Monday 23 December 2013

A cycle-path for singing

Here you can officially sing as you cycle. No need for
un-natural pauses in you song as someone cycles past
What do you get for Christmas for the Dutch cyclist who already has "everything" ? How about a cycle-path for singing on ?

It's a stunt by the Fietsersbond, the Dutch cycling union. It's not (yet) official policy that cycle paths are designed for singing. But it's also a sign of what cycling is in the Netherlands. Apart from those places where things have gone wrong, cycling is joyful here, just as it should be everywhere else.

Joyful cycling is something worth working towards in time for next Christmas. Aim high. For everyone to feel like singing when they cycle you need a very high degree of subjective safety. Remember who we're doing this for, and don't take too long about it.

Monday 16 December 2013

On-Road Cycle-lanes are dangerous. Oostrum's children deserve better

At nine in the morning on the 27th of November, a sixteen year old girl in the village of Oostrum (in the province of Limburg, in the south of the Netherlands) was seriously wounded when she was involved in a crash with a car. Sadly, this was not a unique event. While the Netherlands is the safest country in the world in which to be a cyclist, it is still the case that hundreds of people are injured and killed every year in this country. The Netherlands could still do better.

In the case of this unfortunate incident, some residents have been calling for changes in order to improve the safety of their children. When the Dutch TV programme HvNL (Heart of the Netherlands) reported on the incident they included comments from a local politician who wants change as well from a local councillor who saw no problem. During the short time that they were on site, the film crew caught a collision which could have resulted in a serious injury:

Where the collision occurred and where the film-crew saw
another collision during a short visit. Making such a
manoeuvre across traffic is difficult and error prone.
View on Google Maps
Why is this road dangerous ?
There is a common thread running through many stories about traffic accidents in the Netherlands. Where injuries occur, it is often the case that they take place where the infrastructure is sub-standard. This location definitely has substandard infrastructure.

It's easy to see where the opportunity for the crash came from. This road carries a lot of relatively high speed motorized through traffic as well as a lot of cyclists. Many of the cyclists are children going to school and they have to make a difficult to judge manoeuvre, crossing parallel traffic while checking both behind and in front, as part of their daily journey.

On-road cycle-lanes
Cycle-lanes are not really infrastructure at all, they're just paint. This road is decorated by particularly narrow on-road painted cycle-lanes and does not have the physical infrastructure which could protect cyclists from the danger of motor vehicles.

Further along the same road in Oostrum. Narrow
cycle-lanes encourage cyclists to ride in the gutter
and drivers to overtake. This is bad infrastructure.
Wide cycle-lanes (wider than 2 m) can be useful in some locations as they can then help to encourage drivers to pass at a safe distance. However, even wide on-road cycle-lanes are not suitable for roads where there are many motor vehicles or where either the motor or cycle traffic doesn't fit in the allocated lane.

Narrow cycle-lanes like the one involved in the incident in Oostrum don't work very well anywhere. These encourage cyclists to ride in the gutter and they encourage drivers to expect cyclists to be in the gutter. Cycle-lanes of this design encourage close passing and risk-taking by drivers. They're often associated with drivers overtaking cyclists and almost immediately turning across their path. All cycle-lanes, regardless of width, make it difficult for a cyclist to safely turn across other traffic. Junctions need more thought than is apparent on this road.

Advanced stop lines (bike boxes) are often associated with
on-road cycle-lanes, including here in Oostrum. ASLs make
drivers frustrated behind cyclists and make them anxious
to overtake. What's more, these cycle-lanes even encourage
cyclists to ride in "the door zone" next to cars in parking bays
 at the same time as encouraging drivers to overtake those
cyclists within a pinch point. This is poor infrastructure which
causes many conflicts. At least cyclists don't have to deal
with drivers turning right at the junction. Just because you
can find an example of something like this in NL
that doesn't mean it is good and should be copied.
More about Oostrum
In a location where many children cycle to school this lack of well designed infrastructure encourages dangerous behaviour by those children and puts them in danger. But it's not only at this point - the road looks much the same for a stretch of about 1.5 km, well into the next town, Venray, and for most of the distance, including where the collision took place, the speed limit is relatively high at 50 km/h

The local councillor interviewed by the TV crew doesn't see the problem. He gave a response on camera in which he said that there were good sight lines and everyone should be able to see what everyone else is doing and behave accordingly. British readers may find parallels with Boris Johnson's widely criticised comment that cycling in London is "OK if you keep your wits about you".

