Monday 22 July 2013

An invitation to Boris Johnson (to the city centre by bike and by car)

On Saturday afternoon I read a tweet about Boris Johnson personally claiming credit for having "flooded London with bicycles". It was closely followed by other tweets which said that actually only two bikes per hour pass on a busy through road, that over 90% of those are male and that "Women and parents justifiably scared of cycling on road". London's much heralded cycling revolution is simply not what it is often claimed to be.

These tweets were sent on a day when it was just as warm and attractive for cycling in London as it was here in Assen. They prompted me to go straight outside and cycle into the centre of our city with a video camera to make a comparison. Apart from my camera having a narrower field of view than you experience in real life, this is exactly what it looked like:

Cycling from the outskirts by the ring-road to the centre of Assen on a nice sunny Saturday. Temperature just short of 30 C. Bicycles dominate. On the bicycle road, the first 4:10 of the video, there were 59 bikes, three cars, two mopeds. On the other side of the canal, the main route for cars and a secondary route for bikes, there were 15 cars and an unknown number of bikes. I'm not going to even try to count the bikes in the city centre.

This is a boring video because it is one long shot with no edits. When people make videos in order to impress they usually take many short shots and edit them together. Sometimes it's necessary to wait for cyclists to appear before starting their videos. Sometimes it helps if the cyclists are held up by a red light so that the accumulate and an impressive group can be seen cycling together. However, this video relies on none of that artifice. There is no need to use techniques like this in order to make Assen look like many people are riding bicycles because many people genuinely are riding bicycles, all the time. The bicycle paths, and in this case a bicycle road (one example of how segregation of modes is possible without building a cycle-path), are busy with bikes all day, every day.

We don't have a Boris Johnson-like figure here so no-one has spoken on the radio about how they have "flooded" this city with bicycles. Assen doesn't need that hype in order to have an extraordinary level of bicycle usage. The population of Assen is less than 1% that of London (67000 vs. 8M) but despite the small population, those of us who live in this city make approximately four times as many cycle journeys per day as are made using the shared bikes in London which Boris Johnson takes credit for.

It's not just Assen which doesn't need hype. London could do without it as well. Cycling in London does not benefit from exaggeration. Making outrageous claims one after another will not result in London having a cycling modal share like that of Assen or other Dutch cities. Rather than words, London needs to build the infrastructure which is required to make people feel safe and to keep them safe should they choose to cycle. To achieve this requires a far higher standard of infrastructure to be built in London than has yet been proposed or built in the city. It also requires that infrastructure to be ubiquitous.

In the Netherlands, even small towns like this one go to quite remarkable efforts to encourage cycling. For instance, most of the canal along which I ride at the start of the video was moved sideways by two metres in 2008. This major piece of work was requires in order to make space for the secondary cycle-route on the other side of the canal parallel with the road.

An invitation to Boris Johnson
With this blog post I'm extending a second invitation to Boris Johnson to come here so that we can show him what it looks like when a town is genuinely "flooded" with bikes. We have run study tours of cycling infrastructure in the Netherlands for eight years and we're now pretty good at it. We're the only people doing tours like this who Boris can meet who are native English speakers and who combine knowledge of Dutch infrastructure with knowledge of the British situation gained from living for a long period in the UK.

Boris, we can show you more than anyone else can. Come and see us and learn about how a real cycling city works. We won't contact the press and we don't want a media circus. See this as a learning opportunity.

Think of Assen as a "Mini Holland" which greatly outperforms anything yet planned for London. There is much to learn from this small city because the same things that work well here will also work anywhere else.

It takes three whole days to include everything that is on our normal study tours. We operate them mid-week and in term time so that everything can be seen in normal conditions, not holiday or weekend conditions. We have reserved space in our diaries for a possible study tour on the three days starting September 10th and ending on September 12th. The tour takes three whole days so to take part in this tour you would have to travel to Assen on the 9th of the month and leave on the 13th. If you, Boris, can join us on those dates I would be delighted to meet you here. If you cannot then please get in touch with us and suggest some free dates in your diary. We will work with you. If you can only spare fewer days than the usual three then obviously we will have to miss out some of the content of the tour but we can work with that as well.

