Friday 3 May 2013

What It Really Means to Go Dutch - interview on The Bike Show

A couple of weeks ago, Jack Thurston from The Bike Show kindly interviewed me. He did a splendid job of editing my ramblings down into something coherent and published the result today. You can hear the interview by clicking on the play button below, introduced by no less a cycling hero than Eddy Merckx !

If you can't see the play button, click here to listen to the radio interview

So what does it really mean to "Go Dutch" ?
Cycling home from school with a
friend. No cars near by. UNICEF
rates Dutch children as having
the best well-being in the world
There have been many proposals recently for "Dutch" infrastructure, some more convincing than others. Many of them, in my opinion, rather miss the point.

First of all it's necessary to know why it is that people cycle so much more in the Netherlands than elsewhere. While some people roll out the same old myths and excuses time and time again, I'm still absolutely convinced that it comes down primarily to one thing: a lack of subjective safety in other countries puts people off.

Cars so far away you can pretend
they don't exist.
Why do I believe this ? It's quite simply actually. I spent many years trying to promote cycling in the UK in many ways, including driving around the country with a huge bus full of bikes for people to try out. It was never even slightly difficult to convince people to try our bikes and to cycle in a controlled environment. There is huge enthusiasm and people virtually snatch bikes out of your hands in order to ride them. The huge pent up demand for cycling is also demonstrated by the massive popularity of other events on closed streets, such as Sky Rides across the UK and Ciclovias in the Americas. Events like this make "cyclists" out of "non cyclists". Such events are not demonstrations of true mass cycling in themselves, but they are very effective demonstrations of unmet pent up demand for cycling.

There are cars, but they're over there
It's not the same story if you ask those same people to ride to work in the rush hour, or to let their children cycle to school. Make these suggestions and you won't find much enthusiasm outside of the self-selected group who already cycle.

In the Netherlands people already do cycle in their thousands. In fact, to be more accurate, they cycle in their millions, every day. It's really impressive. What's more, it's not a narrow demographic, but the entire population. The comparison with other countries is remarkably stark. No-where else is the same.

And this is what it really means to "Go Dutch". It's not specifically about cycle-paths, segregation by means other than cycle-paths, unravelling of routes, how traffic light junctions are designed, or what Dutch roundabouts look like. It's not about how much cycle-parking there is at railway stations or even about cycling being safer in the Netherlands than in other countries.

Disabled with an able bodied friend?
You can ride side by side in safety.
Infrastructure is not an end in itself. Rather, it is the important enabling technology to allow mass cycling to occur where there are motor vehicles. Without motor vehicles, no specific cycling infrastructure is needed. But that is true only when motor vehicles are excluded.

People cycle in the Netherlands because it feels so normal to do so. And why does it feel so normal ? Because cycling is efficient and stress free in a way that simply does not compare with anywhere else. Remarkably, to many people (including many Dutch people) this simple truth is hidden in plain sight. It looks like people cycle simply because "they're Dutch" but actually it's because the experience is so attractive that it pulls people in.

This is what needs to be kept in mind when people talk about "Going Dutch". It's not about putting in a few pieces of infrastructure, it's about civilizing the entire experience of cycling for everyone. Until that happens, cycling will remain a minority pursuit for those people who are relatively confident whatever the conditions.

My mother cycling next to
me during a visit to The
Netherlands. Is there any
need for an explanation of
why this feels safer than
riding at home ?
I wrote a few paragraphs back that the infrastructure is not an end in itself, but that doesn't mean that it's importance should be underplayed. For a high level of cycling everywhere, there must be good quality infrastructure everywhere that there are cars and it must be a very fine grid and have a very high quality level. This is what makes cycling accessible to everyone. Unfortunately, this still does not seem to be well enough understood and it's a reason why attempts to "Go Dutch" are often doomed to fail.

You can't "Go Dutch" on an inadequate budget, by setting a low target to aim for, with a few prestige projects, in a very small area of a town, at just one junction or along one road, by skimping on the standards or by proposing to build good enough infrastructure only where it is easy to do so and ignoring the parts where it is difficult. Mediocrity simply doesn't work.

Isolated bits and pieces don't work. The network is the infrastructure. That's what makes the difference between 2% of journeys by bike and 27% of journeys by bike.

