Friday 21 April 2023

What's gone wrong with road safety in the Netherlands ?

The elephant at the cross-roads: It's not cyclists who are killing more cyclists than before, but more and larger cars such as this one which are killing more cyclists than before. Anti-social vehicles like these designed in such a way that vulnerable road users in front of them are largely invisible, should be illegal.

It's been much reported over the last few days that more people died on Dutch roads in 2022 than was the case in 2021. This not the first year in which that has happened - we have seen a rising trend over the last few years.

Who dies ?

2010 was the year when the fewest Dutch cyclists died. Since then the annual cyclist death rate has nearly doubled, from 162 in 2010 to 291 in 2022, reaching a level not seen in many decades (source)

Our media has presented this story as mainly being about older people dying more than before while cycling. This is not a new angle, I covered it 13 years ago. It is true that more than 150 of the total cyclist deaths, more than half, were of cyclists aged over 75 and it is of course the case that older people are more vulnerable in a crash. The media is also presenting the number of deaths of motorists, 225, against those of cyclists, 291, and suggesting that cyclists are somehow the problem and should change their behaviour. We apparently need to go slower, or wear helmets, or we look out more for other traffic, or there needs to be more police enforcement, or there should be more campaigns to tell us to behave ourselves. But this is all nonsense unless we look at where the danger actually comes from.

Who does the killing ?

This graph shows the cause of cyclist deaths. In 2021 and 2022 almost exactly the same number of cyclists deaths were without another cause, such as cyclists crashing against fixed objects. But the number of deaths due to crashes with private cars or delivery vans increased from 81 to 141, a 74% increase and deaths due to crashed with other motor vehicles rose from 46 to 65, a 41% increase (source

The main cause of death for cyclists is crashes with motor vehicles. Those crashes have been increasing at an astonishing rate. Crashes with motor vehicles were responsible for 127 cyclist deaths in 2021 compared with 206 in 2022. It would therefore be more reasonable to present the data as 431 deaths due to motor vehicles vs. 85 due to cyclists.

We're not going to fix this with car oriented policies

We know that cars are deadly but they're are also the mode of transport which is rising most steeply in this country.

More consumption cannot somehow lead to a greener more sustainable future, and that's especially the case when we're talking about more cars. But that's the path we're currently on thanks to the political "leadership" of the VVD.

We have a government which has spent decades trying to fix all the many problems caused by cars by encouraging ownership of ever more cars. We also have a media which presents the idea that cars could become slightly less affordable in an attempt to persuade people to buy less fossil fuel as a terrible problem which could only be addressed by subsidizing buying new cars. In this country even Car Free Day was somehow turned into an event featuring a parade of cars. It's mindless. We're famous internationally for cycling, but who would know ?

When fuel prices increased due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, our government jumped in immediately to subsidize fuel, a subsidy which was not removed after the prices dropped once again. Traffic jams are now worse than they were before the war and before covid because Dutch drivers are using more cars more than they ever have before. This is stimulated by a government which really should be trying to do something different, but which never changes its focus away from Vroom Vroom.

For a multitude of reasons, including the now very obviously rising trend of road deaths, we really do need to get people out of cars. But until we can shake off the ludicrous notion that more cars is always the answer to everything, including the completely absurd idea that buying a new car is the best way that a motorist can "do their bit" to prevent climate change, I think we're doomed to a future in which we will see higher and higher road deaths in the Netherlands, as well as more and more of all of the other problems caused by cars.

Update 28/4/2023
This week our government published its "ambitious" new plan for the climate. So far as transport is concerned they're really doing only one thing and that's encouraging more cars. If you already bought a car with a subsidy and now want to sell it to buy another there's especially good news because the buyer will also receive a subsidy to buy your car second hand. The roads are increasingly full of cars and our hospitals are increasingly full of the victims of cars, and our government can see nothing buy more cars in our future. Vroom vroom.

Update 16/1/2024

The light blue line shows the cost of taxation and subsidies adjusted for inflation per litre of petrol (gas / benzine)
How much does it cost to fill a car with fuel in the Netherlands ? Despite the moaning from motorists, the true cost relative to inflation has been dropping steadily since 1997, and the trend has accelerated sharply in the last four years. Less tax is raised from motorists now than at any time in the last 34 years. Driving a car has always been affordable in this country and now it's more affordable than ever. Read other blog posts about the cost of motoring in the Netherlands.

If you want to read more, there are a number of tags on this blog which group together articles about: Cars, Dutch Car Ownership rate, Dutch Safety figures, Electric Cars, and perhaps you might also like What Works which is a tag presenting many good ideas for stimulating cycling.

Tuesday 21 June 2022

Some Dutch Cycling infrastructure is older than you might expect, some of it is newer

It sometimes not clear to people whether cycling infrastructure in the Netherlands is a new phenomena or something which has been around decades ago. Sometimes new infrastructure looks "old" or old infrastructure looks "new".

Old infrastructure which looks "new"
Here's an example of a cycle-path and road junction which look right up to date, but which have actually existed for over 60 years.

Parcels containing bike parts beginning their journey to customers. I use this cycle-path several times a week to transport goods like this because it's a main route from the suburb where we live and work into the centre of the city. Note the re-surfacing work being carried out on the other side of the road.

A photo of the same location from 2007 shows an older cycle-path surface and everything looked a bit worn out back then. Tiled surfaces were once quite common on Dutch cycle-paths, this one having survived well past when others had already been replaced. The asphalt came soon after this photo was taken. The cycle-path is in exactly the same location and has the same 2.5 m width, a width which is perfectly fine in most situations for a unidirectional cycle-path, though it would be too narrow if this was intended for bidirectional use.

In this aerial shot (courtesy of Bing Maps), the red arrow shows where my bike was when I took the photo above. You can clearly see the road layout here in which motorists give way to the cycle-path as well as pedestrians crossing the road. You can also see the crossings from left to right for cyclists and pedestrians. In that direction, across the main flow, cyclists do not have priority. I've no explanation for the strangely parked vans.

