Friday 8 November 2013

Has Britain progressed in the last six years ?

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?"

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.
I spent most of the last two weeks of October in the UK and it gave me much to think about. It's three years since I last wrote about my thoughts after visiting the UK. As I've now lived in the Netherlands for twice as long as I had when I wrote the previous impression, it's time for an update.

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.
Driving across several countries was interesting. Our route took us across a good part of the Netherlands, from one side of Belgium to the other and through a small part of France before crossing the channel and driving a considerable distance in England. There are many contrasts.

British drivers genuinely are treated
worse than their counterparts elsewhere
but not necessarily in the ways they
think. I don't understand why parking
spaces in the UK are so narrow and
awkward to use. In many car parks it's
almost impossible for drivers and
passengers to use their doors without
risk of contact with an adjacent car,
wall or concrete post. None of these
cars is ours, BTW, so don't blame me
for the slightly crooked parking.
I've come to expect dangerous stunts from Belgian drivers and was not disappointed on this occasion (apologies to Belgian readers). However, British drivers have easily the worst lane discipline, seemingly being allergic to the "slow lane". Driving in that way effectively reduces a three lane motorway to two lanes and leads to more congestion.

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 !

Counting bikes
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.
We didn't cycle at all on this trip but Judy and I did try to count every cyclist we saw. Our total came to just 20 in six days.

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
Weston-super-Mare museum.
Just like three years ago, there were a handful of people cycling in Weston-super-Mare. However they were once again a marginalized minority. Cycling is not normalized in British towns as it is in Dutch towns.

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.
My mother enjoys riding quite long distances in the Netherlands, and the distance between my mother's home and Weston is not far at all, just 17 km. Unfortunately, making this journey by bicycle would have meant riding on an A-road, which apart from the danger simply doesn't lead to cycling being a lot of fun. The distance between my mother's house and my sister's is even less, but it may as well be a thousand miles due to the design of the roads. Cycling is not attractive on roads like this.

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.
We stopped for coffee at a town called Wilford. This location actually had cycling infrastructure but it was very far from ideal. Nevertheless, even bad infrastructure like this often proves to be more attractive for cycling than riding on the road and while cyclists remained a small minority at this location we did see several cyclists here in the space of about an hour. All of them were riding on the badly designed cycle-path rather than the busy and unpleasant road.

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)
Britain has not tried this approach. In Britain, the speed limit not only on rural A roads but also even minor countryside roads is usually 60 mph (100 km/h) while the speed limit on the motorway is only slightly higher at 70 mph (112 km/h). As a result, journey times on rural roads, even minor roads, provide very good competition to journey times on motorways and people use them a lot to make their journeys as making a detour to a more major road will only add time. Even when such roads pass through villages and right next to homes, the speed limits remain much higher in the UK.

On rural and village speed limits, touring cyclists and villagers could have a common cause. If lower speed limits on country roads and through villages (a good start might be to leave the same numbered boards in place but swap to using km/h instead of mph) were achieved, even at the cost of higher speeds on the motorways, this could encourage drivers away from the small roads and onto the motorways, and this could help to make the countryside a much more pleasant place to live and cycle.

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.
It's remarkable to my eyes, adjusted as they are now to the Dutch norm, that the huge adverse effect of high volumes of traffic are seemingly ignored in British villages and towns. Surely towns which rely largely on tourism would be more attractive to tourists if they did not have a constant stream of noisy motor vehicles going past them. However, this is often the situation in the UK. Our GPS directed us to drive through Stamford because the main route goes right through the town. This is really a very pretty town, we once went there on an excursion from Judy's parents' house. However it's unfortunately somewhat blighted by traffic.

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.
Unfortunately, despite the already very low level of cycling in the UK, the British government is actually expecting that cycling will decrease further while they expect car usage to continue to rise. This is being justified in part due to the aging of the population, which makes no sense at all when the UK doesn't remotely approach its full potential for cycling for any age group, not even the youngest. In any case, aging of the Dutch population has been accompanied by a rise in cycling from an already high level, made possible because of an ever improving standard of infrastructure and planning in the Netherlands.

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.
Real change requires real commitment of funds. Given that it costs less to build cycling infrastructure than not to build it, this really should not be difficult to arrange. Change will also require political emphasis and for planners to learn how to improve conditions such that everyone can cycle.

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.
Part two covers my second week in the UK, in London, including experience of riding a Boris Bike.

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.


Unknown said...

