Thursday 23 October 2008

Things that don't scale

Sometimes people wonder why in the Netherlands you don't see buses with bike racks on them as in the US, or why people don't take their bikes into the office with them at work. In comparison with the UK, it can be more difficult here to take a non-folding bike on the train.

These ideas initially seem very good, but unfortunately some of them only work where few people cycle.

While Dutch trains have a relatively large amount of space for bikes, non-folding bikes are banned completely at busy hours of the day and you have to pay €6 per bike to take one on a train at other times. The €6 bicycle ticket is for a whole day and for any distance using any number of trains. Folding bikes can travel at any time for free.

Train travel in the Netherlands is actually quite economical - the highest price that you can be charged for a single ticket on Dutch trains, for travel from one end of the country to the other, not booking in advance but turning up at the station immediately before travel, is just €23.50, or €14.10 if you pay about €50 per year for a 40% discount ticket. Adding €6 to this does not actually result in the cost being high.

The reason for the charge is to discourage people from using the train with their bike frivolously. This is an example of something which becomes a problem when you start to scale up cycle usage.

The railway company says that 40% of passengers arrive at the railway station by bike. Imagine if all of them tried to take their bikes on the train in rush hour.

Bus-stops have cycle parking alongside so that passengers can leave their bikes safely. It seems reasonable to think that 40% of all bus passengers might also arrive with a bike. Certainly the bus stops tend to have plenty of bikes parked next to them. A 50 passenger bus would need a rack of 20 bikes.

The same goes for taking your bike into the office. Would it work if half the people in your office had a bike with them ?

This is why cycle parking is provided outside every office, at every bus stop, railway station, school, shop and also in every home, but in places where scalability is a problem they're restricted.

This is also a reason why cycling needs to happen in normal clothing that you can also work in. The sporty idea of cycling to work and taking a shower also only works where cyclists are a minority.

There are other solutions to some of the problems. For instance, there is a scheme called OV-Fiets (Public Transport Bikes) which after paying an annual subscription of around €10 per year allows a bike to be hired for the day for under €3. The service is still growing but currently offers around 5000 bikes spread between 170 stations. It's specifically designed for commuters and is in addition to the already existing bike hire schemes at most stations. This, however, still only provides a very small fraction of the bicycles used in conjunction with trains.

Some stations now have tens of thousands of bikes parked next to them, this causing problems of its own. There are several posts about Groningen's main Railway Station, where there are 10000 cycle parking spaces, and capacity is growing at a rate of 500 per year. At Utrecht's main station they're working towards over 20000 cycle parking spaces. Even smaller towns have large number of cycle parking spaces at the station, including Assen.

For true mass cycling, emulate what has worked in the Netherlands. But note that this country is not uniform in quality and not uniform in degree of success. That is why its important to copy the best of what this country has to offer.

The photos were taken on the 2006 Study Tour. Participant's bikes are in the main photo, each train contains several such areas for bikes, and the parked bikes are some of many at Eindhoven railway station.


Anonymous said...

Europe and Asia are very different markets for bicyclists. Bicycle is one of the major modes of transportation in those regions where as in USA, they are a mode of recreation and recently being converted on a larger scale towards commuting (hence the birth of the fender less and chain guard less hybrid bikes!).

I have lived in West Bengal, India where due to poverty, bicycles (mostly roadsters) are extremely common. Suburbs of Calcutta probably have more percentage of people using bicycles for commuting than most Dutch cities. That linked with mass transit leads to facilities for people to leave their bikes outside train stations. There are cheap parking valets that own a small shed. They stack up your bike for you and retrieve it when you return, all for a minimal fee.

Anonymous said...

Here in the U.S. theft is a problem. Several times I have passed a skeleton of a bike because it was stripped while it was locked to a bike rack. If I felt my bike was safe I would gladly leave it at a bike parking facility.

Bicycling needs and cyclists here in the U.S. need to be viewed by the public as the norm and not a special interest group if progress in bicycle infrastructure is to be made.

Anonymous said...

Bob, Bicycle theft is a huge problem here in Amsterdam as well. I recall seeing statistics that 100,000 bike are stolen per year though its difficult to measure because few people bother telling the police. Regardless its a lot of bike theft for a city of under 800,000 people.

Here the scale provides an advantage if you wish to use it: Your bike is never even close to alone. Ride an unusual, unattractive bike and lock it better than most of the other bikes and the thieves will choose another target.

David Hembrow said...

Abhishek, your observation about India is very interesting. You refer to bicycles being used in large numbers due to poverty. I can understand why people will view the idea of owning and using a car as a good thing if cycling is forced on them for that reason.

However, it's not the reason why people cycle here. It's easy to afford a car in the Netherlands, but people are quite commonly making the choice not to own one and quite often they leave them at home if they do own them.

It would be a very good thing if the same attitudes would take hold amongst the middle class in India, as well as most other parts of the world.

The guarded cycle parking sounds very efficient. We have something very similar here, in that you can leave your bicycle securely at most railway stations in the Netherlands for a Euro (quite probably a fortune relative to the charge in India). Usually there are other guarded cycle parking spots in the cities too, and sometimes these are provided with support from the local government so are free of charge.