An aerial photo from 1961 shows almost exactly the same layout. The cycle-path is unchanged apart from the surface but the road from left to right has been reduced from a dual carriageway type arrangement to a normal road. When this photo was taken this was not part of a direct route into the city centre because a bridge a few hundred metres further along would not be built for a few more years. Both the bridge for access to the centre and the dual carriageway road arrangement were influenced by a 1913 plan to make a "harmonious" city. The bridge (the current version of which is visible in a recent video) is useful, but it's a very good thing that the idea of building a ring-road this close to the centre was abandoned. 

New infrastructure which required considerable work to look much as it used to
Someone who was transported through time from the 1940s might not initially notice, but it actually took a lot of work to give this road layout a similar appearance to 80 years ago:

This photo from 2022 shows what looks like a new cycle-path, and indeed it is relatively new, dating from 2008. To the right of the cycle-path is a separate pedestrian path, to the left there's space for car parking, then the road and a canal. Referring to older photos this initially looks like not much has changed. See the next photo.
This photo from the 1940s already showed the canal, the road, the cycle-path and the pedestrian path. But note that at that time the cycle-path and pedestrian path were both narrower, there was no car parking space and there was no substantive buffer between the road (which had a higher speed limit back then) and the cycle-path. When I took my photo I stood in almost the same position as this photographer stood in when he took his photo, but I'm on the cycle-path and he was on the road. The very similar appearance hides major work to create more space alongside a canal in order to enable us to have better cycling provision as well as car parking spaces required with the considerably higher car ownership rate of the present day.

This photo from 2007 facing in the opposite direction (note the same lit up bright red sign on the left) shows where the extra space for the wider cycle-path and car parking came from. The first 1.5 km of the canal running from the city centre to the East was shifted sideways, to the North, by about two metres. Everything was reconstructed from scratch, but the pedestrian and cycle-paths were replaced first and at this point we're cycling on a subsurface (note different colour asphalt from the finished cycle-path).

So in this case the infrastructure looks like nothing much has changed, but actually it took a lot of work to create a situation where the route looks much like it did in the 1940s while actually offering more to modern cyclists, pedestrians and drivers than was the case before.

New Infrastructure which looks "old"

One of the things which sometimes makes people think that something new is "old" is the road surface, or that streets seem to be very narrow. While tiles on cycle-paths along through routes have often been swapped out for asphalt, as shown above, in city centres the opposite has happened: asphalt is swapped for tiles.

A city centre street in Assen. Drivers can access this road, but for them this is now a one-way detour to nowhere. No-one drives a car here unless they need to pick something up from one of the shops. This road surface is used by more cyclists than drivers and by bike this is a two way road which provides direct routes to many locations

This is what the same place used to look like in the 1970s. At that time the street looked very wide and it was used as a major through route for cars, as you can see from the signage. Drivers were served by filling stations on both sides of the street. Pedestrians crossing the road had to walk a remarkably long walk to travel between the narrow sidewalks on either side. Asphalt in the middle of the street provided a good surface for driving cars and narrow cycle lanes as the edge provided an inferior surface for cycling. The photo isn't quite wide enough to show the traffic lights which were needed in this location, but which no longer exist. Absolutely no space could be found for trees. If this was still a main route by car in the 21st century it would have become an extremely unpleasant place.
Go back a little further in history and we find that the same street once looked like this. The current layout resembles an attempt to return to how this street looked before it was temporarily taken over by completely car oriented thinking. But what we see now is all completely new and accommodates customers visiting the shops by car, while also excluding the through traffic. Also notice that from the first photo right down to this one people are using similar designs of practical everyday bicycles. This near perfect design has never gone out of date because it works so well.

What can we learn from this
Initial impressions can be misleading. Sometimes what looks new is old, or what looks old is new.

The Netherlands had cycling infrastructure early in the 20th century, but this was not always valued and there are many examples of early cycling infrastructure being removed in the mid 20th century in order to provide more space for cars. There are also many historical examples of lacklustre infrastructure with inferior surfaces or which took longer routes than driving. It was not until the mid 1970s that the value of cycling infrastructure was recognised again after a series of protests, and it took until the 1980s until the necessity of a full grid of efficient go-everywhere infrastructure was acknowledged, after which quick progress was made.

Click for a more about how this city centre was transformed twice during the twentieth century, first to accommodate more cars and then to exclude them. There are also many more before and after photographs showing how Dutch roads changed over time.

Thursday 24 March 2022

The challenge of declining bicycle sales in the world's leading cycling nation

A few days ago I quote tweeted this graph from Datagraver on twitter with a comment that "Sadly, cycling is dying in the Netherlands." The responses to this tweet were largely defensive and many people clearly didn't understand what I meant, so let's look deeper at the bicycle market in the Netherlands and consider what the consequences could be for cycling in this country with lower bicycle sales.

Shrinking sales don't mean an instant reduction in the bicycle fleet. This drop in bicycle sales is a leading indicator of a problem which will become apparent in the next few years.

How many bicycles are there in the Netherlands

The total number of bicycles in the Netherlands is currently reported to be about 23 million. That's about 1.3 bikes per person. This figure is of course pushed upward by all the people who own many bicycles, including pretty much everyone who I know, and pulled downward by people with no bicycle at all.

There are actually quite a lot of people who don't have a bicycle in the Netherlands, about a fifth of the population in total. People without bikes include babies too young to cycle, some people with disabilities and some older people who can no longer ride a bike or trike. There are also people even in this country who do not cycle by choice. In addition there's inequality in our society just like that of other countries and for some people the price even of a second hand bicycle is a barrier. A nationwide scheme tackles this to some extent by providing free of charge donated bikes to children.

The sales decline and the pandemic's effect on sales

You'll note from the graph that sales of conventional bicycles have declined to about a quarter of the level which they had 20 years ago, while sales volume of electric bicycles have grown from more or less nothing to a figure which slightly exceeded conventional bicycle sales in last year's sales figures. Those two trends are obvious without concerning ourselves with the two pandemic years, 2020 and 2021.