It is essential that for London and the rest of the UK to make progress on cycling that the best lessons are learnt from what the Dutch have already achieved. Start with the best possible starting point and progress from there.

Why do we want to do this ?
We are British and we spent most of our lives in the UK before we emigrated. Just because we no longer live in the UK this doesn't mean we're not interested in the quality of life of those who still do live there. It would mean a lot to us if we could help British people to benefit from the best practice in the world regarding cycling infrastructure.

UNICEF Index of child
well-being. High cycling
countries in orange.
The UK needs to do
better for its children.
This is not just about "cycling" or "cyclists" but about freedom for everyone. We would like to see our parents, our siblings, our cousins and our nieces as well as other British people benefit from a change in emphasis in British planning from the car-centricity that has plagued the UK for decades. This process could easily have been started forty years ago. That the UK has slipped so far behind is not an accident, it's the result of making choices. British policy has for many years supported motorized modes above others and this continues with the latest lacklustre "Action for Roads" plans which makes no promises at all with regard to cycling, relying on use of the vague term "cycle-proofing" to pacify cycling campaigners.

To make it possible for people once again to choose to cycle en-masse, as was the norm in the UK within the lifetime of many people still alive requires a transformation. The next generation in the UK stands to gain an awful lot from this.

What's this about driving to the centre ?
When I uploaded the video above, youtube offered a related video which I'd never seen before. The "Sensor City" project, which seeks to improve conditions for driving, has been going on in Assen for some time now and I had meant to write about it years ago, however at the time there was not much interesting material in English which I could link to. The English language video found by youtube shows Assen in a completely different light to my video above:

Very clever stuff, but in this video there are no bicycles shown at all until 3:10 when he drives past 2500 cycle-parking spaces at the railway station. You then see them in the background when he walks in the city centre at 4:00. It's unfortunate that the "Sensor City" project is apparently completely oblivious to bicycles. Note that Green Waves are old hat.

The driver ends up in the same city centre streets as I did in my video, but he does so by driving to a car park near the centre and walking a few hundred metres.

You'll note that while in my video there are nearly no cars, in this video there are nearly no bikes. Also note that in my video there are no traffic lights but in his video there are several sets of traffic lights. Actually, the route he took, optimized by the Sensor City computer system as the best possible route by car (so far as I can see not identical to the one shown on his screen), passed through eight sets of traffic lights. When you ride a bicycle through Assen you avoid nearly all the traffic lights.

The power of unravelling driving routes from cycling routes is demonstrated quite well by these two videos. By bicycle we take the direct routes without traffic lights. By car we are offered efficient routes which keep us out of the way of people who cycle.

Cycling is popular in the Netherlands because it is attractive, pleasant, safe and efficient. Driving is also easy here and the Dutch government often provides good support for driving. However, driving a car is less attractive so people tend not to use cars for journeys which they can cycle. When it comes to convincing people to ride bikes instead of driving cars, carrots work better than sticks.

