Monday 23 December 2013

A cycle-path for singing

Here you can officially sing as you cycle. No need for
un-natural pauses in you song as someone cycles past
What do you get for Christmas for the Dutch cyclist who already has "everything" ? How about a cycle-path for singing on ?

It's a stunt by the Fietsersbond, the Dutch cycling union. It's not (yet) official policy that cycle paths are designed for singing. But it's also a sign of what cycling is in the Netherlands. Apart from those places where things have gone wrong, cycling is joyful here, just as it should be everywhere else.

Joyful cycling is something worth working towards in time for next Christmas. Aim high. For everyone to feel like singing when they cycle you need a very high degree of subjective safety. Remember who we're doing this for, and don't take too long about it.

Monday 16 December 2013

On-Road Cycle-lanes are dangerous. Oostrum's children deserve better

At nine in the morning on the 27th of November, a sixteen year old girl in the village of Oostrum (in the province of Limburg, in the south of the Netherlands) was seriously wounded when she was involved in a crash with a car. Sadly, this was not a unique event. While the Netherlands is the safest country in the world in which to be a cyclist, it is still the case that hundreds of people are injured and killed every year in this country. The Netherlands could still do better.

In the case of this unfortunate incident, some residents have been calling for changes in order to improve the safety of their children. When the Dutch TV programme HvNL (Heart of the Netherlands) reported on the incident they included comments from a local politician who wants change as well from a local councillor who saw no problem. During the short time that they were on site, the film crew caught a collision which could have resulted in a serious injury:

Where the collision occurred and where the film-crew saw
another collision during a short visit. Making such a
manoeuvre across traffic is difficult and error prone.
View on Google Maps
Why is this road dangerous ?
There is a common thread running through many stories about traffic accidents in the Netherlands. Where injuries occur, it is often the case that they take place where the infrastructure is sub-standard. This location definitely has substandard infrastructure.

It's easy to see where the opportunity for the crash came from. This road carries a lot of relatively high speed motorized through traffic as well as a lot of cyclists. Many of the cyclists are children going to school and they have to make a difficult to judge manoeuvre, crossing parallel traffic while checking both behind and in front, as part of their daily journey.

On-road cycle-lanes
Cycle-lanes are not really infrastructure at all, they're just paint. This road is decorated by particularly narrow on-road painted cycle-lanes and does not have the physical infrastructure which could protect cyclists from the danger of motor vehicles.

Further along the same road in Oostrum. Narrow
cycle-lanes encourage cyclists to ride in the gutter
and drivers to overtake. This is bad infrastructure.
Wide cycle-lanes (wider than 2 m) can be useful in some locations as they can then help to encourage drivers to pass at a safe distance. However, even wide on-road cycle-lanes are not suitable for roads where there are many motor vehicles or where either the motor or cycle traffic doesn't fit in the allocated lane.

Narrow cycle-lanes like the one involved in the incident in Oostrum don't work very well anywhere. These encourage cyclists to ride in the gutter and they encourage drivers to expect cyclists to be in the gutter. Cycle-lanes of this design encourage close passing and risk-taking by drivers. They're often associated with drivers overtaking cyclists and almost immediately turning across their path. All cycle-lanes, regardless of width, make it difficult for a cyclist to safely turn across other traffic. Junctions need more thought than is apparent on this road.

Advanced stop lines (bike boxes) are often associated with
on-road cycle-lanes, including here in Oostrum. ASLs make
drivers frustrated behind cyclists and make them anxious
to overtake. What's more, these cycle-lanes even encourage
cyclists to ride in "the door zone" next to cars in parking bays
 at the same time as encouraging drivers to overtake those
cyclists within a pinch point. This is poor infrastructure which
causes many conflicts. At least cyclists don't have to deal
with drivers turning right at the junction. Just because you
can find an example of something like this in NL
that doesn't mean it is good and should be copied.
More about Oostrum
In a location where many children cycle to school this lack of well designed infrastructure encourages dangerous behaviour by those children and puts them in danger. But it's not only at this point - the road looks much the same for a stretch of about 1.5 km, well into the next town, Venray, and for most of the distance, including where the collision took place, the speed limit is relatively high at 50 km/h

The local councillor interviewed by the TV crew doesn't see the problem. He gave a response on camera in which he said that there were good sight lines and everyone should be able to see what everyone else is doing and behave accordingly. British readers may find parallels with Boris Johnson's widely criticised comment that cycling in London is "OK if you keep your wits about you".

Elsewhere in Oostrum, Google's camera spots people
"voting with their feet" and continuing on the pedestrian
path rather than switching to riding on the road. There
are no cycle-paths within Oostrum.
What about training and "Strict liability" ?
Unfortunately, the councillor has slipped into a common mode of thinking amongst people from all countries. It is imagined that given enough advice, people won't make mistakes. This is a fallacy. People will always make mistakes. This almost defines us as being human. Not only will no amount of training prevent either child cyclists or adult drivers from making mistakes, but law changes or punishment for mistakes will also not remove the possibility of mistakes occurring.

Readers from overseas who sometimes over-estimate the effects of "strict liability laws" in the Netherlands should note that this law doesn't prevent mistakes from being made in locations like this where the infrastructure is inadequate to the task of keeping people safe. The Dutch drive no more perfectly than do people of other nations, and while Dutch children receive limited traffic training in school, it's quite obvious from watching groups of children cycle that this doesn't have anything like the beneficial effect on behaviour that training advocates imagine.

