|A view from the ferry - The white cliffs of Dover are infinitely more attractive than the view of Dunkirk at the opposite side of the channel.|
In the first week, we first visited my family in the South West (Somerset) and then Judy's family in the East of England (Lincolnshire) before returning home to Assen. With four people aboard, a motor car is by far the most straight-forward and economical way of making the journey. I'm a reluctant driver but convenience won out in this instance. That's why we drove our car nearly 2500 km in one week in October - a huge increase on last year when all our journeys by car added up to just 2044 km.
The driving experience
|This is the road which awaits both drivers and cyclists arriving in Dover by ferry. It's not inviting by bicycle and few people cycle here. When hundreds of vehicles leave the ferry at the same time and each is trying to get out of Dover faster than the next one, it looks a lot busier than this.|
Britain has the lowest motorway speed limits. 70 mph is a mere 112 km/h while speed limits in France, Belgium and the Netherlands are generally 120 km/h or 130 km/h. Britain also seemingly has the worst traffic jams. We found ourselves in heavy traffic, often slowing down or stopping, for the entire 370 km distance between Dover and Somerset along the M20, M25, M4 and M5. This was on a Sunday afternoon and early evening, not at a peak time.
However, it's not all bad for the British motorist. British petrol was the cheapest that we found on our journey. It was slightly cheaper than in Belgium and about 10% cheaper than in the Netherlands at the moment. We made sure we filled up our petrol tank before boarding the ferry to return home. So let's have fewer complaints about the cost of motoring and perhaps more about the ridiculously pokey car parking spaces in Britain.
Finally, with regard to driving, only Britain has Cat's Eyes. These are a wonderful invention which improve the safety of Britain's roads after dark and in bad weather. Other countries should take note !
|In Burnham-on-Sea, Sustrans simply|
gave up and told cyclists to make an
inconvenient detour onto the beach.
I tried cycling here as a child. Bicycle
tyres sink into the sand and salty sand
damages your bike.
As you might expect, sporty "cyclists" in the UK almost always ride on the road. It's too inefficient to do otherwise. We also saw very few children cycling to school, which makes a huge contrast with the freedom on offer to Dutch children. Those children that we saw riding to school were mostly on the pavement (sidewalk), which is illegal. Some adults also used the pavement; they passed us very carefully and two of them gave unprovoked apologies for their presence on the pavement but clearly they felt safer riding slowly in this way than by "taking the lane" on the road.
Amongst those who dare to cycle at all, fluorescent clothing and helmets are the norm, even for adults, even in small towns, even when riding on the pavement. In fact it seemed you don't even need a bicycle to require special safety equipment. Children riding scooters (relatively commonly seen, perhaps because they're considered to be a more socially acceptable way to travel on two wheels on the pavement than by using a bicycle) often wear helmets. It is clear that a lack of subjective safety has a roll to play in the submissive attitude of the average British cyclist versus their confident Dutch colleagues.
A short trip to the sea-side
Weston-super-Mare's population is about the same as that of Assen but like all British towns, it is far more motor car oriented than any Dutch town. There is some cycling infrastructure in Weston, but it is very compromised and doesn't reach the city centre. This infrastructure also doesn't reach so far as other nearby towns. Weston is not unique in this, it's quite close to normal for the UK.
|Ice-cream bicycle. One of a number of|
bikes displayed temporarily in the
We heard of an exhibition of bicycles in a local museum and this was quite amusing to look at. Sadly, though, even this small exhibit featured more bicycles than we saw being ridden around the town itself.
|Part of the route to Weston. Does this look like an inviting place to cycle ? I've done it before on my own and also with Judy. However we didn't ride along it this time with my family. Unsurprisingly, we saw no-one else cycling here either. Cheap petrol on the left.|
A-roads are designed only for cars
For most of the distance between Somerset and Lincolnshire we used motorways, but the final part of the journey was on A-roads. We saw no cyclists at all during the relatively long distances that we travelled on A-roads. Cycling campaigners in Britain have fought for decades to retain the right to ride on these roads but in practice only very few people are interested in exercising this "right". Traffic volumes and speeds (60 mph = 100 km/h) are simply much too high. Such challenging conditions are common in the UK and taken pretty much for granted by long distance cyclists in that country but I have never found their equal in the Netherlands. In the Netherlands we often ride long distances but never have the stress of "sharing" the road with high speed motor vehicles because there is always either a cycle-path or the road has very few cars.
