Friday, 31 October 2008

I feel afraid, I get harrassed. I'm not welcome there.

The title is a comment from someone involved in Critical Mass in San Francisco and reflects the lack of subjective safety experienced by that cyclist on the streets of San Francisco other than on Critical Mass day. The interview is a part of Ted White's 1999 film "We Are Traffic", which I have just re-watched.

It's interesting to watch this film again. The protesters are a product of their situation. I can understand them wanting their one day each month of dominating streets that are normally not pleasant to cycle on. They also make some very good points about wanting to rebuild community on the streets. There is a lot of good intention there. However, while they've made a leap of imagination in their environment, they still have relatively low aspirations. One of the interviewees says about cycling as transport "Not everybody can make that decision... it's really absurd to assume that they can." The problem in front of them is so big that even the protesters are aiming low (over here cycling crosses all demographic boundaries. Young and old, rich and poor, black and white, male and female. Virtually everyone cycles. Not for all their journeys, but for a great number of them.)

I'm not a fan of "critical mass." It takes a confrontational line which unfortunately has resulted in alienation and conflict and while the views expressed in the video were generally very positive, I perceive that the confrontation has become the aim for some participants. Ultimately I feel it has amounted to very little. Most importantly, it's actually failed to create a true "critical mass." While the amount of shouting and hooting by those involved makes it sound huge, and the film is shot in such a way that there appear to be a huge number of cyclists, one of the riders in the film lets slip how many there are. He says that he counted and that there are 190-200 cyclists on the demonstration. He says "This is a big ride."

Critical mass in San Francisco has grown and now attracts an average of around 1000 participants (wikipedia). However, for a special event this is still not a largenumber given the population. San Francisco's population is over 3 million. 7 million if you include the metropolitan area.

Over here in the small city of Assen there are just 65000 people. However, between themthey make an average of more than 70000 cycle journeys every day. Critical mass is an event which really doesn't have a place in the Netherlands. There have been occasional events calling themselves "critical mass", but they're protesting about other things.

What we can never know is what might have happened in the 16 years that critical mass has been taking place in cities around the world if the participants had put their energies into taking note of where the truly successful cycling cultures are (i.e. here) and tried to replicate that success in their own countries. A thousand people spending a couple of hours once a month for 16 years amounts to over 40 man-years of effort.

For me, "We are traffic" is an interesting glimpse of another world. It's a well made film, but is limited simply because critical mass as a movement isn't offering much. However, 7 years earlier, Ted White made another film which I think is timeless and wonderful:

The conflict of the later film is missing and interviewees in this film are all glowing with enthusiasm about cycling.

The name "Critical Mass" came from "Return of the Scorcher", another Ted White film dating from 1992. It was used to describe when a group of Chinese cyclists forced their way into traffic in the film. You can see at this point that cycling is already under stress in China in the early 1990s. Once cyclists are forced to be in conflict with vehicles, the feelings expressed in the title of this blog post come to the fore. For many people this is a reason to want to be in a car. What's more, bicycles have in some instances been banned from streets. Cycling has unfortunately declined sharply in China since the film was made, but it was inevitable given what has happened in China.

"Return of the Scorcher" also visits the Netherlands. Amongst the interviews we hear a beautiful story from an old Dutch couple about their honeymoon by bicycle during the second world war. The Dutch cycling culture is far more healthy than the Chinese. Cycling here has increased since the film was made. The difference between this country and China is that the Dutch cyclists are being looked after in the way that infrastructure is designed. They are not expected to compete with cars on an unequal basis.

The equivalent scene of lots of cyclists crossing the roads at once in the Netherlands would be not of people having to get in the way of cars and cause them to stop, as in the Chinese example, but of the simultaneous green junctions which allow cyclists priority over all other traffic. Not only does this remove conflict on the streets, but as cyclists get a green light twice as often as drivers, it also increases the convenience of cyclists relative to drivers.

Perhaps the world would be a different place now if the name of the cycling protest had been taken from a different part of this film. One which presented cyclists in a less pressured situation, and within a country where cycling was being promoted. Perhaps if more notice had been taken of Michael Replogle's comment 22 minutes into the film that "Infrastructure tells you what to do. The way we design our streets tells you how to behave in those streets. It tells you about modes of travel to use and how to use them," then the result might have been different. Perhaps then we would see different patterns emerging in those nations where "critical mass" takes place, but where a true critical mass of cyclists still has not appeared.

Cycling needs to be for everyone, not just for a counter cultural minority.

To see infrastructure which really encourages cycling as a means of transport, come and visit us here in Assen. "We Are Traffic" is also watchable online. Also, both films are available to buy. Also note that I'm aware of the limitations regarding my crude man-years calculation.

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Hospital parking

Like most car-parks in Assen, most of the time, the free car
park at the hospital doesn't ever seem to fill up.
My primary interest in in cycling, not driving. It's not often that I come to the defence of motorists. However, there have been stories recently in the UK about the cost of hospital parking which remind me about how it was when my children were born.

Due to a lack of viable options for taking my wife to hospital and bringing her and our newborn child home, I learnt to drive when my wife was pregnant with our first child. This meant driving to Addenbrookes hospital in Cambridge, having to find the right loose change to pay for parking, being stressed about the possibility of getting a parking ticket and having to go out and feed the meter again at an inconvenient time while awaiting the delivery our of child.

The bike parking does sometimes fill up. Not today, though
It struck me then as a mean-spirited thing to do. It still seems like it too.

The parking situation at Addenbrookes is still in the news. While there might be a case for some pressure to get employees at the hospital to take alternative forms of transport, the patients are not generally going to hospital for fun, but because they have to. It's really not the time to try to change behaviour.