Just because someone is Dutch and lived through campaigning forty years ago about childhood freedom and safety, that does not mean they will automatically understand about these issues. Some people simply can't see things from the point of view of others. Cycling is almost too common in the Netherlands. People take it for granted and don't realise that the high cycling modal share of this country is due to infrastructure and not culture.

The raised table in the centre of Oostrum is a more modern
feature. This probably does help to reduce speeds in the
centre, but the direct road to Venray has been overlooked
Sustainable safety prevents injuries
What makes Dutch roads and cycle-paths safe is not training or strict liability but Sustainable Safety (Duurzaam Veilig). Sustainable Safety is a policy of reducing the opportunity for mistakes to become injuries by reducing the consequences of making such mistakes. Roads should be self-explanatory and forgiving (read an article which explains more).

The passing of time
Stationsweg is the road to Venray's railway station, so has probably always been quite busy. However, it hasn't always been like this. At some point, probably in the 1980s, adding cycle-lanes to this road perhaps seemed to make sense. However, the world didn't stop then. Both Oostrum and Venray have experienced growth in the last thirty years. There are many new homes, many more people. Car ownership in the Netherlands has grown and the use of cars has also grown with it.

Not all infrastructure in this country has been updated to current standards. Stationsweg in Oostrum is just one of many examples of roads which lag a long way behind the standards of 2013. The principles of Sustainable Safety have yet to make a dent here. There's some catching up to do.

Change is needed
Residents of Oostrum are absolutely right to demand changes which will improve the safety of themselves and their children. The safety of the next generation is the best thing any of us we can possibly campaign for.

In my view there are several obvious ways in which safety could be improved at the point of the accident:
  • Diverting motorized traffic using this road to other routes would remove much of the danger from cars, regardless of other measures.
  • Lower speed limits would make it easier to judge the speeds of cars and reduce the severity of injury.
  • A raised table and narrowing of the motor lane to a single vehicle width could reduce the speed of cars at the point of crossing.
  • 90 degree crossing would make it easier for cyclists to see cars coming from both directions.
  • central reservation for crossing would remove the need for cyclists to see in both directions at once.
  • A parallel cycle-path along much of the road would provide more distance between motorized vehicles and cyclists.
(note that the list includes mutually exclusive suggestions)

Have the Dutch forgotten what was achieved ?
in the 1970s, the Stop de Kindermoord (Stop Child Murder) protests gained mass support. Other local actions such as dramatic protests in De Pijp in Amsterdam also played a part in changing the way people thought about safety on the streets. This country began to transform itself 40 years ago. and that happened because there was popular support for change. While not everyone was in agreement at all times, the entire population was behind the idea of children being safe and infrastructure across the country was transformed as a result.

Unfortunately, keeping up momentum is not easy. Because such a long time has passed, people have forgotten how important this was. The safety of children is no longer an explosive campaigning issue. The situation in the Netherlands isn't bad overall. Dutch children are still rated by UNICEF as having the best well-being in the world, but this is a sign of past success and did not come about due to current policy. The adults who led the change in the 1970s and the experts who designed the improved infrastructure have largely retired. There are signs that their good ideas are to some extent being forgotten. The children of the early 1970s, for whom the actions were taken, are now middle aged and even their own children are grown up. Younger activists are largely unaware and unappreciative of what was achieved and how unique and significant this was. Even Dutch people often fall into the easy trap of believing that they cycle because it's in their culture. We've found that people are quite shocked if shown pictures of what their streets used to look like because they don't remember the problems that designing towns solely around motor vehicles used to cause.

This is a dangerous time for the Netherlands because some of what made this country great is being forgotten. It should be no surprise that Dutch children are being taken to school by car more often these days.

Why take a study tour ?
Cyclists approaching Oostrum from the west are kept safe by
cycle-paths on both sides of the main road. Riding from here
through the village at a quiet time could easily lead to a
misleading impression.
When we first started visiting this country (in the last century), there was no-one to guide us and we formed impressions based solely on what we saw. Like other people who have done the same, we came to some incorrect conclusions.

Compared with villages in other countries, it's possible to approach Oostrum on surprisingly good quality cycle-paths. The village largely has relatively low speed limits and contains both a raised table in the centre and on-road cycle-lanes leading to the west. Not all of this is bad, and of course it could appear to be an example of relatively good practice. It would be easy to overlook the problems cause by the use of on-road cycle lanes on a busy road, especially if these were not witnessed first hand because of the time of day when they were observed.

We find it is not at all uncommon that people take photos of substandard infrastructure that they've found in the Netherlands and try to have similar ideas adopted after they return to their own country. Not only does older infrastructure not necessarily make itself obvious if you're from a country which is less advanced with regard to cycling but people also sometimes view what looks more familiar as more achievable, even though the cost difference is often not large, and doing something twice in order to fix a mistake is always more expensive than doing it properly in the first place.

We're independent and will simply show you
what works and what does not
. We do not hype
the services of any other company.
We initially started running study tours because no-one else at all was offering this service. There is much that other nations need to learn from the Netherlands but this knowledge was either not being transferred or it was being misunderstood (e.g. enthusiasm about what the Dutch got wrong. e.g. Shared Space). As a result of our relatively early start, having moved here, learnt Dutch and as a result of having shown hundreds of people both what is good about cycling in the Netherlands and the pitfalls that must be avoided, we now have more experience than anyone else. Being completely independent of any other company we have no reason to push ideas in order to sell them. We simply show you what works and what does not.

