Monday, 25 February 2019

Assen's new railway station

Assen's first railway station was built in 1870. It was completely demolished and replaced in 1989 by a modern design of station. That station has now also been demolished and replaced with another entirely new design. The new station opened a few months ago. There are still a few details of the work to be completed, but everything is in place now. As was promised, the cycle-parking has again been expanded and improved again. This video shows the excellent access from the platforms to the indoor guarded cycle-park:

The work started in 2015 with building of a temporary station, after which the old station was demolished and the new one built. Occasionally it has been chaotic around the station as all the roads were also rebuilt, two new tunnels were made (one for pedestrians, one for cars) and one tunnel was reconstructed (the bike tunnel). The result is really very good. Through motor traffic has been sent underground which makes the entire area more pleasant (apart from buses and taxis) and as a result, the outdated traffic light junction was removed and there are fewer delays for cyclists to cross the road. In particular, cyclists who headed south from the station used to have to stop twice for traffic lights before riding on an on-road cycle-lane along a relatively busy road so it feels as if we are rather spoiled now with the choice of two very high quality bidirectional cycle-paths on both sides of the road which can be reached without any stopping at all.

Assen's population is about 68000. There are now 3500 bicycle parking spaces, 2500 of which are in the underground guarded parking while the other one thousands are on the surface near the pedestrian entrance on the eastern side of the station. This isn't the largest cycle park at a Dutch railway station, but Assen also isn't the largest city and this isn't the busiest railway station. 3500 spaces for a population of 68000 means we have better than once space for every twenty people in the city which compares well as a proportion with other Dutch cities.

There are now a total of 3500 bicycle parking spaces at the railway station. Assen's population is around 68000 so we now have slightly better than one place at the railway station cycle-park for every 20 citizens.

What it used to look like
When we moved to Assen in 2007 there was a small number of indoor parking spaces and approximately 750 outdoor cycle-parking spaces split between the two sides of the tracks. They looked like this:

In 2009, car parking spaces were removed so that the the outdoor cycle-parking could be doubled in size and it was announced that the total was to be increased to about 2300 spaces.

The 2010 upgrade: A building to accommodate 1000 bicycles which seemed quite impressive at the time. This was demolished to make space for the new station.
In 2010 there was a big upgrade to the indoor cycle-parking, taking the total number of spaces to about 2550, reaching

Because the busy road past the station has been buried in a tunnel, the irritating traffic lights which were required to control motor traffic have also been removed (read more about them in a blog post from 2014) so Assen now has one fewer traffic light junction for cyclists.

The 1989 station had a blue roof. The traffic lights in front of it were annoying. This was the most awkward traffic light junction for cyclists in Assen, requiring people to make a two-stage left turns. It is best if cyclists don't have to make two-stage turns and that can be avoided with other traffic light designsDon't take inspiration from older infrastructure like this.
Cars now travel past the station using this tunnel, built on a huge scale using a vast amount of concrete (the photo was taken on the opening day)

The temporary station
While the old station was out of action but before the new one had been completed, Assen had a temporary railway station. This included temporary lifts to take passengers over the lines to the platforms, temporary shops for flowers and snacks, a temporary full service bike shop (the new one can be seen in the video above), and a few thousand places in a temporary cycle-park:

This photo of a group from Washington University who came for a Study Tour in 2016 and not quite ready for their photo to be taken, taken outside the temporary bike shop also happens to show the temporary steps and lifts in the background and the orange post box. Everything was provided at the temporary station.

What has been built is an impressive new railway station and it has impressive cycling facilities. I'm also impressed with how well the temporary station worked. But what is its purpose ?

The sole purpose of these particular bicycles, OV-Fietsen, is to enable and encourage people to make more and longer journeys by means of a polluting motorized mode of transport - the train.
Bicycles are the most efficient transport mode on earth but not when used like this
The problem with these huge and attractive bicycle parking facilities at railway stations is that the station isn't really a destination. The destination of the people who cycle to the station is tens or hundreds of kilometres away and it is likely that 90% or more of the distance covered by any given passenger will be in a powered vehicle, the train, and not using their own power on a bike.

Huge bicycle parks at railway stations serve the same purpose as motorways - they encourage people to make more and longer journeys by polluting means of transport.

Bicycles are the most efficient transport mode on earth. It seems rather a shame to limit the scope of that most efficient mode of transport to that of providing a link to a far less efficient transport mode. But that is what we are building.

To truly to reduce the impact that we make on this planet we need to stop making journeys that are beyond the distance that we can cover by our own power. We can't travel ever more and achieve a reduction in energy usage. It requires something other than building lots of infrastructure to support more journeys - it requires redesigning both our cities and our lives so that what we need is close by.

Calling for less flying is a good thing for the environment.
However calling for more use of trains (or more of anything
actually) isn't "green" at all. I have supported the Dutch
Groenlinks political party in the past, but can't support this.
Even the greens are encouraging more travel, not less
There is a disturbing tendency for people to assume that travelling by train instead of by air or by car is automatically a win for the environment. Unfortunately, there's just not a huge difference in energy consumption per passenger kilometre between different powered transport modes. Making the same or a similar journey by a slightly less polluting mode doesn't make for a non polluting journey. That can only be achieved by making that journey by a genuinely non-polluting mode (walking, cycling, sail-boat) or by not making the journey at all. i.e. by not commuting, by not taking holidays, by not taking that tempting 'weekend break', whether by air, sea or rail.

