Monday 29 September 2008

Default to green

Stopping on a bike and restarting again has a similar effect on the cyclist to travelling hundreds of extra metres, so regularly stopping for junctions makes cycling less viable as a means of transport.

One of the many joys of cycling in this country is that the cycle paths allow you to make progress without stopping too often. There are many ways that this is arranged, including having the paths away from the roads and taking different routes. For instance, on most of our cycle journeys from home here we don't meet any traffic lights at all. I can cycle to the centre of the city seeing no traffic lights while driving there I would encounter a minimum of two sets. I can cycle to my dentist and meet one set of traffic lights, or drive there and go through five sets.

The video shows another example. At this traffic light junction the lights default to green for bikes and only switch directions to allow motorised vehicles to pass on the road if they drive up to the detector and wait for a while. They get a maximum of six seconds or so and then it's back to green for cyclists again. It's like a button controlled pedestrian or cyclist crossing, but in reverse. As you'll see in the video, I could cycle through this without stopping. I usually can.

There are other clever things done with traffic lights here, such as having a simultaneous green phase for bikes to go in all directions at once, which again increases the average speed of cyclists.

There are many other examples of traffic light junctions, things which make cycling more direct, and the intercity cycling superhighways for long distance commuters on this blog. This cycle path is part of my commuting route, and part of the reason why I commute so much quicker now than I used to.

This crossing features on our Study Tours.

A few years ago in the UK I measured the average time for a green for a motorist or pedestrian at a crossing near where we lived and found that while motorists had an average delay of under 8 s and a maximum of 30 s, pedestrians had an average delay of 38 s and a maximum of a minute. There are also crossings at which cyclists using a shared use path have to stop and press more than one button to cross a single road. Cambridge recently installed a junction with four button presses being required to cross a single road.

Sunday 28 September 2008

Racing again

Many many years ago I read an article written by Mike Burrows which said, to summarise, that if you'd done most things on a bike, and liked to go fast, but never tried racing, then it was worth giving it a go at least once as it's a very amusing thing to do and you'd probably meet some very decent people too. It prompted me to give it a try in 1999 and I found this to be absolutely right. I raced recumbent bikes from then until 2005 with the BHPC in the UK. I'd like to repeat Mike's advice. Try racing. It's fun.

In the UK I raced a Speed Ross bike which was nice and light, but competitive for racing only because of the existence of the "Sports Class" for bikes which were usable on roads as well as on a track.

I sold the Ross before emigrating so I only have one recumbent now, a rather well worn Pashley PDQ. It's a fine touring bike, but it isn't very fast. Mine is fitted with panniers, baskets and multiple sets of lights as I use it for touring.

A couple of weeks ago I was told of an upcoming race in Groningen organised by the NVHPV and the old interest was re-ignited so today I rode the bike the 30 km to Groningen this morning to take part. As expected, there were a bunch of very friendly people at the event and it was a whole lot of fun.

And the results ?
My average speed in the 50 minute race was just over 34 km/h, a result which actually surprised me as it is certainly quicker than I used to ride that bike and not far off the speed I used to ride the Ross. However, over here it's different.

Most of the entrants rode either velomobiles or low racers. There is no "sports class", and nor is one needed, as it's perfectly safe to ride these bikes over here on the cycle paths. They're also very practical machines and many of the owners use them for long commutes, or even for transporting their dog as on the right...

The winner of the race rode his velomobile at an average of 49.6 km/h. It wasn't a delicate machine unpacked from the back of a van, but was ridden to the event. On Monday it'll be used for his commute.

However, in the main race today I was second from last. It got worse in the results from the standing start lap nor the flying start as in both of these events I simply got slower and slower as I'd already used my energy on the first race !

As well as the superior bikes, I think it comes down to something that Eddy Merckx once said to an aspiring cycle racer: "ride your bike, ride your bike, ride your bike". The Dutch do ride their bikes. They do it an awful lot, and they're very quick on them.

Today's competitors were fast. The average speed was over 41 km/h instead of a bit over 33 km/h at the last race on a similar circuit that I took part on in the UK. In that event I finished 19th out of all 55 competitors and was first in sports class. Even at today's speed I'd only have slipped a few places. That's quite a difference. I'm seriously outclassed.

By the time I got back home I'd covered 112 km. All of it was enjoyable, including the ride home with other competitors from Assen at a speed I could keep up with on a newly constructed super smooth cycle path.

