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 ?"

Friday 15 November 2013

Has London progressed in the last six years ?

This is the second of a three part series. See also "Has Britain progressed in the last six years?" and "Has Assen progressed in the last six years?" .

Previous experience of London
I'm not a Londoner, but I have some affinity for the place. While in the daytime the city can seem too busy, too smelly and too noisy, at night time it comes alive. Every possible type of food is available and every restaurant and every pub is full. I enjoyed it when I lived there but more than twenty years have passed since I lived and worked in South London. Judy and I met each other in Hackney some years before the demographic changes which led to the increase in cycling in that part of London.

When I lived in Cambridge I cycled down to the Thames on a couple of occasions and this of course involved going through London. An older blog post features photos of some of the grotty infrastructure that I found on one of those rides. Until October, the last time that I had cycled in London was to make the short journey from Kings Cross to Paddington in order to get to take a train to the start point for a bicycle tour in 2006. When I looked up this journey, Google Maps suggested that covering 3.1 miles would take 22 minutes by car. That's an average of just 8.5 mph or 13.6 km/h. This is much slower than I would expect to cycle or drive in the Netherlands. It doesn't surprise me that London scores rather less well even than Amsterdam (one of the more challenging Dutch cities to drive in) on an index of "commuter pain".

London as experienced in October 2013
This photo should have had two cyclists in it. One of them was
weaving very carefully in and out of pedestrians and rubbish
 on the pavement. I can't say I blame her or other pavement
cyclists because these roads do not invite people to cycle.
On the first morning in London we walked along Cromwell Road between the hotel and the museum and I took a few photos of people cycling as we walked.

It was interesting to me to see who was cycling and how many people were cycling. My subjective impression was that cycling had surely grown in popularity since I last rode in the city. We have to be  wary about forming subjective impressions as they can so often be wrong, but as I understand it, official statistics claim there to have been a 70% rise in cycling since 1989.

As well as helmets and fluorescent clothing, a significant
 proportion of London cyclists wear masks.
Absolutely no-one wears a mask over here.
That said, cycling in London is still very much a minority activity with a specific demographic who do most of the cycling. There are a lot of people in the 20-40 year age bracket, more male than female. Very few children cycle. This is not surprising given the conditions but it stood out to my eyes which are now used to seeing almost all children cycling.

I saw no pensioners cycling. . This again contrasts greatly given that almost all pensioners cycle in the Netherlands and older people have been the main source of growth in Dutch cycling since the 1980s.

Even though I expected it, the predominance of safety gear was still surprising. No-one wears reflective clothing to cycle in the Netherlands unless they're on the way to their job at a building site. Helmets are worn in the Netherlands only by people taking part in sport, not people going to work. These things are clear signs of cyclists trying to increase their odds of survival in a hostile environment. They are symbols of a lack of subjective safety. London's cyclists are the pit canaries of the roads, and their bright yellow clothing serves to warn everyone that they don't feel safe and that this is an unsafe place to be. I used to wear reflective clothing when I lived in the UK and if I returned then there is a fair chance that I'd so again. It's a reaction to the conditions on the roads.

This is presumably one of those roads where it is claimed that
there is "not enough space for a cycle-path", but actually
London's roads could be adapted to make cycling pleasant
and safe. Londoners need to know what is possible and want
it. Examples exist. Take a look at some before and after
photos of Dutch cities and see which you prefer. British streets
simply look like Dutch streets in the 1960s.
I saw people wearing helmet cameras for their commutes. Because these have only become affordable since we left the UK, and because no-one would wear one for their commute here, I'd never actually ever seen anyone riding with a camera on their head simply in order to video traffic until now. I do understand why.

While there were more cyclists than I remember, the social rules are clear. Cars still dominated the streets. London cyclists know their place and mostly ride in a very much less self-assured manner than do Dutch cyclists. Those who step out of line are tooted at by drivers.

On other days I took back streets. Collingham Road, Courtfield Road, Stanhope Gardens, Harrington Road and others. You can look them up if you want. These roads had less traffic than Cromwell Road, but cars still dominated and not one of them was nearly traffic free enough. I didn't come across a single road in this part of London which was comparable with minor roads in the Netherlands. Minor roads in the Netherlands are attractive for cycling because cars are routed elsewhere and bicycles dominate them. You may remember that a few months ago I tried to draw London's Mayor's attention to such a road in order that he could come and see the difference for himself.