Claims for trains
The Dutch railway company makes rather large claims which I think have to be looked at more closely. Claiming to use "100% green electricity" because you've signed up for a green tariff does not mean that all the electricity that you use comes from wind turbines. Just like everything else which runs from Dutch electricity, the trains are connected to a grid on which 80% of the electricity is generated by burning fossil fuels. When the wind isn't blowing the trains run on fossil fuels. The stated ambition of becoming "carbon neutral" by 2020 is a start but it actually falls a long way short of the already existing claim to use "100% green electricity", which has been made since 2017.

Even if the trains really did have no emissions when running, only around a quarter to a half of the emissions of even diesel powered trains come from the exhaust pipes. The rest comes from other factors including the infrastructure on which they run. This will be a more significant source than average for Dutch railways because the infrastructure has such a short life span. They may be slightly or even quite a lot more efficient than the least efficient modes we can imagine but that's not good enough. We can't pretend that trains don't have emissions so that we can continue to make journeys.

The impact of infrastructure
Railway stations in the Netherlands are demolished and rebuilt over remarkably short time-scales. Assen's "old"station lasted only 26 years, from 1989 until 2015, before it was demolished and a complete new station built in its place.

At the opening ceremony there was one protester. His concern
was primarily with the local oil and gas company.
Even during the 26 years of its existence the old station didn't stand still. For instance, the indoor cycle-park built in 2010 which lasted only five years was itself a substantial structure. The temporary structures had a huge cost as well. Elements of them may be able to be re-used, but requirements won't be the same in other locations, some parts will have been damaged and of course there is transport and construction to account for.

Much concrete was poured to build the old station, to build new structures around the old station, to build the temporary station and vastly more has been poured to build the new one. Concrete production and use is one of the major sources of CO2 emissions. Replacing buildings so frequently as we saw here is definitely not a win for the environment.

Monday, 21 January 2019

To the sea and back in January. A winter ride through Drenthe and Groningen + PPPPPP

We have installed triple glazing in some
of our windows. These ice crystals were
on the outside when I set off yesterday.
Yesterday was the date of the Noordelijke Velomobiel Tocht - a winter recreational ride starting in Groningen and heading to the coast and back.

The distance of the ride was supposed to be around 80 km, but it ended up a bit longer and when I added my ride from Assen to Groningen and back again my total distance for the day was 152 km. Some people came from somewhat further afield, one rider adding about 60 km on top of this.

We've had a mild winter until the last few days, but it was -9 C in our garden when I set off yesterday. The peak temperature in the afternoon was around freezing but it dropped again to -6 C by the time I had got home in the evening. Even with the weather protection offered by a velomobile the temperature does take something out of you if you're out in it all day.

A Dutch scene: Windmill, cycle-path, frozen canal, velomobiles. It's cold but there was no ice on the paths because there's not been any precipitation over the last few days.
One of several stops out in the countryside between the very pretty villages of rural Groningen.
Our lunch time destination - probably the most Northerly cafe on the mainland of the Netherlands
Most people had hot chocolate with apple cake. Significantly higher in calorific content than the vegan alternative of black coffee (more on that later).
Quick stop for a photo on the dyke
A "make your own postcard" view of the sea, with ice.
And then we began the return journey, first heading to the west along one of the roads nearest the sea.
Proper Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance (the knock, the bonk, hitting the wall)
A fabulous day out, well organised, friendly and enjoyable. And yes, while what I'm about to write about might suggest to some readers that I didn't enjoy it, I can assure you that I most certainly did.

Unfortunately, it went a bit wrong for me at the end. All my own fault. The ride back from the organiser's home was in darkness, it was cold and I ran out of energy about 15 km from home. Most people who have ridden any distance will know how this feels. Having run out of available sugar to burn your body tries to keep going by burning fat, but because this is not so easily available you simply can't keep up the same effort. Trying to do so results in feeling quite awful. If you've ever felt like you wanted to vomit during extended exercise this is quite likely why. Depressing thoughts about perhaps never getting home at all can also follow.

There are two possible solutions:

  1. Stop and eat something
  2. Slow down.

Both options will cost time. Ultimately, slowing down will cost more time if there is a long way to go and the remainder of the ride won't be very enjoyable. For me that was the only viable option  because this came on when I was in the middle of nowhere and pretty much everywhere around here is closed on Sunday evenings so there was nowhere sensible to stop for food which didn't involve a detour. I didn't have far to go so I slowed down to the low 20s km/h and kept going. It's important not to let your body temperature drop and at least I could still work hard enough to keep myself warm.

Luckily I didn't have far to go and I wasn't alone. Three of us were riding towards Assen together. One of them needed to go somewhat further and he wisely kept his speed up and continued onward. Peter and I live very near to each other and he was kind enough to accompany me back to Assen at my speed. I was at no risk of getting lost as this was the last section of my old commuting route but it really helps a lot to keep your spirits up if someone rides with you.

A refreshment stop on an organised ride last summer. A top up of energy drink and food were available at regular intervals. It was also warm. This makes it much easier to cover distance.
It's been some years since I made this mistake and I should have know better. Knowing the symptoms is a good thing as at least you know what to expect and how to react, but I if I had planned ahead I wouldn't have had a problem. I should have had the right food and drink with me, but I did not. I took sandwiches, water, a couple of cartons of soya milk and some snacks. By the time I ran out of energy I didn't have anything left which was attractive and which I wanted to eat. I needed easily available sugar, not a packet of nuts. One more sandwich earlier on might have been enough to address the problem. I should have planned better for a lack of vegan food and drink at our stop in the countryside as that's standard and I should have been more self sufficient. A drink which contained sugar would have been better than plain water. Real sport drinks work well (not the horrible cough mixture flavoured stuff that teenagers like). That could have made a difference but I find it is difficult ever to drink enough when it's cold - because all drinks are cold in your mouth and while feelings of thirst come quickly in hot weather, I never feel thirsty in cold weather.