Bob, Henry offers much good advice, but I can add a bit more. In the UK I generally used a cheap and undesirable bike to commute, and a bike lock which was worth as much as the bike. I've never had a bike stolen. I've also only very rarely had parts stolen. Quick release wheels are a bad idea for a commuter bike, as are anything else that can be easily removed. I favour wheel nuts, permanently attached dynamo lights etc. Nothing worth the effort of stealing, and tied up so well it would take a bit of effort to do so.

The Netherlands leads the world on cycle theft. However, even then it depends where you live. We are outside of Amsterdam in a city where bike theft is a much smaller problem (the cost of cycle insurance is much lower, so it must be true). These days we use just the permanently attached rear wheel locks on our bikes and we've had no trouble thus far.

Anonymous said...

I regularly left my bike locked up in London - in a spot where stripped bike carcases and broken locks were regularly seen, and as Dave says, having a bike that's worth less than the lock is the best way to avoid trouble. Also, locking your bike next to something much shinier and newer, and having a cable to secure both wheels. The worst incident I had was when my front light brackets kept getting pinched, but that was just annoying.
It's worth bearing in mind that (in London at least) a bike skeleton will remain locked up in place for ages until someone removes it, so the perception of danger to a bike left for a few hours is exaggerated

Anonymous said...


Your idea of the middle class making that choice to go car free is a noble one. Since the middle class is rising from poverty, they want the American lifestyle. That means cars. A lot of cars.

The size of the middle class in India is the size of the entire population of the United States of America. Even though petrol prices are not artificially subsidized in India like it is in USA, the spending power of the middle class is growing in numbers.

Moreover,there is not enough infrastructure present for vehicles. I dont even know what the accident rate is. I wont be comfortable commuting by bicycle in most cities in India. Maybe in the smaller towns where my dad grew up but that is because everyone else commutes by bike.

David Hembrow said...

I can't say I'm surprised that Indian people are making that choice. From where they're sitting I'd say it's the obvious choice. It's a shame, though, that people who might have wanted to make a different choice will be prevented from doing so because, as you've pointed out, there's a lack of subjective safety on overcrowded streets when they are used by cars.

It's always a problem with cars. They cause a "safety" arms-race due to their threatening presence. Anyone not in a car tends to feel unsafe near them, so virtually everyone ends up wanting to be in one if the choice is to be alongside them unprotected.

It's also why segregating cyclists from motor vehicles with separate infrastructure is such a powerful way of enabling the masses to cycle once again.

Anonymous said...

Fortunately for me and my fellow employees, my employer provides a parking area for bikes along with several bike lockers. All of which are inside our secured area.

Anonymous said...


Some of us are fighting the good fight here in Jacksonville to improve subjective safety. The city likes bike lanes, even on strip-mall dense areas. The repetitive right turning driveways make is unsafe for the cyclist stuck in the right shoulder (bike lane). They are better off controlling the lane.

A segregated bike lane in such situations will have a similar problem as long as the cyclists are low in numbers and there is an abundance of right turning lanes. Motorists not always yield when they are supposed to.

Most Indians feel that they are late to the party, the party of cheap oil, and should be allowed to enjoy the perks too (cars, large houses, appliances etc.) It will be hard to tell them to downsize and use less.

David Hembrow said...

I'm afraid that encouraging people to "take the lane" is anything but improving subjective safety. You can't make conditions more subjectively safe by training people - you have to change the environment to make the conditions safe. Most people are, quite reasonably, not interested in any activity which requires positioning themselves in front of motor vehicles. That's why so few people cycle in environments where that is required.

The English speaking countries have the lowest rates of cycling because they have yet to take this on board. Bike lanes such as you describe are also not good enough. I've experienced them myself back in the UK. They offer no opportunity to give cyclists priority over cars, don't provide the separation needed to significantly increase subjective safety and can also lead to danger due to cyclists being in the wrong place at junctions. However, luckily they are not the only alternative to "taking the lane".

Junctions can be redesigned. Industrial estate areas here look quite similar to the strip malls of the US, but cycling through them is a relaxing experience, not a stressful one.

All you have to do is to give cyclists a bit of priority occasionally (in planning and on the roads themselves).

Here are some photos taken in and around the industrial area in the North of Assen:

cycle path beside road, another view, and another view, View from a block of flats looking down, video riding along.

The last link includes a video which shows how the traffic light defaults to green for bikes. Generally you don't have to stop if you're cycling, even though you frequently do if you're driving. There's also another video of that junction.

So there you have it. Not only does it feel a lot safer, but it is safe (Dutch cyclists are the safest in the world). What's more, it leads to faster journeys for cyclists.

If you want mass cycling, then cycling has to be convenient and also become a comfortable experience for all, not one where the few people brave enough to cycle have to constantly look out for other (heavier, faster, more dangerous) vehicles. The Dutch have achieved this transformation. That's why people cycle here in numbers that they do not in English speaking countries.

cocosolis said...

Cycling as an extension of public transport is, I think, an interesting idea. I saw it in Barcelona, who have followed the lead of other cities (Paris, Stockholm, Amsterdam I'm sure) by offering easy, straightforward bicycle rental:

As for bike security, Manchester is such a mixed bag. At first, parking on the street cost me a wheel early on - my employer provides safe parking but I was lazy. But one night I had a major breakdown and had to abandon the bike (it was an old one) in a very public place, overnight. Came back the following morning, half-hoping it'd be vandalised or gone, forcing me to upgrade. Alas, it was there, intact - hordes of drunken revellers had studiously ignored it! (I upgraded anyway).