Update 30/9/2008
The winner of the race, H@rry Lieben, averaged nearly 50 km/h. He had video cameras on the front and back of his velomobile, and put these two excellent videos on youtube. I'm the guy going slowly with the baskets...

There are many parts suitable for recumbents and velomobiles in the DutchBikeBits webshop.

I raced on the same track again the next year, with a much faster bike.

Saturday 27 September 2008

London Freewheel

A couple of months ago, Fernando in London bought a basket and support from me to transport his dog, Fosse. Yesterday, Fernando kindly sent me some photos of the two of them taking part in the London Freewheel ride last week.

This was the second year of the Freewheel, and it was wildly successful: 100000 people were attracted to ride their bikes on 12 km of closed roads in the capital.

The success of the event shows just how attractive it is to be able to cycle without having to be constantly concerned about motorised vehicles. It's a good demonstration of how increasing subjective safety results in more people cycling, even if the improvement is just for one day.

Clearly the pent-up demand to cycle that is present in most places also exists in London.

Imagine the rate of cycling that London could achieve every day if the infrastructure in the city was redesigned with emphasis on increasing subjective safety for cyclists so that it was always to the level experienced on the Freewheel.

I have more posts referring to subjective safety.

Fernando's basket is the extra large size that I make for transporting dogs, and it's mounted on a sturdy front rack.

I have another photo of Fernando and Fosse together, accompanied by photos of other people with their dogs on their bikes.

We organise holidays over here in the Netherlands where we always have this degree of subjective safety. We would also be very pleased to have the transport planners from wherever you live visit to take part in a Study Tour so that they can see the result of achieving this.

4001 - a utility cycling odyssey

I noticed yesterday as I put it away that my town bike had managed to clock up exactly 4001 km on its bike computer.

The computer was given to me for Christmas by my children and fitted around the middle of January. January 15th to September 26th is 255 days, so this bike has covered an average of 15.6 km, or just less than 10 miles, each day.

So how does this break down ? First, what this doesn't include:
  • I mostly work at home so don't have a commute.
  • Most times I take parcels to the post office I use the Xtracyclee.
  • For longer rides I use the PDQ (or, later on. Mango).
So, what does make up this distance ?
Is that it ? No. The PDQ also has a bike computer and has done 2500 km in the same period. It was a surprise to me that all the little daily utility rides added up to more than the "big" rides, but they do. I've no idea how far the Xtracycle has gone, but that does the post office run a couple of times a week and did a 100 km weekend due to visiting a basketmaking exhibition (only 40 km away, but I also had to get between the venue, the campsite, the barbecue etc.). The folding bikes do very little by comparison.

So, that's about 7000 km in total so far this year, and I'm in line for 10000 km by the end of the year. I'm looking forward to the next 3000 km !

And what is this bike ? It's an anonymous 1980s British made "all steel" 3 speed equipped bike with proper 26" wheels (26" x 1 3/8 or ETRTO 590 - over an inch bigger in diameter than MTB 26" wheels). It's also still got its original steel mudguards and chainguard, so it's a bike you can ride in any clothes without getting dirty. It's not light, it's not at all flashy, it wasn't expensive when new, but it's very reliable, very comfortable and definitely suitable for everyday use.

The bike actually came to me by an unusual route. It was found dumped in a lake north of Cambridge some years ago when walking the dog.

It looked a bit of a state, but the only thing that made it unrideable was the state of the tyres and needing a few more spokes in the rear wheel. It's since had a new chain (steel chainrings aren't like alloy ones and last almost forever), another set of new tyres, a proper dynamo light system (what would it have cost me in batteries by now if I used battery lights ?), new brake blocks, a new brake cable, a black hammerite paint job to replace the nasty red/white that it had from the factory, a new black saddle to match the paint (and to replace a damaged one) and a new front wheel hub when I rebuilt the wheel that last week. Apart from fixing things which had been broken by the person who'd dumped the bike, these are parts that eventually wear out on any bike.

Buy a Dutch lock online
The bike is fitted with matching front and back baskets which carry a lot of shopping between them, and it's gained a couple of small Dutch influences in the form of the very useful wheel lock and the "Blij dat ik fiets" sticker on the rear mudguard. This translates to "Happy that I cycle". And riding along comfortably on this bike, I smile as much as the figure on the sticker...

A typical use for this bike is a shopping expedition.

Friday 26 September 2008

Britain's loss of a cycling culture

This is a 1970s anti bike-theft ad from the UK, but I think it has more to say than just a warning to lock your bike.