Elsewhere in Oostrum, Google's camera spots people
"voting with their feet" and continuing on the pedestrian
path rather than switching to riding on the road. There
are no cycle-paths within Oostrum.
What about training and "Strict liability" ?
Unfortunately, the councillor has slipped into a common mode of thinking amongst people from all countries. It is imagined that given enough advice, people won't make mistakes. This is a fallacy. People will always make mistakes. This almost defines us as being human. Not only will no amount of training prevent either child cyclists or adult drivers from making mistakes, but law changes or punishment for mistakes will also not remove the possibility of mistakes occurring.

Readers from overseas who sometimes over-estimate the effects of "strict liability laws" in the Netherlands should note that this law doesn't prevent mistakes from being made in locations like this where the infrastructure is inadequate to the task of keeping people safe. The Dutch drive no more perfectly than do people of other nations, and while Dutch children receive limited traffic training in school, it's quite obvious from watching groups of children cycle that this doesn't have anything like the beneficial effect on behaviour that training advocates imagine.

Just because someone is Dutch and lived through campaigning forty years ago about childhood freedom and safety, that does not mean they will automatically understand about these issues. Some people simply can't see things from the point of view of others. Cycling is almost too common in the Netherlands. People take it for granted and don't realise that the high cycling modal share of this country is due to infrastructure and not culture.

The raised table in the centre of Oostrum is a more modern
feature. This probably does help to reduce speeds in the
centre, but the direct road to Venray has been overlooked
Sustainable safety prevents injuries
What makes Dutch roads and cycle-paths safe is not training or strict liability but Sustainable Safety (Duurzaam Veilig). Sustainable Safety is a policy of reducing the opportunity for mistakes to become injuries by reducing the consequences of making such mistakes. Roads should be self-explanatory and forgiving (read an article which explains more).

The passing of time
Stationsweg is the road to Venray's railway station, so has probably always been quite busy. However, it hasn't always been like this. At some point, probably in the 1980s, adding cycle-lanes to this road perhaps seemed to make sense. However, the world didn't stop then. Both Oostrum and Venray have experienced growth in the last thirty years. There are many new homes, many more people. Car ownership in the Netherlands has grown and the use of cars has also grown with it.

Not all infrastructure in this country has been updated to current standards. Stationsweg in Oostrum is just one of many examples of roads which lag a long way behind the standards of 2013. The principles of Sustainable Safety have yet to make a dent here. There's some catching up to do.

Change is needed
Residents of Oostrum are absolutely right to demand changes which will improve the safety of themselves and their children. The safety of the next generation is the best thing any of us we can possibly campaign for.

In my view there are several obvious ways in which safety could be improved at the point of the accident:
  • Diverting motorized traffic using this road to other routes would remove much of the danger from cars, regardless of other measures.
  • Lower speed limits would make it easier to judge the speeds of cars and reduce the severity of injury.
  • A raised table and narrowing of the motor lane to a single vehicle width could reduce the speed of cars at the point of crossing.
  • 90 degree crossing would make it easier for cyclists to see cars coming from both directions.
  • central reservation for crossing would remove the need for cyclists to see in both directions at once.
  • A parallel cycle-path along much of the road would provide more distance between motorized vehicles and cyclists.
(note that the list includes mutually exclusive suggestions)

Have the Dutch forgotten what was achieved ?
in the 1970s, the Stop de Kindermoord (Stop Child Murder) protests gained mass support. Other local actions such as dramatic protests in De Pijp in Amsterdam also played a part in changing the way people thought about safety on the streets. This country began to transform itself 40 years ago. and that happened because there was popular support for change. While not everyone was in agreement at all times, the entire population was behind the idea of children being safe and infrastructure across the country was transformed as a result.