Both 2020 and 2021 were unusual because of the pandemic. Bicycle shops in 2020 were reporting record sales because of lockdown cycling, while in 2021 they were complaining about not being able to get stock because of supply chain issues.

In the year 2000 around 1.5 M bicycles were sold to a population of 16.3 M people. By 2021 only around 445000 bicycles were sold to a slightly higher population of 17.1 M. We've gone from one  bicycle sale per 11 people to around one bike per 39 people. i.e. Sales have reduced to a quarter of their previous level. Of course, e-bike sales have increased and if we include the e-bikes in the sales figures that makes a combined total of 923000 bikes sold in 2021, or one per 19 people. That's still a halving of the total number of bikes sold per person per year.

The average price of a new bicycle

As I reported before, the Dutch spend more on average on a new bicycle than people of other countries and this has increased rapidly. The average price paid for a new bicycle in 2008 was €603 but last year's average price was €1627 (vs. about 800 pounds in the UK and about $700 in the USA). There's a simple reason why Dutch people are willing to spend more: Because they use bikes more than those who live in other countries they spend more on their bicycles with the expectation of getting plenty of use from them.

The average bicycle price has increased faster in recent years because of the switch from normal bicycles to e-bikes. Bike shops have been perfectly happy with this outcome because the decrease in sales volumes is more than masked by a higher profit margin due to the increase in the average value of a sale. If you've ever wondered why so many bicycle manufacturers and dealerships in the early twentieth century became motorcycle or car manufacturers and dealerships by half way through the 20th century, there's the answer. They too found that they could make higher profits by selling motorized vehicles at a higher price. Cycling declined while few people took much notice of what was happening.

But there's an issue with this. Not everyone can afford to buy a new bike, especially at the average price paid for a bicycle in this country.

Second and third hand non-electric bikes provide the backbone of the bicycle fleet.

Many second hand bicycle sales are made by bicycle shops which take trade-ins of people's older bikes when they buy a new bicycle. Sales to third and later users are largely private. The value of a bicycle drops as it ages and each time it is sold to a new owner a bicycle typically also passes to a different demographic.

Even in the year 2000 with about 1.5 M bikes being sold each year, bikes of up to five years old made up only a third of the total fleet in use. i.e. two thirds of the population were riding bicycles which were over five years old, well out of guarantee and possibly on their third owner.

Bicycles sold in 2000 were on average used for about about 14 years. That was not a maximum age, but an average. Obviously some bikes are scrapped earlier for various reasons and others last far longer. This is a simple calculation: 14 years had to be the average life expectancy for a new bicycle in 2000 because with sales of 1.5 million bicycles a year and a bicycle population of around 21 million we were replacing about 1/14th of the bicycle fleet every year.

In 2021 with around 1 M bikes sold per year (normal bikes and e-bikes combined) and a total bicycle population of 23 M we now need our bicycles to last on average 23 years just to maintain the current fleet size. Unfortunately the type of bicycle being sold makes this difficult if not impossible. Half the bicycles being sold now are e-bikes and e-bikes are not practical for a second or third owner to maintain when they are over 5 years of age. 

While bicycles built of standard parts can be maintained more or less forever, manufacturers often no longer sell unusual and specialized parts of bikes after a few years, and this is especially problematic with e-bikes because even when they are available the price of batteries, controllers (the electronic parts between battery and motor including the display), motors and other expensive parts is often too high for a second or third owner and there is usually no cheaper substitute alternative available. Sometimes a second hand part can be used, but then you're stripping one bike to keep another going. New buyers are covered by a warranty but no warranty claim can be made by second or third owners so they have to cover the full cost of any repair and these parts often add up to cost more than the second hand value of an older e-bike. Because of this problem, we can expect that though e-bikes currently sell at a rate of half a million per year their shorter lifespans mean that they will only ever be able to contribute about three million bikes to the total fleet while the rest of the fleet will eventually have to be made up from the other half million normal bikes which were sold in the same year. But that unfortunately means that maintaining the current fleet level of 23 M bikes requires that normal bikes must have an unrealistically long average lifespan of around 40 years.

Lower sales mean a slowly reducing number of available bicycles

Shrinking sales and the type of bicycle being bought by customers of new bicycles will both affect the availability of usable second and third hand bicycles in the future. It will take a few years for this to be obvious because only a small proportion of the fleet is replaced each year and if they can't find what they wanted, most people can just hold onto a bicycle for a bit longer. But this will mean that the availability of rideable bicycles decreases over subsequent years.

The effect of e-bikes on the Dutch population

While in other countries the e-bike is often perceived a transport mode which is preferable to a car, it's quite clear that in the Netherlands with our rapidly growing car ownership and usage and plummeting sales of normal bicycles, that e-bikes are being used in place of human powered bicycles.

The reported distance cycled per year by an average Dutch person has remained constant for decades at just under 900 km per year, which is under a fifth of the distance that we would all have to cycle in order to exercise enough to maintain good health by riding bikes alone. Substituting e-bike kms for human powered kms only means that the Dutch population gets less exercise. A particularly worrying trend is the uptake in e-bikes amongst the young. It's now not at all unusual to see school children who barely turn the pedals by themselves at all on their way to school and back, reducing the potential for cycling to establish a good exercise habit from a young age.

There is also then a problem that these e-bikes are more expensive and less durable, which makes cycling a lot less democratic than it used to be. Parents who once struggled to provide a bicycle for their child are now under pressure to provide an e-bike instead.

Complacency doesn't solve any problem

Unfortunately these concerns are not being discussed, but are instead being swept under the carpet.

Cycling is a fragile mode of transport which if it is to continue at a relatively high rate, as is still fortunately the case currently in the Netherlands, will need protecting against competition from motor vehicles of all sizes including the small electric vehicles with which some people are currently enamoured.

There is much to lose and we're doing little to protect cycling against the threats that it faces. You can see this even with the current response to rising fuel prices due to the Russian attack on Ukraine. Our government immediately announced huge decreases in taxation for motorists, which ensure that driving remains competitive even as it boosts trade with an aggressive nation and continues to fuel the climate crisis, while they've done nothing at all to encourage people out of their cars, and in particular they've not encouraged people to ride a bicycle instead of driving which would be the most effective way to do some good to solve both those problems.