As I pointed out five years ago, a short distance "may as well be a thousand miles" if there are unpleasant conditions for cycling along the route. People simply won't choose to do it.

Ultimately the result of any cycle campaigning, infrastructure building, training, publicity or anything else intended to increase cycling can be measured in its success only if it can be demonstrated that this has genuinely led to more cycling. That's what it's all about.

One more question
While Jack's editing hides it very well (we recorded our own parts separately and he edited the two separate recordings together), we had quite a lot of problems due to dropouts on Skype during the interview. As a result, one question which he asked stands out in the interview as not being answered properly. He sent it to me again this afternoon in email: "One point I thought was particularly interesting - and which I don't quite think we got to a satisfactory answer - was how do UK (or US) campaigners stay motivated in the face of continuously inadequate responses from government."

It's a very good question and it deserves an answer.

I know that some people see my contribution to the debate about cycling as rather negative. I understand why: I do not accept what I read in press releases at face value, I have rounded on child cycle trainers as having presided over a drop in child cycling and I have often criticised campaigners for setting their standards too low. However that doesn't mean that I don't respect those who give freely of their time in order to try to improve the lot of cyclists. I have experienced for myself the difficulties of being a cycling campaigner in the UK and I have seen for myself how slow progress is. There is a certain amount of churn amongst campaigners and sometimes the group memory seems to be short because those who've "seen it all before" give up and are replaced by other people who take the same roles. Some remarkable individuals stay in the same roles for far longer than I managed to and I am impressed by their ability to do so.

The gadget displayed to the right was described by one correspondent as "the most depressing app of 2013", but my intention with it was to help us all to stay focused. I'm going to continue to tell it as it is because I think nothing is gained by pretending otherwise. However, my criticism is not of campaigners and trainers but of the environment that they work in. Good people are putting in an enormous amount of effort but their efforts are being squandered by politicians who talk but do not act.

I see it as vitally important for both campaigning and training to continue and of course people must continue to see for themselves the importance of what they do.

While mass events are not genuine mass cycling, they do have a role to play. They demonstrate support for cycling and they have the potential to get far more people involved than would normally turn up at a "cycling" event. Get as many people on bikes as possible. Demonstrate the pent-up demand which exists. Make people smile because they're cycling. Most importantly, get children on bikes. They're the only source of future cyclists. This is why we think it is of vital importance to campaign for the right of children right to cycle.

A lot of work is still needed on the political front. Lobbying politicians is a good way of making yourself noticed but politicians can be quite good at giving the answer you want to hear. Questioning them and publishing the results is a good way of pointing out that some candidates have more of a clue than others. At a later date this also lets you compare what they said with what they did. Push the benefits of cycling and not cycling itself. The well-being of children is surely of everyone's concern and children demonstrably fair best in the countries where most children cycle. If no-one looks to be doing a good job, try to get yourself elected.

Also organise events for cyclists. There's nothing wrong with "cyclists breakfast" type events which target those who already cycle and reward them for doing what they already do. These events don't do anything much to grow cycling but they support people who are already doing the right thing and help to make life enjoyable.

Fast cyclists benefit from good
infrastructure just like anyone else.
They have the same need for direct,
safe and easy to follow routes.
Make sure you cycle. Try types of cycling that you've not tried before. i.e. if you've never toured, try touring. If you've never raced, try racing. If you've never been out with the local CTC group, go and meet them for a Sunday ride. Of course, I'm not telling you that you must do any of these things if you really don't like the sound of them, but in my experience it's all good fun. Cyclists are a small enough minority already and do not benefit from being perceived as separate "tribes" with different needs. Build bridges between cyclists so that you can work together towards infrastructure which will work for all of you.

Learn about good infrastructure
If you believe it is practical to ban all cars then you can skip this section. Otherwise, changes to infrastructure will be needed if cycling can ever be made acceptable to the population at large.

Become knowledgeable about infrastructure that works for cycling. Don't propose things that you wouldn't want to use yourself. Everyone, from 3 year olds on tricycles through to experienced fast cyclists, benefits from exactly the same things. i.e. direct, safe and easy to follow routes for cycling which are comfortable and pleasant to use. Don't seek out alternatives to well tried designs for infrastructure simply on the grounds that they are novel, less expensive, or not Dutch. Why look for an alternative unless something else from somewhere else has proven to be more successful than the best Dutch examples ? The Netherlands is not perfect, but it is the leading nation in cycling for a reason. If you're considering something else it'd better be good.

