Monday 3 August 2015

A day at the races: Motor racing events have no effect on cycling in the Netherlands. It's the quality of infrastructure for everyday journeys that influences people towards cycling. Similarly, cycling events elsewhere don't increase cycling levels because they're not supported by infrastructure

I've never had much interest in motor sport. When I was a child I remember being taken to see motor racing twice and having found it noisy and unpleasant. I now live in Assen. The city's TT circuit is world famous, known as the "Cathedral of motor sport". This facility attracts many thousands of visitors to the area, but motor racing was not one of the things that attracted us to the area and until yesterday I'd never been to the track for a motor racing event...

Thousands of local people arrived by bicycle

The Dutch DIY chain Gamma holds an annual Racing Day at Assen's circuit. It's free to attend this event if you have tickets from the shop or their website. When I bought some DIY materials a few weeks ago the cashier pushed a couple of free tickets into my hand so we decided to go and check it out yesterday.

As with any event in or around Assen, thousands of local people arrived by bicycle. But with this event attracting over 100000 people in total from across the Netherlands (more than Assen's population), it shouldn't be any surprise that a lot of people arrived by car and motorbike.

But far more people arrived from all around the country by car and motorbike
Just as noisy as I remember the being as a child.
Assen recently built a new motorway junction by the TT circuit and this helped to keep cars away from the city and from cyclists but of course when lots of people try to drive to one place at the same time, that tends to cause problems. There were so many visitors that the police put out a warning that the car parking was full and suggested that visitors find alternatives. There was at least one injury on the way to the event and a huge traffic jam afterwards due to a crash on the motorway.

Curious about where those black circles came from ?
Wonder no moreTyres are clearly too cheap.
None of this had any effect on our 6 km cycle journey to the circuit. Our route was shorter than the shortest possible driving route, mostly unravelled from that for drivers and we had far fewer traffic lights to wait for than would have been the case by car. For us this was far more convenient than driving and clearly lots of local people thought the same as these are the reasons why people cycle to events. After we'd had a years' usual dose of fumes and particulates, we had just so uneventful a cycle ride back home again.

Three children and their parents wearing "Kawasaki racing
 team" jerseys cycling home from yesterday's event on one
of Assen's many safe cycle-paths.
My verdict: Well worth the price of admission ;-) In fact, it was actually quite a lot of fun - especially watching smaller older cars being driven fast around the hairpin on three wheels (not all of them finished the race intact). After watching this event, I got back on my bike and cycled home - just like thousands of other people.

Cycling is popular, motor racing is popular too
When I've been to the TT circuit before, it's been because there have been occasional cycling events there. The 2009 Vuelta a Espana had its prologue on the TT circuit, and that one-off event (for which we also got free tickets that time through a bank) attracted a fair crowd of 40000 people. But that's not so much compared with the 100000 people who can be attracted to the same location for motor sport events.

Motor racing is incredibly popular. So is private car ownership.
But cycling is always safe and is more convenient for many
journeys so Dutch people cycle a lot. In Assen, more journeys
are made by bicycle than by car.
Dutch people like cars a lot. They also like bikes. Many people have access to both modes of transport. Both modes of transport have their uses. Many people take part in or watch both related sports. An interest in any one of these things does not have to exclude any of the others.

Dutch cycling is not in the blood but in the infrastructure
It is sometimes forgotten by camaigners elsewhere that the Dutch cover 3/4 of all their km traveled by private automobile. The Netherlands is a wealthy country with a fairly high rate of car ownership. There are enough cars and there is enough driving in the Netherlands that cars could be utterly dominant to the extent that they would make cycling unpleasant. Indeed, that situation had already arisen by the 1970s in the Netherlands, when people owned far fewer cars than they do today. Domination of cars led to an increase in cyclist injuries and a steep decline in cycling.

In the early 1960s, British people cycled more than the
Dutch now. Without support, cycling declined sharply.
With support it would have remained significant, just as
it did in the Netherlands.
Dutch people now cycle for a higher proportion of journeys than people of any other country not because cycling is "in the culture" but because cycling been transformed through a change in infrastructure so that almost any destination can be reached conveniently by bike without having to deal with motorized traffic. Dutch cycling infrastructure has made it possible for cycling to survive alongside a rise in motoring, removing danger and noise and enabling journeys to anywhere by bike, even motor racing circuits.

Go back a few decades and you'll find that British people cycled for a higher proportion of their journeys than Dutch people do now. As cars came to dominate roads, the UK suffered the same steep decline as the Netherlands did, but because no measures were taken to prevent that decline the decline continued. The same happened across most of the world. For instance, in New Zealand.

Nations once thought to have "cultural" cycling can suffer declines just as well as can those where cycling was forgotten about decades ago. Twenty years ago, Denmark stopped emphasizing cycling, bringing about a decline. The fastest decline in cycling ever seen is that happening now in China, where cycling was once far more significant than in the modern day Netherlands.

Cycling can survive only where it is supported. Unfortunately, recent plans in the Netherlands do not offer the same support to cycling as was offered 20 years ago and this is putting Dutch cycling in danger. If cycling is no longer the most convenient and safe option then people will drive more. This is demonstrated by all the places where that has already happened - a very long list of places which includes the Netherlands.

But while there are always reasons to warn about a possible decline, we're not at that low point yet. Cycling infrastructure in the Netherlands is of the best overall quality in the world, good new examples of infrastructure are very good indeed, and stand out cities (Assen is one of them) demonstrate good practice which all other countries would benefit from emulating.

Want to see change ? Change the infrastructure, don't run events
Just as how motor racing events in Assen don't make people in Assen drive everywhere, cycling events elsewhere won't make people cycle. What does change peoples' behaviour is infrastructure. Assen has a comprehensive, finely spaced grid of very high quality cycle-routes which allow anyone of any age to make their journeys safely by bike. If you build the same in your city you will see a change in behaviour.

A previous event in Assen: Every year there is a driving demonstration on city streets. People mainly attend this event by bicycle. No sign whatsoever in Assen of a sporting legacy leading to an en-masse switch to formula one racing cars...

This isn't a sponsored post. Our free tickets came in the same way as the other 100000 attendees free tickets - through buying DIY materials. Gamma's Racing Day is an entertaining event and I can see why it's popular.


Unknown said...

Thanks for the article. However, worrying hints included in your post that the Netherlands may be starting to slip back on its support of cycling, "Unfortunately, recent plans in the Netherlands do not offer the same support to cycling as was offered 20 years ago and this is putting Dutch cycling in danger."

What has prompted this change?

David Hembrow said...

Graham: I've written about this before here and here. What it comes down to is a change of emphasis as people have retired. Cycling infrastructure was once seen as an engineering issue and designs improved over time using good engineering principles. It's now being used as a marketing tool. Designs by architects which have an attractive appearance in mock-up sketches (e.g. here) but don't work well in reality are increasingly common.

There's also the problem of older people who were responsible for the increase in cycling in NL retiring and newer people taking over who seem not to understand that cycling can be safe only if the infrastructure makes it so. Hence the trendy removal of cycle-paths in some places - a return to the policies of the 1950s and 1960s when cycling in the Netherlands was in decline.

Unknown said...


Thanks for the swift and full response. I wonder what it will take for the powers-that-be to realise the error of turning back the clock to the policies of the 50s and 60s.

"If men could learn from history, what lessons it might teach us. But passion and party blind our eyes, and the light which experience gives us is a lantern on the stern, which shines only on the waves behind us."

Sad but true.