If we don't want cycling to decline in the Netherlands then we need to invest more in it. The main thing that the Netherlands needs now is wider, smoother, cycle-paths which take more direct routes and improve the competitiveness of cycling with other transport modes.

Things that don't explain the drop in bicycle sales

People in the twitter thread repeatedly made the following suggestions to try to explain the decline in cycle sales and it's probably worth repeating here why none of them explain the decline in sales:

It's not the annoying shared mopeds which litter
the sidewalks while waiting for someone to drive
a car to them and swap the battery either. There
have long been a small number of mopeds in NL
The decline in sales is not explained by SwapFiets, a company which provides a hire service to about 150000 cyclists or roughly 1% of the total fleet. I see it as an expensive way to ride a cheap bike but some people clearly do like their service and that's fine, but the numbers just are not there to explain a decline in bicycle sales.

It's not explained by the popularity of OV-Fiets as while that system is one of the largest bike share systems in the world it has only about 20000 bicycles, or about 0.1% of the total fleet. To an even greater extent than with SwapFiets, the numbers are far too low to make an appreciable difference.

It's also not explained by a reduction in theft. The rate of theft has dropped a little over the last twenty years, but this never really had much of an effect on the fleet size and a reduction in theft doesn't affect this either. Around half a million bicycles are reportedly stolen each year in the Netherlands. A lot of bikes, but a small fraction of the fleet size. Some stolen bicycles are vandalized and become unusable but the majority are either kept by the thief or sold to someone else who continues to ride them, so theft doesn't actually take many bicycles out of the fleet.

It's not explained by cycles becoming more durable. Actually, the opposite has happened. 50 year old steel framed bicycles with standard parts can still be repaired with inexpensive parts but the move to more exotic frame materials, more complex gear and braking systems made maintenance more difficult, and electric assist then had an even greater effect making many modern bicycles far less durable and less economical to keep in service. When people ask me if I can provide replacement batteries, controllers and motors for older (5 year +) e-bikes it's almost always the case that they are either no longer available at all or that if they are available then they're are far too expensive compared with the residual value of the bike. A replacement battery at €550 (that's the retail price of the only battery that is available today from one of our suppliers, which fits only a small minority of e-bikes) costs €100 more than the average price paid for a relatively new and expensive second hand bike bought from a bicycle shop, let alone the price of an average older bike sold privately. So while simple repairs to e-bikes are possible, more complex ones can't be justified. This is what leads to e-bikes being scrapped after quite short useful lives.

It's not explained by market saturation either. While enthusiasts can keep traditionally built bicycles in operation for decades while spending very little to do so, the general public does not do this. There's no sentimentality. If the bike is now worth less than the parts and labour for repair then the bicycle is usually scrapped. In the Netherlands, as explained above, bicycles last on average around 14 years before they need a repair which is too expensive and that's why sales of 1.5 million bicycles a year are necessary in order to maintain a static fleet size.

Update April 2024
Unfortunately, given two years of extra data, we can see that bicycle sales continue to decline, with sales having dropped by about a third since two years ago, to about a fifth of the level required to maintain the required static bicycle fleet size for mass cycling in the Netherlands.

At this point, with this low level of sales, we would need each new bicycle sold to last for sixty year on average just to maintain the fleet size, and that's completely unrealistic. Bicycles never had anything like that long an average lifespan, and modern bicycles, with more complex gearing, suspension forks and frames not made of steel, do not last as long as the simpler designs which made up most sales 40 years ago.

As a result, the pool of usable (mostly second hand) bicycles is now shrinking. As the average age of remaining bicycles gets older and they become un-repairable, there are fewer newer ones available to replace them. This results in shrinkage of the bicycle fleet and will inevitably mean that people cannot cycle so much as they used to. This is tragic for very many reasons.

If you need parts for a traditionally built bicycle then you're in luck. If you need parts for an unusual bicycle or to convert a less practical machine to be better for everyday use I can probably also help you. If you're looking for parts for an e-bike I certainly will help you if I can, but it may not be possible to find what you need. Please do ask, though.

Thursday 24 February 2022

The patriotic act of riding a bicycle during wartime

Russian forces under control of Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine last night. Sadly, such an act of aggression  was expected as it's been clear for a very long time now that Putin is dangerous. He's already occupied part of Ukraine for many years without provoking much of a reaction, and even his fairly obvious Russian support for Brexit and Trump and other actions to undermine the EU and the USA, and the more recent Covid / vaccine misinformation spread by Russian bots have largely been ignored. Unfortunately we even have political parties within our countries which are acting against our interests and instead supporting the interests of Russia (examples from NetherlandsUKUSA).

Sadly, Europe's energy supply in particular is very much tied to Russia. In Europe we pay hundreds of millions or euros every single day for Russian gas and oil. In addition, part of Europe's supply of Uranium also comes from Russia. The payments for these fuels help a regime which has long been  trying to undermine our democracy and has now attacked an allied nation.

It's immediately obvious that our gas supply to businesses as well as to people's homes for heating is inextricably linked to Putin's Russia. So is the supply of petrol and diesel for cars. However the problem goes deeper than that as a large part of Europe's electricity is generated by burning Russian gas or in nuclear power stations so electrically powered vehicles are also to some extent dependent on Russian energy, as of course is our domestic electricity supply.

We don't only import energy from Russia. In total, the EU is dependent on imports for 61% of the energy supply. All of the imported energy is in the form of fossil fuels which are burnt here. That includes Russian gas and oil as well as imports from other countries with unpleasant regimes and oppressive leaders including, for instance, Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern nations. Stopping those imports, would not only reduce the flow of our money which goes to prop up unpleasant politicians in Russia and the Middle East but would also go a long way toward reducing our dependence on fossil fuels, the burning of which threatens human lives all around the world. Cutting those ties sooner rather than later would be good not only for us, but also for the people living under oppression and for all mankind.