Look at the people in the ad. All ages, both sexes, no special cycling clothing. It is from an age when cycling was a normal activity in the UK, not something for the athletic and not something influenced by an "extreme sport". The video represents the loss of a culture of everyday bike use, which has been replaced by ever increasing car use in the UK.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Britain's cycle culture changed. The use of traditional English town bikes decreased sharply, leaving Pashley as the only manufacturer. The Dutch used to make a big deal of using English parts on their quality bicycles. Many English people now think that bikes of the traditional English style are Dutch.

During this period, the older utility cyclists nearly disappeared and were replaced in rather smaller numbers by youngsters who ignored the old and imported the mountain bike from sunny California.

I've absolutely nothing against mountain biking as a sport. It's not my sport, but I wish all luck to those who do it. However, the bikes are dreadful for utility use. It is now quite difficult to buy an inexpensive bicycle in the UK which is not styled like a mountain bike, even those sold as "hybrid" bikes tend to lack the features needed for utility cycling. Trying to use these things as utility bikes is part of what has driven the British away from cycling.

Inefficient knobbly tyres slow you down, no mudguards or chainguard mean you get dirty, especially on rainy days, no luggage rack means carrying your worldly goods uncomfortably on your back, exposed derailleur gears are unreliable, removable lights and quick release parts result in having to carry half the bike around with you when you park and a hunched over riding position does nothing good for comfort. It all adds up to making cycling rather more hard work than it ought to be. (All is not lost: You can buy parts to make an MTB more practical)

Getting back the European town bikes that the UK used to be full of is a large part of getting back the rate of cycling that other European countries have kept. Britain's cycling rate in the 1950s was higher than that of the Netherlands today. People in the main rode single speed or Sturmey Archer 3 speed hub equipped steel frame bikes fully equipped with mudguards, racks etc. They rode these in hilly areas as well as flat areas. The right tool for the job.

If you want advice on wine, you're better off asking someone who appreciates good wine than asking a teatotaller. Similarly, if you want to see what bicycle works for utility use, look to a time or place where utility cycling is common. What you see everyone using on the streets during the rush hour, on the school run, at the shops, at church and in the bike shops is the ideal machine. If you're in any doubt, see the photo on the right, which shows a typical selection of bikes parked in Assen, along with a typical cyclist, in normal clothing. Just like everyone in the video at the top.

The Netherlands was for a long time the largest market for the British manufacturers Sturmey Archer and Brooks. They were so popular that cycle paths were named after them.


Three years ago I took this photo in Bottisham near Cambridge in the UK. It shows the UK's National Cycle Network route 51 distance from Bottisham to Newmarket as being 15 miles in length (turn left here) while the road route for cars is just 6 miles (turn right).

How is anyone going to see cycling as a convenient way of getting anywhere if cycle routes are indirect ? In this case the distance is over double the distance by bike as by car.

Cycling needs to be convenient. Dutch planners know that and you tend to see the opposite on sign posts in this country: Shorter routes for cyclists than for drivers.

The second set of signs are positioned on the route between Assen and Groningen. From this point, the indicated distances on the cycle routes are shorter than those on the driving routes for three out of the four destinations on the boards, and the same for the fourth destination.

Make it safe and make it convenient. That's surely what you do if you want to attract people to cycling.

Thursday 25 September 2008

News from the green

Each week our local paper includes 4 pages or so of information from the local government about what is happening around the city. A "brink" is a green in the middle of a town, and generally where you'll find the town hall. Hence "Berichten van de brink" or "News from the green"

On the left you can see the first page of this week's communication. The main story is about a statue for the city centre. The "Old Beech".

However, there's nearly always something for cyclists too, and the item I've zoomed in on is about a cycle path to be built connecting the North of Assen with one of the outlying villages, Zeijen. There is already a very good quality cycle path connecting the city to the village (featured in a video at the end of this blog post), but the new one which opens at the start of next year will provide a different route and be intended more for recreational rides.

The path will take the route of an existing right of way called the "Schoolpad" as many years ago it was the route for taken by school children. However, it was never properly surfaced and has been out of use except for agricultural vehicles for many years. I've ridden on it, and at present it's rather bumpy. Similar to many bridleways in the UK.