If Oostrum were local to us, we might visit to point out problems to be avoided. However there's no need to make a special trip. There are bad examples of infrastructure closer to home which already feature on our study tours, where we explain the problems caused. We also, of course, feature examples of very good infrastructure and encourage people to learn from these about what really works to encourage cycling. Our tours allow you to save yourself from misunderstandings and wasted effort.

The Netherlands has the difficult job of being in front and not having any other country to copy from. In other countries the job is much easier and there's no time to waste. You're already decades behind what the Dutch have achieved and the Netherlands still stands as very easily the best example to try to emulate.

Note that in most cases, Dutch children make relatively uneventful journeys to school. This is what makes cycling to school so popular in the Netherlands. However we have to be wary because there has been a small decline in recent years.

Wednesday 11 December 2013

A visitor's view of Groningen railway station

Our friend Mike Rubbo came to stay with us in March. It was -10 C here but people were still cycling much as they always do. We had had a chance to get used to the weather, of course, so I thought Mike did well to survive outdoors at all, having come here from the Australian summer.

Mike wrapped up warm to film the
school run
in Kloosterveen, a new suburb
of Assen. It's impressive whatever
the weather.
The above is the first of the films that Mike has finished about cycling in this area. This film was shot around the bike shop and cycle parking at the largest railway station in Groningen, with particular emphasis on one of the shop's customers, a lady who uses her electric bike to get around in and around the city and who had an amusing story to tell.

Bikes are everyday transport in this country for the whole population, whatever the weather.

Sunday 8 December 2013

What has Britain learnt since the 1960s ?

A few days ago I asked how much Britain had progressed in the last six years. Now I'm looking further back in history. In the 1950s and 1960s the Rank Organisation made in the UK made a fascinating series of films called "Look at Life". These films documented many aspects of British society fifty year ago. Youtube user dokkertrigger has made many of these films available.

I've chosen three of the films because of their relevance to planning and cycling. You occasionally see bikes, but note how the narrator never mentions cycling in these videos (nor others I've watched). Bicycles simply were not taken into account by 1950s and 1960s traffic planners, not in the UK and often not in the Netherlands either.

November 1964. The problems caused by cars are already obvious. Amongst other ideas, the new town of Cumbernauld was designed to accommodate pedestrians (not cyclists) separately from motor vehicles and to provide space for each family to own one car (a mistake sometimes repeated). The video starts with scenes of Oxford Street in London, one of "Britain's noisy fume filled towns and cities" where pedestrians "compete with the motor car for room to move":

Not that delays are already thought to cost £500 million pounds per year. A considerable part of this could be saved if people could safely cycle. Cycling is not a cost to the economy, it's repeatedly been shown to be a benefit to the economy.

May 1959. Amongst other highlights, huge traffic jams are already a problem. See the start of works to try to solve the problem such as building flyovers above peoples' homes (accompanied by remarkably jolly music) and the start of planning for Elephant and Castle in London, a large junction which became the most lethal for cyclists in London:

September 1962. Bypasses are being built. One village to benefit is Stilton (this village gave its name to the famous cheese, though cheese made there now is not allowed to use the name Stilton):

The cross-roads where the dog is lying on the road at the end of the video now looks like this:

View Larger Map

It's interesting to note that while this road is still a dead end, the road markings have been changed to those of a busy through road. By-passing this village was not really enough on its own. No provision was made for people to travel by means other than motor vehicles or walking and local people are concerned about how future plans to expand the nearby A14 (motorway in all but name) will affect commuters who drive to Cambridge.

It would be interesting to know whether many children cycle to school within Stilton. I would guess not as despite having a bypass this looks not much different from any other British town and children here won't have the same easy experience as Dutch children. Similarly, I'd be interested to know whether many secondary school children cycle to nearby Peterborough for their studies. There are secondary schools within 10 km, well within normal cycling distance for Dutch school children, but cycling there would require riding on shared use paths with no separation from cars travelling at 100 km/h and negotiating large road junctions.

Time for another revolution
These videos often mention that the UK is behind other countries in Europe in building a road network, and they talk about avoiding mistakes made in other countries due to starting later. The UK could do the same with cycling, copying only the best examples. However, there's something else that I find interesting.

Assen in the 1960s after years of
planning which prioritised cars. Just
as in Oxford Street in 1964, railings
are used to restrict pedestrians to
narrow pavements
All western countries went through a similar spree of road building after the second world war. All saw the same 1950s ideas as the future, copying what was seen as a "modern" American example. Most countries stopped right there and policies have continued as if the car oriented 1960s never ended.

The Netherlands started off by doing the same things. This country followed the same policies as other countries, prioritizing cars above all else. This resulted in scenes like those on the photo to the right all across the Netherlands. Streets were dominated by cars just as was the case in the UK at the same date.

The same street in 2007 after policy
had changed to make a more liveable
city. See how this street works now.
In the 1970s, Dutch policy changed, resulting in what was once the busiest street in Assen now appearing to have been designed to look much less like a through route even than the bypassed centre of Stilton.

From the 1970s onwards, people walking and cycling became important in the Netherlands. Streets which were transformed in the 1960s were transformed a second time. It is this second transformation which other countries are still waiting for. Just as the UK looked to Europe to see how it could transform itself efficiently into a motoring oriented country, so the country could now look to the Netherlands to find out how to make this second transformation.