Unfortunately, keeping up momentum is not easy. Because such a long time has passed, people have forgotten how important this was. The safety of children is no longer an explosive campaigning issue. The situation in the Netherlands isn't bad overall. Dutch children are still rated by UNICEF as having the best well-being in the world, but this is a sign of past success and did not come about due to current policy. The adults who led the change in the 1970s and the experts who designed the improved infrastructure have largely retired. There are signs that their good ideas are to some extent being forgotten. The children of the early 1970s, for whom the actions were taken, are now middle aged and even their own children are grown up. Younger activists are largely unaware and unappreciative of what was achieved and how unique and significant this was. Even Dutch people often fall into the easy trap of believing that they cycle because it's in their culture. We've found that people are quite shocked if shown pictures of what their streets used to look like because they don't remember the problems that designing towns solely around motor vehicles used to cause.

This is a dangerous time for the Netherlands because some of what made this country great is being forgotten. It should be no surprise that Dutch children are being taken to school by car more often these days.

Why take a study tour ?
Cyclists approaching Oostrum from the west are kept safe by
cycle-paths on both sides of the main road. Riding from here
through the village at a quiet time could easily lead to a
misleading impression.
When we first started visiting this country (in the last century), there was no-one to guide us and we formed impressions based solely on what we saw. Like other people who have done the same, we came to some incorrect conclusions.

Compared with villages in other countries, it's possible to approach Oostrum on surprisingly good quality cycle-paths. The village largely has relatively low speed limits and contains both a raised table in the centre and on-road cycle-lanes leading to the west. Not all of this is bad, and of course it could appear to be an example of relatively good practice. It would be easy to overlook the problems cause by the use of on-road cycle lanes on a busy road, especially if these were not witnessed first hand because of the time of day when they were observed.

We find it is not at all uncommon that people take photos of substandard infrastructure that they've found in the Netherlands and try to have similar ideas adopted after they return to their own country. Not only does older infrastructure not necessarily make itself obvious if you're from a country which is less advanced with regard to cycling but people also sometimes view what looks more familiar as more achievable, even though the cost difference is often not large, and doing something twice in order to fix a mistake is always more expensive than doing it properly in the first place.

We're independent and will simply show you
what works and what does not
. We do not hype
the services of any other company.
We initially started running study tours because no-one else at all was offering this service. There is much that other nations need to learn from the Netherlands but this knowledge was either not being transferred or it was being misunderstood (e.g. enthusiasm about what the Dutch got wrong. e.g. Shared Space). As a result of our relatively early start, having moved here, learnt Dutch and as a result of having shown hundreds of people both what is good about cycling in the Netherlands and the pitfalls that must be avoided, we now have more experience than anyone else. Being completely independent of any other company we have no reason to push ideas in order to sell them. We simply show you what works and what does not.

If Oostrum were local to us, we might visit to point out problems to be avoided. However there's no need to make a special trip. There are bad examples of infrastructure closer to home which already feature on our study tours, where we explain the problems caused. We also, of course, feature examples of very good infrastructure and encourage people to learn from these about what really works to encourage cycling. Our tours allow you to save yourself from misunderstandings and wasted effort.

The Netherlands has the difficult job of being in front and not having any other country to copy from. In other countries the job is much easier and there's no time to waste. You're already decades behind what the Dutch have achieved and the Netherlands still stands as very easily the best example to try to emulate.

Note that in most cases, Dutch children make relatively uneventful journeys to school. This is what makes cycling to school so popular in the Netherlands. However we have to be wary because there has been a small decline in recent years.

Wednesday 11 December 2013

A visitor's view of Groningen railway station

Our friend Mike Rubbo came to stay with us in March. It was -10 C here but people were still cycling much as they always do. We had had a chance to get used to the weather, of course, so I thought Mike did well to survive outdoors at all, having come here from the Australian summer.