Cycling is a patriotic act

When driving a car means funding a country which is attacking Europe, riding a bicycle should be seen as a patriotic act. Insulating homes and other projects to reduce energy consumption should be viewed similarly, as should projects to generate sustainable energy in our own countries.

Parking for patriots

Of course it's easier for everyone to do the right things when there is political support. Unfortunately, our political leaders cannot be counted on to provide that support. They have mostly not built the necessary infrastructure to enable cycling (though it's been known for 40 years what is required), but instead have chosen to subsidize the most destructive forms of transport. Our housing stock is also inefficient because it is being improved at a ludicrously slow rate. The energy we consume is becoming greener and less dependent on imports, but this is again happening at a very slow rate compared with what is required.

DIY sanctions

So what can individuals do about this situation ? We can take our own sanctions against Russia, against Saudi Arabia, against all destructive regimes and against companies which are profiting from planetary destruction and we can do so every single day by buying less of the products that they sell to us. Ride your bicycle with pride. Insulate your home if you can. Reduce the temperature to which you heat your home. Don't travel long distances. Buy less of everything and make what you have last longer because the production of everything consumes energy. The things that we need to do to stop supporting tyrants are the same things that we need to do to preserve a decent standard of living for everyone on our planet.

Finally, when we have the chance to vote (in the Netherlands we have local elections in March), remember which parties have made us dependent on imported energy, which parties have sided with Russia's interests against our own, which parties are uninterested in taking action on climate change, and vote against them. We need to change how our politics work, so that our countries are run in order to support individuals who are doing the right things instead of for the benefit of a few oligarchs who don't care if we live or die.

"The world" in this case means anywhere in the world, except one country whose laws make that impossible and repressive regimes

Wednesday 15 September 2021

Stop de Kindermoord revisited. Is New Zealand now outperforming the Netherlands ?

Back in 2011 I wrote about the success of the Stop De Kindermoord (Stop Child Murder) campaign in the Netherlands. This presumably had been covered by English language press in the distant past, but by 2011 it had been forgotten about so my blog post got quite a lot of attention at the time and encouraged other people to write their own versions of the same story.

The success of that campaign helped lead to improved safety for all Dutch cyclists, not only children. We would likely not have the excellent go-everywhere grid of cycle-paths that we have now if not for the success of that campaigning. That campaign and the realisation that the most important thing that can be done for cycling is building a grid literally changed the landscape in this country, however we can never be complacent. What has changed once can change again.

People often wonder why it is that the Netherlands succeeded in cycling when other countries did not. Why NL acted to reduce child deaths when other countries did not. I think it was largely a matter of luck. The Netherlands happened to have the right leader at the right time.

Dutch schools are open again. Thanks in large part to the work of politicians 40+ years ago, children are relatively safe from traffic. But thanks to the ineffective leadership of our current politicians they're not being protected against infection with Covid-19 (which is an issue for this reason).

The same thing can be observed now as we face a different health crisis and this time it's in reverse. Covid-19 has caused not just a little more death in the Netherlands than in New Zealand, but literally three orders of magnitude more deaths per capita. This enormous difference is the result of policy. It can't be explained away in a simple manner such as differences in climate, that NZ is an island, the culture etc. While in the 1970s the Netherlands had effective leadership which reversed child deaths, this time it is the Netherlands with an ineffective leader in the shape of Mark Rutte while New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has been highly effective. As a result, thousands of lives have been saved in New Zealand relative to the outcome that we have here.

Forty years ago this cycle-path was part of my route to school in New Zealand. It was never a perfect example and while it still exists it won't work as well as it once did because it's been divided into pieces.

While the Stop De Kindermoord protests were taking place in the Netherlands I was a schoolchild in New Zealand. In this blog post I will be comparing the response of both of these countries to two crises. But if you're not from either country, read on because this piece is not only about those two countries. 

My approximate route to school in 1980 (Google
maps doesn't use the cycle-path under the roundabout)
New Zealand's schools keep children safe by closing with
a much lower rate of Covid-19 infection than here in NL.

The fervour for cycling infrastructure and creating liveable communities was not limited to the Netherlands in the 1970s but was also quite significant internationally. I wrote some time ago about a housing development near my old home in the UK, but another example is a cycle-path which ran almost all the way from my home in New Zealand to my secondary school. It wasn't a great cycle-path, giving way to cars at every junction, but it was there. Dutch infrastructure being built around the same time was more sophisticated. But the main thing that made the Dutch cycle-paths worthwhile in the end was that they eventually formed part of a complete go-everywhere grid of routes while what was built elsewhere usually stood alone so was of limited use. In the case of the cycle-path which I used to use, it's obviously less useful now than it used to be because many more homes have been built in the area, with many more roads connecting them, so while motor traffic has increased the cycle-path, which never had priority over side-roads, now gives way even more than it used to. This is just one example of how higher population density does not automatically improve cycling conditions.

It was quite common for young New Zealanders to cycle to school in the 1970s and early 80s, but 50 years of excluding cycling from planning has left cycling at a very low level. When I used to cycle to school in NZ there was cycle parking. These days my old school looks like a big car park, which is rather sad.

1970s politics in New Zealand and the Netherlands
New Zealand's prime minister during the Stop de Kindermoord period was Robert Muldoon. Muldoon became Prime Minister in 1975 as leader of the right wing National party after a campaign which included use of an absurd animated film to imply that the opposition's plans to provide pensions were communism. Other advertisements were criticised for stoking up racism against Polynesians. Muldoon's Wikipedia bio says he was "a bully" and "an enigma" and lists, amongst other things, his promising to "get tough" on immigration, arrests and deportations of Pacific Islanders (including the "Dawn Raids"), pushing of "law & order", causing an opposition leader to resign by accusing him of being homosexual (this lead to a police investigation because homosexuality was illegal), supporting links with Apartheid South Africa, supporting American nuclear weapons in New Zealand's waters against mass opposition, and vastly exaggerating the benefits of his pet "Think Big" projects which over-ran their budgets so much that they resulted in the country running up a large deficit and having to impose a wage freeze. The pension scheme which Muldoon pushed (instead of the one criticized in the animation) also turned out to be extremely expensive, reducing the funds available for other things, such as (my) education. Unfortunately, New Zealanders kept re-electing Muldoon until 1984. He was eventually removed from his position only after he called a snap election while "visibly drunk".