The narrator in the first video notes that "London won't be rebuilt in a day". Actually, remarkably little progress has been made in 50 years. Exactly the same problems remain. If planners and politicians remain stuck in the 1950s mode of providing for motor traffic above all else then progress will remain stunted.

Now go and listen to one of the most lovely songs ever written about building roads and the struggles of working people in general.

Tuesday 3 December 2013

London's cyclists are not to blame for London's low cycling modal share, it's the politicians who should take the blame

Low cycling nations and low cycling cities don't have a problem with how well cycling is marketed, they have a problem with how well their infrastructure works for cycling.

Six Londoners died in a short period of time recently and this has been followed by protests including a "Die In".

Neither London's Mayor, Boris Johnson nor the Cycling Commissioner, Andrew Gilligan, appear to be aware of their role in what has happened. Both have made remarks on the lines of that there is nothing they could do by changing infrastructure which would reduce the incidence of deaths. They are  deliberately misleading people and the people they are misleading most are those who voted them.

Cycle-paths are one of the forms of
infrastructure which keep Dutch
cyclists safe.
Here in the Netherlands we have infrastructure which reduces the incidence of cyclist deaths. We used it every day. I've offered my time twice to the Mayor in order to demonstrate what it is and how it works, but it would seem that he's not very interested in knowing what he needs to do to keep cyclists safe.

Yesterday evening I watched a news programme from the UK in which Andrew Gilligan blamed cycling campaigners for making cycling look dangerous. He suggested that cyclists making cycling sound dangerous this was the reason why a BBC survey revealed that a fifth of London's cycle commuters have stopped cycling. Yes, he actually laid blame on the people who promote cycling. This is a disgraceful distortion of what is actually happening under his watch.

Back in March, just after Boris Johnson appointed his friend as cycling commissioner, I was skeptical of their motives and suggested that this was a time when campaigners would need to become more busy than before. It was clear then that London would rely on hype, exaggeration and marketing rather than actually building the infrastructure that was required to make change happen. I gave he post the tag "broken promises" because even as they made their promises, it was obvious that they would be broken. Nothing that has happened in London since that time reduces my skepticism.

It's possible to ride for six years without incident
A few days back I realised that while up to six years ago I had quite regular unpleasant experiences when cycling, I'd now had six years of having no unpleasant experiences at all, not having been cut up even once, until that run of six years was broken just one month ago. What is special about six years ? Six years ago we emigrated from the UK and we've lived in the Netherlands since that time. Why one month ? One month ago I rode a bike for just a few hours in London and it reminded me what it is like to ride a bike in the UK.

Why isn't it like this for everyone ?
In order to encourage people to ride bicycles, the choice of doing so has to be made easy. Routes taken by bicycle need to be direct, they need to be as free as possible of stops, and the conditions need to be and to feel very safe. Unless cycling is subjectively safe, most of the population will never cycle.

The best way of improving both actual safety and subjective safety is to do one simple thing: remove motor vehicles from the spaces where cyclists ride.

The BBC's survey revealed a fifth of cyclists had been involved in a collision. This is not just a problem with subjective safety, but of whether people are injured or die when cycling. It's not a marketing problem which can be solved by not talking about dying, it's a problem with the experience that people have if they get on a bicycle, which in London is always tense.

Two-thirds of London cyclists admit they sometimes ride on pavements to avoid busy junctions. They do this not because it's convenient (it's not) but because it feels safer than continuing their journey on the road. To solve problems like this we first have to understand them.

London cyclists don't dress like this
because it's fashionable but because
they are scared
In one of my very first posts on this blog, more than five years ago, I noted that "Cyclists are the pit-canaries of the roads. If they're numerous, dressed in ordinary clothing and wide-ranging in age you can tell that you are in a location where cycling is "normal" in society and where it is safe enough, and feels subjectively safe enough, that everyone cycles. If people feel they have to dress to be safe then this is a sign that they do not have adequate subjective safety."

London's cyclists still look very much like the pit canaries of the road and there are good reasons why. If you cycle in London then you have to be concerned about your own safety. The BBC survey included several questions about subjective safety. For instance, one question asked whether people thought their family and friends were safe when cycling. Nearly 70% said no. The low subjective safety is why people wear bright colours, helmets and face masks. These are not fashion accessories, they're tools for survival. They're not worn because someone said it was unsafe, they're worn because people feel unsafe when cycling.

Until London gets to grips with why people feel unsafe when cycling and until the city starts to do something about the reasons why people feel unsafe by building infrastructure makes cycling attractive to everyone, the city will not see a rise in cycling to levels comparable with the Netherlands.

Cycling in London doesn't need marketing, it needs infrastructure !

The same principles apply everywhere
Any place which has given inadequate attention to making cycling safe, convenient and enjoyable will see stagnation at a low percentage of journeys by bike as only people who particularly like cycling will ride bikes.

Journeys by bike in London never broke through even 5% of the total. Sadly, this decline has occurred before the city has even done one percent of what it needed to do to make mass cycling happen in the first place. However, declines can happen anywhere and examples of it happening should be a warning to us all.

It's not only London which has seen cyclists give up. Once mighty Denmark has unfortunately also seen the equivalent of one in eight cyclists give up. This decline came about for the same reasons as the decline in London. They ignored the importance of building good enough infrastructure and tried to use marketing to fill in the gaps. Voluminous international publicity turned out not to be enough to make people feel safe when they experienced problems on a daily basis such as junction designs which cause conflict and have killed seven Copenhageners already this year. While it may still seem a step beyond what many nations have, to copy Denmark's "success" actually means to copy what doesn't work in Denmark. That's why I suggest that the Netherlands remains easily the best country to try to emulate.