Mike wrapped up warm to film the
school run
in Kloosterveen, a new suburb
of Assen. It's impressive whatever
the weather.
The above is the first of the films that Mike has finished about cycling in this area. This film was shot around the bike shop and cycle parking at the largest railway station in Groningen, with particular emphasis on one of the shop's customers, a lady who uses her electric bike to get around in and around the city and who had an amusing story to tell.

Bikes are everyday transport in this country for the whole population, whatever the weather.

Sunday 8 December 2013

What has Britain learnt since the 1960s ?

A few days ago I asked how much Britain had progressed in the last six years. Now I'm looking further back in history. In the 1950s and 1960s the Rank Organisation made in the UK made a fascinating series of films called "Look at Life". These films documented many aspects of British society fifty year ago. Youtube user dokkertrigger has made many of these films available.

I've chosen three of the films because of their relevance to planning and cycling. You occasionally see bikes, but note how the narrator never mentions cycling in these videos (nor others I've watched). Bicycles simply were not taken into account by 1950s and 1960s traffic planners, not in the UK and often not in the Netherlands either.

November 1964. The problems caused by cars are already obvious. Amongst other ideas, the new town of Cumbernauld was designed to accommodate pedestrians (not cyclists) separately from motor vehicles and to provide space for each family to own one car (a mistake sometimes repeated). The video starts with scenes of Oxford Street in London, one of "Britain's noisy fume filled towns and cities" where pedestrians "compete with the motor car for room to move":

Not that delays are already thought to cost £500 million pounds per year. A considerable part of this could be saved if people could safely cycle. Cycling is not a cost to the economy, it's repeatedly been shown to be a benefit to the economy.

May 1959. Amongst other highlights, huge traffic jams are already a problem. See the start of works to try to solve the problem such as building flyovers above peoples' homes (accompanied by remarkably jolly music) and the start of planning for Elephant and Castle in London, a large junction which became the most lethal for cyclists in London:

September 1962. Bypasses are being built. One village to benefit is Stilton (this village gave its name to the famous cheese, though cheese made there now is not allowed to use the name Stilton):

The cross-roads where the dog is lying on the road at the end of the video now looks like this:

View Larger Map

It's interesting to note that while this road is still a dead end, the road markings have been changed to those of a busy through road. By-passing this village was not really enough on its own. No provision was made for people to travel by means other than motor vehicles or walking and local people are concerned about how future plans to expand the nearby A14 (motorway in all but name) will affect commuters who drive to Cambridge.

It would be interesting to know whether many children cycle to school within Stilton. I would guess not as despite having a bypass this looks not much different from any other British town and children here won't have the same easy experience as Dutch children. Similarly, I'd be interested to know whether many secondary school children cycle to nearby Peterborough for their studies. There are secondary schools within 10 km, well within normal cycling distance for Dutch school children, but cycling there would require riding on shared use paths with no separation from cars travelling at 100 km/h and negotiating large road junctions.

Time for another revolution
These videos often mention that the UK is behind other countries in Europe in building a road network, and they talk about avoiding mistakes made in other countries due to starting later. The UK could do the same with cycling, copying only the best examples. However, there's something else that I find interesting.

Assen in the 1960s after years of
planning which prioritised cars. Just
as in Oxford Street in 1964, railings
are used to restrict pedestrians to
narrow pavements
All western countries went through a similar spree of road building after the second world war. All saw the same 1950s ideas as the future, copying what was seen as a "modern" American example. Most countries stopped right there and policies have continued as if the car oriented 1960s never ended.

The Netherlands started off by doing the same things. This country followed the same policies as other countries, prioritizing cars above all else. This resulted in scenes like those on the photo to the right all across the Netherlands. Streets were dominated by cars just as was the case in the UK at the same date.

The same street in 2007 after policy
had changed to make a more liveable
city. See how this street works now.
In the 1970s, Dutch policy changed, resulting in what was once the busiest street in Assen now appearing to have been designed to look much less like a through route even than the bypassed centre of Stilton.