Over here in Assen, hospital car parking is free. There is also good quality cycle parking. On the day I took these photos neither were full. The problem complained of by residents around Addenbrookes doesn't exist here. In fact, while car parking often causes consternation for British people, it is rarely an issue in the Netherlands. There are adequate spaces where there need to be spaces, and relatively little need for parking because of people cycling for a large proportion of journeys.

There is a tendency in the UK for policies like this to be applauded by cyclists on the grounds that at least "something is being done" to encourage people out of cars. However I don't think it's helpful at all. Quite apart from the fact that it's a remarkable negative publicity campaign to go around hassling people when they are ill, I also believe it to be rather silly to get too excited about people being hassled out of cars on less than 1% of their journeys. These are not the journeys that need changing. What is needed to make a real difference is for people to be attracted out of cars on some proportion of the other 99% of their journeys. Perhaps once cycling is made into a safe and convenient option for normal people on an everyday basis, they'll also feel more like cycling for exceptional journeys such as to hospital.

In the Netherlands, more carrot is used than stick. It's lead to considerably more cycling than elsewhere, while driving has remained comparatively hassle free.

Read more articles about cycling and health and more about how parking in Assen is very often free of charge or inexpensive.

Car parking is also either free or inexpensive at other hospitals in the Netherlands. One hospital in Rotterdam offers a valet parking service which includes parking for €7 per day.

Monday, 27 October 2008

Bicycle Masterplan 1990


Back in 1990 the Dutch government producted a masterplan for cycling, which included this video produced in English and sent around to world (including Polish subtitles in this example) to let everyone know what their intentions were so far as cycling was concerned.

The Masterplan contains estimates of what it was hoped would be achieved by 2010, and it appears that they're going to be successful in meeting the targets.

Very many areas of the world don't have examples of infrastructure such as you'll see in this 18 year old video. Very much of it here has of course been improved once again since the video was made.

It's a great example of joined up thinking. The cycling rate here has not come about by accident. It's the result of a consistent policy stretching over decades and concentrating on making conditions for cycling attractive.

By way of contrast, the UK had a "National Cycling Strategy" in 1996 which had an aim of doubling cycling by 2002 and doubling again by 2012. It was abandoned in 2004 after the rate of cycling had declined over the previous 8 years - just one of many times that promises have been broken. The very consistency of the Dutch approach is a large part of the reason for its huge success.

For more information, we have many articles about cycling in the Netherlands on our website, including the Master Plan from 1999.

Sunday, 26 October 2008

Triathlon

Another event in Assen yesterday was the Winter Triathlon.

There were about a thousand competitors, either as individuals or in teams for a "relay". Most people took part in a 10 km run, a 50 km cycle ride and 20 km on ice skates, but there were also sprint events where the distances were halved. Ages ranged from 20s to 70s.

I'm a hopeless runner and can't skate, so triathlon isn't really my thing, but I went to watch for a bit.

The cycling and running events involved the police being out in force closing roads.

It seems relatively easy to get road closures here compared with back in the UK.

Night of the Night

Last night was the "Nacht van de Nacht" - "Night of the night." It's a campaign about light pollution, which has effects on night time animals and of course makes life difficult for astronomers. Various activities were organised around the country. Here in Assen we had a choice of a walk in the woods or a bike ride. A couple of dozen people turned up for the bike ride, which covered about 10 km over an hour, including lots of stops. It was lead by a council employee who showed off the new initiatives in street lighting.

Assen is aiming to be "carbon neutral" by 2020. As part of this effort the council is installing lower energy LED street lighting across the city. These produce more light per watt of electricity, and are more directional meaning that less is scattered across the sky (meaning that yet more of a reduction in consumption is possible). They cost money to install, but over time, they save a lot of money and a lot of CO2 production.

There are further innovations. While most of the lighting is white, there are also plans to install green lighting in some places. These can be even lower in energy consumption because the human eye is most sensitive to green light.

There was also talk of an idea where lights would dim and brighten depending on the state of an infra-red sensor on the pole. This means that energy could be saved due to the light being dimmed on the bike path where there are no people, but that the lighting would be bright as you approach and dim again after you've passed.

All of these things also benefit wildlife and make life better for astronomers.

We also saw solar powered lamps by cycle parking. While it costs around a thousand Euros to put in a normal pole, vs 2100 for a solar pole, no electricity supply has to be wired up, which can be expensive to do (a long time ago in another life I was involved in the preliminary design of some solar powered street furniture and we found it could work out cheaper than wiring to the mains).

As ever there was also talk of safety. Social safety for cyclists and pedestrians is improved by having good lighting. If you want people to cycle you have to provide decent street lights.

All of these things also benefit wildlife and make life better for astronomers. Given the number of advantages, it would seem rather silly not to be making these changes.

The tour ended up with avery welcome cup of hot chocolate and a slice of cake.

Assen, and the Netherlands in general, has a lot of environmental innovation which I've not seen in other places I've lived. I've written up some of it before.

Saturday, 25 October 2008

Van der Valk


In the 1970s on British TV there was a series called "Van der Valk" which followed a Dutch policeman from week to week. The show was made in English and I understand that the actors were all English too. However, it was shot in Amsterdam.

The interesting thing about this video, which shows the opening credits, is that having been shot in the early 1970s, it shows a different Amsterdam to that which you'll see in the present day. There are fewer bikes, and lots of cars. Dutch cities just don't look like this any more.

See also some before and after photos of Assen in the 1970s vs. now.

Friday, 24 October 2008

Clif Bar 2 mile challenge

People often make statements which suggest that the Dutch cycle because their journeys are short. However, it's not actually true that Dutch journeys are significantly different in length from those in other countries, and even in those countries with the longest average journey length, there are plenty of short journeys made which could be by bike. Read on...

I first heard of the Clif Bar 2 mile challenge some time ago. My first reaction was that it was quite ludicrous. 2 miles (3.2 km) is such a very short distance to travel on a bike, yet here's a website showing you how to do it, what equipment to buy (there seems to be an awful lot of it) etc. Surely no encouragement should be needed to get people to make such short journeys by bike ? And why the involvement of an energy bar manufacturer ? Surely no extra energy is needed after that short distance.