Exhibition Road's Shared Space in a mock-up photo. This is
what London was sold. The next photo shows the reality
How about Exhibition Road ?
While I mostly used the rear entrance to the Science Museum on Queen's Gate, the front entrance is on Exhibition Road. This has been discussed quite widely as an example of Shared Space in London. Shared Space doesn't work well in the Netherlands and I wouldn't expect it to work well anywhere else either.

However, having watched how people use Exhibition Road and having ridden a bicycle along its length, I can only conclude that this is "Shared Space" designed by someone who didn't understand it at all. There is no sharing and Exhibition Road is not functionally Shared Space. Motor vehicles dominate here to an even greater extent than is the case in Shared Spaces in the Netherlands. Cyclists are squeezed for space and pedestrians dare not cross the road. Nothing has been achieved here at all. This is just the same as other roads in London save for the fancy paving. See also my video impression of Exhibition Road just below this section (play from 2:35).

Exhibition Road in reality. How much "sharing" will there be
when this truck catches up with the bike ? It's more likely to
 scare the cyclist especially given that close passing is
inevitable given how little space is left due to the car parking
spaces. Was this  £29 million well spent ? Watch the video
from where this still was taken (Exhbition Rd from 2:35).
I'm not the first to criticise Exhibition Road. Read Freewheeler's blog post from where the extraordinary "planner's fantasy view" of this space filled with pedestrians came from. In reality Exhibition Road's "Shared Space" has never looked like the architect said it would and has always looked much as in my and others' photos and video.

A video impression

Video showing how the design of streets in London causes problems, especially for cyclists and pedestrians. The Exhibition Road Shared Space features from 2:35

This video demonstrates many of the problems facing all modes of transport in London. People don't drive in London because it's efficient, they do so because it's the least bad option. Most journeys are short in London and the potential for cycling is huge. However, few people cycle because they view it as terrifyingly dangerous. If cycling in London were so inviting as it is in the Netherlands then people would find it easy to make the choice to ride a bike.

Riding London's shared bikes
I have written several times before about the shared bike scheme in London.

Shared bike schemes are nice things to have in a city, just as fountains and parks are nice things to have in cities. Shared bikes are a civil amenity, and a good one. However, they shouldn't be confused with cycling any more than a fountain should be confused with providing running water to every home. Shared bike schemes simply cannot make a significant difference to modal share because they can never be numerous enough to do so. This is simple mathematics. 6000 bikes in a city with a population of 8 million people is almost insignificant. It's less than one bike per 1000 people. The problem with London was never a lack of bikes. There were a million bikes in London before the shared bike scheme was installed. People didn't ride them before because they were scared to do so and nothing has changed to address this issue. People are still too scared to cycle in London.

I ended up with a pile
of receipts and access
codes. It's an easy to use
system once past the 30+
pages of legalize on
the terminals !
Despite my skepticism about the value of bike share, I was determined to try it out. As it happens, I quite liked using them. I saw someone else have trouble with the system, but for me it worked without fault. Two pounds is next to nothing to be able to use a bicycle for 24 hours and by the time I left the city I had a pocket filled with release code printouts.

I'd heard stories about how the shared bikes were excessively heavy and slow, but actually I found them fine to ride. I could keep up with London cyclists quite well. What I didn't do is take any photos while cycling. I do that all the time in the Netherlands and many of the photos and videos on this blog were taken by me with a hand-held camera while riding a bike. However, in London ? No. It simply doesn't feel safe to do that.

I didn't find the hire bikes to be slow at all. Actually, they rode quite well. I avoided a couple of obviously broken bikes which were in the stands and those which I selected had reasonable tyre pressures, clean enough chains and were quite efficient to ride. 3 speed hubs are not especially inefficient and the bikes really aren't slow, though to achieve much in the way of speed you do need to ride with quite a high cadence because the gearing is absurdly low. I found I could easily keep up with other London cyclists and overtook most of them.

What I will criticise about the bikes is the useless "basket" on the front and the truly appalling lights. London seems concerned enough about danger that they make users of the bikes read (or ignore) 30 pages of legalize before they can take a hire bike, but they care so little about safety that the lights provided on the hire bikes are terrible. Why not fit a decent headlight and a decent rear light ? Flashing lights are no good for lighting the way even if they're bright, and this one really isn't bright at all. The rear light is so low so that it can easily be obscured by other traffic or street furniture. Hopeless. Decent lights should be a prerequisite for bike share schemes.