From the 1970s onwards, people walking and cycling became important in the Netherlands. Streets which were transformed in the 1960s were transformed a second time. It is this second transformation which other countries are still waiting for. Just as the UK looked to Europe to see how it could transform itself efficiently into a motoring oriented country, so the country could now look to the Netherlands to find out how to make this second transformation.

The narrator in the first video notes that "London won't be rebuilt in a day". Actually, remarkably little progress has been made in 50 years. Exactly the same problems remain. If planners and politicians remain stuck in the 1950s mode of providing for motor traffic above all else then progress will remain stunted.

Now go and listen to one of the most lovely songs ever written about building roads and the struggles of working people in general.

Tuesday 3 December 2013

London's cyclists are not to blame for London's low cycling modal share, it's the politicians who should take the blame

Low cycling nations and low cycling cities don't have a problem with how well cycling is marketed, they have a problem with how well their infrastructure works for cycling.

Six Londoners died in a short period of time recently and this has been followed by protests including a "Die In".

Neither London's Mayor, Boris Johnson nor the Cycling Commissioner, Andrew Gilligan, appear to be aware of their role in what has happened. Both have made remarks on the lines of that there is nothing they could do by changing infrastructure which would reduce the incidence of deaths. They are  deliberately misleading people and the people they are misleading most are those who voted them.

Cycle-paths are one of the forms of
infrastructure which keep Dutch
cyclists safe.
Here in the Netherlands we have infrastructure which reduces the incidence of cyclist deaths. We used it every day. I've offered my time twice to the Mayor in order to demonstrate what it is and how it works, but it would seem that he's not very interested in knowing what he needs to do to keep cyclists safe.

Yesterday evening I watched a news programme from the UK in which Andrew Gilligan blamed cycling campaigners for making cycling look dangerous. He suggested that cyclists making cycling sound dangerous this was the reason why a BBC survey revealed that a fifth of London's cycle commuters have stopped cycling. Yes, he actually laid blame on the people who promote cycling. This is a disgraceful distortion of what is actually happening under his watch.

Back in March, just after Boris Johnson appointed his friend as cycling commissioner, I was skeptical of their motives and suggested that this was a time when campaigners would need to become more busy than before. It was clear then that London would rely on hype, exaggeration and marketing rather than actually building the infrastructure that was required to make change happen. I gave he post the tag "broken promises" because even as they made their promises, it was obvious that they would be broken. Nothing that has happened in London since that time reduces my skepticism.

It's possible to ride for six years without incident
A few days back I realised that while up to six years ago I had quite regular unpleasant experiences when cycling, I'd now had six years of having no unpleasant experiences at all, not having been cut up even once, until that run of six years was broken just one month ago. What is special about six years ? Six years ago we emigrated from the UK and we've lived in the Netherlands since that time. Why one month ? One month ago I rode a bike for just a few hours in London and it reminded me what it is like to ride a bike in the UK.

Why isn't it like this for everyone ?
In order to encourage people to ride bicycles, the choice of doing so has to be made easy. Routes taken by bicycle need to be direct, they need to be as free as possible of stops, and the conditions need to be and to feel very safe. Unless cycling is subjectively safe, most of the population will never cycle.

The best way of improving both actual safety and subjective safety is to do one simple thing: remove motor vehicles from the spaces where cyclists ride.

The BBC's survey revealed a fifth of cyclists had been involved in a collision. This is not just a problem with subjective safety, but of whether people are injured or die when cycling. It's not a marketing problem which can be solved by not talking about dying, it's a problem with the experience that people have if they get on a bicycle, which in London is always tense.

Two-thirds of London cyclists admit they sometimes ride on pavements to avoid busy junctions. They do this not because it's convenient (it's not) but because it feels safer than continuing their journey on the road. To solve problems like this we first have to understand them.

