Monday 10 November 2014

City centre streets. Perfect for children on their own bicycles, if the city is truly planned for cycling. Cargo bikes shouldn't be required.

Something which people who visit Assen often notice is the lack of cargo-bikes. Somehow an expectation has grown up that cargo bikes are the way of transporting children by bicycle. Actually, children have their own legs and really should be able to use them to transport themselves as soon as they have the ability to ride a bicycle. This of course is only possible if the infrastructure is very very good, and over most of this city that is indeed the case. It wasn't always like this, but motor vehicles were removed from the centre several years ago and that left behind conditions where everyone is safe.

The photos below were taken within ten minutes a little after three o'clock on an afternoon a couple of weeks ago:

All ages and abilities served by one type of infrastructure. The youngest daughter in this family rides on the front of Mum's bike while her slightly older sister rides her own bike. They're heading directly towards the city centre. Directly towards the same streets as shown in the following photos. It's not unusual to see children this young cycling to the city centre. A comprehensive grid of very high quality infrastructure makes this possible.

The city centre streets are used by bicycle by people of all ages. The woman in the centre has more experience, but lots of experience isn't required to be safe here. The youngsters on the right are already able to make their way through the city without an adult to accompany them.

Of course some children are accompanied by parents. These two are heading towards a large square in the middle of the city which was once a car-park.

The youngest child sits on Dad's bike while her older sister rides her own bike.

Mother and son.

Young teenagers have complete independence. This group rode through together. Presumably the lessons for the day had ended. The light grey concrete on the left of the cyclists is textured to help blind people find their way. Paving like this is laid throughout the city centre.

Another mother and son. The mother's bike has a fold down child-seat on the back, which is possibly used sometimes for a younger sibling.

They're all moving in the same direction, but they're not all looking in the same direction. Cycling is very social in the city centre. People are always looking out for their friends and family. A lot of smiles, a lot of waves.

More youngsters riding home from school together. The city centre streets make a good route to many locations.

Teenagers attending secondary school (age 12 upwards) are likely to have further to travel. 

Eating while cycling and riding no hands. These are comparatively safe things to do when there are no cars on city centre streets.

Mum indicates a right turn. The children also will turn up onto the forgiving sloped kerb .

Teens again, riding sociably side by side.

Very young children ride on the back of their parents' bikes. But those who cycle on their own bike are often also very young.

Where have the cars gone ?
Red dots show the locations which feature in the photos
Traffic lights are no longer needed because through
traffic has been removed. The car park no longer exists.
There are now zebra crossings to make it easier for
pedestrians to cross the "road" for bikes.
The photos above show very typical views of the centre of Assen in 2014. Many other Dutch cities look similar. However, it wasn't always like this.

In the 1970s, the number of children being killed on the roads reached a peak. Cycling was in decline in the Netherlands at that time.

Assen, like other cities, was full of motor vehicles. Cars, buses and trucks dominated the city centre streets. Cyclists who remained on these streets were under pressure. The situation was much like that of many cities now. There was "no space for cycling infrastructure" and car parks were full.

If Assen had continued on the path which the city was on, it's unlikely that people would cycle so much in the city as they do now.
Pedestrian zone.
Cycling allowed
on given routes.
Note generous
delivery times.
The problems in the centre of the city were turned around by a second revolution which returned old streets which pre-date motor vehicles to people rather than allowing the problems due to allowing motor vehicles to dominate them to grow.

The city centre area is now a large pedestrian zone. What looks like a road in all the photos above (except the first one) is actually a stripe through the pedestrian zone on which cycling is permitted. This is a design which works very well because it is familiar. "Road" for bikes, "pavement" for pedestrians result in no clashes between cyclists and pedestrians within this pedestrianized area. Signage at each entrance to the pedestrian zone points out this status.

Cycling and walking are the most popular means of transport for shoppers in Assen and these are the modes which are best catered for in the city centre.

Of course it's not just the city centre which has cycling infrastructure. An extensive and fine-grained grid of high quality infrastructure stretches across the entire city so that no-one has to cycle in conditions which are not subjectively safe. This is the only way of making cycling accessible to everyone.

When our children were young we still
lived in the UK. The streets were not
safe enough for them to ride their own
bikes so we used this Ken Rogers trike
with child seats. It worked well, but
we wouldn't have needed it in Assen.
What about parents ?
In many places, people who didn't bother with a car before they had children find that they need one once they have children. Of course it is in many ways better if people switch to using cargo bikes to carry their children rather than using a car, however the experience of the children themselves is not so different if they're transported by a parent with a bicycle rather than being transported by a parent with a car.

