Thursday 29 September 2011

Cycling back to school

It has been 34 years since I started riding to school on my bicycle. A big change in the life of any Dutch child is going from primary school to secondary school. Primary schools in the Netherlands are usually at walking distance. In my days we even walked there unsupervised. Nowadays kids are usually taken by their parents on foot, by bicycle or indeed by car. But once the kids start secondary school –usually at the age of 12– it means they will be going there without supervision and on their bicycles. Then as well as now.

I looked up my old school diary and I had only written ‘first day at school’ on Tuesday 16th August 1977. My parents didn’t send me unprepared. They had carefully plotted a route for me. In the mid and late seventies cycling was as its all time low in the Netherlands and although cycling infrastructure was there, it was fragmented and you needed to plan to be able to ride a route that was as safe as possible.

So my parents planned a route around the city centre and along busy streets. That last bit may seem odd but it isn’t. In the 1970s traffic calming was not common yet, but the busy main streets outside city centres did have separated cycle paths or lanes and my parents wanted me to be on those. So we had spent several Sundays trial riding the route together. I had to prove I knew the route well and they were also monitoring my behaviour around traffic carefully. Giving me hints and tips.

I have cycled unsupervised from then on. With but one exception. One afternoon my mother suddenly showed up with the family car, worried by the first Autumn storm with heavy rain and wind. Right in front of the school, she put my bicycle in the trunk of the car to drive me home. It was with the best intentions but all my class mates were laughing and I urged my mother never to embarrass me like that again. She didn’t.

I hadn’t seen my old home for years, but recently I rode the route again. Not much had changed! The biggest difference was that a level rail road crossing was now a tunnel. But apart from that little else has changed. Some of the infrastructure seemed old fashioned and one junction is clearly not up to present standards. Riding along the busier streets and on old fashioned cycle lanes is unpleasant. You couldn't call the route dangerous, but you can argue if this is still the best route to take.

Cycling the safe route my parents had planned for me 34 years ago.

That route also meant I had to take a detour. So after some time I rebelled and started following a shorter route right through the city centre. It meant negotiating with heavy traffic, smelly buses that took your breath away in narrow streets that also were full of cars and trucks. Motorised traffic was more often standing still than driving. I decided to ride that route again too. And surprise: almost everything in the city centre has changed!

Cycling the shortest route
that my parents did not allow me to take 34 years ago.
Motorised traffic was diverted around the centre. Streets became one way to make through traffic impossible. Whole areas of the city were transformed into 30km/h (18m/h) zones, making the streets unattractive for through traffic. Bus routes were diverted and cycle paths have been created. The most striking difference is the street in the picture below that I had to cross: in 1977 still a four lane main route, now (and since a long time already) not accessible for private cars anymore, only for buses and bicycles. The whole route was much more pleasant, since you see so little motorised traffic. The route that was more dangerous in the 1970s is the more pleasant and safer route now. And it is also the most direct route.

The same street in the 1970s and now. From four lane major route to a street that is completely closed to private motorised traffic.

So what can we deduct from this?
  • Traffic calming (diverting and slowing down motorised traffic) can do a lot for cycle safety too. Especially if those traffic calmed areas are connected with good and direct cycle paths where they are needed.
  • Once there are cycle provisions in streets they won’t be changed much, not even if the provisions are not up to standard anymore. If sub-standard cycling infrastructure is being built. You might be stuck with it for 30 years or more.
  • (Because) streets that do not have any provisions will be updated first and they may become even better than the earlier updated streets.

Routes to school. In green the longer and safer route in 1977, mostly following main arterial roads since they already had cycle provisions. The red and more direct route stays well away from arterial roads and is now more pleasant since it goes through an area of the city that has been mostly closed to motorised through traffic since 1977.
Link to a google map with these routes.


Karl McCracken (twitter: @KarlOnSea) said...

Lovely post - I'm inspired to try my route to school (which I rode from 1981 - 1988) in Kent next time I'm down at my parents' place. I may need to increase my life insurance first though...

Winston said...

The 1970's era route suggests that even at the low point of cycling in the Netherlands conditions for cyclists were generally better than they are in all but the most bike friendly locations in California. Now that we're two generations removed from biking being a common way for kids to go to school, I fear that building a consensus to build bike infrastructure even that good is impossible.

Mark W. said...

@Winston. I agree, but if you mean by 'generally' that they were present everywhere, then that is not true. Yes, there were cycle paths and lanes, but not in every city, not in every neighbourhood and they were certainly not complete routes. That is why planning a route was so important. But the stretches of infrastructure that were there were indeed of a generally good quality.