However, let's look at it in its context. They claim that 40% of all urban journeys made in the US are 2 miles and under, and that 90% of those trips are by car. I dare say that these figures are correct.

Average journey distances are much the same in any country, the US and the UK having similar figures to the Netherlands. However, choices of travel mode in the Netherlands are a bit different. In this country, 35% of journeys up to five miles (7.5 km) are by bike, 26% by foot and 23% as a car driver. That's for the entire country including rural areas. You get more cycle usage (and walking) in urban areas and over shorter distances. The Dutch also make 15% of their 7.5 km - 15 km journeys by bike and 3% of their over 15 km journeys. i.e. The Dutch make at least three times as many over 15 km journeys by bike as Americans manage over any distance including the shortest. Clif Bar are right to think there is some room for improvement in the USA and it would be a good thing if they could manage to get people to change their habits, even just once a week.

A year or so ago, Kelloggs set a similar challenge in the UK. In their case it is a ten mile challenge (16 kilometres). That's the distance that your family is challenged to jointly ride their bikes in a week. Families which manage this awesome feat can win a new bike (though dare I say it's unlikely they've worn out their old ones...).

Again, it seems absurd when viewed from a country where every man, woman and child cycles an average of 2.5 km per day every day of their lives. Kelloggs had an offer with the same cycle computers in the Netherlands, but they wisely didn't bother with asking people to cycle 16 kilometres.

It would be easy to be cynical about the reasons why both these companies are involved, but I believe both are genuine attempts to raise awareness.

These two challenges are far from alone. There have been many such initiatives in the US and UK, but none of them achieve anything much by way of changing the appallingly low rate of cycle use in those countries. Perhaps this is because none of them actually address the issues which stop people cycling in the first place. A "challenge" is not what's required. What is required is conditions for cyclists which make cycling an attractive thing to do.

If cycling was less pleasant in the Netherlands, then fewer people would cycle here too. However, cycling is both safe and convenient here and the public has responded by cycling more than in any other country. With good enough conditions, cycling largely promotes itself. The same thing could be achieved anywhere, but it takes a similar dedication to building a truly excellent environment for cycling that the Dutch have demonstrated for the last few decades.

If you want to see what it's like over here yourself, we can show you.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Things that don't scale

Sometimes people wonder why in the Netherlands you don't see buses with bike racks on them as in the US, or why people don't take their bikes into the office with them at work. In comparison with the UK, it can be more difficult here to take a non-folding bike on the train.

These ideas initially seem very good, but unfortunately some of them only work where few people cycle.

While Dutch trains have a relatively large amount of space for bikes, non-folding bikes are banned completely at busy hours of the day and you have to pay €6 per bike to take one on a train at other times. The €6 bicycle ticket is for a whole day and for any distance using any number of trains. Folding bikes can travel at any time for free.

Train travel in the Netherlands is actually quite economical - the highest price that you can be charged for a single ticket on Dutch trains, for travel from one end of the country to the other, not booking in advance but turning up at the station immediately before travel, is just €23.50, or €14.10 if you pay about €50 per year for a 40% discount ticket. Adding €6 to this does not actually result in the cost being high.

The reason for the charge is to discourage people from using the train with their bike frivolously. This is an example of something which becomes a problem when you start to scale up cycle usage.

The railway company says that 40% of passengers arrive at the railway station by bike. Imagine if all of them tried to take their bikes on the train in rush hour.

Bus-stops have cycle parking alongside so that passengers can leave their bikes safely. It seems reasonable to think that 40% of all bus passengers might also arrive with a bike. Certainly the bus stops tend to have plenty of bikes parked next to them. A 50 passenger bus would need a rack of 20 bikes.

The same goes for taking your bike into the office. Would it work if half the people in your office had a bike with them ?

This is why cycle parking is provided outside every office, at every bus stop, railway station, school, shop and also in every home, but in places where scalability is a problem they're restricted.

This is also a reason why cycling needs to happen in normal clothing that you can also work in. The sporty idea of cycling to work and taking a shower also only works where cyclists are a minority.

There are other solutions to some of the problems. For instance, there is a scheme called OV-Fiets (Public Transport Bikes) which after paying an annual subscription of around €10 per year allows a bike to be hired for the day for under €3. The service is still growing but currently offers around 5000 bikes spread between 170 stations. It's specifically designed for commuters and is in addition to the already existing bike hire schemes at most stations. This, however, still only provides a very small fraction of the bicycles used in conjunction with trains.

Some stations now have tens of thousands of bikes parked next to them, this causing problems of its own. There are several posts about Groningen's main Railway Station, where there are 10000 cycle parking spaces, and capacity is growing at a rate of 500 per year. At Utrecht's main station they're working towards over 20000 cycle parking spaces. Even smaller towns have large number of cycle parking spaces at the station, including Assen.

For true mass cycling, emulate what has worked in the Netherlands. But note that this country is not uniform in quality and not uniform in degree of success. That is why its important to copy the best of what this country has to offer.

The photos were taken on the 2006 Study Tour. Participant's bikes are in the main photo, each train contains several such areas for bikes, and the parked bikes are some of many at Eindhoven railway station.

Groningen Railway Station Cycle Parking


In 2006, Groningen replaced the cycle parking which had been an untidy clump of bikes outside the station with a remarkable new cycle park which has space for 4150 bikes under cover outside the station. It stretches between the two wings shown in the photo from the left side right past the right side of the photo.

Along with the old two storey cycle park just around the corner and the 1500 or so spaces in the indoor, watched cycle parking in the newer looking building on the left of the photo, this brings the total number of spaces for bikes to around 6000. The population is about 180000, so there is space for about one in thirty people to have a bike at the station at any one time.

