Monday 27 May 2013

A Study Tour for Trondheim. Is your town next ?

This video shows a little of last week's study tour. We are independent of local or national government and we don't only emphasize the good, but also show and explain things which should not be emulated.

Trondheim delegates look at a
cycle-path in suburban Assen
Following on from last year's successful study tour by Norwegian students, last week we had the honour of hosting a delegation of ten planners and officials from Trondheim. Trondheim has a similar population to Groningen and also a similar student population. A more highly educated population, in particularly the presence of a university, are almost always linked with a higher than average cycling modal share.

Trondheim also has something that is unique and known to cyclists world-wide. It's the location of the famous bicycle lift. This is 130 m long and lifts cyclists 25 m up a hill with a 20% slope. It is an idea which other hilly cities which wish to encourage cycling may like to take up.

Download the complete English language Environmental Package document here
Trondheim's Miljøpakken ("Environmental package") sets some good firm goals. In order to achieve their desired CO2 emission reductions they must stop people from driving so much as they do at present. Trondheim already has a higher cycling modal share than many cities (overall share is 7-8% of journeys, varying from about 4% in winter to 12% in summer. The commuting share is about double the all journeys cycling modal share), but 30% of journeys of under three km within Trondheim are still by car and these are particularly to be targeted as being relatively easy to convert into bicycle journeys.

As a part of the continuing development of the city, Trondheim seeks to improve standards further and to increase the cycling modal share - hence the study tour last week. It is unusual for a city to send so many people, and that in itself shows that cycling is being taken seriously in Trondheim. We are told that as a result of the tour, standards for future infrastructure will be raised, and this should be good news for everyone in the city, including people who do not cycle.

The budget comes out of road tolls and well over a billion kroners have been allocated to improving cycling infrastructure in Trondheim. It's enough to make a real difference.

A promotional video for cycling in Trondheim.

Trondheim has challenges which Assen and Groningen do not - it is a hilly city and winters are much colder than here. As a result of this, snow builds up to the point where it is far more difficult to deal with than here in the Netherlands. For these reasons the cycling modal share of Trondheim may never reach the levels of some Dutch towns, especially in winter. However, safety and convenience are the main issues for cycling. These are the same everywhere and there is surely room for growth over what the city has already achieved.

We look forward to seeing further progress in Trondheim and we're available to help if needed.

Riding towards the blue bridge which
has featured in many other blog posts.
Why come on a study tour ?
Our study tours are quite intensive. We spend three days on the saddle with just one short evening presentation to sum up some of the things that we have seen. Spending so much time cycling makes the tours unique, but it's important that the tours operate in this way because it is only by having the experience of using the infrastructure that one can gain an appreciation for how well it works.

The tours take in much within the cities of Assen and Groningen, including residential areas both old and new, commercial and shopping centres and also everything which connects these together. However, a true cycling culture is not only about "cycling cities". For that reason we also ride out of the cities to suburban areas and commuter villages and on the last day we cycle inter-city from Assen to Groningen so that the experience of those who ride longer distances between home and school or work can be appreciated. Participants on the tours see for themselves how important it is to have a comprehensive network of high quality cycling routes.

A temporary cycle-path to provide a
continuous route during construction
Because we are independent both of government and engineering companies who build the infrastructure we show things as they are and not in order to promote either specific projects, construction companies or the councils who are paying for these projects. We are not constrained by politics or funding sources and we're not interested in hype.

Secondary cycle-route in Assen
Not only do the tours feature the best infrastructure that we have to offer in this area but we also illustrate less good examples. This is important. Not everything in the Netherlands is worth emulating. Mistakes have been made here too, many things have been modified over the years but this isn't necessarily well known overseas. It's important to explain why some things are more valuable than others because it avoids expensive mistakes being made elsewhere. For example, we now include the most dangerous road junction in the whole of the Netherlands on our tours because we can then talk in the group about why this junction is dangerous and how to avoid these problems.

Q: Why are they photographing us ?
A: No idea
No two study tours are identical. People have different experience and interests and they ask different questions. We always do our best not just to talk about but also show people examples of answers to their questions. This is our eighth year of running study tours, but our experience goes back much further. We've cycled in several countries and we've been involved in campaigning for better conditions for far longer than we've been operating the tours.

Previous participants on the tours have come from across the Americas and the South Pacific as well as from many countries in Europe. Our aim is to show everyone what is really required in order to "Go Dutch".

Read other study tour posts, or read about our study tours, or go straight to the feedback from those tours. We can arrange tours specifically for groups of planners, politicians or campaigners from one place or individuals can join the next open tour in August.