You live and learn. This was a great day out. I've taken part in this annual ride most years since we've lived here and I certainly intend to do so again. Next time, I'll prepare better instead of leaving it to the last minute !

Sunset in winter
Winter jobs
I've once again fitted Schwalbe Marathon Winter studded tyres to the front wheels of Judy's and my own city bikes. These are the bikes that we ride in any weather over short distances and while our local authority is mostly incredibly good at removing snow from the cycle-paths, there are sometimes little pockets in corners which can be dangerous and a few patches of old-fashioned tiled surfaces are a bit treacherous. For early morning cycling when you can't necessarily see ice, these tyres work as an insurance policy against falling. Schwalbe's Winter and Marathon Winter tyres are amongst our range of recommended products for winter cycling.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the Netherlands, people are getting ready for the first ice-skating Marathon this year.

Thursday, 13 December 2018

Daddy, what did you do in the climate war ?

100 years old and subtly updated for the war that we're facing now.
Do you remember the 8th of October 2018 ? That was the day when the world's newspapers carried stories about the IPCC's latest report on climate change. We were told that we faced catastrophe if we do not take serious action, starting right now, to tackle climate change within 12 years. We were informed about the most serious issue in the world right now which will affect everyone, or at least everyone's children and grandchildren. Our generation will be held accountable for what we did or did not do.

Do you also remember the 9th of October 2018 ? That's the day when nothing out of the ordinary happened. Everyone carried on as usual, doing what they usually did, continuing to cause the problem that they'd been warned about one day before. It's been much the same every day since. Perhaps our grandchildren aren't important after all ?

It's time to take action
2018: We're on course for the highest CO2 emissions ever in one year, growing by 2.7% in a year when emissions should be dropping. This is caused by ever increasing use of fossil fuels. Support renewables but the most important thing is to reduce fossil fuel use.
Last week we learnt that rather than emissions dropping, as they must, they have actually continued to rise. Why ? Because we're burning more coal, oil and gas than ever and driving more cars than ever. While we like to think of ourselves as "green", we're actually making the problems worse and doing so at an ever increasing rate. Climate change is not being tackled and we have very little time left to reverse the course that we're on.

How quickly can we reduce our CO2 emissions?
Starting in 2019 we need to reduce our emissions by 18% a year in order to achieve zero emissions in 2050. Each year that we take no action we create a larger problem and time is very short. Source.
If we start in 2019 then we need to reduce our emissions by 18% every single year from then onwards. We could have made this easier for ourselves by starting years ago when we already knew there was a problem, but we did not. The generations before us did nothing, my generation has done nothing and those younger than myself also are mostly doing nothing. We have all let our grandchildren down.

Humans are making the world on which they live uninhabitable for their own species because we are lazy and greedy. We think we can consume ever more of everything forever, but we cannot. We have already created climate changing effects which have changed the lives on millions of people and these effects will become more serious unless we reduce our emissions to zero by 2050, which is what we need to do to limit the effects to the 1.5 C change which is thought to be tolerable.

Who is causing most damage ?
US emissions per capita have been more than double those even of other developed nations for decades. This is not responsible. It is not sustainable.
Those of us who live in the developed western countries need to the take the lead because we are the people who have done most to create the problem.

We are responsible and we have done almost nothing to resolve the issue. The slight declines in our very high emissions are in large part due to having exported our most filthy industries to countries in Asia.

We are still the people with the largest emissions. We are also the people with the luxury to be able to do something about it because it's easier for those who consume to excess to cut back on their consumption.

In particular the finger has to pointed in the direction of the USA because that country's citizens have the highest impact on our planet. We should also point our fingers at the top ten percent of the richest people on the planet because if they reduced their emissions to the same level as the average European that action alone would reduce emissions by a third. But we should also note that average citizens of the EU and other developed nations also have impacts which are far from sustainable and China and India have large populatins and are catching up fast.

We all need to change what we do in order to reduce our emissions. We cannot expect to carry on with "life as usual", as we did on October the 9th, because with our current actions we are waging war against our own children and grandchildren.

Put pressure on government but also take individual action
None of what is above should be news to anyone reading this. The path that we're on has been obvious for decades. We are on an unsustainable course, sucked into a trap called growth. Many people have taken individual action, but not enough people have done this.

What can an individual do ? You'll have to fin your own path but I can tell you what Judy and I have done:

I was laughed at for refusing to fly for work in the early 90s. Then, as now, the bicycle was my main form of transport. Though we owned a car for many years, we rarely used that or any kind of motorized transport and since we got rid of it three months ago we've made all our journeys by bicycle and foot.

We have always tried to make our home energy efficient. We started with insulating our home in the UK more than 20 years ago and since we moved to Assen eleven years ago we have taken at least one step each year to improve the energy efficiency of our home. The walls, floor and roof have been insulated. We've installed HR++ double and triple glazing in our home. We have gas fired central heating but this is controlled by timer so it comes only only for a few minutes before we rise in the morning and then in the evening. Because our home is well insulated and our thermostat is set at 17-18 C, we use far less energy than the average for heating our home. This has also had another happy side-effect for us this week: Energy prices are rising in the Netherlands in part because of taxes designed to encourage more economical use. Dutch news sources report that the average increase in energy bills this year will be quite steep, costing the average household hundreds of euros more per year. We received our estimate this week and it shows no increase at all. We'll remain at the same already much lower than average figure per month because we improved the efficiency of our home. It's a good example of where doing something to save energy also saves money.