On top of the cycle park, there are now seats and a sculpture, and the whole thing looks really rather nice compared to the untidiness of the previous situation, which in any case had fewer places and didn't have the bikes undercover.

Here's my video showing cycling through the cycle park. You don't see any bike twice in the video as we take two different routes. You also don't see anything like all the bikes, as there are different ways through.



There is also a video produced by the Fietsberaad which shows the top of the cycle parking and also (about 1 minute in) how to use the double decker parking:


This new cycle park cost €10M to build. Of course, as with all cycle parking, it's permanently full. So there are also a lot of bikes parked around this cycle park. It is estimated that there are frequently over 6000 bikes in the 4150 official spaces of the new cycle park.

Updates:
Not sure how big this is ? Compare with London...

And note that in 2010, Cycle parking at this station was again increased.

Nearly 60% of all journeys are made by bicycle in Groningen - a higher rate than anywhere else in the world. The city is 30 km North of Assen and it's featured on both our Study Tours and Cycling Holidays. There are also several more posts showing Groningen.

Monday, 20 October 2008

The downside of cycling in a flat country

I've noticed a tendency for people living in other countries to be dismissive of the rate of how much cycling there is in the Netherlands on the grounds that "it's a flat country, so easy to cycle".

In fact, living in a flat country means living with headwinds. Strong headwinds.

I've cycled both in places with hills and in flat areas with strong headwinds. It's easier with hills. Hills don't go on for ever - after climbing a hill you get to ride back down the other side. If you're lucky enough to have rolling hills you can get part way up the next one with the speed you gain on the previous downhill. Excellent fun. On the other hand, once you start into a headwind you're generally stuck with it. Possibly for the rest of the day if you're touring.

The Dutch recognise this problem. You find a lot of upright omafietsen (granny bikes) are fitted with tri-bars. This applies even to omafietsen ridden by actual grannies (though the example in the photo is actually a rather upmarket machine ridden by a genuine grandad).

It initially looked to me like a bizarre combination, but it's quite practical. It's got nothing to do with pretending to be in a time trial and everything to do with a practical desire to minimise one's frontal area to go into headwinds with a little less effort.

One of the Dutch readers of my blog, Anneke, commented on a recent post that on her 16 km round trip to school each day she could "remember riding in a flock of school kids and arguing about who had to ride in front facing the strong winds."

To summarize, if flatness was all that mattered you'd expect that areas of the UK such as Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire and Somerset would have a similar rate of journeys by cycle as the Netherlands. They don't. Not even the parts which are called 'Holland'. The problem is the lack of subjective safety. Riding on roads, sometimes with hostile motorists, does not make for a cycling experience which is pleasant enough for everyone to want to cycle. This is what is so different in the Netherlands and the reason for the high rate of cycling here.

What's more, Switzerland has a higher cycling rate than any English speaking country, and it's anything but flat. So, can we please stop making this excuse about hills ?

Update 2014
I went to Trondheim in Norway this year. It's a very hilly city. In fact, it's the only city in the world where a permanent mechanical lift has been installed to help cyclists climb a hill. Trondheim is also a very cold place in winter. Nevertheless, Trondheim is investing heavily in cycling and plans to double its existing 8% cycling modal share in the next few years.

To grow cycling, investing in good cycling facilities. Nothing else has the same effect.

We organise cycling holidays in the Netherlands - when possible we take into account the wind direction.

Sunday, 19 October 2008

An imperfect world of joy and sorrow mingled

Some things in cycling never change.

Jerome K Jerome wrote "Three Men on the Bummel" back in 1914. It's a marvellous work, one of my favourite books, perhaps one of the funniest books of all time. The protagonists go on a cycle tour, and have many adventures before and during the tour. In some ways it's quite old fashioned, but in others its right up to date. Most of the cycling problems are still with us today. For instance, there are still saddles which cause conversations like the following:

I said: “Can you think of any saddle ever advertised that you have not tried?”

He said: “It has been an idea of mine that the right saddle is to be found.”

I said: “You give up that idea; this is an imperfect world of joy and sorrow mingled. There may be a better land where bicycle saddles are made out of rainbow, stuffed with cloud; in this world the simplest thing is to get used to something hard. There was that saddle you bought in Birmingham; it was divided in the middle, and looked like a pair of kidneys.”

He said: “You mean that one constructed on anatomical principles.”

“Very likely,” I replied. “The box you bought it in had a picture on the cover, representing a sitting skeleton—or rather that part of a skeleton which does sit.”

He said: “It was quite correct; it showed you the true position of the—”

I said: “We will not go into details; the picture always seemed to me indelicate.”

He said: “Medically speaking, it was right.”

“Possibly,” I said, “for a man who rode in nothing but his bones. I only know that I tried it myself, and that to a man who wore flesh it was agony. Every time you went over a stone or a rut it nipped you; it was like riding on an irritable lobster. You rode that for a month.”

“I thought it only right to give it a fair trial,” he answered.

I said: “You gave your family a fair trial also; if you will allow me the use of slang. Your wife told me that never in the whole course of your married life had she known you so bad tempered, so un-Christian like, as you were that month."


The book is well out of copyright and can be downloaded for free. The text is available from Project Gutenberg amongst other places. Alternatively, why not buy a copy. It's a thin book ideal for reading on a cycling holiday. It's one of a small number of cycling books that I think are well worth reading and if you're going to buy it you could do worse than the very inexpensive copy on our website amazon shop.

The picture is one of those by L Raven Hill which illustrates the book. It's of "The Overhauling Fiend". Those who have read the book will realise he's another character who is still with us. Before Three Men on the Bummel, the same Author wrote the more well know Three Men in a Boat. Also a wonderful book, but with fewer bikes in it. My wife suggests not reading either of these books on public transport as laughing out loud attracts too much attention.