Every study tour comes across things that were not planned, be they redirections for road works or school trips by bike. This tour was no exception:

One of four different groups of school children that we saw cycling on school trips during last week's study tour. This is very common in the Netherlands.

During the last day of the tour we were approached by a blogger in one of the suburbs of Groningen who asked us what we were doing. His post in Dutch can be read here.

There has been a proposal for Assen to have a Trondheim style bicycle lift. However, that's another story for another day...

Sunday 26 May 2013

Vending machines and free of charge indoor cycle-parking

Last week we hosted a study tour group from Norway. There are always a few things that we discover that we've not seen before. This is one of them. A bicycle light vending machine.

Bicycles parked at the university in Groningen - the indoor cycle-parking with the vending machine is just around the corner and helps to reduce stress here.
If you leave your bicycle outside
of a rack it will be "towed away".
The reason why we found the vending machine is that it was inside a free facility that we visited in which 725 bicycles can be parked indoor and are guarded. Like all cities in the Netherlands, Groningen has a bit of a problem finding enough space for all the bicycles to be parked without them being in the way. This is why bicycles are threatened with being "towed away" and why there are such initiatives as red carpets on sidewalks to reserve space for pedestrians. Ultimately the bicycles have to go somewhere, and providing indoor cycle parking which is free to use is one way of dealing with a part of the problem rather than simply punishing people which might lead to less cycling. That's why Groningen has built several such facilities in peak cycle-parking areas, such as next to the university and next to a cinema.

Most Dutch cities have indoor guarded cycle parking, and many of them are free to use. For example, this cycle-park which opened last year in the rebuilt library/theatre/cinema complex in Assen:

When we were at this cycle-park last week on the study tour, there was someone vacuuming around the bicycles. Making sure that cycle-parking is clean and attractive and doesn't smell improves social safety and is part of what makes it work.

See other examples of guarded cycle parking in other places.

A blog post including details of the study tour will appear on Tuesday. Until then, read blog posts about previous study tours.

Previous blog posts show a vending machine for inner tubes and a vending machine for complete bicycles. We sell much better bike lights than those available from that machine.

Friday 3 May 2013

What It Really Means to Go Dutch - interview on The Bike Show

A couple of weeks ago, Jack Thurston from The Bike Show kindly interviewed me. He did a splendid job of editing my ramblings down into something coherent and published the result today. You can hear the interview by clicking on the play button below, introduced by no less a cycling hero than Eddy Merckx !

If you can't see the play button, click here to listen to the radio interview

So what does it really mean to "Go Dutch" ?
Cycling home from school with a
friend. No cars near by. UNICEF
rates Dutch children as having
the best well-being in the world
There have been many proposals recently for "Dutch" infrastructure, some more convincing than others. Many of them, in my opinion, rather miss the point.

First of all it's necessary to know why it is that people cycle so much more in the Netherlands than elsewhere. While some people roll out the same old myths and excuses time and time again, I'm still absolutely convinced that it comes down primarily to one thing: a lack of subjective safety in other countries puts people off.

Cars so far away you can pretend
they don't exist.
Why do I believe this ? It's quite simply actually. I spent many years trying to promote cycling in the UK in many ways, including driving around the country with a huge bus full of bikes for people to try out. It was never even slightly difficult to convince people to try our bikes and to cycle in a controlled environment. There is huge enthusiasm and people virtually snatch bikes out of your hands in order to ride them. The huge pent up demand for cycling is also demonstrated by the massive popularity of other events on closed streets, such as Sky Rides across the UK and Ciclovias in the Americas. Events like this make "cyclists" out of "non cyclists". Such events are not demonstrations of true mass cycling in themselves, but they are very effective demonstrations of unmet pent up demand for cycling.

There are cars, but they're over there
It's not the same story if you ask those same people to ride to work in the rush hour, or to let their children cycle to school. Make these suggestions and you won't find much enthusiasm outside of the self-selected group who already cycle.

In the Netherlands people already do cycle in their thousands. In fact, to be more accurate, they cycle in their millions, every day. It's really impressive. What's more, it's not a narrow demographic, but the entire population. The comparison with other countries is remarkably stark. No-where else is the same.

And this is what it really means to "Go Dutch". It's not specifically about cycle-paths, segregation by means other than cycle-paths, unravelling of routes, how traffic light junctions are designed, or what Dutch roundabouts look like. It's not about how much cycle-parking there is at railway stations or even about cycling being safer in the Netherlands than in other countries.

Disabled with an able bodied friend?
You can ride side by side in safety.
Infrastructure is not an end in itself. Rather, it is the important enabling technology to allow mass cycling to occur where there are motor vehicles. Without motor vehicles, no specific cycling infrastructure is needed. But that is true only when motor vehicles are excluded.