Thanks for this thought-provoking post. I live near Weston-Super-Mare (in Backwell) and agree with your comments about cycling provision in Weston, which can also be said for the rest of North Somerset. The County Council have some very good cycling officers who get it, but are thwarted by Council leaders who - notoriously in the case of the "Elf-King" - prefer to spend money on Bikeability rather than infrastructure. I & a number of others are trying to change that, but we are swimming against a strong car-centric tide. We will continue to do what we can, however.

Shaun McDonald said...

Coming out of Dover there is an alternate route that you can cycle, however it's confusing and isn't well signed for getting between the docks and the train station and needless to say is rather indirect.

platinum said...

It's my dearest wish to get through traffic removed from town centres. However if anything like this is ever mentioned legions of shopkeepers start moaning about how it would be the end of civilization as we know it. Of course, through traffic is just that - people who aren't stopping to shop, and are trying to get through as fast as possible, making life thoroughly unpleasant for everyone else.

My nearest town of Cupar, in Fife, has just started 9 months of roadworks (voted for by our local "sustainable transport"-friendly councillor), the aim of which is to INCREASE the volume and speeds of traffic passing right through the town, as well as moving a historical monument to make it easier for lorries to make fast sweeping turns around the narrow shopping streets. Oh, and to do this they have to take away all the cycle parking.

Of course it doesn't really matter, because I can't even get to this town by bike from a village 5 miles away. I have a choice of 2 A-roads (one on which a cyclist was killed a few months ago). Or there's a muddy track generously 6 inches wide in places. This is designated as a "Millennium cycleway", (I guess it's not from the latest millennium). It would actually be easier and safer for me to cycle 2 miles in the opposite direction on quiet country lanes, then get the train 7 miles into town.

Yesterday it was in the news that Fife council is one of the "top cycling providers" in Scotland.

Koen said...

The reason Cat's Eyes aren't used much in NL is because of complaints by motorcycle riders, I believe. It seems for a motorcycle, even the small bumps of our polymer dashed lines (about 3mm) can be a problem.
But I agree, those cat's eyes help, but perhaps also in raising the average car speed?

Richard Adamfi said...

Of course, the Netherlands has sorted out short distance journeys because of its cycling policy, meaning much reduced car congestion in towns compared to the UK. However, the attitude for longer distance journeys appears to be similar to the UK in terms of catering for increased car travel.

Road building in the Netherlands is proceeding at a very fast pace at the moment, much more so than the UK. The Dutch don't seem to believe that building roads encourages more use of cars. If trip length increases as a result of road building, maybe that may impact negatively on cycling as short cycle trips get replaced by long car trips.

Karen Lynn Allen said...

The energy picture for the UK is bad and getting worse. They've run through their North Sea spoils and are now importing large quantities of both oil and natural gas. Consumption of both fossil fuels is on the decline in the UK, though not as fast as the decline in production. But even with oil consumption on the decline since 2007, new car purchases in the UK have been rising the past few years. It is very curious.

The Dutch use relatively little oil in daily life but their total per capita oil consumption is relatively high. This is because of the large oil refineries in the Netherlands that end up using oil products as energy in the refining process. Belgium and the Netherlands provide a large portion of the oil products consumed in Europe. In the Netherlands case, it's a little like a drug pusher smart enough not to use the drugs he sells. I think in the end the Dutch are going to have to wrestle with this, especially as sea level rise causes them billions of dollars a year to continually re-engineer their defenses against it.

I live in the US, a country that is making small inroads in improving bicycling conditions but that also squanders energy prolifically and is far more environmentally destructive than even the worst European country in almost every imaginable way.

Slow Factory said...

As far as motor vehicle speeds go, my understanding that most cars reach peak high speed efficiency at about 90 to 100km/h (in 5th gear at about 2500-3000 rpms).

If this is true, then it would follow that in most countries motorways would have less of an advantage then they do now compared to rural or secondary roads.

This might be horrible for the rural situation unless it is countered my more people taking trains or buses.

But more likely this 20-30km/h differential cannot be adjusted for, as it were, with public transport.


Slow Factory said...

Sorry, to clarify my earlier comment: I was describing an alternative but sensible reality where the speed limit on motorways is 100 km/h.

seiklmeikl said...

My wife proposed going to the UK for our summer holidays next year. Would be good to practise some English for our children, she said. I suspected her of being influenced by "All Creatures Great and Small" ;-) but I was tempted as well. In the end, thinking about our children, we became aware of that we wont be able to go by bike confidently. Instead we will go to the Netherlands and Belgium.

Unknown said...

There are some articles with interesting comments in the Guardian today about the most recent cyclist death in London.