Dutch electricity is still 85% sourced from fossil fuel. Anything
which plugs into the Dutch grid is powered in this way. Most
countries are quite similar.
We installed solar panels on our roof nearly seven years ago which generate hundreds of kWh more electricity than we use each year. This means that the electricity company pays us for electricity. If we count our overproduction of electricity on summer days against our gas consumption on winter days we are not far off being "climate neutral" but "climate neutral" is unfortunately not nearly the same as being independent of fossil fuels: When the sun goes down our electricity comes from the grid, which in the Netherlands is generated 85% by burning fossil fuel and of course our heating system still burns gas directly. This is why it is still very important for us to reduce our consumption of both electricity and gas in any way we can.

Rather than forever buying new things to replace old things we try to keep everything as long as we can and repair what we have. We are not "fashionable" so buy clothes when we need them and don't throw them away unless they are completely worn out. When my daughter got married this year I wore the same suit as I got married in 26 years earlier (it still fits). Almost everything can be repaired. Between Judy and myself we repair everything from worn clothes and furniture to electronic items such as hifi components and our inverter and of course that includes our bicycles.

We try not to buy anything which isn't necessary. We're not buying presents this Christmas because there is nothing that any of us actually need. In the past it was a bit different when our children were small, but we're all adults now. Of course we do look forward to spending time with our children. That time together is precious but unwanted gifts are not required in order to enjoy time spent together.

We don't take holidays. No-one has an entitlement to two weeks in a sunny place during the summer, nor during winter to escape the cold. No-one has an entitlement to "weekend breaks". These are completely unsustainable habits formed in the last few decades. Such holidays are inexpensive in large part because the cost will be paid by future generations. Instead of living in a place from which we needed to escape each year we moved permanently to a place where we wanted to spend the rest of our lives.

Perhaps the most important decision which we took, to reduce our load on the planet, for our own health and also for the well-being of animals, was becoming vegan 25 years ago. Since then we've sustained ourselves, our children and our (rescued) dog on a vegan diet, which is significantly less carbon intensive than a diet which includes meat or dairy products.

As time goes on it's becoming more difficult for us to find things that we can do in a more sustainable way but we are still trying to reduce our impact. One of the things which we changed quite recently is that we now encourage others also not to make unsustainable journeys, particularly over longer distances such as internationally:

Please do not come on a study tour
One of my early photos of Dutch infrastructure. Still a good
example by many countries' standards, but the Netherlands
uses better surfaces for bikes these days.
Twenty years ago, when I started campaigning for Dutch style cycling infrastructure to be built in the UK, it was difficult to find information about it and pictures which illustrated how it worked.

There were not yet any good online resources to use. I made Video-8 and VHS recordings and also used an early VGA resolution digital still camera to take photos when I visited the Netherlands and returned with them to show people in the UK in an effort to encourage change.

Later, we began to encourage people to make the same journey so that they could see how well everything worked for themselves. This was especially so after our first organized formal study tours in 2006, offering a service which no-one else offered anywhere. We thought that if we encouraged people to make the journey to the Netherlands so that they could see this infrastructure for themselves they could return to their home country and campaign for change there. The hope was that this would have an overall positive benefit despite the environmental cost of the journey. I started this blog two years after the first study tour and at that time it was unique. The idea was to keep people who had been on the tour updated with new developments. The blog quickly found a larger readership outside of study tour participants and the blog ended up advertising the study tours to a wider audience.

From three years ago we started to try to discourage visitors from visiting from longer distances and last year we stopped actively encouraging people from anywhere at all. The last study tour, booked in 2017, took place early this year. After that we stopped encouraging more bookings.

We enjoyed hosting people from far and wide on our study tours and we thank everyone who came on a past tour for doing so. I hope that they found the experience helpful and that it has helped them to campaign successfully in their home countries. However we have now changed our practice and we no longer accept study tour bookings. We have stopped hosting study tours for two reasons:
  1. There is no environmentally responsible way of continuing to do this. Making international journeys is not compatible with preserving our climate.
  2. There is no longer a need to come to the Netherlands to find out about what makes cycling attractive, convenient and safe in the Netherlands.

The situation now is very different to how it was when we started doing this twenty years ago. I now encourage people not to make the journey. Please do not travel to the Netherlands to see us, nor to see anyone else. Please do not go anywhere else either. It's simply not necessary to do this any more.

Flying or taking a ferry merely to cycle far fewer kilometres than motorized vehicles will transport you, even if you're making that journey to find out about cycling infrastructure, is amongst the most unsustainable thing that any of us can do. It's also completely unnecessary because these days you can see everything you need to see on a mobile phone or computer screen at home.

There is more information about cycling infrastructure online now than anyone could possibly read. There are more videos of cycling infrastructure than anyone could possibly watch. This blog includes many good examples of cycling infrastructure. So does my youtube channel. There are also many other blogs and youtube channels which sprung up after this blog, several of which are far more popular than I am. You can make use of all of this information from multiple sources, from people with differing opinions, all of it free of charge, and you can make use of it while consuming less of your time and money and with a considerably smaller carbon footprint than would be the case for making a journey to the Netherlands to see it first hand.

Aviation has grown with a curve which looks exponential. It's
still growing. No technology can make this sustainable.
Let's not fly to cycle (or use other modes)
The unbelievable rate of growth of aviation is one of the leading reasons why the CO2 emissions caused by human beings continue to grow rather than shrink. On average, every person on the planet now flies 1000 km a year even though a minority of the world's population ever fly at all.

Taking a ferry instead doesn't give a free pass either as that pollutes even more.

While a train may consume a little less it is also unsustainable because they are either powered by diesel or by electricity from the same grid as everything else. i.e. in the Netherlands the trains are 85% powered by fossil fuels. In the UK it's typically around 60% except on the windiest of days. What's more, when a full analysis is made of the cost of infrastructure as well as fuel, the environmental cost of the far more extensive infrastructure required for trains closes the emissions gap with aviation. All motorized modes pollute to a similar extent per passenger km.