Not only Boris Johnson
Readers suggested other politicians from London who should be invited to take part in the September 2013 Study Tour. Apart from Boris Johnson, who represents the Conservative party, the list below includes Labour, Lib Dem and Green Party politicians. The full list is as follows. Most of these were invited only on Twitter. In all these cases they're active on twitter so will have seen the invitation. Their reply, if any, can be read in the second links after each name below, named for the date of their invitation:
  1. Boris Johnson ( @MayorofLondon ) 22nd July 2013
  2. Jenny Jones ( @GreenJennyJones ) 22nd July 2013
    Jenny Jones' first reply was an exercise in "bland but sounding concerned": "Thanks for the invite. The Netherlands (and other countries) are an example we really should follow". After that a green party staffer replied on her behalf saying such things as that she'd "been on cycling trips in the Netherlands before" to which I replied by explaining why this is different. it took many tweets and nearly a month after my first question before Jenny replied again, saying that her "problem is finding time". I replied saying that I would run a tour for Jenny on any date of her choice, on twitter and in email. Nothing more was heard until the 27th of February 2014 when Jenny claimed that I had "offered me dates I couldn't do" and turned her nose up at "freebie offers".
  3. Ruth Dombey ( @RuthDombey ) 22nd July 2013
  4. Paul Burstow ( @PaulBurstow ) 23rd July 2013
  5. Tom Brake ( @ThomasBrake ) 23rd July 2013 8th August 2013 "send more info"
  6. Val Shawcross ( @ValShawcross ) 23rd July 2013 8th August 2013 "no thanks!"
  7. Christian Wolmar ( @WolmarForLondon ) 23rd July 2013
8th August. Still hoping for a response
More than two weeks have passed since the invitation was sent. Boris Johnson made an appearance on the BBC to make the long discredited claim that London doesn't have enough space for cycle-paths and his sidekick Andrew Gilligan repeated his discredited claim that "it took 40 years to turn Amsterdam into Amsterdam". The proposed "solution" remains that of spending 1/3rd as much as the Dutch, for ten years, though it's obvious that this can never result in catching up, but only in falling further behind at a slightly slower rate.

None of the politicians that we invited have yet responded to the invitation to take a Study Tour free of charge. They are still welcome to do so. We have also reserved rooms in in B&B accommodation and opened booking for campaigners for the September 2013 tour. Spaces are limited.

15th August update
Today we received a reply from Boris Johnson's Public Liaison Officer:
Dear David and Judith

Thank you very much for your email of 22 July inviting Mr Johnson to participate in your cycling study tour in Assen and Groningen in September.

Regrettably, the constraints of the Mayor's diary make it impossible for him to accept your invitation on this occasion.

He has asked me to pass on his apologies and hopes that the tour is a great success and is enjoyed by all.

Yours sincerely

Katya Phillip
Public Liaison Officer
Greater London Authority

It would be a shame for the Mayor of London to miss out on this opportunity just because his diary is full so we are offering Boris Johnson the opportunity to make the tour on any date that suits him. We've sent a reply:
Dear Katja,

Thank you for your reply. I'm very sorry to hear that the Mayor's diary has no space for the September 2013 tour. Hundreds of people from all around the world have come to us in order to find out how and why the Dutch cycle and to discover how important it is that a city should have a very comprehensive network of good quality cycling infrastructure in order to encourage the population to cycle.

While other participants willingly pay for the tour, and normally we require people to fit in with our diary, we are offering something different for the Mayor of London because this is important. We are offering to give up our time free of charge, re-arrange our diaries and meet Boris on any date at all. The Mayor's diary commitments are no reason for him to miss out on the tour.

We are doing this because we think it is important that the UK starts to take cycling more seriously than it does at present.

Please let us know which dates are available in the Mayor's diary. We look forward to being able to assist London in transforming itself into a true cycling city.


David and Judith Hembrow

5th September 2013 update
We received a reply today from another of Boris Johnson's Public Liaison Officers. Having offered Boris a free tour on any date at all and received a reply which says that he can't come in "the foreseeable future" I think it's clear that we're getting nowhere at all.

It's a shame as since the original invitation was sent it has only become more clear that London needs help with understanding what "Dutch" cycling infrastructure is all about:
Dear David,

Thank you for your reply, unfortunately I can only repeat my colleagues previous response. As much as the Mayor is very grateful for the invitation, it is with real regret that he must decline as his diary is already full for the remainder of the year, making it impossible for him to identify a date for a meeting in October or the foreseeable future.

I understand that this is not the reply you were hoping for however this is the situation at this time.

Yours sincerely

Raymond Peart
Public Liaison Officer

November 2013 update
Four months without an answer to our offer is quite enough. If Boris Johnson or any other member of his team wish to book a tour then they're welcome to do so, but the offer of a free tour is no longer available.

Unfortunately, recent statements and actions by the Mayor of London have made it quite obvious that he prefers to bluster and boast even when little has been achieved and will even throw a dead cat on the table rather than to take the concerns of cyclists seriously.

