Saturday 16 October 2010

Reflections on England

The Morris Minor is a classic British car. Over a million were produced between 1948 and 1971 and they are still sometimes seen in use, including this example.
I just spent a week in England, visiting my family. It was great to be back. I had crumpets for breakfast, curry for lunch, and can report that English beer remains much tastier than Dutch beer. I enjoyed it very much, and even visiting it as a "foreigner" I found much to enjoy. It does help that my family live in one of the nicest corners of the country.

However, not everything is wonderful. I read in a newspaper while over there that the number of cars on Britain's roads have increased from just over 26 million in 2005 to more than 31 million in 2009, a rise of nearly 20% in just four years - a period only slightly longer than we've lived in the Netherlands. Considerable growth since the last time I looked at car ownership rates in Britain.

This growth was obvious on the roads themselves, and not only at school time, as in this photo, or rush hour. It didn't seem to matter what time of day or night it was, the roads had lots of cars on them. Often enough to cause a bit of a traffic jam, even at the most unlikely of times. For instance, we even found ourselves in a jam on the way to small a market town in the west country at 7 o'clock on a Sunday evening.

The UK's current transport secretary recently reminded us "that over 80% of all journeys are undertaken by car." He's absolutely right, and it will likely remain the case. It's the only means of transport which he, and the rest of the government, actually encourage in the UK at present. While it's not necessarily convenient due to the number of other motor vehicles on the roads, in very many cases it's the least bad option open to people.

I flew to Bristol and my mother came to meet me at the airport. As a pensioner, she is entitled to a free bus pass, so she left home in Burnham-on-Sea just after 2 pm to arrive over three hours later on the last bus to go to the airport from that direction. She covered 30 km in a fair bit over 3 hours, or an average of under 10 km/h.

I, on the other hand, left home in Assen somewhat after 3 pm, taking one of the regular trains (every 30 minutes) from Assen to Schiphol airport 200 km away in order to arrive a long time before the flight. I waited, got bored, bought a book, ate some food and eventually boarded the aeroplane and flew to Bristol Airport for 19:30. Just over four hours in all, and 800 km covered at an average of 200 km/h.

On the map: I started at A, my mother started at B and we met after comparable journey times at the white dot somewhat closer to B than to A.

In fact, transport remains a complete pain in England... unless you have a car. My original intention had been to make the entire journey between our home in Assen and my Mother's home in Burnham by public transport. However, while it's easy to cover the 200 km distance from Assen to Schiphol Airport (trains run every 30 minutes), it's not easy to cover the 30 km distance between Bristol Airport and Burnham on Sea. While my flight was to land at 19:30, the last bus running in the correct direction was the one my mother got off of at around 17:30, so I'd have had to find some other way of making the journey.

I checked out the other options and found nothing which wouldn't be expensive, take a long time and in at least one option would leave me waiting at a remote unmanned railway station at which I could easily miss the very last train of the evening. Not attractive at all as something to rely on, especially with the risk of delays. A taxi was an option, but it cost a good percentage of the price of a hire car for the week, so I arranged a hire car.

Having a hire car was interesting in itself. Naturally I picked the cheapest option available on the website, as they all do the same thing: roll along on four wheels at the speed of the same traffic jam, and the cheapest being the smallest it also is the most economical on offer.

However, the car was of interest to many people, who asked me the same question: "What hire car did you get ?" If it'd been "interesting" like the old Morris Minor at the top of this blog post perhaps I might have known what it was. There it is to the left, Small and blue. Not worth too large a photo. It worked well enough.

It seems to me that British people are on average rather more interested in cars than is good for them. In one sense this is understandable. On hearing that I normally drive rather infrequently, more than one person responded by saying that they "couldn't manage without a car". It's easy to see why people believe this, given the way the country's transport infrastructure is arranged. For many people it is genuinely difficult to imagine living without a car in the UK. Given the ubiquity of the car as the only way of getting about, it's perhaps also not surprising that the most popular TV programme in Britain is now the execrable Top Gear, the presenters of which, and presentation style of which, seem to have taken over many other BBC programmes.