One of the most egregious greenwashing attempts this year was
the painting of one of the largest aircraft in the world with a
"save the coral reefs" design. This won't save anything.
There are of course many claims made by those who do marketing for travel companies. For example, the Dutch railway company claims to run trains on "100% green electricity" even though in reality they can't possibly do this. On still nights when there is no solar or significant wind energy those trains still run on the same time-table. Like many organisations which claim to be green they are using an accounting trick to pretend that buying credits for green electricity is the same as consuming green electricity. The train company also doesn't bother mentioning the huge environmental cost of their extensive infrastructure (see graphic below). Similarly, shipping companies get press for similar claims and so do aircraft manufacturers and airline companies. It's all greenwash. The problem is motorized vehicles in general, not one mode in particular.
Different powered modes compared. Peak time buses look relatively efficient, but that's only because off peak buses considered separately. Rail and air travel have comparable total energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions to an average car. Switching from one powered mode to another does little to reduce emissions. Emissions can be reduced only by reducing use of powered modes. source.
Because of their numbers, motor vehicles now create far greater problems across the world than they used to. It's no longer just a problem confined to a few big cities, but something that has spread across countries and continents to endanger the entire planet. The two most significant things that we can do to reduce our footprint on the planet are to sharply reduce both our use of motorized transport and our consumption of meat and dairy products. Given the state we're in, with climate change now discussed alongside nuclear weapons as a threat to us all, is it not time for us all to do both of these things ?

Let cycling be a solution, not merely part of the problem
Cycling should rightly be part of the solution to climate change. Unfortunately, the way in which many people use bicycles makes them anything but a solution. If we fly to cycle, or drive to cycle or take the train to cycle then we reduce cycling to an accessory to those same motor vehicles as are responsible for a good part of climate change. A little bit of cycling at the end of a long journey by motor vehicle does not undo the harm done by the motor vehicle. Let's stop the habit of flying, driving and taking the train to cycle and ride our bicycles from our homes to our destinations.

The impressively huge cycle parking facilities at Dutch railway stations are not a sign of a truly sustainable transport system. Railway station cycle parks and full trains are evidence that thousands of people make regular journeys in an unsustainable manner (Dutch trains, like everything else connected to the grid, run almost entirely on fossil fuels) and those bicycles that you see at the stations have been reduced to being enablers of journeys by motor vehicle. If the owners of those bikes could make their entire journey by bicycle then they wouldn't park their bikes at railway stations. Large railway station cycle parking facilities look impressive but they are evidence of an addiction to motorized transport.

Good planning would reduce the majority of journeys to cycling distance. If we're not planning in such a manner which does this then we will fail to reduce the use of motorized transport. Note that even in the Netherlands, 90% of the distance which the population covers every year is in a motorized vehicle. That's about as good as it gets anywhere in the developed world right now but making only 10% of our journeys by distance by human power simply isn't enough for us to meet our climate goals.

Wake up, bloggers and campaigners. What is a cyclist?
There are many popular blogs and youtube channels written by people who fly far more kilometres each year than they cycle. Why is this seen as aspirational ?

  • Those who fly more than they cycle should be recognized as aviation enthusiasts, not cyclists.
  • People who drive more than they cycle as drivers, not cyclists.
  • People who take the train more as train enthusiasts, not cyclists.

This blog has from the beginning been about cycling. If we are to claim that we cycle then let us adapt our lifestyles so that we can make entire journeys by bicycle rather than making small parts of our journeys by bicycle. It is only by thinking about how to remodel societies to encourage journeys of cycling distance that we will truly wean ourselves away from motorized transport and therefore away from the modes of transport with which every kilometre that we travel brings us slightly closed to making conditions on our planet incompatible with the human race continuing to exist.

What did you do in the climate war ?
We face the possibility of making our planet into a place where our grandchildren can no longer live. How will we be judged by future generations? Personal action is not the only action worth taking but it is certainly a contribution. Our society is made up of individuals. If we, en-masse, call for change then change might occur. If we wait for someone else, somewhere else to change things while we continue with the same behaviour then we are dooming future generations. How do you want to be judged ?

Notes Far too much emphasis is being placed currently on the idea that electrification will solve our problems and that the electricity will come from renewable resources. The numbers don't add up for this. One example: there is not enough space in the Netherlands to erect a sufficient number of wind turbines to provide enough electricity even to cover our existing use, let alone the greatly increased amount of electricity that we would need should electric cars become mainstream. This is the case even without taking into account the lack of storage mechanisms required which make it impractical anyway. Every electric car sold adds to consumption and makes it more difficult for the Netherlands to shut down its fossil fueled power stations.

The EU's current target for 2030 is an eight percent increase in CO2 emissions due to transport relative to 1990. This is not an example of heading in the right direction. Only a reduction in use of motorized transport can lead to a reduction in emissions.

Tuesday, 4 December 2018

Enough of cars... Overuse of motorized transport is destroying everything.

Le Curé: "I don't like cars".
Three months ago our car reached the end of its economical life and we took it to be scrapped. I'm not missing it. I never used it much anyway.

When we first moved to the Netherlands we brought our car with us from the UK but after we arrived it didn't move a single centimetre until more than three years had passed and we finally got around to registering and insuring it.

Even longer ago, when I eventually learnt to drive I was 27 and I only did so then because it was forced by circumstances.

Cars never appealed to me. I had a car for somewhat under less than half of my life, didn't use it much, and becoming car-free again isn't so much a change as it is a return to normal. The effects of Brexit have cost us twice as much as the price of some new cars, but if such a windfall arrived I wouldn't rush out to buy a replacement.