The "restoration" of this path will give it a smooth concrete or tarmac surface and the result will resemble the artist's impression in the article, complete with the lining of oak trees to give a pleasant appearance and provide a habitat for bats. The path will be broad enough that agricultural vehicles can also use it for access to the fields, so it will have a proper foundation and be built to the standard of a road.

This two kilometre long high quality path will cost half a million euros to complete. It is far from the only work planned for the rest of this year and next year. Further blog posts will cover others.

This path will feature on our cycling tours next year.

When I lived in Cambridge I proposed for many years that a route be established between the North of Cambridge behind the regional college to Landbeach, following the line of the ancient Mere Way. This is similar in many ways. It would provide a direct route from a village to the city (in this case from a village which doesn't currently have a good quality cycle route, and directly to an area with education and employment) and it would follow an existing right of way. Landbeach is a bigger village with a population of 825 vs. 680 for Zeijen, so you might think it would have a higher priority. However, sadly there was no will to provide such a route for cyclists, and no funding available.

The video below shows part of the existing high quality route between Zeijen and Assen, and which was featured on this year's study tours.

See also how this cycle-path is kept clear of snow in the winter.

Wednesday 24 September 2008

Dutch bicycles are the most expensive in the world. Visiting a bike shop to find out why.

Today I visited a bike shop here in Assen. Bike shops in the Netherlands are quite different from those in parts of the world where few people cycle daily.

Apart from special shops which stock special types of bikes, bike shops mostly stock practical bikes which can be used for every day journeys.

60% of bicycles sold in the Netherlands are city bikes. These are generally fitted with mudguards, chainguards, luggage racks and dynamo lights and they have a relatively comfortable upright riding position (another post describes all the features of such bikes).

There is a tendency for foreigners to view these bikes bikes as an anachronism. However, in reality they are the perfect utility machine. Reliable, long lasting and efficient for getting around on a daily basis. They are perfectly evolved for their purpose, and make a lot more sense for utility purposes than adaptions of other types of bicycles, such as MTBs or road bikes.

The Dutch pay a lot for their good quality bikes. The average sale price for a bicycle in the Netherlands is € 603 vs. an average of around $320 (today equivalent to € 220) in the USA.

The bike shop in which I took the photos is quite typical. The majority of bikes on sale fit into the practical category which makes up 60% of sales.

Children's bikes are 17% of the market. Also well worth the average bike shop stocking. Note that bicycles are definitely not toys for children in this country, and that as the children will also be using their bikes for practical purposes, children's bikes are also fully fitted with mudguards, chainguards, a luggage rack and dynamo lighting. You can see how these bikes continue to be ridden to school in the winter here.

Mountain bikes are around 3% of the market and racing bikes are a part of the "other" category which makes up 4% of the market. Most shops stock them, but unless they are specialists they will have a much smaller selection than of the practical bicycles. Because these bikes are only bought by people who wish to race them (or pretend to race them), you only rarely find cheap mountain or road bikes. Normally there are only highly specified sport bikes - with prices to match.

Electric bicycles have now grown to 6% of the market. They're generally slick looking and relatively high performance machines with batteries hidden in the main tubes and small motors. Mostly they are ridden by people who are in the later stages of their lives, but they still don't want people to know that they now ride an electric assisted bike.

One of the most popular models of electric bike is marketed as having an "onzichtbare motor", which means "invisible motor", and has a slogan "Is dit echt een elektrische fiets" ("Is this really an electric bike ?")

Note that people don't restrict themselves to one bike. There are 1.1 bikes per person in the Netherlands - the only country where bicycles outnumber people.

And of course, these bike shops sell everything you need to go along with a lifestyle where bicycles are practical machines. High capacity front and rear racks, stands, baskets, panniers, map holders, baby seats etc. etc.

To finish, I've a video that I made of a visit to a Dutch bicycle manufacturer, in this case Azor - a local manufacturer of good quality bikes. Note the effort taken to produce a long lasting and useful product. The steaming brine bath used to screen components for durability is a part of making a machine which will be reliable for every day use right through the year, and which will still be usable 20 years after it was made.

After all, that's what these bicycles are for: Daily use by everyone.

Update with later figures
Average prices paid for bicycles in the EU (source). People are prepared to pay more on average for a quality bicycle in the countries where their also likely to ride it a lot. Hence the highest average prices are paid in the Netherlands and Denmark while most people living in a low cycling country such as France or the UK are willing to pay far less on average for a bicycle.