Friday, 17 October 2008

Assen to Groningen on folding bikes


Last Saturday afternoon, Terry and I cycled from Assen to Groningen on folding bikes and returned by train.

Terry's is a Brompton, while I have a cheap bicycles4u folder. It's not really in the same class, but given that I don't need a folding bike often it's pretty good. It did just fine for this 40 km ride.

As is usually the case in the Netherlands, most of the distance was covered on either cycle paths away from the road or roads closed to cars.

The route is one of those possible on the cycling holidays we organise in this area.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Subjective safety in Cambridge

We used to live in Cambridge in the UK. While there is a low rate of cycling by Dutch standards, this city has the highest rate of cycling in the English speaking world. Unfortunately, they don't pay much attention to what it would take to increase subjective safety to the level where everyone will cycle, and as the results of a poll in the local paper ("Do you think cycling through Cambridge is dangerous?") show, it's a place where many people don't feel safe to cycle.

The poll was linked to an article that the Cambridge Evening News ran yesterday about a dangerous set of road works in the city which have been causing problems for cyclists for months. I wonder how many people have given up cycling across this busy bridge as a result of the works ?

Cyclists are given no choice but to ride in front of cars using the restrictions and are being hassled by drivers as they cross the bridge. The bridge is steep enough to cause many cyclists to slow quite considerably, increasing the conflict caused by this arrangement.

I can't imagine such designed in conflict being a feature of road works in this country. I've pointed out before, on the Cambridge Cycling Campaign website amongst other places that road works here reduce conflict with cyclists in order to make sure that cyclists keep on cycling (that was five different links to five different examples), even if it means having to put up temporary bridges which maintain cycle routes while the usual route is cut off due to works.

Take a look at the following videos for two examples. In both cases the cycle path is being resurfaced. In this one the bus lane has been converted for cyclists only for the duration of the works:

And in this case half the dual carriageway has been set aside for bikes for the duration of the works:


If the intention is to maintain and perhaps grow a cycling culture, it's really no good to let people get hassled off the road.

It's not unique, of course. There is a past history of road works in Cambridge causing problems for cyclists, and of new developments leaving a mess behind.

We organise study tours on which we show off the excellent infrastructure in the Netherlands. Where there are road works you'll not see cyclists pushed into dangerous positions. You'll also see an awful lot of cyclists because very few people feel that cycling is unsafe here.

Monday, 13 October 2008

Subjective safety in the English speaking world


It isn't only in the Netherlands that subjective safety matters. Here it's been dealt with to a greater extent than in most other countries. People already cycle in large numbers. It's a rather bigger problem in English speaking countries which have amongst the lowest levels of cycling, and the lowest levels of both subjective and actual safety for cyclists.

The huge numbers that turn out for one day only events like London's Freewheel demonstrate how safer conditions create cyclists. How people will cycle if the surroundings are pleasant enough. However, single day events don't give an opportunity for people to grow a habit of cycling.

There are a number of responses to the lack of subjective safety in the English speaking world. Things that people do in an attempt to increase their subjective and actual safety for at least a part of some of their journeys. Often cyclists make use of relatively indirect back roads (making journeys slower and less direct than they would be in the Netherlands where you can take direct routes without fear for your safety). Cyclists wear fluorescent clothing and can get quite obsessive about lighting because they fear they won't be seen. Helmets are common due to a perception than it makes cycling safer.

Occasionally there are organised efforts such as the "bike bus" in Sydney, Australia. This gives an improvement in the level of subjective safety felt by a cyclist riding alone on hostile streets. It's great if they get people to cycle, however, the existence of such a thing is symptomatic of a problem. The people using the "bike bus" don't feel safe enough to ride on their own, and even in the "bike bus" they don't feel safe enough to do away with helmets and fluorescents. Many more people will remain unconvinced that it's safe even with a "bike bus".

Ultimately this is the wrong approach. If cities in English speaking countries (Sydney included) had proper cycling infrastructure which made cyclists feel safe and improved the efficiency of their journeys, there would be no such thing as a bike bus. There would also be a much higher rate of cycling in the much more attractive conditions, people wouldn't feel the need to wear protective clothing, and the injury rate would fall.

The English speaking world needs to start looking for advice not amongst other English speaking countries, but to those countries where cycling is truly a part of everyday life. The Netherlands leads in this and Denmark is in second place. This is where you find the experts who have proven success in raising rates of cycling.

15th October Update
Via Amsterdamize, a story which shows that Australia is perhaps also starting to do the right thing. Let's hope it is successful.

We organise Study Tours in the Netherlands for campaigners, planners and others interested in experiencing for themselves the highest quality cycling infrastructure in the world. The Dutch cycling experts group is the Fietsberaad.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Never mind the credit crunch, walk the dog instead


I've mentioned before about how pleasant it is to walk the dog by bike.

Today was a beautiful Autumn morning, so Harry and I went for a bike ride together on some of the recreational bike paths near our home and I took some photos and video while we were out.

We rode past spiderwebs covered in dew and through trees, taking care to appreciate the blue sky, which is especially welcome after the rain we've had for a couple of days.

I was of course far from the only person out this morning, and Harry was far from the only dog going for a walk with a bike. The dog on the left was just leaving Assen as we came back into the city.

Where shall we ride tomorrow ? Luckily we have a choice. The many recreational paths provide abundant pleasant places to go on a short ride (and walk) out of the city.


The music is played by my friend Terry Clark.

We sell some solutions for carrying dogs by bicycle

Subjective safety outside cycling


I've argued in the past that increasing the subjective safety of cyclists is probably the most important thing that can be done to increase cycling. I'm sticking with this. It's easily the biggest difference in the experience of cycling here vs. the UK, and it's pretty obvious which place has most cycling.