Joop den Uyl, car-free Sunday in 1973
Just before Robert Muldoon took power in New Zealand, Joop den Uyl became Prime Minster of the Netherlands. Den Uyl began with the difficult job of telling the public that "things would never return to how they had been" as he implemented fuel rationing and a ban on Sunday motoring. His cabinet then had to deal with a weak economy, but many progressive social reforms were made. These included increased welfare payments, indexation of benefits, rent rebates and a minimum wage, equal pay for men and women and financial support for companies who employed people with disabilities. A specific piece of legislation provided for people for whom "it is difficult to find employment and who have been in prolonged unemployment", providing worthwhile work and status in the community for people who otherwise find this difficult to achieve. Specific protection was also introduced to help long term unemployed people who had reached 60 years of age, and job protection was introduced for women who were pregnant reaching until 12 weeks after childbirth. Entitlement to orphans' pensions was extended to illegitimate children "whose mothers are dead and who have not been recognised by their fathers", schools were given more freedom to set their own curriculum, the length of compulsory education was increased and the use of Asbestos was restricted.

Den Uyl was succeeded in 1977 by Dries van Agt. Van Agt led a coalition of right wing parties for the next four years but found that spending could not be cut because he had only a slim majority and there was much public protest, so most policies continued as before. Some ministers resigned from his cabinet over not being able to pursue an austerity policy. Another minister resigned on a point of morals because the cabinet did not condemn the US decision to develop the neutron bomb. Van Agt has more recently taken an outspoken stance on the situation in Palestine. Van Agt's Wikipedia page also points out that he is known "for his love for cycling".

I think there's an obvious pattern here. The policies which were pursued by den Uyl's, and later van Agt's, governments were not the same as those which were pursued by Muldoon's government. So far as cycling is concerned, the Netherlands became the world's leading country, while in New Zealand cycling dropped to a very low level.

2020s politics in New Zealand and the Netherlands
New Zealand's minister for women until November 2020,
Julie Genter, cycled to hospital to have her baby.

We now have the opposite situation. With Jacinda Ardern it is New Zealand which has an inclusive and progressive leader. Quite apart from her excellent handling of the Covid crisis (strong control of borders and excellent messaging have helped to keep the total deaths to just 27), her government has also brought in strict gun laws in response to right wing racist terrorism, addressed a housing crisis, child poverty and social inequality, declared a climate emergency ("my generation's nuclear-free moment"), formally apologised for the Dawn Raids, and this government also finally legalized abortion. Same-sex marriage was legalized before Ardern took power, and she supported it. I've not been able to find a photo of Ardern riding a bicycle, but she has supported the idea of (at last) enabling cyclists to cross Auckland Harbour Bridge and she does wear earrings made of old bicycle innertubes. There is a huge contrast between the policies of Muldoon and Ardern.

And now we consider the Netherlands in 2021. Mark Rutte has been Prime Minister since 2010. Rutte leads a right leaning coalition which has repeatedly tried to pursue immunity through infection as a way out of the Covid crisis. This has led to 30000 Covid-19 deaths in this country so far (CBS excess mortality figures), many people suffering from long covid, many businesses being affected adversely. While other outdoor festivals and similar events were completely banned, this car-obsessed government allowed 70000 people to gather to watch Formula One racing a couple of weeks ago and this combined with the frustration caused by how long this whole thing has been allowed to go on has led to a near total breakdown of people actually respecting the few measures which remain in place. Lots of money was made available for support during Covid, but almost all of it was absorbed by large companies such as Schiphol Airport and KLM. Apart from Covid, this government has also presided over the disastrous "toeslagenaffaire" in which tens of thousands of parents, largely from immigrant backgrounds, were falsely accused of fraud by the government and required to pay back the money they had received to live on. This government has also had relatively minor scandals such as a minister forced out after he didn't bother going through the same channels as normal people have to when they renovate a building. The cabinet fell on the 15th of January when we had our elections, but the same people have been limping along as a caretaker government since that date while they try to form a new coalition without any progressive elements.

I don't like Mark Rutte very much, but I have to admit that none of this sounds quite so awful as Robert Muldoon. Mark Rutte does actually ride a bike, but his party is far more interested in cars.

There is again an obvious pattern. New Zealand's extremely good outcome is the result of excellent leadership. The Netherlands failed against Covid because our leader failed to understand what was going on and then tried to take shortcuts. As a result, the Netherlands is amongst the worst performing countries with Covid while New Zealand is amongst the best.

The right politicians at the right time

Good leadership produces good results. I think it's no coincidence that the Netherlands managed to do many good things with social policy and also begin to implement a sensible cycling policy, while it had good progressive leadership. I also think it's no coincidence that New Zealand has managed to do so well in recent years, including with their excellent covid policy. The right leaders can actually make good things happen.

Imagine if things had been reversed. i.e. if New Zealand now had Muldoon while Ardern had been in power in the 1970s, while we had den Uyl now and Rutte's time had been in the 70s. I think there's a fair chance that we would now see New Zealand with the cycling infrastructure and the Netherlands with the good covid result. Neither of these things are inherent to either country.

I don't understand why Dutch people keep voting for Rutte. I also don't understand why New Zealanders kept voting for Muldoon. The same kind of thing can be seen with Boris Johnson, Jair Bolsonaro, Viktor Orban, Donald Trump and others. This kind of leadership, blaming others for failure while trying to boost their own achievements, doesn't actually do anyone any good except perhaps those who they give contracts, grants or covid handouts. Public health is not their interest. We need to take politics more seriously. Poor policy does not lead to good outcomes. Progressive policies (equal pay, health service, education, pensions etc.) benefit us all.