Try to get politicians and planners to come on our study tours. Come along yourself. This blog started originally as a way to keep in touch with people who'd been on the tours. The tours started because we realised back in 2006 that no-one was doing such a thing. There have always been many misconceptions about what had been achieved in the Netherlands and we do our best to show people how it really is. We're now in a unique position to explain things with the perspective of having lived both in the UK and the Netherlands and because we speak English as a first language this helps to prevent misunderstandings.

We're not affiliated to any government agency and we pull no punches. We show not only where things are good, but also what doesn't work so well.

Other good stuff
Please also read Mark Treasure's blog post from earlier this week entitled "Why do the Dutch cycle more than the British ?"

Still wondering about the success of mass cycling events ? Get up high enough and you'll see lots of people take part even in cities which set ludicrously long time-scales for progress on cycling.


r s thompson said...

NO.. i doubt its a lack of subjective safety. probably a lack of will and ACTUAL SAFETY. and to some extent dutch historical momentum. drop teh subjective safety thing if you can. sheesh.

David Hembrow said...

r s thompson: Point me to a place where people of all ages and abilities willingly cycle so much as we take for granted in the Netherlands even though they're scared witless by the lack of subjective safety.

Jitensha Oni said...

Great sfuff. Just one question about your point about the Dutch interpreting CROW standards as a minimum - isn't it more a legal obligation than an interpretation? Though I suppose you could argue "where there's a will there's a way" and poor implementation is always possible. But you're absolutely spot on about the traditionally aspirational quality of UK responses. This is/has been hghly damaging IMO. Not only wrt the CROW manual among campaigners, but also things like the UK authorities' use of their own publications - the all-important safety aspects are often (?usually) just "guidelines" that are widely ignored; and the willingness of the old guard of campaigners to take an aspirational view of what they want to achieve & be satisfied with crumbs (my glass is 5% full).

@r s thompson no, it's about threat responses. Fight or flight. The 2% cycling in the UK are the fighters. The 20% that aren't are the flighters.

Fonant said...

r s thompson: David is technically correct, because here in the UK cycling is actually, statistically, a very safe thing to do. But you are also correct from the viewpoint of the general population, who don't know or care about the statistics.

Traditional campaigners, myself included, thought we could get people cycling if only we could persuade them to try it, and if only they'd believe the statistics. And why traditional UK campaigning puts so much emphasis on cycle training, so people know how to deal with motor vehicles. We know that cycling is safe, we just want more people doing it.

But, of course, even though it's provably "safe" to ride a bicycle in the UK, that doesn't make it pleasant, and in fact the regular near misses from fast-moving motor vehicles makes it very frightening (even for a long-term cycling enthusiast like me!).

Statistically-speaking cycling is only subjectively dangerous. Practically-speaking it is potentially really dangerous but impacts are extremely rare.

Humans have a very poor grasp of risk levels: people cross the road without thinking, but often fear flying, for example. We place more weight on the effect of worst-case outcomes than probability of those outcomes.

Cycling amongst motor vehicles is "obviously dangerous" for 90% of the population, and no amount of training, or quoting of statistical data will change that. It has to become obviously, subjectively, safe.

Kevin Love said...

I believe that it is possible to keep our message fairly simple. Mass cycling needs two things. First it must be safe, with a high level of subjective safety. This is a necessary but not sufficient condition.

Secondly, cycling must be the fastest, easiest and most convenient way of getting from A to B. Otherwise, only the tiny minority of enthusiasts will cycle. The vast bulk of the people will use whatever means of transportation actually is the fastest, easiest and most convenient.

David touches on this at the 12 minute mark in the broadcast, and he is absolutely right. The Dutch methods of eliminating ratrunning and setting up a zone or sector strategy (as in Groningen or the Austrian city of Vienna) are absolutely the right way to go.

A two-step programme. What could be easier?

Jim Moore said...

A great interview. Well done to you both. I couldn't believe this wasn't done "live".

As a companion to your blog it is close tp perfect. Listening to it re-affirmed what I thought I'd learnt from years of reading and re-reading your posts.