It isn't only in cycling that subjective safety is important. The motor vehicle industry has for many years touted the safety of their products. For instance in the very clever Volkswagen ad shown here.

Never mind that a comparable number of people were killed by motor vehicles during the 20th century as in all the wars combined, the message is always that cars are safe. They've also managed to make people think that bigger and more expensive cars are safer, even if it's not always true.

The airline industry is even better at it. It's hardly surprising that many people have a fear of flying. There can be few things more unnatural, or a more inherent feeling of danger, than sitting in a hermetically sealed tube which is travelling several miles above the ground at an incredibly high speed. However airlines present it as something else. Airliners have subdued and relaxing lighting, they hide the nuts and bolts of construction and the necessarily thin pressure bearing walls of the aircraft by nicely decorated and smooth plastic mouldings. The staff speak in a reassuring and controlled manner so as not to alarm passengers. Aviation disaster movies (or anything else alarming) are not scheduled for in-flight entertainment.

And what is happening for cycling ? While what ought to be done is to control the source of the danger, the motor vehicle, the emphasis is all to often placed on cyclists and pedestrians who are expected to behave and dress in ways which attempt to increase their own safety, generally marginally, in a hostile environment. It's the wrong approach because it does not attack the danger, nor the fear of danger head on. The way to increase both safety and subjective safety of cyclists is already known.

Anyway, the motor industry is where we came in, and here's more from them. Relax and enjoy this film, and be reassured that your "living room on wheels" is the safest place in the world...


I have more examples of things concerning subjective safety. To see what it's like to cycle without safety concerns, visit Assen. The photo at the top came from here.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

The influence of spatial planning on bicycle use and health

The title is that of a report by researchers from the Vrije Universiteit of Amsterdam.

They looked at two new-build developments near Utrecht, Veldhuizen in Leidsche Rijn and Houten-Zuid (Houten itself being a largely new city, designed to be cycle friendly, as already discussed). These new developments are both still under construction, and both are further from the centre of a city making it more difficult to preserve a cycling culture due to journeys being longer. However, Houten-Zuid is judged to be much more cycle friendly than Veldhuizen.

The investigation showed that in Veldhuizen, 33% of shopping was collected by bicycle, 13% of commuters travel by bike, and 56% of people take recreational rides. These figures might look quite good for most countries, but they're a little disappointing here. In Houten, the figures are 51% for shopping, 24% for commuting and 77% taking recreational rides.

These figures need a little explanation. People who mix modes on their commute by cycling or walking in addition to taking public transport are not generally included in cycling figures in this country. To include them, add 9% and 14% respectively to the earlier commute figures. Also, sport cycling is excluded from the recreational figures.

Residents of Houten-Zuid rate their cycle facilities higher than residents of Veldhuizen. What's more, many residents of Houten-Zuid give the cycle friendliness of the location as a reason why they chose to live there. Cycle friendly design results in an area being more highly valued by its inhabitants.

Perhaps the most interesting result for me personally is this one, showing the preference for different modes of transport.

Having previously lived in a place in the UK where the local papers were always filled with letters from people complaining about cycles and cyclists, it is wonderful to see the overwhelming preference for bicycles of people living in both of these locations in the Netherlands.

I take the complete lack of anti-cycling sentiment in our local paper as suggesting that people in Assen have similar views.

Everyone appears to want to cycle, even if their circumstances currently make it difficult. As with anywhere else, where the conditions for cycling are better (as they are in Houten-Zuid), more people cycle.

The photo and the report contents courtesy of the Fietsberaad - the Dutch cycling experts group. Their story on the report, in Dutch, is here. Assen has a similar Vinex wijk, Kloosterveen, which features on the Study Tours we organise in the Netherlands for people interested in cycling infrastructure.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Car Free Living (or... do the Dutch cycle because they can't afford cars ?)


Here in the Netherlands it's not at all unusual for a household not to include a car. Lots of adults don't have driving licenses.

These things are all relative, of course, and mostly I make my comparisons to the UK where I lived for most of my life. The UK also has quite a lot of households without cars. The figures for car ownership and affordability compared between the UK and the Netherlands make for interesting reading.

Right up through the 1980s and early 1990s, The Netherlands had slightly higher car ownership than the UK, which was to be expected as cars were more easily affordable in The Netherlands than in the UK. However, in 1995 something changed. Car ownership here in the Netherlands stopped growing while it continued in the UK, surpassing the Dutch rate of ownership.


The 1997 figure for car ownership in The Netherlands showed a slight reverse, with 372 per thousand compared with 373 in 1992.

In 1994 in the UK, 30% of households were car free, and 11% were judged to be unable to afford a car. However, in The Netherlands, these figures were 42% and 7%, giving the widest gap between affordability and ownership amongst the EU15 in the table.

The figures together indicate one thing. More Dutch people make a deliberate choice not to own a car than citizens of other countries in this survey. It's not that they can't afford to own a car, but that they have less of a need of it.

By catering well for people who choose not to have a car, and creating an environment in which cycling is a very pleasant and efficient way of travelling, combined with good transport mode integration, an environment has been created where being car free is a more viable choice, both for families and individuals.

However, you don't have to read far into this data to see that the car is still very popular in the Netherlands. Dutch people like driving, and they like cars. Cars remain more affordable in the Netherlands than in the UK. However, Dutch people are not enslaved by cars. They have a choice of transport modes which work well, and the main alternative choice is the bicycle.

2013 update
Note that Dutch car ownership figures have risen considerably since the statistics used above were published. By 2010, the Dutch owned 528 cars per thousand people while the British owned 519. Wikipedia has a list of countries by car ownership rate. However while the Dutch have seemingly decided that they like to own more cars than they used to, they're still opting not to use them so much as people of other European nations.