I did a small amount of cycling myself, around Burnham on Sea where I lived with my family as a teenager. I used my father's old bike, and rode as I always did in the UK: "vehicularly" (as the American's put it). i.e. big and bold and taking the lane when I needed to. It's not particularly pleasant, and conditions which require such behaviour from cyclists lead to cycling only ever being a minority pursuit, as could be seen by the small amount of cycling in the area, and its domination by a young adult demographic. However, this is the only way to survive in such conditions. Few people see this as something they want their loved ones to do. It's part of the reason why 70% of the British population never ride a bicycle at all.

Burnham is still a nice little seaside town, but as it's in Britain it's also still a nice seaside town which is dedicated to cars. There's plenty of car parking, and while the area at the sea front is wide and could be quite pleasant to cycle along it is still out of bounds for cyclists. This photo shows the spot where on an out of season day in the 1980s, with almost no-one around, a teenager version of myself was assaulted by an angry local Conservative councillor who pushed me off my bike to uphold his personal idea of what "the law" ought to be.

The neighbouring towns of Bridgwater and Weston-super-Mare are just 9 and 11 miles away (14 and 17 km) from Burnham. These are easy distances by bicycle in the Netherlands. Distances which many school children cycle to school and back again every day. However, not so in the UK. By bike, these neighbouring towns remain unreachable to any but the brave, as getting to them requires riding on narrow A-roads with 60 mph (100 km/h) speed limits and heavy traffic. Almost no-one ever makes such a journey of such a distance by bicycle. My mother, my sister and her teenage children have never done this. It's not safe by any definition.

Conditions for cyclists have not improved. Cycle paths remain almost non-existent, or very compromised in the few places where they do exist. Where on road cycle lanes exist, they remain narrow strips at the edge of the road which lead cyclists to ride through potholes while positioning themselves too far to the left around awkward "traffic calming" obstacles. Unsurprisingly, cyclists remain a very rare sight. Some youths cycle, and apart from that I saw a handful of utility cyclists (mostly riding the ubiquitous "mountain bikes") on the move during my week in England and three or four quite "serious" types on racing cycles.

On returning home I found out that the government in the UK has (as I mentioned in passing was likely a few weeks back) now decided to definitely scrap funding of Cycling England, the organisation in charge of promotion of cycling in the country, saving enough to build just 5 metres of motorway. The UK government instead seems to want to promote electric cars, the buyers of which are having their purchases subsidized. As ever, Britain is ignoring lessons from the Netherlands, even ones which you might think would fit in with the demands of Britain's pro-motoring policies, such as that encouraging cycling improves conditions for drivers.

And then there is the CCTV. There is masses of it, everywhere, on the streets, in shopping centres, in shops, all "for your safety" of course. Some of it even claims to make the town "brighter safer." Mind you, apparently the French are providing pretty good competition on installing CCTV these days.

Yes, there is even CCTV in the pub. But let's finish on a more positive note:

Brown, warm, completely non fizzy. The best beer in the world.

Veggie curry pub lunch.

Onion Bhajis and Mango Chutney.

I know it is counter to the reputation that many people think it deserves, but Britain is actually quite a good place to eat and drink.

A week or so later, it got worse. Read another post reflecting on the demise of "Cycling England."

Thanks to freewheeler for the tip about the Independent article. He also has more on the demolition of Cycling England. In case you're wondering, the ominous grey buildings in the middle of the blog post are Hinkley Point nuclear power station, which is visible from the sea front at Burnham. Electric cars are the future, apparently, so expect more of these.


Rohan said...

I'd just like to say that it's not just the terrible provision for cyclists that stops them - there's the weather and the fact that there are some serious hills... I have cycled to work or school virtually everyday for the last 13-14 years (since I was 8), and love it as a rule.
However, I used to live in Devon, specifically north west Devon, where there are more hills that flat bits, and that was by far the biggest deterrent. I now live in the Midlands and can't believe more people don't cycle, it's so flat and easy!
There is also the perception of people to get past - I have a friend who's mum refuses to let her use her bike (at 20!) because it's too dangerous. And they live near some nice properly segregated cycle paths!

Anyway, glad to hear you enjoyed your visit and got some decent beer in. Disappointed it sounds like you didn't partake in some of that mighty fine west country cider though!

David Hembrow said...

Rohan: It's really not the weather (Britain has lower rainfall and warmer winter temperatures than NL) and it's not the hills. I've done all those things before.

I've had cider in the past, and good cider is rather nice, but I've often found it disappointing. Much "West Country" cider these days, even from small producers who you might hope would be different, is made from imported apple concentrate. The commercial stuff is doubly awful and well worth avoiding. However, decent British beer is excellent these days.