A high percentage of parents using cargo bikes to transport their children is better than having the same parents driving cars, but while a growing number of cargo bikes might indicate a growing confidence amongst parents it should be seen as a step in the right direction but not as an end in itself.

There are quite a lot of cargo bikes in
Assen. They're used for many other
reasons than to transport children.
Why not cargo bikes ?
So long as they're used for carrying cargo, there's nothing wrong with cargo-bikes at all. There's also nothing wrong with them for carrying small children.

It is only when cargo bikes are seen as a solution for carrying children who are old enough to ride their own bikes (i.e. 4+) that this indicates a problem. The problem is not with the bikes or their riders but with the environment for cycling.

If parents don't think that the local cycling infrastructure is sufficiently safe for their children to have control over their own movement then this indicates that the infrastructure is sub-standard. Children should have conditions safe enough that they can have control over their own movement and not have to rely upon their parents for lifts, either by bike or by car.

Mother of three in Groningen
Where the cycling infrastructure is very good, cargo bikes are relatively rare and mostly used for carrying cargo. It's better for parents and for children if children can be given the freedom to control their own movement.

I'm not criticizing anyone for using a cargo bike to transport their children. People who do this in difficult environments should be applauded for making a positive choice which is not always rewarded by society. We made a similar choice when we lived in the UK and our children were small. We first used a tricycle and later moved on to trailerbikes (also uncommon in the Netherlands for the same reason). It was not always easy to do this because other parents could be quite critical and drivers were sometimes quite aggressive around our children.

It's not always so good as this in the Netherlands
Cities across the Netherlands vary in how easy it is for everyone to ride bicycles. For instance:

The Netherlands is still far and away the most successful country on earth at encouraging people to cycle, and at encouraging people to let their children cycle. Assen is a stand-out city even within the Netherlands. But I always warn that you should never assume that this country always gets everything right.

A truly high cycling modal share requires that everyone should be able to cycle everywhere. That is what true mass cycling is all about.


Neil said...

Yes, I was thinking about this recently. Trailer bikes and child back tandems probably aren't so common in NL because the children can cycle . Whereas for my new bike I am wondering about omafiets, cargo bike or child back tandem for carrying my 4yo.

ktenness said...

Great post! I think the lack of helmets in the photos is a good indication of perceived safety. Where I live, in California, it is considered reckless to bicycle without a helmet.

Berno said...

Riding no hands on the way home from school we were once caught up by a policecar. The officer stepped out in front of us, a big adjustable spanner in his hand. 'If you two don't need your steering I might as well remove them'. As frightened little eleven-years-old we of course quickly promised never to do it again. Only much later I realised the practise must have been very common in the seventies for him to keep a spanner ready at hand! We ourselves naturally didn't see any harm in riding like that. And it wasn't just the infrastructure or the relative safe environment that made us feel so confident, it was also the bikes that allowed it. Have a look at how the children in David's photos are all adopting a stable riding position: backs straight, heads up. By fortunate accident David snapped one exception: the boy in the fifth picture is riding a bike that is typical of the type we see here in Britain. Note the high centre of gravity and how a lot of his weight is on the arms and on the steering. His forward position is leading him to focus on the patch of road right in front of him, rather than on the other people around him. Looking over one's shoulder, making manouvres or waving without wobbling are much more difficult like this, let alone eating a sandwich while riding no hands. At least he's got mudguards (albeit bolt-on and ill-fitting), where most British children have to do without.
Another couple of weeks and it'll be that time of the year again. Wouldn't it be nice if Father Christmas could give all the children in this country a safe cycling environment like children in the Netherlands enjoy? I'm afraid though he'll be dispensing a lot of shiny colourful little twowheelers again that are just about ok to jump up and down kerbs with, but are not really suitable for going anywhere. From very young, children are thus taught to look at bikes as toys, not as a practical and safe means of travelling.
Now how could we let Santa know there are actually a few shops in Britain selling proper children's bikes, imported from the Netherlands and Germany?

Unknown said...

Hi Neil, both of our children could cycle their own bikes without stabilisers by age 3. Try it, your 4yo may well be capable :-)

Neil said...

@Kim, It's not the riding the bike that is so much the issue, but riding on the roads here (plus the trip to school would actually be too far at the moment anyway). As David is saying, people carrying children that could ride is a sign that the children don;t have the environment to ride safely.

Tim said...