So make sure you vote, and make sure you also campaign for positive change. Unfortunately, while the politics of Ardern and Rutte are quite different, the transport policies of their governments are quite similar: Both are focused on electric cars, responding to the huge motoring lobby. This is a mistake. More cars, of any type, are not going to save us from the multitudinous problems caused by cars. Even in countries where we have progressive representatives we still need to campaign for bicycles because the world's most efficient and most healthy form of transport is genuinely part of the solution to these problems and well worth campaigning for.

October update
I've been criticising the poor response of the Dutch government to the Covid crisis since March 2020. Specifically, I criticized their slow reaction to the threat of this disease which would obviously lead to  a higher number of deaths if it were allowed to spread.

Nineteen months have now passed and we find ourselves in the middle of yet another rapidly growing wave of infections because our government has repeatedly allowed the disease to take control. Restrictions have been given up too early, they never really tried to control the borders, and they insisted on ignoring research about the airborne nature of the virus, playing down the use of masks. They've also kept schools open as much as possible which has led to many infections in un-vaccinated school children (and their teachers, parents etc.).

Yesterday we had the first really good report on the Dutch news about how our politicians have failed us. At last they're also pointing out that everything was done too late and that our government kept openly following a plan to try to build up immunity through infection, not supported by any real scientists, even after even the UK publicly claimed to be doing otherwise. Will we ever see the people responsible for 30000 deaths brought to justice ?

November 11th update
A record was set today. Though everyone sensible could see this coming months ago our government has completely failed us again and we set a new record for the number of covid infections recorded in one day. No fewer than 16364 were recorded today, crushing the previous high which was barely over 13000. We also have a positive testing rate of 17.5%, indicating that most of the infected people have not been tested, and another 26 people have died.

April last year. This is what an "Intelligent Lockdown" looked like.
Our government is still floundering. They still don't understand what is happening, and are still trying to work out they should do next. The ideas they've deliberately leaked are obviously inadequate. But none of this should be a surprise because these clowns have also set a record for the longest time ever taken form a government after winning an election (update: it took 271 days in total before a coalition was formed).

We've known for many weeks now that the disease is spreading most quickly in children. That's why I gave this piece the title that I did when I wrote it two months ago. It is not acceptable to infect children with a deadly disease like covid. Children don't die in huge numbers from covid, but they do become long term ill, and when they take the disease home they infect their parents and grandparents. Hundreds of thousands of children have been traumatised by loss of parents due to covid.

So what has our government come up with ? There are recommendations for "lockdown-like measures" which will last only two weeks. During this time the schools will stay open with unmasked children infecting each other. Libraries and cinemas will close but shops, restaurants and cafes (pubs) will remain open perhaps with slightly more control for entry. This will obviously be a re-run of each time in the past when they have repeatedly failed to get the virus under control. But there is a difference from early last year - schools did actually close temporarily on March 15th 2020 due to public pressure because we'd reached the then alarming level of 176 cases and 8 deaths in one day. Today we have nearly 100x as many infections and over 3x as many deaths but this time schools are planned to stay open.

So who now is interested in stopping the kindermoord ? Not this Dutch government, that's for sure.

January 15 2022 update

Nothing has improved here. For about a month we had a supposed semi-lockdown (described as a "strict lockdown" by the Dutch press) but people were still still free to travel to go on holiday, still free to drive their cars across the border to go shopping or visit restaurants in Germany and Belgium when some shops were shut here. This covered the period over Christmas and New Year when a lot of people met in groups far larger than was supposedly allowed. Fireworks were banned over New Year but the government announced in advance that this law would not be enforced and Dutch people drove across the border to Germany and Belgium to buy ludicrous quantities of fireworks which were let off intermittently over a period of weeks including until 5 am on New Year's Day.

But now we're into January. How's it going ? Let's describe this this last week:

On Sunday it was announced that Sigrid Kaag, the leader of the second biggest party in the new ruling coalition, had covid so she went into isolation. But this didn't stop all the others, including some who had been in meetings with Ms Kaag, from gathering on Monday 10th of January with King Willem Alexander, to officially sign in the new government. Several people who attended that meeting later tested positive for covid but most of those who were in meetings with the infected, including our VVD Prime Minster Rutte and the King, declined to go into isolation.

One of those sworn in on Monday was the new Justice minister, Dilan Yeşilgöz-Zegerius. She is the first to hold this position without a background including legal education. On Tuesday she announced that there would be no legal enforcement against shops and restaurants which broke the rules regarding covid.

Also on Monday the schools were re-opened. No investment has been made into making school premises safer, for example by improving their ventilation, and no children aged under 12 will be vaccinated until the end of this month so they'll have several weeks to be infected before they can receive their first vaccination. We found out this week that they couldn't have started sooner because our government ordered only 42000 child doses of the vaccine to cover around a million children. Don't let anyone tell you that this government wants to open school because they are concerned about the mental or physical health of children who would otherwise have to learn online. It's not yet been long enough to know how many infections have been caused by this rash measure.

On Thursday the 13th of January a VVD European Parliamentarian with an interest in environment and climate, Jan Huitema, made a speech about how cars should be be restricted. The VVD has always been a pro-car party.

The record for most covid cases per day has been broken several times this week and yesterday we had more than 35000 new cases with a 34% positive test rate. But this government wants to re-open everything so almost every day this week our compliant media has been publishing stories about to what extent things will be re-opened.

Much of the week had been spent with the government leaking their plans to re-open to the press. Eventually we had a press conference last night in which it was announced that all shops could re-open without any testing, use of apps to show vaccination status, or other measures to prevent spread. Masks will be required. In fact that's the one bright point in the whole thing as finally after two years the Dutch government seems to have realised that an airborne virus can be better addressed by wearing masks than by washing hands.

So on we go...

Quick Sunday 16th update: Yesterday many restaurants and cafes opened illegally, so did museums, cinemas and theatres. Today we've an all-time record so far number of infections (36308) with an all time record high positive testing rate (35.1%). This is made more remarkable because it occurred on a Sunday and our case numbers are usually low on Sundays. What's more, we've not yet waited long enough after opening schools last Monday to know what effect that will have, nor or course do we know the effect of this weekend's legal and illegal shop/cafe/everything else re-openings. Buckle up. Omicron is most certainly here.