London cyclists don't dress like this
because it's fashionable but because
they are scared
In one of my very first posts on this blog, more than five years ago, I noted that "Cyclists are the pit-canaries of the roads. If they're numerous, dressed in ordinary clothing and wide-ranging in age you can tell that you are in a location where cycling is "normal" in society and where it is safe enough, and feels subjectively safe enough, that everyone cycles. If people feel they have to dress to be safe then this is a sign that they do not have adequate subjective safety."

London's cyclists still look very much like the pit canaries of the road and there are good reasons why. If you cycle in London then you have to be concerned about your own safety. The BBC survey included several questions about subjective safety. For instance, one question asked whether people thought their family and friends were safe when cycling. Nearly 70% said no. The low subjective safety is why people wear bright colours, helmets and face masks. These are not fashion accessories, they're tools for survival. They're not worn because someone said it was unsafe, they're worn because people feel unsafe when cycling.

Until London gets to grips with why people feel unsafe when cycling and until the city starts to do something about the reasons why people feel unsafe by building infrastructure makes cycling attractive to everyone, the city will not see a rise in cycling to levels comparable with the Netherlands.

Cycling in London doesn't need marketing, it needs infrastructure !

The same principles apply everywhere
Any place which has given inadequate attention to making cycling safe, convenient and enjoyable will see stagnation at a low percentage of journeys by bike as only people who particularly like cycling will ride bikes.

Journeys by bike in London never broke through even 5% of the total. Sadly, this decline has occurred before the city has even done one percent of what it needed to do to make mass cycling happen in the first place. However, declines can happen anywhere and examples of it happening should be a warning to us all.

It's not only London which has seen cyclists give up. Once mighty Denmark has unfortunately also seen the equivalent of one in eight cyclists give up. This decline came about for the same reasons as the decline in London. They ignored the importance of building good enough infrastructure and tried to use marketing to fill in the gaps. Voluminous international publicity turned out not to be enough to make people feel safe when they experienced problems on a daily basis such as junction designs which cause conflict and have killed seven Copenhageners already this year. While it may still seem a step beyond what many nations have, to copy Denmark's "success" actually means to copy what doesn't work in Denmark. That's why I suggest that the Netherlands remains easily the best country to try to emulate.

While the Netherlands is currently on top that doesn't mean that this country is any more immune to these issues than any other. Plenty of Dutch people take what they have for granted and simply don't know why it is that they cycle. Denmark should especially serve as a warning to the Netherlands as policies and practices from there and marketed to this country could reasonably be expected to end with the same result here as they did where they came from.

The Dutch don't cycle because it's "in their blood" but for the same reasons as anyone else would cycle given conditions which made cycling into an easy option to choose. When cycling is convenient, offers direct and uninterrupted journeys and both feels and is safe then people choose to cycle. When conditions are merely adequate and when incidents happen often enough that people remember them and become concerned about their safety, cycling will stagnate or drop.

Not all Dutch cities grow cycling at the same rate. Here, just like everywhere else, people cycle in response to infrastructure and not in response to marketing.

Hope for the future
Cycling needs actions, not words. A million volumes of marketing material do not have the same value as one metre of good quality cycle-path, and that's universally true. To a first approximation, cycling modal share is proportional to expenditure. Politicians control the funds and they need to release them in order that cycling can grow, not make excuses for inaction or blame cyclists for their own misfortune.

The Netherlands achieved its cycling success by building a remarkable country-wide network of world class infrastructure and not by marketing. Other countries could achieve the same results in the same way. There is no proven alternative method which leads to true mass cycling.

Update 6 December 2013
Usage of London's bike share system is also falling. This is also being blamed on cyclists. When I was in London a few weeks ago I tried the system and found it to work well enough as a civil amenity. However, I also cautioned that it's not cycling infrastructure.

For four and a half years I've been writing about the limits of London's bike share system and how it can never lead to a real cycling "revolution" in the city. Bike share answers the wrong question. London's problem was never a shortage of bicycles, but was always a shortage of pleasant conditions for cycling.

London's aim should be to become a city of ten million cyclists. This will never happen while instead of fixing the infrastructure, London's politicians seek to pass the blame for the majority of the population being scared to cycle onto the few people brave enough to do it.