BG said...

Ah, well, everything is relative -- compared to the USA, where I live, England has rather nice public transport and at least slightly better roads for cycling. I'm sorry your mother had a slow and inconvenient bus to the airport, but even that is beyond the imagination of people here. Most airports are not served by public transport of any kind.

I recently asked the administration of the tiny airport in my city whether I could park my bike there over a weekend holiday, and was told I could not -- apparently a bicycle is a great security threat. Maybe they need more CCTV cameras...(JOKING. For all its security paranoia, this country has not gone down that road as the UK has, thank goodness.)

BG said...

Oh, and agreed about the weather: cold and rainy climates actually seem conducive to cycling (not just Holland, but Oregon, Minnesota, Quebec...). It's the extremely hot and humid places like the Southeastern US that really pose challenges.

Anonymous said...

Similar story here in Australia, sadly, particularly during the 'school runs'.

I was out walking the dogs this morning and it suddenly occurred to me how quiet and pleasant it was - without the cars - I'm not sure why there weren't any around this morning but I did enjoy it. I could hear the wind in the leaves and birds chirping.

We tend to forget about the vast quantities of noise pollution produced by motorised traffic. Is this something that is noticeably better in The Netherlands, David?


Paul Martin
Brisbane, Australia

Anonymous said...

Hi David,
I really like your Blog, I'm a German and moved to the netherlands 5 Years ago. Before that I was a real Motor-heda, everything was fine as long as it had an engine.
Things changed and now there are several "fietsen" in my garage...
Besides the actual cycling I also like to read about it and your blog is one of the finer ones about this topic.

Until now! Warm beer?! Seriously, how can you prefer this *#%*-stuff to a Nice, cold, fresh dutch beer? ;-)

Don't sorry I will still read your blog, maybe skipping the parts about drinks and food..... ;-)

Groetjes, Patrick

MiddleAgeCyclist said...

Oh how I recognise the UK you write about and how sad I am sometimes to live here. I feel the new government is even less likely to encourage cycling provision than the previous - all under the rather ridiculous cloak of "austerity measures" - very, very sad!

Glad you liked the beer though. I think the Bitter's and Ale's are one of the great contributions to the wider world we have been able to make.

Michael S said...

Reading about cycling in the UK always makes me aware of how good the conditions are in Germany (in general). Even if I complain very much about my local area (Berlin), I get an impression of how lucky we are here around. ... And to be honest: warm beer and the kind of/unpretentious manner of serving your lunch is not a good compensation for missing cycle infrastructure at all ;-)

Mike C said...

I just spent a week in France, and found urban cycling facilities to be as poor and sparse as they are in much of the UK.

In the various towns I visited, I saw little more than a few advisory cycle paths, which appeared and disappeared apparently at random, and could often be found with motor vehicles parked in them. Needless to say, utility cyclists are pretty rare too.

At least on the back roads around the pretty villages the road surfaces were exceptionally good, making long road rides a pleasure, and French drivers almost universally give you much more room than their British equivalents when overtaking. Sporty cyclists are a common sight in many areas.

David Hembrow said...

Paul: Yes, noise pollution is taken seriously. Roads are surfaced with lower noise asphalt, and barriers are constructed to keep road noise away from houses.

There are several places within a short cycle of my home where you can hear nothing but nature unless an aircraft flies over.

Mike: NL is really the unusual place, which is why its cycling rate is so far above other countries (including France).

As Patrick demonstrates, Dutch infrastructure makes cyclists out of even the most committed "motor-heads".

freewheeler said...

I'm afraid Britain's cycling organisations have to bear some of the responsibility for this dismal state of affairs. Their 'vehicular cycling' strategy has been a total failure but they continue to insist that things are getting rosier for cycling, even though even quite basic and non-controversial infrastructure like cycle parking and cycle signing is mediocre and under-funded.

The problem with Britain is that most cycling campaigners are vehicular cyclists, stubbornly committed to trying to get improvements for the tiny minority who cycle on the roads. Their influence even extends to the Green Party, which has a catastrophically bad cycling policy, insisting that bicycles are vehicles and must share the roads with drivers.

The picture is bleak indeed. The British cycling establishment just isn't interested in the Dutch example. Britain hasn't even begun to build the kind of infrastructure which would reduce car dependency and make cycling attractive to ordinary people.