Does no-one in the Netherlands ever have a tight schedule to keep to? I wish we had more/better dedicated infrastructure here (in the UK). I understand that, without the worry of fast busy traffic bearing down on people, we might not feel the need to cycle so furiously. But sometimes (too often unfortunately) I'm just running a bit late, and can't afford to saunter along as I might on a leisure ride.

I mention this here, because I like the tow-bar we use with my daughter's bike (similar to, but not, a trail-gator). It means she can have the freedom to cycle by herself when the opportunity presents itself, but the reasons for connecting the tow-bar up are two-fold. As the article suggests, in many places I just wouldn't be comfortable with her navigating independently due to traffic, but even on a dedicated cycle path a five-year-old isn't able to ride as quickly or as far as we can go with me towing. We would take forever to get across town, and sometimes we don't have forever. Basically the tow-bar is broadly the equivalent of a bigger rear mounted seat. We can travel at a speed I dictate, but also she can pedal, and have some independence as and where circumstances permit. I'm surprised this isn't useful in the Netherlands?

David Hembrow said...

Tim: Peoples' lives are very similar in every country. Of course people are in a hurry here sometimes, but just as everywhere else they're not in a hurry all the time.

I'm not against the idea of a tow-bar as you use. We used a similar solution when we lived in the UK. For touring this makes some sense even here, but it doesn't make sense here for local trips so they are seen only rarely.

When people are in a hurry or their child is tired then the parent usually rides alongside the child and gives them a gentle push. There are several photos of this on the blog you can see one of them here. It's far more sociable than pulling a child along behind you.

I suspect that like most British cyclists you feel pressure from traffic which prevents you from considering riding side-by-side so this solution has perhaps not been obvious to you. However for the Dutch it's normal to ride next to each other and converse while cycling. It's not only normal that parents do this with children but it's also common to see couples holding each others' bikes so that they stay together.

Average Dutch cycling speeds are actually very high by the standards of other countries. British, American and other English language country observers often imagine that they cycle quickly, but in reality they're almost always somewhat slower than equivalent cyclists in this country. Why ? It's very simple. They don't have the legs because they don't cycle so much as their Dutch counterparts. People who are in a hurry do not "saunter".

Tim said...

Hi David, Thanks for the reply (which I'm afraid I've only just read). I have done the "helpful push" and appreciate it works on a short hill, although you are right that it can only work where the infrastructure makes side-by-side cycling an option. I would only do that on a car-free route here - elsewhere I'm not comfortable riding on the pavement, but I'm not comfortable with my daughter riding on the road. :(

But even on the car-free route(converted railway across town) I'm thinking of, it's three miles with a slight gradient. Not exactly touring, but in the uphill direction a five-year-old will struggle to keep pace with a briskly moving adult cyclist, and my arm isn't strong enough to push all the way! Although my daughter is improving quickly and soon she'll be upgrading to a bigger bike with gears so I'm sure it won't be long before she can leave me behind...

One other thought. I'm surprised to see a girl using stabilisers being used as an example of a child cyclist in a mature and developed cycling culture. ime stabilisers turn a perfectly good bike into a tall wobbly trike and slow things down even more.

David Hembrow said...

Tim: I'm not a big fan of stabilizers either. However while walking bikes are great to teach children a sense of balance they are not much good so far as range is concerned. Also people sometimes don't make the best choices.

The point remains that any place where a "tall wobbly trike" can be safely ridden into the centre of the city provides decent conditions for children. Overtaking wasn't a problem (I'd overtaken just before taking the photo).

Great to hear that your daughter is progressing well.

Multiparty Democracy Today said...

I saw this today. It is an article about a man who heroically braved the London traffic and in a bakfiets, took his children to school. The police stopped him, claiming that he was endangering them. It also mentions Boris Johnson telling cyclists to obey the rules of the road. As anyone who knows anything about road collisions knows, it is exactly when people do not obey the rules that collisions occur. In most of the cases, this could have been prevented by road design somehow. Roundabouts preventing car drivers from doing head on collisions, a cycle path preventing a collision caused by stopping a car from hitting a cyclist, simultaneous green or protected junction preventing a car from turning at high speed, minimizing the damage of any potential collision. ETC. Here is the link:

David Hembrow said...

Restlesstablet: Boris Johnson has a history of blaming cyclists for crashes in which they are injured and killed. Don't expect too much sense from that quarter. As for the Daily Mail - a terrible newspaper. Sensationalist claptrap. Don't expect too much sense from them either.