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
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.
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.
|Norwegian Study Tour group riding on|
the Bicycle Road.
|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
children cycling espcially safely. They
are safe because cars are elsewhere.
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.
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.
While most recreational routes are not people's direct commuting routes, they often provide useful segments for longer rides.
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 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.
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|
|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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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?
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
Why ? An excellent standard of snow ploughing and salt application keeps problems at bay. Winter doesn't get in the way of cycling.
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.|
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.
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.
See also "Has London progressed in the last six years ?" and "Has Britain progressed in the last six years ?"