The above lists of policies per politician are not complete. For example, Muldoon's attempt to maintain New Zealand's 1935 concept of a welfare state perhaps could be seen to fly in the face of some of his other ideas. Read the wikipedia pages of each, as linked above, for a fully picture.

June 2022 update
Here's a new graph, and it's not good news. Many more countries have decided to try to "live with the virus" and the result is more death everywhere. As the deaths can only ever accumulate, every country is now in a worse position than it was before, but the most shocking examples are what has happened in countries which were previously good examples:

New Zealand's fall from grace is spectacular with a two orders of magnitude worse outcome now in comparison with nine months ago, the total number of deaths recorded having increased from 27 at the start of September last year to 1261 today. This rapid increase in deaths didn't take a whole nine months but actually only two, resulting from Jacinda Ardern deciding to open the country's borders to tourists from April 2022, resulting in rapid spread of Covid. I suspect that Bob Muldoon would now be impressed by Ardern, if he had lived to see this extreme example of putting business ahead of public health. Similar public health policy failures have resulted in similar results in Taiwan which went from 837 deaths to 4280 and South Korea which went from 2327 to 24388 over a similar period.

These countries once had a huge advantage over European and American nations which never bothered to protect their citizens but now it has almost entirely been squandered. China is the only country which now seems to be fully committed to protecting its population from disease, and especially the multitudinous long term consequences for health which are becoming known as long covid.

Tuesday 22 September 2020

Living without engines and car free day in the Netherlands

A photo from today's "commute", a round-trip
rider which brings me back home to work.

The last time that I travelled in any kind of motorized vehicle was in February 2019 when I took a lift with a friend to help him with an event. The last time I travelled with a motorized vehicle for my own benefit was in August 2018, driving the car that we owned but never much used to be recycled.

It's "car free day" today, but just as everywhere else across the world this is ignored by the masses who continue to drive their polluting vehicles to and fro. Every trip made by car, in every car including those which claim to have zero emissions, contributes substantially to climate change, the effects of which we increasingly feel as a result of the "natural" disasters which result from our changed weather.

There has been much on the news about the fires in California and Siberia, but here in the Netherlands we also see the result of this with new records being set on a regular basis. We began this summer with a near drought and just last week we had the warmest September day ever in this country, but just as with previous warnings, this resulted in no real change. People are back to their usual high emitting lifestyles. Cars are very much a part of this, with their numbers, their usage and their size all growing year on year.

But we can't blame cars alone for the problems that we're facing. The growth in flying is such that even now in the middle of a second wave of the pandemic there are just as many flights as there were four years ago without a pandemic. Almost all the growth comes from the richest people and the richest people continue to deny that they are the richest people.

That the short blip of reduced emissions due to corona was just a short blip shouldn't really surprise anyone. It certainly didn't surprise me as I predicted it back in April as even then people were talking about a "return to normal". The problems which face us are enormous but it seems that people don't know how to or do not wish to react in ways which will address them, and that applies even to the case  of a very immediate threat to our health from a deadly virus.

We are the rich and polluting minority and it is us who need to change our lives in order to leave a liveable planet for our descendants. Don't we want to do that ? Is it not a worthwhile thing to do ? If we can't convince people even to take the tiny step of taking part in a single car free day once a year, what hope do we have in effecting real change in behaviour and thinking ? However I'll try to set an example by living with the smallest footprint that I can manage, avoiding motorized transport so much as I possibly can.

No subsidy for the car-free
An interesting thing about the Netherlands is that drivers of cars receive subsidies from taxation paid by all, which of course means that while I try not to contribute to the pollution and other problems caused by cars, our government makes sure that I do so anyway. Talking of which:

Local newspaper on the 22nd of September
Our local newspaper has not covered car-free day at all. It is just not a thing here in the Netherlands. However car companies have huge budgets for promotion and there is always a budget to try to associate their dangerous and environmentally destructive product with something other than its danger and environmental impact. So instead of car-free day coverage we have, on the 22nd of September, a full page dedicated to a different event spread over three days in October when car drivers will fill the roads, waste a vast amount of energy and produce a lot of emissions by driving a million kilometres in "green" cars.

The quotation marks are mine. The article is promoting a deliberately created traffic jam of polluting vehicles. There is nothing truly sustainable about these vehicles. Unfortunately, governments listen to car company propaganda and therefore I and other people who do not drive are made to contribute to a government subsidy given to people who do drive. What's more, the subsidy is not having a useful effect and emissions from cars continue to grow in the Netherlands because people who drive overwhelmingly choose larger more polluting vehicles.

The text includes some words about cycling, walking or just staying home, but the emphasis is obvious. This is an event about cars and their intention is to do something incredibly wasteful, to drive cars a million kilometres for no reason whatsoever, while somehow managing to promote this event as "green".

Update: Car companies continue marketing their destructive product
The above can only sensibly be seen as a marketing exercise. There is nothing "green" about any kind of car. And is this marketing working ? A few days after this blog post was written there came an answer: it most certainly is working. Car usage in the Netherlands continues to grow year on year. The biggest increase is again in use of petrol / gasoline (benzine in Dutch) powered cars. Car companies spend much time pushing the absurd idea of green motoring which is a myth in itself but this myth is presented in such a way that it gets absurd amounts of attention such as that from our local newspaper above and from politicians, however their main product remains what it always was: Cars remain the same old polluting, planet destroying, dangerous product that they ever were. We can only ever solve the problems due to cars by having far fewer of them driven less. But car companies are still selling the nightmare scenario of more cars.

Real green transport
The million kilometres travelled in three days target of the motor lobby is actually not all that much anyway. A target for cycling in the Netherlands would need to be much higher. Most cycle journeys are more than a kilometre long and for most of any given working day Dutch people make more than a million journeys per hour by bike so a million kilometres would easily be reached by the end of the first hour on the first day of this exercise if encouraging cycling was really their aim.