We have our own online shop for bicycle components

Monday 22 September 2008

Eco town

Back in the UK, much is being made of the proposed eco-towns. These are supposed to be developments which encourage living in a more sustainable manner. However, none of them seem to be seriously tackling the problems of transport by making a serious effort to get people out of motor vehicles. The Dutch have tackled this by encouraging people to cycle.

Houten is a few kilometres South East of Utrecht. It dates back hundreds of years, however it was always a small town until the 1960s when it was targeted for growth. In the 1970s, the city's planners decided to discourage car use and encourage the use of bicycles. The city has grown rapidly since then, allowing a lot of new ideas to be built in at the point of design. It now has 47000 residents living with a very low road casualty rate and a very high cycling rate.

To quote from the Houten local government website: "There are 16 districts, each is only accessible to cars via a peripheral road encircling the town. A network of different types of paths for cyclists and pedestrians has been created throughout the area, with a direct backbone thoroughfare to the town centre. Only in residential streets cars are mixed with cyclists. Mostly all schools and important buildings are located along the cyclist's backbone."

We visited Houten on the 2006 Study Tour and found it a pleasure to cycle there.

The local government web page has English language information about Houten, including links to other articles about the city.

While other countries have been slow to pick up on what has been achieved, many of the principles established in the design of Houten have since been used in other new developments and existing cities around the Netherlands. This includes Assen where we base our Study Tours, where the new suburb of Kloosterveen has a strong resemblance to other modern Dutch developments (VINEX wijken) which are influenced by Houten.

Note, though, that Houten itself now find itself in some respects a little outdated. Many things were done first in the city, and these ideas have been adapted as they were adopted elsewhere. For instance, bicycle roads in Houten can be used by motorists as through routes. This is not the case of examples elsewhere. Cycling is far more pleasant without cars and the incidence of bullying by motorists is reduced as a result of keeping motor vehicles away from cycling routes.

Sunday 21 September 2008

Cyclemania in Drenthe

Helen and Les Faber from Canada came to visit today (read their blog: Cyclemania). They've been riding around the Netherlands seeing different parts of the country.

I met the two of them at Noordlaren, just out of Drenthe in the province of Groningen, and together we rode south, through heath and forest, past ancient hunebedden and modern radio-telescopes eventually getting to Assen in time to catch a train to Utrecht.

The photos show Helen and Les riding on a country road just south of Assen and through some heath a little North. There are many small corners of the country that you don't so easily find without a local guide, as cycle route signs tend to send you on the more practical and direct routes.

There was too much to see in such a short time, so we covered as much ground as we could. I had a great time today and I hope Helen and Les did too.

Drenthe has a very varied landscape and really is a beautiful province. That's why we chose it as our home. It is not known as the "cycling province" of the Netherlands for nothing and many Dutch people come here for their cycling holidays. We organise cycling holidays here for English speaking people and we also have a slideshow of photos of Drenthe.

A ride through the countryside

A few days ago I went on a ride through the countryside checking out a small addition to one of our holiday routes. I rode my long-suffering Pashley PDQ recumbent.

The music accompanying the video is expertly played by my friend Terry Clark. You can watch him play this piece on his blog.

Friday 19 September 2008

For good neighbours, live in a quiet, car-free street

A study about living in quiet vs. busy streets written by Joshua Hart confirms previous results in the USA:

This says that "people who live with high levels of motor traffic are far more likely to be socially disconnected and even ill than people who live in quiet, clean streets."

I suggest reading Joshua's own blog entry, or the report itself published on the living streets website.

Dutch residential streets rarely have this problem
Residential streets in the Netherlands are rarely through streets for motor traffic. As a result, they are usually quiet enough for children to play.

Where busy roads come close to residential streets, the noise of motor traffic can be reduced in many ways. Quieter road surfaces can be used, speed limits can be lowered, and of course you can reduce the amount of driving by increasing the amount of cycling. This requires that cycling is made sufficiently pleasant as a manner to make journeys so that people will opt for it themselves.

People on busy streets elsewhere who "largely lived in the back rooms of their houses and chose dark or black curtains to conceal the soot build-up from vehicles" are living on streets which are also hostile to cyclists, leading to a spiral of lowering life quality.

A Dutch solution
There are busy roads in the Netherlands too, but they rarely go right past people's front doors. These three photos show a busy road in Assen and the barrier which separates it from where people live.

The houses are behind a layer of trees as well as a noise barrier. So, walking from the houses through the barrier you will successively see these three scenes.