I arrived at the car dismantler in the silver car and I went home
on the red bike. At least the Netherlands recycles 98% of what
is in a scrapped car
Managing without a car
Giving up a car isn't difficult if you didn't use it much anyway. Neither Judy nor myself have ever been particularly enthusiastic or high mileage drivers. We've always chosen to live close to places that we needed to go to regularly such as work and shops and by ensuring that our regular journeys were within walking and cycling distance we freed ourselves from having to drive everywhere.

Our car was built in 1998 but we bought it in 2007 with 84870 km on the odometer. On its final day the odometer showed that it had covered a total of 115300 km in 20 years and 3 months since its first registration. Over 11 years and 8 months we had driven 30430 km. That's an average of 2600 km (1630 miles) per year for Judy and I combined. In fact we drove slightly less than that because neither of our adult children own their own cars and they sometimes used it too.

Last weekend, collecting a large table for Judy to use for craft
projects. We always have done this because even if you have
a car it's no more difficult to transport things like this by bike.
Large objects don't fit well into the back of an average car.
When we used our car it was usually as a small van or bus for an exceptional journey which we couldn't make by bike. It was never used for everyday journeys such as shopping, commuting, taking children to school or for our business. The many bicycle components which we send to customers worldwide always begin their journey by bike.

Though there are always other ways to do things, once we had it it didn't cost all that much to keep and it had the advantage over a rental that we could put messy things in the back without losing a deposit. Sometimes it was genuinely useful and convenient: It transported us from our old home in the UK to our new home in Assen, our adult children moved between rooms in shared houses before they found flats to live in long term, and a couple of times it covered half its annual distance in just one week when we went together on holiday to visit family in the UK. But even including some of these longer journeys our total distance never added up to very much. 2600 km a year works out as something around 30 hours of driving per year. It's only possible to run up high mileage in a car if you sit in it for a lot more time than that, you have constructed your life around using it, and you drive more or less every day. We have always cycled much more than we drove.

A subsidy for zero emissions ?
Our car probably had the lowest emissions of any in the city. Our emissions were low because we filled the petrol tank infrequently. Now that we've replaced it with no car at all, our emissions from personal transport have dropped from much lower than average all the way down to zero.

85% of Dutch electricity comes from fossil fuel sources.
No vehicle charged with Dutch electricity can achieve
"Zero emissions" but they still receive a subsidy. Other
countries are similar. e.g. while writing, British electricity
was 65% fossil,14% nuclear,2% wind,2% from NL.
The Dutch government subsidizes purchases of new electric cars to the value of €6000 and offers other tax advantages. Similar subsidies are available all around the world for scrapping old cars and buying new ones. The best that any alternative fuel car can do is pollute fractionally less than the one it replaced. This attracts a generous subsidy even though a background of rising use means that the energy consumption and resulting pollution will continue to rise even with slightly more efficient cars.

These subsidies are only ever available to people who buy another car and who commit to continuing to pollute by continuing to drive. No subsidies are available to those who stop driving and stop polluting or for those who never started.

Having received €50 scrap value for our car and having stopped driving we will continue to pay tax as usual, some part of which will be used to subsidize people who continue to drive and continue to pollute.

Update January 2019:  An editorial in our local newspaper confirms my suspicion. The €6000 subsidy is going in large part to people who buy large electric cars which create higher emissions than small petrol cars. It's not advantageous for the environment to subsidy purchases of electric cars, it's only advantageous to the wealthy.

Bicycles genuinely have zero emissions
Odometer of one of our bikes a few
weeks ago. One bike and one rider,
more km in 9 years than four drivers
over 11 years in the car.
Cycling and walking are the only truely zero emission means of transport. Cycling is more effective because a bicycle amplifies the effort of a human so that we can go much faster, over longer distances and comfortably carry weight well in excess of that we can carry when walking. This makes cycling a great choice for everyday transport. A person on a bike can travel 5000 km per year using no more energy than that which we have to consume just to achieve the recommended daily amount of exercise. No external source of energy is required. No charging of a battery or filling up of a petrol tank.

The most efficient vehicles on the planet are Dutch, they're human powered and therefore have zero emissions, but they receive no subsidy from the Dutch government which is sadly more enthusiastic about subsidizing imported electric vehicles which can never be emission free because 80% of Dutch electricity comes from burning fossil fuels.

Los Angeles: already defined by traffic-jams in
the 1950s. A template copied around the world.
Enough of cars
Driving is seen as socially normal. Driving tests don't require particularly high skill because they're intended to enable so many people as possible to take part. Only the very most obviously poor drivers, or those who are especially nervous on the day of the test, will fail. Like most people, I passed first time despite no special ability and with an obvious lack of experience. This immediately meant I was qualified to take a remarkably wide range of motor vehicles onto public roads without any further education being required (very slightly curtailed when I swapped my British driving license for a Dutch license and the maximum vehicle weight dropped from 7.5 to 3.5 tonnes). I've never been fined for a speeding or parking offence and I've never crashed into anyone. We have, however, had two of our cars written off by other people crashing into them (one when it was parked, the other when we were stopped at a red traffic light)

Driving should not be viewed as socially normal. Motorized transport is one of the main factors which is destroying the conditions on this planet which we require in order to live. By rapidly consuming resources which can't be replaced we're also reducing the options available for our children and grandchildren who will have a hard time living on the planet which we have left for them. There is no other place for us to live other than on this planet but we are risking making our only home into a place where human life will be difficult at best.