It's not only the hire bikes which were inadequately lit. Given the hostile street environment I expected that most London cyclists would have decent, if not excessive, lights on their bicycles in an attempt to be seen, however most actually had very poor lighting at night. My advice to Londoners is to buy and use better bike lights. (I don't want to turn this into an advertisement, but you can buy really good lights from us)

It will perhaps not come as a surprise to many people who cycle regularly in London that I was cut up by an Addison Lee minicab almost immediately after I first mounted one of the hire bikes.

London is slow
London is a very slow place to ride a bike and I found my patience was stretched somewhat. Here in Assen I'm spoiled. I'm used to being able to ride to most destinations by a direct route and without having to stop at all. Being able to make faster journeys by bike are just one of many advantages of having an efficient and comprehensive network of well designed cycle-routes. I am now accustomed to this network enabling me to avoid nearly all traffic lights and therefore I found it frustrating that in London I had to stop and restart every few hundred metres because cycles go through all the same traffic lights as cars do. This is enormously detrimental so far as average speeds are concerned and it is also very wearing on the rider, even over short distances. Cycling in London necessarily consists of inefficient short sprints between traffic lights. Cyclists try to get ahead, sometimes pushing through traffic lights before they've gone green, in an attempt not to be overtaken by too many cars before the next long delay at the next traffic light.

Cycle-path through Hyde Park. The only
segregated infrastructure open in the
evening near where we stayed. It's quite
an awful path, bumpy, with nothing
but a "cyclists dismount" at the end
and absurdly narrow (one bike width).
It came as a real surprise to find
someone heading in the opposite
direction along here. It had not occurred
to me when I started that this narrow
strip would be bidirectional, but it is.
I rode a shared bike back to my hotel along Cromwell Road, through back streets, through Hyde Park and together with Peter on his Brompton we rode to a friend's home near the Hilton in Kensington. There was a fairly large number of people riding along Kensington High Street at 6:30 in the evening. We were amongst the fastest cyclists (if you were overtaken on October 30 by a balding gray haired guy on a Boris Bike accompanied by a much younger chap on a Brompton, neither with helmet or fluorescent clothes, that was us) but the journey still took quite a long time. I started counting traffic lights but gave up after the tenth set. It was only after I returned home and looked at Google Maps that I realised that in this time-consuming journey we had ridden only 2 miles (3 km). In London it felt like we had gone much further - that being the effect of stop-start cycling. By way of comparison, watch a video showing how 2/3rds of the same distance in Assen to the city centre is ridden without any traffic lights.

Advanced Stop Lines are, thankfully, rare in the Netherlands. They are one of those things which was tried but which fell out of favour. Unfortunately, they're commonplace in London and because London is painting even more of them as part of new infrastructure they're becoming more common. These facilities do very little to make cyclists' journeys faster and any small gain is achieved at the cost of encouraging cyclists to make dangerous manoeuvres. I'm not enthusiastic about squeezing through gaps in traffic to get to the front at each traffic light as that simply means you have more cars behind you keen to overtake when you get going again. As a result, when the lights went green I had to ride with the cars past any cyclists who had pushed past me to the front of the queue. Quite absurd.

What was also quite absurd was that all my journeys by bike except for one short exploration through Hyde Park were on roads and not on separate cycling infrastructure. The only piece of separated infrastructure I could find was awful.

It seems none of the concepts of sustainable safety have yet been understood by TfL.

Has London Changed ?
Very little has changed on London's roads in the last six years. While there are more cyclists now, the attitudes of the majority of the population have not changed. Whatever mode of transport you choose, journey times are long even for short distances in London because everyone is crammed onto those same overly full roads.

While Andrew Gilligan continues to try to make out otherwise, the journeys that Londoner's make are the same lengths and for the same purposes as journeys in the Netherlands. However, Londoners drive for journeys which the Dutch would typically cycle. The reason why people drive so much more in London is that they find this to be the least awful way to get around, not because they make a positive choice to drive nor because it's particularly convenient.

Driving is not particularly pleasant in London but it is seen as the least awful option and that's why many people choose to drive.

Even though many British children receive cycle-training at school, their parents still don't let them cycle. This is a subjective safety issue. London's streets do not feel like a safe place to cycle so most people don't cycle. Parents are protective of their children so they  It's quite normal for people to want their children to be safe. Driving feels safer than cycling and that is why when Londoners have children, they drive even more because doing so is a way of keeping their children safe.