First there are trees to hide the barrier from the homes. The barrier itself is around 4 metres high and consists of tinted toughened glass at an angle to reflect sound upwards.

The road behind the barrier has a 70 km/h (43 mph) speed limit despite being a dual carriageway. It also uses a quiet road surface. Cyclists and pedestrians have other routes so that they do not have to share this road, nor be inconvenienced by having to stop at the traffic lights.

The result of this is that the motor vehicles on the road are inaudible inside the homes on the other side of the barriers, and extremely quiet even in the gardens of those homes.

People live in houses here with exactly the sort of social interaction described for "Light street" in the paper.

There is also another view of the same barriers, including video and a later blog post illustrates how the original main road in this location has been civilized for cycling.

Thursday 18 September 2008

School cycle parking

If children are to cycle to school, there had better be enough space to park their bikes. These photos (please do click on them for bigger versions as you can't see the bikes properly otherwise) show the cycle parking at one of the secondary schools in Assen. There are a thousand students at this school, and here are their bikes.

Very few children go to school by any other means, even though secondary school students travel from as far as 20 km (12 miles) away to get to school.

Of course, first of all they have to get there. Without the infrastructure on the streets, this cycle park might well be empty because the students wouldn't be cycling.

To see the infrastructure in action see my blog a few days ago which included a video of primary school children cycling, or the slightly older one showing the rush hour. Infrastructure should increase subjective as well as actual safety. That is what makes the students want to cycle in the numbers seen here, and what makes their parents allow them to do so.

There is a photo of a different secondary school's parking on the photos page, and you can also see a video showing a route to a school.

Wednesday 17 September 2008

School buses

An American style school bus
There are no school buses in this country. There are companies which have a few of the traditional yellow school bus as used in the US, but they hire them out for corporate events, weddings etc. and do not use them to take children to school.

Children here predominantly cycle. We were told by a local secondary school teacher than the cycling rate to his school is 100% in the summer, dropping to around 95% in the winter. Some children cycle daily round trips of up to 40 km ( 25 miles ) in order to get to school. and back home.

Children attending primary school also cycle. This video, which I took a few months back when it was -2 C ( 28 F ) shows a normal school run at a primary school. It could have been taken on any day.

This is the result of having infrastructure and a social environment which feels safe enough that people let their children ride bikes to school.

Amsterdam - child cycling under pressure
But wait, what's this article on the right ?

The headline reads "Amsterdam first years not happy cycling". It discusses how in Amsterdam the cycling rate for children in the first year of secondary school has dropped such that just 53% of children in the first year of secondary education cycle to school every day, vs. 89% of children over the entire country.

The reason most given not to cycle is the heavy traffic and the risks due to it.

The article also goes on to say that of those who cycle daily, 43% have fallen from their bikes at some point - mostly by crashing into other cyclists. The low quality of cycling infrastructure in some parts of Amsterdam is part of the reason why.

Why include this piece ? It's the same story as above. A high degree of subjective safety is vital if you want people to ride bikes. Amsterdam appears to many foreigners to be a paradise for cycling, and it has the highest cycling rate of any capital city in the western world. However Amsterdam is not a leader within the Netherlands. The city doesn't have the lowest rate of cycling in the Netherlands, but it most surely doesn't have the highest either. For all its charm (Amsterdam is really a marvelous city for many reasons), conditions for cycling in Amsterdam are not so good as in many of the other cities in this country, and that is reflected in a cycling rate which is lower than it otherwise might be.

The only "school bus" in Assen is part of a small fleet of
special buses which can  be hired for special events. You can
also choose the British double decker or Indonesian Bedford.
In the Netherlands, having only just over half of all children in the first year of secondary school cycling each day is something that is recognized as a problem. It's something to work on and improve. Note that it can be expected that by the second year of secondary school, rather a higher percentage of the children will be cycling.

And in the UK ?Instead of looking over the North Sea and taking note, the UK is as ever looking for advice in the opposite direction - across the Atlantic. There is a move with the Yellow School Bus Commission to introduce American style yellow school buses to the UK. This commission is ignoring the factors which make people continue to feel that their children are unsafe on the streets and if successful it will further reduce the opportunity for British kids to get exercise. It will also, of course, cost a fortune. Instead of spending on infrastructure which enables a truly green form of transport, the government will end up buying diesel to power buses and produce fumes on the streets. Should I be surprised that this commission was established and is sponsored by a bus company ? Is this proposal for the benefit of the children or of bus company shareholders ?