While the Netherlands is currently on top that doesn't mean that this country is any more immune to these issues than any other. Plenty of Dutch people take what they have for granted and simply don't know why it is that they cycle. Denmark should especially serve as a warning to the Netherlands as policies and practices from there and marketed to this country could reasonably be expected to end with the same result here as they did where they came from.

The Dutch don't cycle because it's "in their blood" but for the same reasons as anyone else would cycle given conditions which made cycling into an easy option to choose. When cycling is convenient, offers direct and uninterrupted journeys and both feels and is safe then people choose to cycle. When conditions are merely adequate and when incidents happen often enough that people remember them and become concerned about their safety, cycling will stagnate or drop.

Not all Dutch cities grow cycling at the same rate. Here, just like everywhere else, people cycle in response to infrastructure and not in response to marketing.

Hope for the future
Cycling needs actions, not words. A million volumes of marketing material do not have the same value as one metre of good quality cycle-path, and that's universally true. To a first approximation, cycling modal share is proportional to expenditure. Politicians control the funds and they need to release them in order that cycling can grow, not make excuses for inaction or blame cyclists for their own misfortune.

The Netherlands achieved its cycling success by building a remarkable country-wide network of world class infrastructure and not by marketing. Other countries could achieve the same results in the same way. There is no proven alternative method which leads to true mass cycling.

Update 6 December 2013
Usage of London's bike share system is also falling. This is also being blamed on cyclists. When I was in London a few weeks ago I tried the system and found it to work well enough as a civil amenity. However, I also cautioned that it's not cycling infrastructure.

For four and a half years I've been writing about the limits of London's bike share system and how it can never lead to a real cycling "revolution" in the city. Bike share answers the wrong question. London's problem was never a shortage of bicycles, but was always a shortage of pleasant conditions for cycling.

London's aim should be to become a city of ten million cyclists. This will never happen while instead of fixing the infrastructure, London's politicians seek to pass the blame for the majority of the population being scared to cycle onto the few people brave enough to do it.

Friday 22 November 2013

Has Assen progressed over the last six years ?

This is the third part of a three part series. See also "Has Britain had progressed over the last six years?" and "Has London progressed over the last six years?". Now I look at Assen, where things have gone somewhat differently.

One of the first infrastructure photos I
took in Assen. We have priority over
 the road at this junction, as we do at
most junctions. Since I took this photo,
the cycle-path has been rebuilt with
smooth asphalt. Continuous small
scale improvements are normal here
We emigrated from the UK at the end of August 2007 and have now lived here in Assen for more than six years. Leaving one country to live in another, especially one in which you don't speak the language, is not easy. In and of itself, we don't recommend it. Emigration causes a lot of every kind of stress. We came here without jobs to go to so one of the first things we had to do was start our own business in order to try to make ends meet. At the same time we were trying to learn Dutch, work out how to register ourselves as residents, get telephones, electricity, gas etc. organised. It's been a real struggle for all of us which I can't do justice to in one paragraph, however we do now have what we were looking for - an environment within which our children and ourselves were safe to be able to incorporate cycling into our lives.

We took a break from organising Study Tours in 2007 to move house and settle in but started again in 2008. We've now shown hundreds of people how and why the Dutch cycle. Other countries could learn from what the Dutch have done. Indeed, if there is a serious intention to have a similar cycling modal share, they must learn as this is the only approach which has had this degree of success Many of the things that you will read about below are seen for real on our study tours. Book a place !

Why choose Assen ?
One of the questions we've been asked most frequently by Dutch people is why we chose to live in Assen. We came here not because it's the biggest metropolis of the Netherlands and not because it's the top cycling city in the Netherlands. Assen is neither of those.

Ordinary in the Netherlands means
extraordinary elsewhere. This is one
of the first photos I took of city centre
cycle-parking. Cycle-parking in this
area has since been improved
In many ways, Assen is quite average for the Netherlands. The majority of the population of any country live in relatively average surroundings, and the majority of the population of the Netherlands lives in places not so different to Assen.

Assen is sparsely populated and it's the capital of the least densely populated province. It's a market town which is quite lively for its size but certainly not a student city like nearby Groningen and Zwolle. Assen is exactly what we were looking for.

What has Assen done for cycling ?
Ordinary cycling provision in the Netherlands is something that would be considered quite extraordinary in any other country. Actually, Assen's infrastructure was slightly ahead of Dutch average when we moved here and this was an attraction of the city. However, remarkable strides have been made since that time. Cyclists are always an important part of planning in the Netherlands, and while not everything has been without a hiccough, this city has made great efforts in the last six years.

If you're in a race you can never catch up by going slower than the people in front of you. It's the same with cycling provision. For other places to "catch up" with the Netherlands so far as cycling is concerned requires them to out-spend the Netherlands and perhaps also use their resources more efficiently than the Netherlands in order to improve conditions to the point where cycling is an attractive proposition for everyone. Unfortunately, what we see from other countries is usually still the opposite of this. Investing too little can never achieve the very dense grid of very high quality cycle-routes required to enable true mass cycling.

Why concentrate on Infrastructure ?
I've said it before and I'll no doubt say it again, but building a high cycling modal share is all about infrastructure. Whatever demographic group you have, the potential for cycling is maximised by having infrastructure which makes the most of whatever potential that group of people has with regard to cycling.