A state of life that calls for another way of living
Genuinely excellent new cycling infrastructure in Assen.
Infrastructure like this, removing interactions with cars,
makes it much easier to use cycles as everyday transport.
The risk of making human life impossible seems to me to be rather a high price to pay for something which it seems almost no-one actualy even enjoys doing. Driving is so boring that people regularly fall asleep behind the wheel.

When it isn't inducing sleep, driving a car means paying for fuel, for maintenance, for tax, for insurance and for parking. Driving also means stressful queues in traffic jams, searching for parking spaces in cities, road rage, insurance claims after crashes and also the sorrow caused by more than a million deaths in car crashes every year.

Even drivers who never crash their cars still cause deaths: The death rate from air pollution due to cars (car exhaust and particulate pollution which largely comes from tyres) is four times so high as that from crashes.

"Shared Space". Presented with a pretence about "sharing", it's
really about unfettered motoring. Until a pedestrian crossing
was retrofitted here, pedestrians couldn't safely cross the road.
Where is the social good in any of this ? We would all be better off if we lived such that we didn't need cars. We'd all be better off if we stopped designing the places where live as if cars were the most important things in them.

We got into this state because problems which were seen very early on in the history of motoring were ignored. The first car crash fatality resulted in a judge saying that "this must never happen again" but others did not heed his call. Rather than taking action when problems such as pollution and congestion were first observed, cities around the world instead repeated the same mistakes of treating this threat as an inevitability and trying to adapt themselves to cope.

The Netherlands provides some excellent examples of where policy has been turned around, but prioritization of motorized vehicles can still be seen here too. To this day, the Dutch government spends vastly more on infrastructure for cars than on infrastructure for cycling. Cyclists are sometimes put into dangerous situations for the convenience of motorists. Even the world's leading cycling city pushes bikes into undesirable conflict.

Cars are not the only problem
We need to reduce our emissions to zero. Rapidly. Dillydallying
with a few percent here and there can't achieve this yet even
the IPCC seems mostly to be ignore the potential of cycling
in favour of expanding car use with slightly more efficient cars
A few months ago I watched a TV interview in which a representative of an aircraft company stated that every human on the planet now averages 1000 km of flying per year and they're expecting this to continue to grow. What used to be a small cause of pollution because few people did it has now grown into something ar more significant due to exponential growth of flying since the 1950s. While modern aircraft are vastly more efficient than older models and also far more efficient than ships, no efficiency improvement is meaningful when seen against this rate of growth.

We all make our own excuses, but we've all got to stop relying on powered transport. Cars and aircraft are not the only problems. If we make the same journeys using different modes of powered transport then the problems remain. An individual's impact per km may be slightly lower by switching to train or bus but it remains an impact and we need to cut our emissions to zero, not just by a few percentage points.

Powered modes have similar consumption per passenger mile. You can
argue with the figures in this table if you wish, but even if they're out by
a factor of 4 the resulting per km consumption remains a problem. Switching
from one mode to another can only make a very small difference. Making
fewer and shorter journeys is far more important than changing modes.
Every form of powered transport pollutes.
Travel so much as you want by foot or by bicycle every year and you do not trash the planet by doing so, but if you fly, drive or even take the train all of those modes consume about the same amount of energy per passenger km and all are problematic. Changing between modes against a background of ever increasing transport is at this stage akin to moving deckchairs on the Titanic.

It hardly makes hardly any difference at all which powered mode is used. We need to travel much less in order to leave behind a planet on which our children and grandchildren can live.

Every single km has a cost.
Everything starts with individual action. Yes we need to lobby government and try to change the action of large companies but in large part we're the customers of that government and those companies. If we provide the demand they provide the product. If we reduce our dependency on externally powered devices which use engines and motors to push us around and start to use our own muscles then we have made a change to the market served by those actors.

If considering a journey over a distance which can't be covered by human power alone, how do we justify that we should do this at the expense of all those who will come after us ? Is there genuinely a greater good which will come from that journey ? Do such journeys need to be made at all ?

Addendum: If I always felt like this about cars why on earth did I ever learn to drive ?
Getting a driving license is widely seen as some kind of right of passage. "Cartwheels turn to car wheels," a metaphor for a child becoming an adult. Not everyone sees it that way of course and even as a child I did not. I saw cars as yesterday's technology, smelly and inefficient and I held out from bothering to learn to drive for as long as I could. This turned out to be until I was 27: Judy was pregnant and a car was the only sensible way of reliably being able to travel at any time day or night from the village in Cambridgeshire where we lived to the closest hospital to our home.

It was only 15 km between our home and the hospital, so not an extreme distance. Shortly afterwards my regular cycle commute grew to 20 km each way. But the hospital trip was not a journey that either Judy or myself thought she'd want to make by bicycle so I quickly learnt to drive so that we could be sure about what we'd do on the day. When I drove to hospital I immediately found myself on the wrong side of the parking policy which attempted to deter driving by charging a lot for parking and allowing payment only for short periods by advance tickets from a machine in the car park. This policy existed in almost total absence of infrastructure which made cycling into a safe and pleasant experience for everyone and therefore was completely ineffective: the car park was more or less permanently filled. Because of this policy, brought in in with total disregard for the surrounding chaos on the roads, the arrival of our daughter was interrupted by having to repeatedly leave my wife to "feed the meter".

As soon as they could sit in the seats of this tricycle, this is how
we transported our now adult children for all our short journeys.
If a good alternative to driving had existed then we'd have used it. I was forced to learn to drive because Cambridge and Cambridgeshire were (and still are) built around cars as the main means of transport.