TownBikeMark said...

Well, what I see in my North Hampshire town is the cycling infrastructure improving and I can get about anywhere within it (save for the pedestrian only shopping centre) by bike on the wide cycle/footpaths which have increased considerably over the past few years. It’s part of the Sustrans route 23. Someone said the other day, it was around 5900 miles of cyclepaths – don’t know how true this is. I see similar in towns up to 25 miles away from my own (I don’t go further by bike). I’ve found it quite doable by cyclepath and b-road. I have two bikes: a Gazelle Toer Populaire weighing 22.5kg and a Kettler Spirit which must weigh close to 20kg with it’s 2 baskets.

I’ll accept that it doesn’t compare with the Netherlands; but, does any other country? I understand Copenhagen is very cycling orientated, but that it’s nowhere near Amsterdam, cycling infrastructure-wise.

But here, there are very few extra cyclists to match the extra cyclepaths. I don’t think it’s because of lack of cycling infrastructure, I think it’s because, in this country, cycling is very much sport and leisure oriented with most bikes not being best suited as everyday transport in the same way they are in Holland and Denmark. So, those using cars for short journeys see nothing in it for them to switch... The cycling lobby seems to do very little to change this. Here, they like to cite Holland as the ideal, whilst ignoring or dismissing as too heavy and slow, the most suitable bikes, for this ideal...

And, of course, because of this, the bike business itself is sport and leisure oriented, most bikeshops outside of London having nothing of any interest for me and their services are limited as they don’t know how to service or fix hubgears, but we’re supposed to support our “local LBS”...

Unknown said...

Ironically, it seems that to improve conditions for cyclists we are going to have to do some road building.

I note that Assen has both a ring road (partially dualled) and a bypass (something you have alluded to as a measure used for other towns in the Netherlands). Although I live nowhere near Stamford, I think I can speak for their residents and the residents of a hundred other small towns and villages in the UK when I say they are probably begging for a bypass, for something to take away the traffic from the centre of their town and make it a more pleasant place to be. That we increase capacity on those roads which go through the town (and towns like it) is not a symptom of the UK's car-centricity it is that we do not have the money to bypass, nor, given the Byzantine planning process do we apparently have the political will to do so.

Also, the reason that the rural 'A' roads are so well used is that the big plan for a proper motorway and trunk road network, as envisioned in the forties and fifties was still-born. What we are left with is a partial trunk system supported by a myriad of what were essentially cart tracks, made up over time in order to carry motor vehicles; again, no overall plan, just a lash-up that has become set in bitmac.

David Hembrow said...

Andrew, you're quite right. Some road building is needed. I know there are hundreds of towns which are blighted by constant traffic and I'm sure their residents would all like to see the traffic disappear.

Bear in mind, though, that not all Dutch towns have bypasses (Assen has a partial bypass) and not all British towns don't have them. Nevertheless, British towns are all uniformly worse for cycling than Dutch towns.

Why don't bypasses work in the UK ? Well one problem is that British bypasses often aren't really bypasses at all, but just extra routes. The route through town generally remains as a perfectly viable option. What happens then is that capacity is increased overall and therefore more motor vehicles can be accommodated, inducing more demand. Dutch bypasses really do bypass, leaving the old road relatively car free. The first streets featured in this video were once the busiest in Assen, for instance, and in the 1960s and early 1970s they looked not dis-similar to Stamford now.

Unknown said...

In case it did come over a little 'car-centric' I should say I'm all for transforming the UK into something approaching the Netherlands.

Unfortunately, a great deal of the commentators/activists on cycling appear to be from London and truly seem to have no concept of how the rest of Britain functions. It might not be nice to admit it, but for those of us without the Tube, who have to cope with the joys of fully deregulated buses, slamming the car does nothing; it is, and will be, a necessity for the forseeable future. What we can do is try to make that foreseeable future much shorter.

David Hembrow said...

Andrew, it didn't come across that way to me. I've often pointed out that while the Netherlands is the most successful country for cycling, this has not been achieved by anti-car policies. Similarly, other countries, like the UK, could achieve a far higher cycling modal share than they have now without anyone having to antagonise motorists.

Actually, cycling campaigners shouldn't be alienating today's drivers. These people drive now, but should be considered to be potential cyclists in the future, given sufficient infrastructural change that cycling became sufficiently convenient and safe for them. These are people who could be on "our" side in in the future.

What's more, even those who continued to drive would find that traffic jams were shorter if more people cycled.

Everyone wins from better designed infrastructure.