The main thing that changed after the 1980s and early 1990s is that the Dutch started building complete cycle routes and especially how junctions were built was a huge improvement to the network. That in turn gave a huge boost to the number of people cycling and all those factors improved their safety.

Richard Mann said...

Mark - this negotiation of routes is exactly the same in Oxford: so much so that we've explicitly divided routes into "quiet" and "main". The quiet routes are where the 11-yr-olds start, and within a couple of years they go anywhere.

Mark W. said...

@Richard I don't quite follow your reasoning. Because it were the busy streets which were the ones that were safest in 1977. Now there is no difference anymore in safety, only in how pleasant the routes are to use.
It is never a good sign to have different routes for different people in terms of skils or age. If your streets are safe for 8 or for 80 year olds they are safe for everybody.

Frits B said...

Your story sounds familiar. Mine started a bit earlier, in 1951 in Rotterdam when there were hardly any cyclepaths at all. One reason may be that there were so few cars then that it hardly mattered. This changed rapidly. When I left Rotterdam in 1961 cars dominated the roads as everybody who could afford one ditched his bicycle. Economic progress.

JPTwins said...

I remember thinking that my route to school after we had moved homes was so insanely long and dangerous. But then i went on google maps and charted it out, and it wasn't that long (for a 10 year old), but i still think it was not that safe.

Lovely experiment! there's been a lot more change in your home town that in mine (in California).

Reaperexpress said...

My cycling route to secondary school in a suburb of Toronto was 5km, and it usually took me about 15 min.
If I rode at 25km/h I would usually get almost all the lights green, so I could average a pretty high speed.

Because of shortcuts accessible only by foot or bicycle, and because of car traffic near the school, cycling was just as fast as driving, and almost twice as fast as taking the city bus (my school did not have school buses).

It seems your ride to school was also about 15 min, but your distance was shorter. It just goes to show that the argument that cycling isn't practical in suburbs doesn't hold water, because although distances are longer, speeds can be higher as well.

Branko Collin said...

I just realized that I don't remember all of my first route to grammar school (we lived right next to the elementary school playground, no need to bike there).

The start was crossing the road onto the parking lot of a large apartment complex in Blerick, and then onto the bike path (or road, but in that case a very quiet one) that followed the river. A nice idyllic five to ten minutes, but then...? I just do not remember an on-ramp for the bridge across the river towards Venlo...

Then when my mother and her boyfriend split up two years later we stayed with my aunt and uncle for a couple of months in the woods down South. I had witnessed the columns of high school children biking in from the from the country side before, but this time I got to ride with them. Much more orderly in my memory than the children shown in Mark's video the other day. The two tallest, strongest boys would ride up front to keep everybody out of the wind, and the rest would follow in pairs, chatting most of the way.

After that it was mostly suburbs and bike paths. There was a bike lane on the last stretch of the route, again along the river but this time on the harbour side, that I tended to avoid. Not so much because it was a busy road (it was), but more because that is where the police tended to put its red light trap, the fine being about ten times my weekly allowance.

Branko Collin said...

Don't know if this is interesting to bike historians (and apologies for being off-topic): somebody wrote a book containing the best bits of the first 25 years Kampioen, the magazine of former cyclist (and current motorist) association ANWB. reviews the result: about cyclists wondering if they should carry guns to shoot dogs, "cars will definitely not compete with the bicycle", and then---when car owners had taken over the association---the protests against a 10 kph speed limit for cars within built up areas.

(Which reminds me: the supreme court set the maximum speed for driving through a woonerf at 15 kph because car engines would stall if they were to drive slower than that. Surely that should be the problem of car owners and manufacturers, should it not?)

The book is called De dolle entree van automobiel en velocipee by Leonard de Vries.

Anonymous said...

Our lads will be able to cycle to school: we don't have a comprehensive dedicated network but there are enough traffic calmed streets and short cycle lanes through houses and across fields that it's possible with planning.
Trouble is that the schools insist on cycle h*lm*ts and training, run by the German car owners associations, which will do their best to instill habits of fear and submission into young riders. Our lads are instructed that if the instructor says anything silly, just nod, smile, do it on their little practice track, and forget it as soon as you ride home.

Paul Martin said...

This comment really hit home for me, Mark:

If sub-standard cycling infrastructure is being built. You might be stuck with it for 30 years or more.

That's precisely what happens here in Australia more often than not.