Neil said...

:( it does paint a pretty poor picture of the UK, though I'm glad you managed to enjoy the visit despite that.

Belgium beer is pretty special too. Not the same as British Ales, but very nice (in moderation!).

On the comparison of your's vs your Mum's journey's - that isn't necessarily a good indicator. Not everywhere can be on a direct line to the place they want to go. And in fact Bristol Airport has no rail terminal (even Heathrow has no mainline terminal, only local connections to London). Which may be your point, but I think poorly illustrated by two journeys that might have been chance to be so diverse.

@Freewheeler - isn't vehicular cycling a way of cycling, not a way of campaigning? I think you are misusing the term. Though I agree that campaigning for Dutch style infrastructure doesn't happen.

David Hembrow said...

Neil: I may sound grumpy, but I did enjoy my visit very much.

The thing about the journey comparison is that it is just so extreme. The last bus in the correct direction leaves so early in the day as to be useless for many potential passengers, and the journey time is so extraordinarily long that it's a nearly useless service. Such problems seem not to occur here in NL. Everything links up to an extent not seen in the UK, and trains and buses are not only efficient, but also relatively economical options (it cost me just 14.30 euros to travel 200 km from Assen to Schiphol by train).

For instance: Schiphol, the biggest airport in the Netherlands, has a train station downstairs (underground, at an airport which is already below sea level), offering efficient and regular journeys to anywhere in the country, and even outside the country with trains to Germany and Belgium. Also there is lots of cycle parking. Smaller airports, even if not on a train line, also have efficient links. e.g. Eindhoven airport has a guided bus and cycle path to the centre of the city and the train station, Groningen airport has an efficient bus service which takes you to the cities nearby or the train station, and a cycle path outside.

Paul Lowe said...

HI david, great post and i try to read your blog every time i am aware it is updated. Would you consider using twitter to tell everyone you have written a new post?

freewheeler said...

@Neil. The Green Party manifesto states "Cycles are a vehicle and, as such, cycling should, wherever possible, take place on roads." That is also the view of Britain's leading cycling organisation the Cyclists Touring Club. This is the philosophy of vehicular cycling and it is a catastrophe, because it blissfully ignores the reality that most people don't want to cycle among traffic. The London Cycling Campaign is likewise not committed to segregated cycling on the Dutch model. British cycling organisations bear a heavy responsibility for the failed state of cycling in Britain. They are in denial about its failure and in denial about their own responsibility.

Neil said...

@Paul Lowe - there is an RSS feed for the blog, just point a suitable newsreader (e.g. Google Reader) at that to get your notifications (that's what RSS/Atom etc was invented for).

Anonymous said...

Hi, really like the blog. I grew up in Bridgwater and still live in the West Country, so I know Burnham and the surrounding area quite well. When I was younger I did quite a bit of cycling, and used public transport a lot until I was 22, when I brought a car.

To my shame I rarely cycle these days, although my mum (now in her 70’s) still cycles to and from Bridgwater on a regular basis. Most of Somerset is so flat it’s perfect for cycling, yet like everywhere else in this country, has almost no useful cycle infrastructure.

Public transport is just as bad, very few useful bus services and they rarely run early/late/regularly enough to be of use to many commuters. Trains are expensive, slow and overcrowded.

There’s a lot of talk of reducing carbon emissions and reliance on cars in the UK, but at present there really isn’t a viable alternative for most people. It really is lamentable how rubbish the Uk transport infrastructure is.
PS - but you're right about the beer, the ciders good as well :)

Micheal Blue said...

So now I know where Canada gets its attitude towards public transport and cars. I guess it's no surprise since the queen is the same. Dave, can you ask the Dutch royal family to take over Canada?
Well, it seems that when they re-surface a road here, they include simple bike lanes, but they don't form any useable network (in Toronto). The separate, nice bike trails we have are very few.
As to the public transport, it feels/look outdated. Except for the subway it's also slow - it's faster to bike. And a public transport outside the city? What publick transport outside the city?

Ruth Brooker said...

An interesting reflection on Britain - although it does leave me somewhat depressed!

I live in Bristol where there is a heavy volume of cyclists in comparison to other places. Which makes me feel optimistic. But I guess I need to just cycle somewhere else for a reality check.

What can we do eh... There will have to be a seismic shift in attitude, but the government are not doing anything to help with that.