Monday, 21 October 2013

A study tour in five minutes... Assen to Groningen with Clarence Eckerson Jr.

The second excellent film from Clarence at Streetfilms following his visit to Assen and Groningen (see also his first film).

This film gives a reasonable impression of the sort of thing seen on our study tours, but due to the video lasting somewhat less than 5 minutes rather than three days, there's quite a lot missing, much more to show. We're now accepting bookings for the first open tour of 2014, which will be in April. However, we're available at other times for private tours for groups and individuals, contact us for more information.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Excellent video from Streetfilms in Groningen plus more information about the city


A couple of months ago, Clarence Eckerson Jr of Streetfilms fame visited Assen and Groningen. He's now finished the wonderful film above and I recommend that you read about it on the streetfilms website.

More about Groningen
Much has been written about Groningen. It's the world's leading "cycling city" by modal share and has held this position quite consistently for many years. While roughly 60% of journeys in the centre of the city are by bike and about 50% for the city as a whole, cycling doesn't fizzle at the suburbs or at the edge of the city. Roughly 30% of all journeys made in the whole rural and sparsely populated province of Groningen (which shares its name with its own capital) are by bike.

A high student population is very often related to a high modal share for cycling, and this holds true in the Netherlands as well as in other countries. Groningers have the lowest average age of any Dutch city due to the high student population who make up 50000 of the city's 190000 population. However, people cycle in Groningen far more than can be accounted for only by the size of the student population. Groningen took deliberate action in the 1970s to make the city a better place to live and to grow cycling and there has been a continuous programme of change since that time.

While the centre of Groningen is dense, the overall density of the city isn't actually particularly high and many people make longer journeys by bike. There has long been a network of routes which cover the entire countryside and during the period that I commuted to Groningen, I videoed some of the other commuters on a different route. Groningen is now building new high speed cycle routes to aid commuters making longer journeys from villages.

The high cycling modal share causes problems which are like no other place:
  1. Congestion due to students using particular routes by bike resulted in alternative cycling routes being promoted to improve journey times.
  2. People complain about the number of bicycles parked, even though they themselves are cyclists.
  3. It's almost impossible to keep up with the demand for cycle-parking. The main railway station in Groningen featured in Clarence's video currently has spaces for around 11000 bicycles, up from about 3000 ten years ago. However the cycle-park in not adequate at the weekends so current plans are for the number of spaces to rise to 19000 by 2020.
  4. Pedestrians are provided with red carpets outside shops in order to discourage the parking of bicycles in particularly difficult locations.
  5. Local laws prohibit parents from driving their children to school in Groningen as this caused a problem for cyclists. This is, of course, greatly to the benefit of children.
Note that the main railway station cycle-park featured in the video isn't the only large cycle-park in the city. See also the cycle parking at an award winning smaller railway station in Groningen and the bicycle light vending machine at one of many free guarded cycle-parks in the city.

Read more about the triple bridge where cyclists can still cross the canal when a ship requires the bridge to open and about how simple automated counters are used to gather accurate statistics about cyclists.

You may also like to see if you can spot some of the same places in the city centre featured in Clarence's film as well as some of my videos and photos in some films shot in the car dominated Groningen of the 1960s.

Despite all this, Groningen isn't perfect and local campaigners made sure that the city would lose the "Cycle City 2011" competition in large part because the city contains the most dangerous road junction in the whole country and a bridge "as steep as Alpe d'Huez". I made sure that I showed Clarence some of the problems with the city but they unfortunately didn't make their way into the video.

Do you want to see it for yourself ?
We're organising study tours again next year. The first open tour will be in April. Please contact us to book a place.

Groningen was a leader in redesigning itself as a "cycling city" but all other Dutch cities followed similar policies. To achieve the same success as the Dutch have it is necessary to copy from the best examples and don't do anything just because it's "Dutch". It won't work to just try to pick one aspect of what makes cycling work in the Netherlands. The comprehensive network of routes which allow cycling journeys to be direct and subjectively safe requires everything that has been done here.

Note that Zwolle has been snapping at Groningen's heels for many years now and recent figures suggest this smaller Dutch city may actually have surpassed Groningen for the proportion of trips by bike.

Monday, 7 October 2013

A Toot and a Wave. Dutch cyclists are not an out-group. Car horns are not used as weapons.


I still tense up a little if I hear a car horn when cycling. I still glance around for escape routes.

This is a learnt behaviour which comes from many years of cycling in Britain, where car horns are used quite often by drivers to send an unpleasant message to cyclists supposedly committing some ill or other. The sound of a car horn would commonly be accompanied by that of squealing tyres, a revving engine or abuse through a car window. None of those things has happened to me in six years of living in The Netherlands, but I still cringe when I hear a horn.

Still from the video showing "tooter" and "waver"
In The Netherlands, cyclists are not an out-group. That is to say that we're not an easily identifiable group on the edge of society. Because cyclists are not an out-group, we don't suffer from homogeneity bias where each member of a group are blamed for behaviours which part of the group may have. There is no discussion here about "cyclists" going through red lights, riding on the pavement etc. Cycling is mainstream here. There is no "us vs. them" antagonism between drivers and cyclists because the same people ride bikes as drive cars.

It would be absurd to imagine that
the Dutch cycle because they are
genetically inclined to do so, yet
people often make this argument.
Every section of society can be
seen cycling in The Netherlands.
Immigrants find cycling nearly
so convenient as people who
were born here. The cyclists in
the video most likely to be singled
out and subject to criticism as an
out-group are the lycra clad and
helmeted "racers", one of whom is
in the background of this still.
The moped at the start of the
video represents another out-group
often accused of being dangerous
Of course, that's not to say that there is no bias in The Netherlands, nor that everyone is fair and rational. I made this video during a Study Tour a few weeks ago. A little before we reached this point and while we were observing another location of interest in Groningen, a woman come up to us with a complaint. The growing collection of teenagers' bikes which we were admiring outside a football ground caused her discomfort. To her, the collection of "scruffy" bikes lowered the tone of this respectable neighbourhood. Why couldn't the teenagers park their bicycles a few hundred metres away in the secure cycle-parking facility provided by the council ? Of course the reason the answer to this was in her question. The secure cycle-parking facility was a few hundred metres away and the teenagers would have to walk. Everyone likes convenience. I suspect that includes the woman making the complaint, who was astride her own bicycle as she spoke to me. The out-group in this case was not "cyclists" but "teenagers".

It is often the case that the behaviour which motorists and pedestrians complain about in other nations is actually teenage behaviour. For instance, when cycling is banned in a pedestrianized area, the only cyclists who will remain are those who are scoff-laws. Often they are teenagers.  Teenagers push the boundaries of acceptable behaviour. That has always been so and it always will be so. The more that cycling is normalized, the more it is that teenage cyclists will follow the norms of behaviour which the majority follow.

The rise in cycling in The Netherlands came about due to normal people campaigning for safety. This campaigning which was inclusive of the population as a whole and not just for the benefit of a vocal minority.  Cycling is not a revolutionary activity in the Netherlands. Long may this remain so.

Why we do tours
People sometimes wonder why it is that we operate Study Tours and what we have to offer that a Dutch person does not. The experience of having living and cycled for many years in less cycling friendly countries gives us perspectives that people who have not done this simply cannot have.

See also my other blog post from today about an excellent dynamo lighting special offer.