Children with disabilities ?
Children with disabilities can't always cycle to school and for them an alternative is provided. To minimise the number of private cars used on the school run, mini-buses are provided which call to each home to pick the child up in the morning and which return again after school. However these minibuses are not available to children who can make their own way to and from school.

The American school bus photo at the top is a public domain image which can be found here. The article is from the ANWB*Auto paper published on the 11th of September.

Tuesday 16 September 2008

Three types of safety

Separate from the main road, a family cycles together, side-by-side. Straps on the front child seat are not done up. Slightly older children ride their own bikes. No-one wears safety equipment. The child in the rear is fiddling with something but the parents have no concerns concerned. This illustrates Subjective Safety.
The Netherlands is the safest place in the world to cycle. This is sometimes put down to a "safety in numbers" effect, but actually the infrastructure design is the vital component and shouldn't be overlooked. A lot of people would like their own country to emulate the Dutch success, but often they don't realise what is needed.

I used to do cycle promotion work in the UK, travelling from city to city and talking to a great number of people about cycling. They all already knew that cycling was healthy, good for the environment etc. Many people would like to be able to cycle. The number one reason that the average person in the street would give for not cycling was "it's too dangerous". So, what did they mean by this ?

One of many four metre wide cycle-paths
in Assen. School run cycling.
There are three measures of safety, all of which have their place in Dutch bicycle provision:
  1. Actual safety - How many km you can expect to travel before you're injured on your bike.
  2. Subjective safety (sometimes called "perceived" safety) - Are you near fast moving traffic ? Is it easy to make a turn across traffic ? Do you have to cycle "fast" in order to keep up ?
  3. Social safety - Is there a mugger around that blind corner ? Will I be attacked in the street if I cycle ?
Cycle campaigners and planners might interest themselves in the actual safety, and it's a good thing that they do. Cyclists should of course be as safe as possible. However, no-one really makes a decision on whether to cycle or not based on these figures. Actually, cycling isn't really very risky in most countries and these figures often feature in cycle promotion literature. However, they're not successfully convincing people to take up cycling.

When people make the decision about whether it is "safe to cycle", they generally mean the second and third of our three different types of safety: Subjective Safety and Social Safety.

Also, if they're making a decision for someone else - perhaps their child or their partner - these issues become even more important.
Mother and children. Having several
metres of separation from the road
is essential for a high level of
subjective safety.
How do you improve Subjective Safety ? Here's a partial list:
  • Cyclists should never mix with high speed or high volume motor traffic. A third of all roads in the Netherlands have a speed limit of 30 km/h or lower, most 50 km/h (30 mph) roads provide cyclists with a segregated path, as do many 30 km/h roads with higher volumes of traffic.
  • On-road bike lanes and cycle paths without sufficient separation from the road are not suitable with high speed or high volume motor traffic.
  • Reductions in speed and volume of traffic always help. All residential streets and a third of the entire road network has a 30 km/h (18 mph) speed limit or lower.
  • Fully segregated cycle paths provide a good degree of subjective safety but must be built to a suitable standard. In this area they have a minimum width of 2.5 metres if for single direction use and 4 m for bidirectional use. Paths for pedestrians are separate.
  • Junctions should be designed to make sure that cyclists are not left out. Cyclists can be separated in both time and space from motorists to maximise both efficiency and safety.
  • In many cases, cyclists avoid junctions altogether so they cause as little inconvenience as possible.
  • In Assen, the new standards require that cycle paths which follow the line of roads are separated from them by 2.5 metres. Where this isn't possible you will find a metal barrier is used, to provide a feeling of subjective safety as well as actual safety from crashing vehicles.
  • Where possible, cycle routes follow a completely different route to driving routes, which of course improves the feeling of safety further.
  • Reducing the noise of motor vehicles by using quieter road surfaces and installing noise barriers between the road and cyclists helps.
In the countryside away from all
motorized traffic, our family, rides
in comfort,
For social safety:
  • You should always be able to see out of any tunnel as you enter it.
  • Blind corners on paths are not acceptable.
  • Cycle paths should be wide to allow cyclists to move out of the way of other people who may be on the path.
  • Good sight-lines are required and there should be no places to hide along a cycle route.
  • A low crime rate and a good conviction rate are needed. Cyclists should not feel that the police do not take their complaints seriously. 
  • Areas that are clean, litter free, graffiti free, where grass is mowed and plants are not allowed to overhang the cycle path have a better feeling of social safety.
  • Cycle paths should be lit at night so that you can see potential muggers, obstacles on the path etc.
If subjective and social safety are improved then people will cycle. They will want to. and so they will do it.