It doesn't mean YOU can't come.
While the open tours are run only on a few dates each year, we can arrange private cycling Study Tours on almost any date. Please contact us to make a booking.


Frits B said...

Found this article on the BBC's website - mentioning "the UK's outstanding cycle network":
Well, if people don't know any better ...

Anonymous said...

I would love to see Boris take one of your study tours, but I won't be holding my breath... I never ceases to amaze me how British infra designers and bigwigs like Boris will swear up and down to desing and install 'Dutch' cycle infra only to take 'factfinding missions' to *Paris* or *New York* and then to produce (with great fanfare) their *idea* of Dutch infra which turns out to be something no Dutch engineer would produce in a thousand years!!
I mean, from London to The Netherlands is only a hour by plane and a couple of hours by train. It's like there's a forcefield around the place and British legislators and engineers just bounce off.

Something I've been trying to sell for years to British cycling activists is to get the petrolheads on their side. Send a letter to Top Gear and issue a challenge. That Hammond guy loves to cycle fast dressed in lycra and helmet (I've seen him in a challenge with Jeremy to see who would be faster during London's rush hour), so give him some task to see how *fast* Dutch cycle infra is. James May is the more sedate person, so give him a Dutch sit-up bicycle and let him do the scenic route challenge where he has to find his way with the knooppunten system, and petrolhead Clarkson can then do some challenge in a car where the point would be how he, as a driver, benefits from good cycle infra.

So, David, how about a letter to 'Top Gear'? One program where Clarkson and co wax lyrical (be it in their typical derogative humoresque way) about cycle infrastructure might do more to the perception of cycling by the general British public (mostly drivers) than any pro-cycling propaganda by staunch cyclist or Boris tooting his own tin trumpet could ever do.

Jim Moore said...

@marionros, actually it seems Clarkson is on board a sit-up bike already, at least in Copenhagen. A trip to the NL would probably completely convert him.

Jameson Brown said...

Didn't want to pop this in an article, but couldn't find a better way.

Just learned about the village of Mackinac, in Michigan, where cars have been banned since the 19th century. Lot's of excellent cycling infrastructure because of it. Goes to your point that there isn't something particular about Dutch culture or genetics.

Jamie Hodge said...

A good idea, but pretty unrealistic to expect him to come.

Why not invite the people specificaly responsible, for example Isabel Dedring, Deputy Mayor for Transport -

Also Andrew Gilligan, Cycling Commissioner for London -

Also, with respect, an invitation via a Tweet is likely to get missed, why not email the Assembly members an invitation? All of their email addresses can be found on the website.

David Hembrow said...


I'm not at all surprised by the lack of take-up but not for the reason you think. This tweet was not "missed" - clearly you didn't read so far down the article as to find the series of dismissive responses that we had from Boris Johnson's "Public Liasion Officer" ?

The opportunity was there to nominate someone else instead, but that opportunity was not taken.

This is far from the first time we've done this. Actually, I've written to British Politicians, emailed them and occasionally even asked them face to face for ten years.

Never has any one of them taken seriously any invitation to be shown how the infrastructure here in the Netherlands works and why it would be a good idea for Britain to try to emulate what is good about the Netherlands.

Replies that we have received have sometimes been rude, often dismissive and we've also seen every possible variation on the theme of "It's ever so important and I'd love to come if only I didn't have to do this on that date", which of course is in most cases simply a polite way of saying "I'm not interested, but I'd still like you to vote for me". These replies are exposed for what they are by offering any date.

We received responses from most of the other people invited, but they were also not available / not interested, in exactly the same way as has always been the case.

Andrew Gilligan did actually come to the Netherlands, but instead of coming to see us, independent and willing to tell the truth about what's good and bad, he attended a well funded commercial event which sold the expertise of Dutch companies which sought a return on the money invested by the taxpayer and companies involved. The problem with this is of course that merely employing a Dutch company won't bring you Dutch infrastructure. They are commercial companies which will sell you anything that you're willing to buy.