The figures are from page 63 of a report titled "Are you moving in the right direction?" which was produced by the European Environment Agency back in February 2000. This article is one of many articles with interesting figures which you can find on our cycling articles page. Unfortunately it is the most recent set of comprehensive figures that I've found. The fragmented figures I've found since then suggest a continuation on the same lines, though car ownership has grown all across Europe in the last ten years including in the Netherlands.

Monday, 6 October 2008

Everything nearby

The map of Assen on the left was part of the presentation given by the City Architect, Wybe Nauta, as a part of May's Study Tours.

Note that each area of housing within the city is built with its own facilities so that everything is within walking and cycling distance.

For instance, the blue areas show shops, which are spread throughout Assen, but note also the lack of out of town shops to compete with these and encourage driving.

Primary schools are much more numerous than secondary schools and are not shown on this map.

Everything is, of course, linked by a remarkably fine grid of high quality bicycle paths which makes the experience of collecting your shopping, or going to work or school or travelling to sport facilities an attractive activity without using a car. The level of subjective safety is always very high. The city is considered to be compact - the map shown covers an area which is barely more than 7 km from west to east - however, density is actually very low.

It's different for villages. They have some shops, but people also make longer journeys to get to shops in the cities and these trips are also often made by bicycle. However, the facilities for them are of course first class, so routes to secondary schools, for instance, are well used, and well maintained.

Where it has been made convenient and safe, as it is in the Netherlands, cycling is an attractive mode of transport. People cycle in the Netherlands for much the journey lengths and for much the same purposes as people drive cars in other countries (proven some years after this post when figures for journeys in London came to light).

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Sport


It's not only cyclists who travel to sporting events by bike here. Also, you'll find that football players (soccer to those of you on the other side of the Atlantic), and hockey players, and enthusiasts of all other sports will turn up at their events by bicycle.

Why not ? It's the most practical way of getting about. What's more, all your friends do the same, and you'll see the world go by as you make your journey.


Young and old, rich and poor, male and female, black and white.

You don't need to be "a cyclist" to cycle. Everyone cycles.

The Hop


In many countries it is illegal to carry a passenger on a bike. Not here.

Carrying a passenger on a bike is legal in this country, and very common. Those who've been doing this since childhood have a very relaxed way of hopping onto a friend's bike as the lights change, which is what you'll see in the video.

A great way of transporting a friend who for some reason doesn't have their bike with them.

It's worth pointing out that at this junction, as is always the case at junctions in the Netherlands, when cyclists have a green light to go straight on, car drivers wishing to turn right have a red light. As such, there's no chance at all of a driver to your left running you over as you do this.

Saturday, 4 October 2008

Pedestrians sharing with cyclists

"Look out! Pedestrians on the cycle-path. A situation so
uncommon that it has a warning sign
"Let op! Voetgangers op fietspad" - "Look out! Pedestrians on the cycle-path". This situation is so unusual that this cycle-path has a unique sign to warn cyclists that pedestrians sometimes use this cycle-path in considerable numbers.

This is the only one of these signs that I've ever seen in the Netherlands. I found it about 35 km east of my home.

There have never been pedestrians on this cycle-path when I've ridden in this direction, but they are apparently quite numerous when there is a football match in progress. The local football stadium is to the right of the water; that's why pedestrians sometimes use this path.

The Dutch don't build "shared use paths" where pedestrians and cyclists are expected to use the same space. It was made quite clear to us on the 2006 Study Tour just how much of a problem this caused in the one place in Den Haag where it was tried. The experiment has not been repeated.

Remote cycle-paths in the countryside with very light use by pedestrians don't have separate walking paths, on these the few people who walk along them use the space in the same way as pedestrians walk on countryside roads without pedestrian paths in other countries. However, anywhere that there will be significant numbers of pedestrians, they're provided with a separate path so that there is no conflict with cyclists.

Why does the UK persist in forcing pedestrians and cyclists to share, even though it continues to cause many problems ?

One might have though that shared use paths being universally unpopular and the regular conflict caused by them might have made planners twig that this doesn't work, but shared use continues to be proposed and built. Pedestrians and cyclists are not the same. They do not have the same requirements. This simply causes conflict and unpleasantness. Occasionally it's even dangerous. So why does it continue ? Is it just cheapness ? It's obviously cheaper to build one path than two. When cycling is so undervalued as it is in the UK, perhaps the planners are oblivious to the deleterious effects of making cycling less appealing. It's quite obvious that they've not realised that if all effects are added together, providing for cycling costs less than not providing for cycling.

Planning "Shared Use Paths" is a continuation of planning for very low cycle usage, rather than planning for cycling to grow. If you want cycling to grow, you need to provide space for cyclists. Low aspirations do not lead to growth because they do not provide for growth. To get growth you need properly segregated and good quality cycle paths which are not shared with pedestrians as well as properly designed segregation of modes without cycle-paths, which allow direct and convenient journeys to be made. That is what is found all across the Netherlands, with the exception of the spot where the photo was taken.

I'm always on the lookout for unusual signs, such as the equivalent of Cyclists Dismount, which I've still not found.

Sexbomb


I'm not generally a big fan of graffiti, but I thought this bit interesting. It's on a bridge support on the way into town, on a route which many cyclists pass daily.

No doubt it was written by one of the many teenagers who go this way, on their bikes, to school.

"Hi, sexbomb on the bike" - one of several messages written by someone trying to catch attention from someone else, while they cycle by.

Everything happens on a bike. Perhaps it occasionally leads to scenes like the previous post.

Cycling together


It's quite common in the Netherlands to see couples cycling along hand in hand. It's also quite common to see people who are retired cycling, and they hold hands too.

This couple are cycling into the city centre, along one of the main routes - a bicycle road along a canal on which cycles have priority over cars.

Matching bikes, matching jackets, still in love.

How many hours have they spent together on their bikes ?

How many kilometres travelled ?

How many wonderful experiences shared by bike ?