To summarise... No-one will do anything that feels too dangerous to them. Everyone wants their child to be safe and their partner to be safe. That's why so many journeys which ought to be cycleable are made by car. There is no point in arguing with people's decisions, or ridiculing them. The person making the decision to use a car has made it for quite logical reasons. Their level of confidence about cycling in the conditions around you is not the same as your own.

What to do... If you want people who do not cycle to take up cycling, then the right thing to do is to campaign for or design in road conditions which make cycling into an appealing option. That is what the Dutch have done. Everywhere. It is the key to the high cycle usage and high cycle safety figures.

Don't make the mistake of thinking that subjective safety is a concern only for inexperienced cyclists. No-one suffers from cycling being pleasant. Steps to increase the subjective and social safety of cyclists lead to a better cycling experience for all. Experienced cyclists are less likely to give up cycling in a subjectively safe environment. It becomes a lifetime habit. People continuing to want to cycle on the road when there is a parallel cycle-path are a sign of failure due to low quality. Always set your sights high enough when campaigning or planning.

A British child being trained. Wearing
fluorescent clothes and a helmet to ride
in the gutter on a residential street
which is subject to rat-running
So, where do helmets and fluorescent clothing fit in ? For some individuals, wearing such a thing improves their own feeling of safety to the level that they will ride. However, these items actually do little to improve actual safety and can have a negative effect on the subjective safety of other people due to making cycling look dangerous. Where cycling has a high degree of subjective safety, as it does here, no-one wears these safety aids. Dutch cyclists are safer without them than cyclists elsewhere are with them.

For more on the same theme, perhaps this post is most suitable. There are quite a few other posts tagged subjective safety which show different aspects of what makes cycling subjectively safe and the result of it. Amongst the other things needed to make cycling attractive is to make cycling more direct, so there are a lot of examples there to illustrate that concept too.

Big picture vs. small picture subjective safety
December 2011 update: I've realised since writing the text above that many people have slightly misinterpreted what I meant. There are two types of "subjective safety".

The most important, "big picture", type of subjective safety is that of society as a whole which causes everyone to cycle. This is what my article is about and this is what causes Dutch people of all ages and social positions to find cycling to be a safe activity, even wearing black clothes on an unlit bicycle at night. Cycling in the Netherlands always feels safe. This leads to a very high modal share for cycling.

The other, "small picture", type of subjective safety is that which involves people using safety equipment such as fluorescent clothes and helmets when they cycle. While this may make it possible for a few individuals who are already interested in cycling to cycle a bit more and to feel safer as they do so, it is debatable whether this does anything for the overall modal share for cycling.

Some people argue that it is detrimental to the modal share if cyclists take up visible safety equipment to improve their own "small picture" subjective safety. I suspect that "big picture" subjective safety is barely altered at all by this. The issues that people who don't cycle can see and which put them off cycling are with street design, not with the clothing of existing cyclists.

All the photos are of subjectively safe cyclists in the Netherlands, except the last which is of a British child being taught "safer cycling" in Cambridge. He is riding too close to the kerb on an unsuitable bike, but wearing fluorescent clothing and a helmet. The child in the fluorescent clothing will probably give up on cycling within a few years, while the Dutch cyclists will in all likelihood keep on cycling through their lives because high levels of subjective safety make it a pleasant thing to do.

The children in the photo at the top are all tired. Why ? Because this family is returning from the last day of a four day cycling event. They've cycled at least 40 km per day as part of the event, plus however far it is between their home and the startplace in Assen. The object which the child at the back is fiddling with as he cycles is a medal.

Per km travelled, Dutch cyclists are 3x less likely to die and 4x less likely to be injured than those in the UK, 5x less likely to be killed and 30x less likely to be injured than in the USA (statistics found here, page 506). Read more about the safety of cyclists in the Netherlands. However, this doesn't tell nearly the whole story, it's actually much safer than that for Dutch cyclists who fit the usual demographic for cycling in other countries. Two thirds of all cyclist deaths in the Netherlands are of people aged over 65. Most of their lethal injuries come from single vehicle collisions. i.e. when old people fall off their bikes, old age sadly can be enough to do the rest. This effect is virtually unknown in the UK and USA because so few older people cycle.