • e-cargo bikes (sometimes quite large for kindergarten use)
  • mopeds limited to 25 km/h
  • electric mopeds limited to 25 km/h.
In rural areas they are joined by similar classes of electric and internal combustion engine vehicles limited to 40 km/h. All these vehicles have been getting along quite well for a long time in the Netherlands.

I don't personally want an e-bike because it would not benefit me, but it doesn't concern me at all that other people ride them. That's their choice.

25 km/h e-bikes have a similar effect on other users of cycle-paths to 25 km/h mopeds, especially the electric versions which don't produce air pollution or noise. i.e. they don't cause a significant problem to other users of cycle-paths.

Your laws on e-bikes may be different. That's beyond the scope of this blog post and the study.

Isn't it the same as gearing/aerodynamic improvements/lighter components on a normal bike?
It's a popular line of argument to suggest that someone who is perceived as being "against" e-bikes would also argue against other improvements to bicycles. This is not a logical argument.

Any improvement to a bicycle which improves its efficiency will indeed allow the rider to travel a little further and/or faster for the same effort, but all the energy required to power that bicycle will still come from the rider.

Adding a motor to a bicycle has a very different effect: It makes pedaling to some extent optional. A modern pedelec requires the rider to turn the pedals, but it does not require them to push the pedals with any significant force. In the Netherlands there are hundreds of thousands of e-bikes. They are not used to travel significantly faster than non-assisted bikes, their riders just do less work. People who switch to an e-bike almost always get less exercise as a result.

No-one ever says "since I added an aerodynamic seat-post to my racing bike I've been able to ride to work without sweating", but plenty of people will tell you that their e-bike allows them to reach their destination without working up a sweat. That is made possible because the motor did the vast majority of the work.

The speed-pedelec of the 1970s. A friend of mine had one of
these. Did he pedal it? Of course not. Credit/rights: wikipedia
We've been here before
Ever since the invention of bicycles, people have added motors to them to increase speed or reduce the effort required of the rider. You can see this even from the etymology of words such as motorbike, moped, pedelec, e-bike, bromfiets, snorfiets. Several of these types of motorized bicycles have pedals.

How often do you see someone actually pedal a moped ? Often these pedals are designed only to meet a legal requirement to have pedals. It's actually easier not to bother with them. People who buy mopeds intend to use them as powered vehicles. The same is largely true for e-bikes. While it is possible to exercise on an e-bike, many owners use their electrically assisted bikes as if they are small motorbikes, putting in the minimum effort required to turn the pedals so that the motor operates.

More supporting evidence
Manufacturers of e-bikes regularly claim that by riding an e-bike you can make your journey while sweating less than you would if riding a human powered bicycle. This is always an indication that you will exercise less because you are required to put less energy through the pedals. A study sponsored by Shimano, a manufacturer of e-bike motors, lists amongst other results that the average rider produced only 1/3rd as much sweat, that their heart rate was lower by 63 beats per minute and that their body temperature was raised 0.9 C less by riding an e-bike rather than cycling. These things are presented as a positive outcome, but they're all actually indicators of how much exercise is taken away from the rider if they use an e-bike rather than a human powered bicycle.

See also my previous blog post about how pushing e-bikes won't result in mass cycling. The benefits for individuals and society that result from mass cycling come about when safe infrastructure is provided which encourages cycling. The answer is not a different type of bike, especially not one which doesn't require the user to push the pedals hard to make progress.