Dutch children have more freedom which leads to UNICEF saying that they have better lives. Shouldn't British children be equally blessed ?

What about those Superhighways ?
Unfortunately, I didn't get to ride on a "superhighway". I've written before about many issues with London's Superhighways, and one of the issues with them is that they are very far from being the comprehensive network of cycling facilities which is required for mass cycling. No superhighway went anywhere that I wanted to ride, so I didn't ride on a superhighway.

However from what I could see of one of those superhighways (CS3) from a car window on the way home, they're really not up to much at all. These, like everything else in London, are not close to being of typical Dutch quality.

Just after I returned from the UK, the extension to Cycling Superhighway 2 was completed.

Immediately that the extension to this "superhighway" was opened on the sixth of November, videos started to turn up of what it was like. What you see in videos like this is absolutely nothing comparable with modern Dutch cycling infrastructure. This infrastructure still causes conflicts, even on the day of opening:
Astonishingly, this is London's best effort at building segregated infrastructure. It promotes conflict, looks absolutely nothing like any Dutch cycle-path, the bus-stop bypasses only resemble the very oldest that I've seen in NL and it is only about 1.5 km long.

Boasting and blathering
If the junctions had been designed on
genuine Dutch lines, as shown to be
possible by this visualization by
Schrödinger's Cat
, then the incident
in the video above would not have
Transport for London initially boasted of the "2 mile" length of this infrastructure on CS2, but people then started to point out that they were counting the length of both sides of the road. i.e. it's really just one mile in length but they've done both sides. These works are on a very small scale. Even main through routes in London add up to over 360 miles and in total there are 9205 miles of road in the capital.

It's been talked about for months and now London has eventually reworked approximately one hundredth of one percent of the city's total road network to an inadequate quality. Was this really worth inviting the press and photographers so that the Mayor could open it in style ? Was it really worth press-releasing to the entire world ? Seriously ? Even when they'd done such a bad job as is exposed in the video above ? The cycling hype from London has perhaps just reached a new height of absurdity.

Is the city even making forward progress ? How many miles of roads have been improved for driving in the time that it has taken to do this minor piece of work for cycling ?

(note that later measurements show the length of the CS2 extension to be much less than one mile)

An inadequate response to a series of deaths
London has had quite a spate of cycling deaths recently. Yesterday I learnt that a previous dreadful toll of four cyclist deaths in eight days had increased to five in nine days. Many people are upset about this, but Boris Johnson's response was to say that "there's no amount of traffic engineering that we invest in that is going to save people's lives". Frankly, this is utter bull. It's disgracefully dishonest. I live with engineering which saves peoples lives. Dutch cyclists are the safest in the world because of this engineering. It's time for both Boris Johnson and Andrew Gilligan to stop making excuses and for real remedial action to start in London.

In order to make Dutch cyclists safe on this country's road network, consisting of 130000 km of roads, the Dutch limited speeds on 40000 km of roads, restricted the usage of almost all residential streets in the country and built 37000 km of cycle-path. That's for a population which only double that of London. While there are 198 people per mile of road in the Netherlands, there are 869 people per mile in London. While London has managed to build just a few "Cycling Superhighways" to an appalling low specification, the Netherlands has built a mile of cycle-path for every 700 people. If London built proportionately as much as the Dutch have then the city would have more miles of cycle-path than road. No-one argues that it is necessary to go that far, but London with its population of 8 million people ought to have far more quality cycling infrastructure than does little Assen with less than one percent of that population. Unfortunately, due to decades of inaction London actually has less. The job which needs to be done in London is proportionately far smaller than what the Dutch have already achieved. It's not beyond London to do this, but to get the job done will people someone with real vision. Enough bullshit - get building !

The unfortunate lack of a spine in the London Cycling Campaign
Also on the sixth of November, the London Cycling Campaign sent out a press release in which (amongst other things) they said "Today, the London Cycling Campaign hailed a major success as Mayor Boris Johnson opened the Dutch-style extension of Cycle Superhighway 2 from Bow to Stratford". The text of the press release is remarkably self congratulatory. "Another victory for our campaigning", "Today's announcements come on top of an announcement", "the political wins... finally bearing fruit", "as safe and inviting as they are in Holland(sic)", ending with the inevitable "Sign up as a member today".