In the Netherlands, the over 65s make 24% of all their journeys by bicycle.

And... what road conditions are required to make this possible ? Just how much subjective safety does it take for people to keep people cycling for their entire lives, and to allow people to continue to cycle hand in hand in later stages of their lives ? This bicycle road is no longer a through route for cars, but it does allow through travel for bikes. The result is segregation of modes without a cycle path.

Friday, 3 October 2008

Roundabouts

Many cyclists dread roundabouts due to the need to ride fast around them (hoping not to find the road slippery due to spilt diesel), be in the right lane etc. For some people, the need to use a roundabout on the road is good enough reason to cycle along a different route or to avoid cycling altogether.

However, Dutch roundabouts don't cause these problems for cyclists due to being designed a little differently from those in the UK and most of the rest of the world. This design maximises subjective safety of cyclists.

The photo shows a typical Dutch roundabout viewed from the air.

Cyclists are not expected to use the road, but have a segregated cycle path which avoids the roundabout. Note that the central reservation on the road where the cycle path crosses is wide so that a cyclist only has to cross one stream of traffic at a time and can stop part way across the road. This choice of stopping is made by the cyclist, and is not forced when unnecessary by use of barriers.

Also note that the crossing for cyclists is one car length removed from the roundabout itself, meaning that a driver can be stopped waiting to get onto the roundabout without blocking cyclists who are crossing.

On some roundabouts, motorists must give way to cyclists crossing the arms of the roundabout, though that is not shown on this photo nor the accompanying video which shows a similar roundabout in use here in Assen. Despite this lack of priority, from personal experience I find it is rare that one has to do more than slow a little at these locations.

Note how the children ahead of me negotiate the roundabout efficiently, just regulating their speed a little to synchronize with a car coming from the right. I have to slow a little to synchronize with a passing car from the left. It is rare that you have to stop completely.

In addition to the features of the roundabout which are concerned with cyclists, there are also other differences from the British style of roundabout. Note that there is only a single lane of traffic going around the roundabout rather than multiple lanes, and also that the cars entering and leaving the roundabout have to turn quite sharply to do so. This reduces speeds on the roundabout and increases safety.

It is also quite common for cyclists to avoid roundabouts in other ways, such as by using underpasses, so that they're barely aware that the roundabout exists at all. Read more about the safest designs for roundabouts in the Netherlands.

There are now many posts on this blog about roundabouts. Please click to read them all. The photo comes from a presentation given by Wybe Nauta on the May 2008 Study Tour.

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Distraction technologies

Most people recognise that there are good reasons to try to reduce the proportion of journeys made by driving.

There are many things out there which may may look initially like a good idea to help to achieve this, but most are simply distractions.

One high-tech device that occasionally gets a bit of publicity is the Segway. It travels at the speed of a slow cyclist over a distance that anyone can cover on a bike, and it's expensive. However, it's championed by some as a "breakthrough".

So, what's not to like ?
  • There's no-where to put any luggage or shopping except in a rucksack or other bag on the person.
  • There's no way to carry a passenger (either child or adult)
  • It's slow compared with a bicycle. Just 20 km/h (12.5 mph) maximum speed.
  • It's very heavy to lift (around 50 kg) if you should need to move it. So forget carrying it onto a train, for instance.
  • It uses batteries which will at some stage have to be disposed of or recycled.
  • It is utterly dead in the water if the battery runs out as you're riding it.
  • It does not promote physical fitness
  • It costs... HOW MUCH ?
And that cost is of course a complete killer. $5,350 to $6,400 in the US plus another $1600 or so every 2 to 3 years when the battery needs replacing. Are you going to buy one for each of your children to ride to school ?

I've tried the Segway. It's a very neat device, technically clever and as easy to control as its promoters say. I didn't fall of it like George Bush did. I also think the developers did very well to produce it at all. However, that doesn't get over the basic pointlessness of the device. A bicycle is more useful in every way.

Mind you, there's no end to the silly ideas which get a bit of publicity every so often. Some people simply can't get used to the idea that bicycles actually are a really good way of getting about and they'll suggest virtually anything else. The Independent has even recently suggested that cycle lanes should be shared with horses. There are many impracticalities (e.g. are there enough stables should everyone decide to ride a horse ? Who will look after them ? How many injuries will be caused due to people thrown from horses ?) and I can also think of a brown, slippery and very smelly reason why this is a bad idea...

The Guardian writes about Fiat supporting a competition which picked a modified snowboard with handlebars as a good transportation alternative. They suggest that a skateboard would be a better alternative. It sometimes seems anything is to be considered in place of the already existing and proven bicycle.

I've nothing against horses, segways, snowboards, nor the people who ride any of these things. However, they are all examples of distraction technologies. Things that are promoted as ideal forms of transport when they are not, and when the truly practical alternative - the bicycle - is ignored by the British press, even though they're susceptible to reproducing the most preposterous green wash.

Even over emphasis on cycle training is missing the point. The reason that people don't cycle is that cycling feels unsafe. It is also viewed as inconvenient. If you really want to increase the rate of cycling, you need to tackle these problems directly by increasing subjective safety and directness so that people find cycling an attractive means of transport.

8th April 2009 update. Here's another example. I also recently wrote about over-reliance on the price of fuel.

Update 2014: This stuff just keeps on coming. There's now a proposal for London to have "Skycycle", a network of cycle-paths built in the sky. This is a proposal for a very sparse network (220 km in total, about the same as the length of cycle-paths in Assen, but London's population is more than 100x as large) which won't go near most homes or most destinations. It's another distraction from what is really needed.

Luckily, it's crazy enough that it'll probably never be built. However, it will waste time, and London really does not have time to waste.

The picture at the top is of another, older, distraction technology: The "Bicycle Railroad". This was a late 19th century idea of a pedal powered monorail, which come back time and time again. This example is in the Velorama bicycle museum.