A coffee stop at a place with cycling infrastructure
|Wilford at least had some cycling infrastructure, but this also was tokenistic. Next to a large and busy road was a narrow cycle-path which within the 100 m of path visible in this photo manages to give way to a pub entrance, include signposts for drivers mounted right on the narrow cycle-path and then gives up altogether at the traffic lights, ejecting cyclists into an advanced stop line. To make a right turn here cyclists were either supposed to cross to the third lane or make an unassisted crossing of four and a half lanes of traffic which would be changing lanes a few metres before the junction. Neither of these is close being a safe and convenient situation.|
Small villages and country roads dominated by cars
One of the things which remains remarkable to me about the UK is how competitive minor roads are with motorways so far as motor vehicle travel times are concerned. In the Netherlands there is a huge difference in the journey time that would result from taking mostly 60 km/h country roads vs. 120/130 km/h motorways. Country roads in the Netherlands are designed so that they deter usage as a through route. The result is that country roads in the Netherlands are remarkably empty of cars and villages are quiet places to live.
|A minor road in the countryside in Lincolnshire. It's so narrow|
that vehicles clearly leave the road regularly to pass each
other but even here the speed limit is 60 mph (100 km/h)
|View of Stamford in Lincolnshire. A very pretty town which is|
sadly dominated by traffic which is directed through the centre.
Stamford's population is but a third that of Assen, but it has a
hundred times the traffic problems. We saw no-one attempting
to cycle through this town as we passed through it.
In some ways I find it remarkable how this has been allowed to happen, but actually it's not so different from what happened in the 1960s in the Netherlands and what the Netherlands could still be like if action had not been taken. The difference now is due to the Dutch having decided to change their environment starting decades ago. Many scenes from modern British towns still look very much like photos from Assen before the town was improved starting in the 1980s. It's not just Assen that has done this, but every Dutch town.
Why is Britain still following the wrong path ?
Despite Britain having a bit of a problem with its current account balance and even though only one in seven of the cars sold in the UK are made there, car sales still seem to be thought to represent "growth" and "economic confidence" even though a "significant proportion" of them are bought on credit. Car sales are booming and the result can be seen everywhere in the form of traffic jams in which those imported cars burn imported fuel at an ever increasing rate. This is not good for Britain's fragile economy.
People who choose to cycle in Britain remain marginalized by both the conditions on the roads and planners who simply do not take their needs into account. Those cycling facilities which exist remain piecemeal and substandard, designed neither to maximise efficiency nor safety of cycling and giving up where they are most needed. It's quite obvious why enthusiastic cyclists often ignore such facilities, though it's also quite obvious that many people find even inadequate facilities more attractive than riding on the road.
|When we got back to Assen it didn't take us long to count 20 bikes. Just one group of school children visiting a museum near the city centre had more than 20 bikes between them. Schools in the UK don't dare to make school trips by bike.|
Every mass cycling event demonstrates the huge suppressed demand for cycling in the UK yet there has been no growth in recent years. Riding a bicycle makes sense to most people only when they can be confident about their safety and expect it to be convenient.
Many promises have been made to cyclists in the UK in the last six years, but none of them have led to continued progress in cycling. In part this is because cycling is still seen as a minority activity rather than being something of vital importance to the next generation.
|We run infrastructure study tours and can|
demonstrate to any British planners and
politicians exactly how and why the Dutch
infrastructure is so effective.
Driving is seen as the only way to travel in Britain because it is by far the easiest option. This is due to policies which have prioritized the car over all other modes of transport for decades. It was a choice, and this choice could be changed.
For now, Britain still sees more roads for more cars as a good thing. The country is still trying to build the dream of the 1950s.
Building roads encourages more use of cars, the profits from which are largely made in other countries, the running of which requires imported fuel and the health effects of which cause thousands of deaths each year due to crashes and air pollution.
Building of cycling infrastructure leads to health benefits for the entire population, in particular to healthier happier children, less noise and air pollution, and it even helps to reduce the outward flow of money from the country.
Having lived for six years in a country which benefits so obviously and so greatly from all these things, it's rather sad to see that other nations, including the one in which I was born, can't see how these things would also benefit them. Where is the political leadership to change countries for the better ?
|A view from the ferry on the return journey. At Dunkirk, France welcomes visitors with a splendid view of the largest nuclear power station in Western Europe, Gravelines. It's right next to the dock. The news in the UK during our visit was largely about the British government's recent decision to guarantee profits to a French/Chinese consortium who will build a new nuclear power-station near my mother's home. I can't say I'm enthused about this on any level.|
This is the first of a three part series. See also "Has London progressed in the last six years?" and "Has Assen progressed in the last six years?"
In other news, India seems to be copying the British approach. Note that while Petrol is often a few pence per litre cheaper in the UK than in the Netherlands, diesel is generally cheaper in the Neherlands than in the UK. The cost of motoring is not why the Dutch cycle.