I'm not impressed by this. It's quite obviously a recruitment drive dressed up as campaigning. What's more, this "major success" is actually the same infrastructure as other people are criticising for its poor quality. Indeed, it's the same CS2 extension as I have criticised previously for a a ludicrously badly designed right turn, which the LCC praised when it was first proposed. Indeed, only a few weeks have passed since LCC criticised me for saying that they approved of this, and here they are again handing out praise for exactly the same infrastructure again (I also criticised London's badly designed bus stop bypasses also seen in the video above at around the same time only to find that elements of the LCC were protective of those as well).

The LCC's own video showed the extension to actually be of anything other than of Dutch quality and with many obvious faults but nevertheless they wrote similar glowing praise to accompany this video (since edited, perhaps in light of what happened next on CS2).

After the death on Cycling Superhighway 2 on the 13th of November, the London Cycling Campaign sent out another press release in which they called for people to attend a flash ride in protest. This was the fourth death of a cyclist on London's roads in eight days.

Now I have to be fair and say that LCC did criticise "the lights" at the Bow roundabout before this fatality occurred. However the problem with that junction goes well beyond anything that merely changing traffic lights will fix. That's not nearly enough to make it "Dutch". London needs more effective campaigning than this. Too much praise is being handed out when the city has actually achieved very little of substance and cyclists still face enormous problems on a daily basis.

On the 14th of September, in the wake of another death on London's roads, The LCC sent another press release. This one calls for the Mayor to "upgrade all Superhighways to continental standards", which is a meaningless request. There is no such thing as a "continental standard" and this rather wet request gives far too much leeway to London to do whatever they want. This isn't nearly clear enough. What does LCC want TfL to do ? Copy France ?

LCC: Get your act together. Ask for more and be consistent. London needs better campaigning than this. The membership voted for "Go Dutch", they did not ask for something more vague. Set the highest standards.

We could help London if London would let us
do so. It is clear that knowledge about how to
cater for cycling is inadequate at TfL and
amongst London politicians. Let us help you.
The problems with London are not limited to Bow roundabout and not limited to CS2. They're not limited to anything remotely that small. The cycling conditions that I observed in London and the roads which I cycled on were not part of a "cycling superhighway" because none of them went where I wanted to go. Conditions for cycling are unpleasant along a large proportion of London's 9205 miles of roads and addressing this will take a lot more than concentrating on just a few main routes. London needs a comprehensive network which goes way beyond anything that has yet been proposed in the city.

The rate of "improvement" for cyclists at the moment is lower than the rate of building of roads which are hostile to cyclists. London cannot "catch up", not in forty years or any other period of time if the city continues to "progress" as it has done over the last six years.

Many words are spoken but it is still the case that little is happening in London or in the UK. A million words of PR are not worth one metre of safe cycling infrastructure. How much time do you think you have ?

The propeller was thought to be
dangerous, hence the fence around it.
No ice here so we also showed videos 
Why was I in London ?
My second week in the UK, that in London, was spent with friends Steve Ellis and Peter Haan, demonstrating the Ice-Bat in the Science Museum for three days. I've always thought the Science Museum was fabulous. It's full of wonderful things that I read about as a child like steam engines, aeroplanes, computers and space capsules. It was wearing to explain the same things repeatedly to visitors, but also a lot of fun to be there and do it. It was also quite marvelous to be able to get into the museum and have a good look around before all the visitors turned up.

While we were in the Science Museum, a couple of London bloggers turned up for welcome conversation. Also an old friend invited us for a very enjoyable dinner. It's nice to be somewhere unusual for a while I very much enjoyed my visit.

I had a good look around the museum when it was empty. Magical: No-one here but me.

This is the second of a three part series. See also "Has Britain progressed in the last six years?" and "Has Assen progressed in the last six years?"

I lived for not much more than two years in London before wanting to move on. I have good memories of my time there, but I simply prefer somewhere a bit quieter and less chaotic. If you ever mention you're thinking of leaving the city, someone is bound to quote Samuel Johnson: "when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life". However, Johnson lived in the 18th century. In 1750, London's population was only about 700000 people, less than a tenth of today's population, and no-one drove cars in the city at that time. It was not the same place as it is now. I realised recently that I've now lived for three times as long in Assen as I lived in London. I'm not yet tired of Assen.

If you need parts to make your city bicycle more practical for everyday use or luggage racks to make it easier to carry cargo or many other things for your bike then I'd be pleased to help you.