Student cities are always likely to be able to achieve a higher cycling modal share, while areas with a high proportion of immigrants from non-cycling nations will likely achieve a lower modal share, but in the Netherlands all demographic groups cycle more than they would if they lived in another country.

Even many Dutch cycling experts greatly overestimate "being Dutch" as a reason the Dutch cycle. Typically they are unaware of how much of an effect the infrastructure and resulting safe environment for cycling in this country has on immigrants from countries with low cycling modal shares. If considered as if they were separate countries, immigrant groups in the Netherlands would be amongst the highest cycling nations on earth. Conversely, Dutch people who emigrate usually stop cycling.

No amount of PR and marketing is equivalent to one metre of decent cycling infrastructure. None of that changes how people feel about getting onto a bike. If you want to build cycling in your nation, build top quality infrastructure which makes cycling into a subjectively safe means of transport.

How is Assen's infrastructure ?

By no means definitive, a few minutes of editing a Google Maps image of Assen to include the routes I could remember resulted in this. The area shown is roughly an 8 km x 8 km square. Good quality cycle-routes need to be at a high density in order to make cycling attractive to all.
Wide, smooth cycle-path built before
we came to Assen. Has not needed to
be changed in the last six years.
Narrow red lines show the locations of cycle-paths which already existed when we moved to Assen. Some of these were actually very new when we moved here, so many of these are less than ten years old and this does not indicate that they are inferior.

The narrow light blue lines are roads on which one cycles but where some technique or other reduces the number of motor vehicles. In the city centre, the streets are nearly or completely car free. In other parts of the city there is a more attractive parallel route for motorists or they are in residential areas which cannot be used to make through journeys by car.

Recreational path built on the East of
Assen a couple of years ago. Excellent
quality adding to the rest.
The thicker green lines show where completely new cycle-paths have been built or extensive resurfacing of older cycle-paths has taken place in the last six years (this is from memory and by no means complete). Almost all the main routes are now up to current standards. i.e. smooth, wide (2.5 m single direction, 3 m for bidirectional secondary route paths up to 4 m for bidirectional primary route paths) and with well designed junctions.

Norwegian Study Tour group riding on
the Bicycle Road.
The dark blue line shows the location of a bicycle road where motor vehicle use is limited and cyclists have priority. This has been extremely successful in this location. Of course it's not the sort of thing you could put anywhere as some roads will always have too much through traffic.

This counts as a main route through a
residential area. Almost no cars go
through here so children can cycle
5 abreast on the way home from school.
Cycle training does not lead to Dutch
cycling espcially safely. They
are safe because cars are elsewhere.
Empty spaces within the city can be assumed to be residential areas which don't provide through routes by motor vehicle and therefore are not used for rat-running.

Roads through empty spaces outside the city can be assumed to have less through traffic on them than you might expect due to measures taken to civilize country roads.

Where there are gaps shown on the map, these are not really gaps but just different infrastructure. In practice the outcome of this is that we can cycle anywhere we want to at any time we want to and conditions remain equally pleasant everywhere that we go.

Brand new four years ago, this cycle-
path provides excellent access to the
city from villages on the East of Assen.
A quality cycling experience doesn't stop at the edge of the city. You'll note from the map that there is a good quality route in every direction out of the city. This allows for commuting adults and for school children who travel in from remote villages. The route to the East was upgraded substantially in 2009 and the route to the West has had much work more recently. Those to the North-West, South-West and South have had partial upgrade. The route to the North was upgraded just before we moved here. That is is possible to make journeys outside the city as easily as journeys within it is required because secondary schools exist only in the city so all secondary school students (age 12-17) who live anything up to 20 km away cycle to the city daily for their education.

Because all these routes join together from different villages, towns and cities, it's actually possible to ride inter-city on good quality infrastructure and it's possible to do this at a good speed. We've done this on many occasions.

A recreational route doesn't need to be
so wide as a main route, but it's good
that they are so well surfaced as this.
We should also not forget the many kilometres of recreational cycle-path which have been created in the last few years around Assen. For instance, the route shown on the left extends several kilometres to the North-West. It's of very high quality concrete construction.

While most recreational routes are not people's direct commuting routes, they often provide useful segments for longer rides.

Traffic Lights
In Assen, the process of unravelling cycling routes from driving routes started some time ago. This has continued during the last six years and the result is that traffic lights are almost completely avoided when cycling. They simply don't appear very often on most of the more popular routes available to cyclists. For instance, when we cycle to the centre of the city we have several routes available to us with no traffic lights at all and one route which has a single traffic light. By car there would be a minimum of two sets of traffic lights. It's similar if we go to other destinations, like the dentist. This holds not only for destinations within the city but also if I head out of the city.

Simultaneous Green traffic lights are
green for cyclists in all directions at
once while all drivers have red.
Safety is achieved by separation in
both time and space.
Where traffic lights are inevitable, those used by cyclists have nearly all been changed within the last six years. Almost all traffic light junctions shared with motorists in Assen now use the Simultaneous Green system. This means that when there is a green light for bicycles, all direction go at once while all motor vehicles are stopped. Simultaneous Green is fabulous for cyclists. It's both a more convenient and far safer solution than two stage turns. It gives cyclists a genuine advantage which cannot be achieved by any design which places cyclists on the roads with cars. When this type of junction is combined with allowing cyclists to make right turns on red lights, as is the case in Assen, convenience is even further enhanced.