I see my role now to be as effective and convincing as you are so that my home adopts the proper approach to achieving NL cycling levels as a requisite for having a resilient all-mode transport system.

Thank you again David. Hopefully I can make at least one of your tours in the near future.

Edward said...

At one point in the interview, you make the point that in the time that you have been living in the Netherlands, there is no reason why the UK could not have developed a basic comprehensive network based on what the Dutch have.

You then said that since you have been living in Assen, I think half of the infrastructure has been renewed or upgraded. Is that right? It sounds astonishing. Can you give some brief examples of what has changed? I think it is an important point. It was referred to in some of the recent posts about Stevenage and Milton Keynes.

And thank you for your comments about campaigning.

Anonymous said...

Sorry r s Thomspon. But David is dead on with the subjective safety issue. I know how safe cycling is and have been a dedicated communter/touring cyclist for decades. I can't get my wife to ride except in "summer weather" because she is afraid of the cars around her loosing control. She would not commute on a trike because the cars "wouldn't see her".

I showed her how this was not true, by having her drive up on me while I was on the trike, but it didn't matter, she just did not feel safe. She is the person we need to get on the road.

Reducing speed limits within cities, and having useful and connected bike routes with bike lanes can make a huge difference to that feeling when cyclists have to share space with cars.

The "dutch" solution is the best choice, but that takes a lot of infastructure changes. That takes political clout to make it happen. If you can get routes regular people feel save enough to use, to let their kids use, then you begin to have enough people supportive of practical cycling to form the needed political pressure needed to make the infrastructure changes.

paulzak said...

I just heard the podcast and was blown away. I'm in California and we too suffer from exceedingly low expectations. There are some bright spots like increases in cycle touring and places like Moab and Fruita have been cashing in from cycling but god help you if you want to ride any distance, even in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Anonymous said...

In the interview, when asked why the decision to create a really good bicycle infrastructure happened at that time and why in the Netherlands, you, David, told the interviewer that it was mostly luck. I, as a Dutch woman who was around at that time (although I was a mere teenager), would like to throw in my two cents.

Of course, there is always the serendipity factor, but there were more factors at play.

First of all, the economy boomed during the seventies. Everybody's, and I mean EVERY Dutch citizen's, deposable income had, what?, doubled? Tripled? The overal affluence is important because people who are worrying about paying the rent and wether they will still have a job in a few months/years time are not thinking about cycle infrastructure and the betterment of their environment.

Secondly, as has been said, there was the oil-crisis and, although this has not been said, the growing realisation of the importance of environmental problems such as pollution and the depletion of natural resources.

Thirdly, the seventies was the period of the baby-boomers. The people who were born just after WWII. This new generation, growing up in rapid growing affluence, were convinced that the 'old fogeys' had been Doing Everything Wrong and that they Would Do Everything Different (And Therefore Better). The protest 'Stop de Kindermoord' was headed by a 23 year old, and this is no coincidence; the seventies were the years where everything was thought to be debatable, permissable, questioned, and the future seemed bright, because although people worried about the environment, pollution and feeding the growing world population, there was also a huge optimism, the conviction that We Together Can Might Things Right.

And now we come to my fourth, and most important point. Because up to now, you might say, 'So what? These things happened in Britain as well. Maybe slightly different different here and there, but essentially the same thing, right?'
But the one thing that people (including the Dutch themselves) forget is that the Dutch have a history of changing their environment to suit their needs.

Yup, if you ask me, the whole 'pompen of verzuipen' ('pump or drown') legacy played a huge part in the Dutch decision to build cycle infrastructure. The legacy of knowing, deep in your bones, that if there is a problem, we should collectively find a solution for that problem and build it, be it the Afsluitdijk, the Oosterscheldedam or cyclinginfrastructure. The collective bit is important - the Netherlands is an individualistic, capitalistic country, with a history and penchant for collectiveness. In the Netherlands it was never a case of 'all the rich people live on the high ground so if the dikes burst only the poor people drown' either, so they might hate their neighbour, and their neighbour might hate them, but unless they worked together to pump the water out, they both would drown. We don't conciously think about it, but the instinct to find solutions for the common good in ingrained in us from birth.

This is not to say that other countries can't build cyclinginfrastructure, I'm just saying that there IS a reason why the Dutch did what they did when they did it.