I'm not an advocate of driving but I remain against the idea of charging patients at hospitals for car parking as any part of an attempt to change behaviour. No-one visits hospitals for fun. There's always stress and it's quite possibly some kind of family emergency. The other 364 days of the year are a better time to educate people about transport and that is best done by providing world class infrastructure which encourages people to cycle instead of drive for their regular journeys. In an emergency people will naturally turn to whichever form of transport they have become used to and what they will be used to is whatever works best on the infrastructure provided in the area. Note that here in Assen where extremely good cycling infrastructure enables cycling for a far wider range of journeys, the hospital provides good access by bike and many visitors use it but there is also free parking at the hospital for those who arrive by car. While many people make a high proportion of their everyday journeys by bike, few Dutch women in labour travel by bike to give birth.

Friday, 19 October 2018

Over the hills and far away - Drenthe has built a hill for cyclists

Steve, Peter and myself on "our" new hill: The "Col du VAM". It's the highest point in Drenthe at 4800 cm above sea level !
Each week, a small group of recumbent cyclists ride together from Assen on short touring rides. This morning three of us went on a 70 km round trip to ride up a new hill which Drenthe has created for cyclists of all kinds to ride over. "Our" new hill is now the highest spot in the province, reaching 48 metres above sea level. If you want to climb higher than this in Drenthe then you have to do it more than once.

Posing in front of the visitor centre before we properly begin our second descent.
This hill has been quite a long time in the making. While professional cycle races have also used the hill for many years (watch a video of Marianne Vos on the hill five years ago) it's been closed to everyday cyclists with a gate at the bottom because there was a potentially dangerous conflict on the only path which used to exist between pedestrians and cyclists descending quickly. That's why the general public were restricted to walking until yesterday when the new cycle-paths over the hill were officially opened.

Optional cobbles on the climb. There are a lot of
these around Drenthe for cycle-racers to use.
In total we now have 2.1 km of cycle-path on this hill which provide several routes up to the top and back down again. The climb has an average gradient of 10% and a maximum of 15% so it's a fairly good challenge. I've enjoyed riding over many larger hills in the past, but never before has there been a hill like this which was made especially for cycling over.

The quality is excellent: Wide and incredibly smooth asphalt paths are provided both for the ascents and the route back down again (where it's even more important).

It's really well thought out: A one-way system is used to prevent conflicts between those climbing and descending.

There is even a section of Kasseien (Kinderkopjes) to allow those who wish to to emulate their heroes in the Paris-Roubaix and other classic races, but because that's not everyone's cup of tea it's provided as an optional extra for those who want it while the rest of us can ride on asphalt.

Peter chasing someone else towards the steep part of the
descent. We saw many other cyclists on the hill today. I
expect it'll be even more popular on sunny Sundays.
My recumbent touring bike isn't really set up for hills. I've use a single front chainwheel with 60 teeth and the largest sprocket on the cassette at the back has 28 teeth so there's a minimum speed which it's possible to cycle at because going any slower will mean that I'll stop and never get started again and would have to push. As it worked out, all three of us reached the top, twice by different routes, without any problems in a reasonable amount of time.

The descent is marvellous, a unique experience in this area. It's deliberately been made less steep than the climb but 60 km/h is reached before you know it. This gives your brakes some work to do before the corners, but you always have the security of knowing that going off the asphalt doesn't mean crashing into anything hard because there's grass on both sides and you also have the certain knowledge that no car will ever get in the way of your safety as you descend because there are no cars allowed here.
While we were eating sandwiches at the top, this chap arrived over the cobbles with a handbike, having ridden from a village 10 km away to go over the hill. Cycling should be for everyone, including people with disabilities.

The visitor's hut at the top has an explanation of what lies beneath
It's Rubbish !
The VAM-berg is actually a pile of rubbish. Literally. It's a landfill site which has now been turned into a useful facility. It's not only useful to us cyclists, but these days, between 4000 and 5000 cubic metres of useful gas are extracted every hour from the waste. A fifth of the gas is burnt in a power station next to the hill while the rest of it is injected into the gas pipelines of the Netherlands and used by consumers at home to cook and heat their homes.

Recreational cycling and hills
Hills are not a problem for cyclists, they make cycling more enjoyable. If you go up a hill on one part of your journey, you get to ride back down again a little later on. No hill lasts more than a few kilometres. On the other hand, flat countryside means you can ride all day long against an endless and unbroken headwind, which costs you just as much energy as a hill without the reward of a descent.

Recreational cycling is often overlooked by cycling campaigners, but it is important as it provides more options for cycling. In my case it's one of the things which helps me to remain healthy. Recreational riders don't need much special infrastructure. They mainly use the same infrastructure as is used by local people to make everyday journeys. We just typically use more of it in a single day, benefiting from how everything is joined up across the Netherlands. Cycling infrastructure which doesn't allow people to make longer journeys also won't really allow them to make short journeys everywhere.

Our route to and from the VAM-berg included new sections of top quality cycle-path which are so new that I couldn't use them when I last cycled in this direction a few weeks ago. Other sections were part of a route which I've used for more than ten years to collect stock for our webshop from a supplier 40 km away.

Elsewhere, priority should first be given to providing infrastructure which allows specifically for everyday journeys, focusing on city centres and safe approaches to them, but a comprehensive cycling policy results in more than that. Journeys in any direction will be possible if a comprehensive go-everywhere grid of high quality infrastructure is built. In that context, a mere 2 km of cycle-path which exist for no reason other than to allow people to smile as ride up and down a hill especially built for them appears as part of a comprehensive policy. It should be seen everywhere, but actually it's only seen here.

This is an excellent and unique piece of infrastructure, in a province which prides itself on being the best place in the world for cycling.

As part of the official opening event, local school children rode up the hill and left pictures behind which are now on display in the visitor's centre.