Where cyclists have to cross driving routes at traffic light controlled crossings (i.e. equivalent to toucan crossings), the delay is as short as possible. In practice this often means that the maximum delay is eight seconds, and that often the delay is shorter than that - as shown in the video below:

The few occasions on which you have to stop for a traffic light have little effect on cyclists being able to make efficient journeys. As a cyclist you feel valued. There's a safe place to wait to cross and a safe place to cross to. The delay won't be long. No need to break rules in order to feel safe and as a result, it's comparatively rare that anyone goes through a red light.

There are also a couple of places in Assen where the traffic lights default to green for bicycles. It's impossible to have a controlled crossing which is more convenient than that.

While this bridge only carries cars, it
provides for bicycles. Building it
removed a traffic light which would
otherwise have stopped those bikes.
I've often featured a particular large blue bridge on this blog. The reason why is that it is something quite unusual. The bridge was built in the first few months after we arrived in the city and while it carries only cars, it exists to improve conditions for cyclists.

Before the bridge was built there was simply a large flat road junction here with traffic lights. The canal had been filled in in the 1960s. Cyclists heading from the left of the picture would have to stop in order to cross the road. Because this is part of an important route from a new suburb into the city centre, no stops were allowed so this large bridge now carries cars over the cycle-path.

Several other bridges were built along the new route into the city centre and an historically interesting older bridge was moved into a new position simply because this would provide something interesting for cyclists.

New bridge in a residential area
Bridges have also been built within the new housing development as landscaping features which also allow cyclists and pedestrians to be able to make use of routes not available to drivers. These bridges have been constructed over water features which exist only because a hole was dug to create something to place the bridge over. It's a way of sending a very clear signal that more direct routes are available by bike.

While extensive road works go on, the
city sometimes builds temporary
bridges for cyclists to preserve cycling
routes. This is one of the many ways that
cyclists are not put off by road-works.
Assen also has occasionally built temporary bridges so that existing cycle routes are not cut off by road works. It's very important that road works do not cause problems for cyclists as this may cause people to stop cycling. If people stop due to an unpleasant experience then it may take a long time to convince them to try cycling again. This is why it is important to prevent the initial loss of cycling. I've written previously about many examples of how cycling routes can be preserved during road works.

Only two new roundabouts have been built in Assen since we moved here. As with all other roundabouts in Assen, cyclists are not required to ride on the road with cars.

The cycle-paths around this roundabout,
built in late 2007, initially went no-where
because the area had not yet been fully
planned. However, whatever the future
should hold, it was already known that
cycle-paths would be needed
It's unacceptable to expect cyclists to hold their own with motor vehicles when negotiating a roundabout. It's a difficult task which only the fit are likely to be able to do with a sufficient degree of safety. Older people and children can't ride safely around roundabouts with motor vehicles. But it's not just for these groups that it is better not to be on the road.

Provision of top quality cycling infrastructure at roundabouts provides a better experience for all cyclists.

Roads in Kloosterveen are not straight
lines. They are designed both to look
attractive and to reduce the speeds
of drivers.
The new suburb of Kloosterveen was partially built when we came to Assen and building is set to continue for several more years. Kloosterveen is a very attractive new housing development which is quite typical of a Vinex location. Cycle routes are shorter than driving routes and the suburb is self contained with all required facilities. These are family friendly locations with a mixture of social as well as privately owned housing. There are no gated communities in the Netherlands.

Kloosterveen was designed to enable 2/3rds of primary school age (5-11 years) children to cycle to school.

Kloosterveen shopping centre. Most
shopping is done by bicycle. Watch
a video which shows how this works.
The bridge in a residential area above, one of a pair within a couple of hundred metres of each other, was constructed in Kloosterveen in the last few years. All facilities were provided as temporary buildings before the permanent locations could be built.

Next to the temporary supermarket was a temporary hairdresser, florists and chip shop. The temporary church and several temporary primary schools provided different types of education at another location in the suburb.

Kloosterveen's permanent shopping centre replaced many of the temporary buildings and was built from nothing over a period of just over a year. It is designed to be visited most conveniently by bicycle.

Kloosterveen controls access to the suburb by car by several means including a physical control on a bus road but the development also provides adequate residential car parking spaces in order to avoid conflict.

Because this is new-build there were no restrictions on what could be built. This is just as true for new-build developments anywhere else in the world. The choices made by planners affect generations of people who live in suburbs like this. Good choices could be made anywhere.

A sea of bicycles outside Assen's
railway station. 2550 spaces here
means a space for every 26 residents.
London has 2800 spaces spread
between 50 railway stations. That's
just one space for every 2800 residents.
Like many places, Assen never seems to have enough cycle-parking. There are thousands of spaces in the city centre, more than enough for every child to cycle to school. When we first came to live in Assen, the number of cycle-parking spaces at the railway station was slightly over 1000. This increased in 2009 to 2300 spaces and in 2010 to 2550 cycle parking spaces.

Assen's railway station also has a full service cycle-shop which has the longest opening hours of any shop in the city (every day before the first train until after the last train) and provides this city with more bike-share bicycles per thousand residents than London.

Indoor cycle-parking at one of
the main shopping centres.
This can get chaotic and some
limits have been placed on
where bikes make be left. i.e.
not blocking fire exits & doors
The city centre has had to change the way it organises cycle-parking on several occasions since we moved here. All the racks in the centre of the city have been replaced with a type which offers a higher density of parked bikes.

Cycle-parking in the shopping centres can be difficult to access on busy days due to the popularity of cycling.

Two years ago, Assen's library, cinema, theatre and concert hall were rebuilt into a single location in the city centre which offers top class covered and guarded, free of charge cycle-parking in the basement. Facilities include that it's warm, dry, clean and well lit. Free charging is offered for those with electric bikes, CCTV watches over your bike while it's parked and a guard who is on duty for at least part of the day can organise some minor repairs while you enjoy a show. This cycle-park never shuts until after the last performance so you're unlikely to find your bike locked inside the cycle-park.

Even though this cycle-park is really of very good quality, there were complaints locally because it is necessary to use a ramp for access:

In fact, this cycle parking is not very convenient to use in comparison with parking your bike outside. for quick visits to the library, people prefer to park outside and people pressure has forced outdoor parking to be built.

Hiccough at the new shopping centre
Not everything goes perfectly all the time. A new shopping centre in Assen provided outdoor cycle-parking, but no good way for shoppers using the supermarket to take their shopping to their bicycles and return the shopping trolley to the shop. This caused many complaints, and quite rightly so.

A shopping centre with no proper cycle
parking ? In Assen ? Does whoever
was responsible still have his job ?
A video shows the inconvenient
cycle access to this shopping centre.
At the moment there is a temporary solution. Part of the indoor car park has been separated by barriers and turned into a cycle-park. This works, but it's smelly and dark - not at all like a custom built cycle-park should be.

Where conditions for cycling are good, people cycle. This country is not rabidly anti-car and wouldn't benefit from being so if it was. Normally the Netherlands isn't anti-bicycle either, because most people in this country realise that bicycles are important for the health, wealth and happiness of the people. However, it's only "most people" who have realised this, not all of them.

On the opposite side of the road, easily
the worst new bus-stop design in Assen
even though there's plenty of room for
a bicycle bypass. Designed by the
same architect as the shopping centre?
Somehow, someone appointed the job to design this shopping centre for a city where most shopping is collected by bicycle managed to do this job without providing good enough cycling provision that customers could collect their shopping on their bikes.

It's hard to imagine what went through the mind of whoever was responsible for making such a mistake as this.

The road next to the shopping centre was rebuilt at the same time as the shops were built. On this road, a bus-stop was built without a proper bypass for bikes. Was this the work of the same architect ? As it happens, this bus stop is in a location where few people cycle so the consequences of this mistake are not so serious as they could have been. This is a mainly car through route, unravelled from main bicycle routes. However, bad design like this is surely not needed by Assen or any city which seeks to grow it's cycling modal share.

People sometimes think we "cherry pick" what we show about this city. i.e. that we only show the best things and miss out the worst. This is not true. The network of very high quality cycling provision really does go very nearly everywhere. Small parts which fall below the best standard are not extraordinarily terrible. Take for example the cycle-lane at the bus-stop shown here. This lane is smooth and of a decent width, it's just not up to the standard of other things in the city. However, this is not to the standard required to make cycling subjectively safe and attractive to all so we must criticise it.

Unfortunately, the problems in this location have not been fixed and look like they will spread. Read a blog post from 2015 showing more.

So much for what has been achieved by Assen in the last six years, now for a prediction about what will happen in the next few months.

The opposite side of the road from the
first photo in this blog post, in winter.
Snow completely cleared from the
Winter is approaching fast but I expect we'll not have too much trouble with snow and ice in the next few months. It's not that Assen is particularly mild in winter - in fact, winter temperatures here are colder than the Northern tip of Scotland or the Southern tip of New Zealand, but we rarely have problems.

Why ? An excellent standard of snow ploughing and salt application keeps problems at bay. Winter doesn't get in the way of cycling.

Future plans
Assen has many plans for the future. Some of this has already been started, several roads, cycle-paths and bridges (most of them cycle-bridges) are being replaced along one of the canals. There are also plans to renew many of the roads in the South East of the city and this will involve building new cycle-paths.

Public plans for the railway station area. The busy road goes underground, the long cycle-tunnel under the station which impressed me in 2008 will be made shorter and the bike parking will expands to 3500 spaces combined underground and on the roof of the station.
The railway station is also set for replacement. The new railway station will have cycle-parking for 3500 bicycles (one for every 22 people even allowing for future population expansion to 80000) and the busy road which goes past the railway station now is being put underground so that cyclists from the station will be able to get into the city centre without having to stop at a traffic light or negotiate with traffic.

In 2014 the plans for the station were finally published. They are not as positive for cycling as we had hoped. A future blog post will explain the problems.

Is your city catching up ?
A friend of mine lives 100 km south
of here in Deventer - another 'average'
city which is investing in ever
better cycling infrastructure.
Assen is mostly quite an average Dutch city, but Assen certainly is not standing still. The changes which have been made here in the last six years are enormous and cycling has grown from an already high base. This was already a very good place to cycle before we moved here, but it's a lot better now.

It's not just Assen than has been doing this. Almost every Dutch town is in an undeclared competition to out-do the other. Each of them improving their infrastructure because they're investing enough money, time and design effort.

To see for yourself what the Netherlands has
achieved, how important this is for cycling,
and where it's going next, book a study tour.
To catch up with Assen, and to catch up with the Netherlands as a whole, you cannot progress slowly but need to run very fast indeed. Half measures and low aspirations will not achieve what the Netherlands has achieved in the past, nor will they come anywhere near where the Netherlands is going in the future. How much time do you have ?

See also "Has London progressed in the last six years ?" and "Has Britain progressed in the last six years ?"