People cycle in the Netherlands because it feels so normal to do so. And why does it feel so normal ? Because cycling is efficient and stress free in a way that simply does not compare with anywhere else. Remarkably, to many people (including many Dutch people) this simple truth is hidden in plain sight. It looks like people cycle simply because "they're Dutch" but actually it's because the experience is so attractive that it pulls people in.

This is what needs to be kept in mind when people talk about "Going Dutch". It's not about putting in a few pieces of infrastructure, it's about civilizing the entire experience of cycling for everyone. Until that happens, cycling will remain a minority pursuit for those people who are relatively confident whatever the conditions.

My mother cycling next to
me during a visit to The
Netherlands. Is there any
need for an explanation of
why this feels safer than
riding at home ?
I wrote a few paragraphs back that the infrastructure is not an end in itself, but that doesn't mean that it's importance should be underplayed. For a high level of cycling everywhere, there must be good quality infrastructure everywhere that there are cars and it must be a very fine grid and have a very high quality level. This is what makes cycling accessible to everyone. Unfortunately, this still does not seem to be well enough understood and it's a reason why attempts to "Go Dutch" are often doomed to fail.

You can't "Go Dutch" on an inadequate budget, by setting a low target to aim for, with a few prestige projects, in a very small area of a town, at just one junction or along one road, by skimping on the standards or by proposing to build good enough infrastructure only where it is easy to do so and ignoring the parts where it is difficult. Mediocrity simply doesn't work.

Isolated bits and pieces don't work. The network is the infrastructure. That's what makes the difference between 2% of journeys by bike and 27% of journeys by bike.

As I pointed out five years ago, a short distance "may as well be a thousand miles" if there are unpleasant conditions for cycling along the route. People simply won't choose to do it.

Ultimately the result of any cycle campaigning, infrastructure building, training, publicity or anything else intended to increase cycling can be measured in its success only if it can be demonstrated that this has genuinely led to more cycling. That's what it's all about.

One more question
While Jack's editing hides it very well (we recorded our own parts separately and he edited the two separate recordings together), we had quite a lot of problems due to dropouts on Skype during the interview. As a result, one question which he asked stands out in the interview as not being answered properly. He sent it to me again this afternoon in email: "One point I thought was particularly interesting - and which I don't quite think we got to a satisfactory answer - was how do UK (or US) campaigners stay motivated in the face of continuously inadequate responses from government."

It's a very good question and it deserves an answer.

I know that some people see my contribution to the debate about cycling as rather negative. I understand why: I do not accept what I read in press releases at face value, I have rounded on child cycle trainers as having presided over a drop in child cycling and I have often criticised campaigners for setting their standards too low. However that doesn't mean that I don't respect those who give freely of their time in order to try to improve the lot of cyclists. I have experienced for myself the difficulties of being a cycling campaigner in the UK and I have seen for myself how slow progress is. There is a certain amount of churn amongst campaigners and sometimes the group memory seems to be short because those who've "seen it all before" give up and are replaced by other people who take the same roles. Some remarkable individuals stay in the same roles for far longer than I managed to and I am impressed by their ability to do so.

The gadget displayed to the right was described by one correspondent as "the most depressing app of 2013", but my intention with it was to help us all to stay focused. I'm going to continue to tell it as it is because I think nothing is gained by pretending otherwise. However, my criticism is not of campaigners and trainers but of the environment that they work in. Good people are putting in an enormous amount of effort but their efforts are being squandered by politicians who talk but do not act.

I see it as vitally important for both campaigning and training to continue and of course people must continue to see for themselves the importance of what they do.

While mass events are not genuine mass cycling, they do have a role to play. They demonstrate support for cycling and they have the potential to get far more people involved than would normally turn up at a "cycling" event. Get as many people on bikes as possible. Demonstrate the pent-up demand which exists. Make people smile because they're cycling. Most importantly, get children on bikes. They're the only source of future cyclists. This is why we think it is of vital importance to campaign for the right of children right to cycle.

A lot of work is still needed on the political front. Lobbying politicians is a good way of making yourself noticed but politicians can be quite good at giving the answer you want to hear. Questioning them and publishing the results is a good way of pointing out that some candidates have more of a clue than others. At a later date this also lets you compare what they said with what they did. Push the benefits of cycling and not cycling itself. The well-being of children is surely of everyone's concern and children demonstrably fair best in the countries where most children cycle. If no-one looks to be doing a good job, try to get yourself elected.

Also organise events for cyclists. There's nothing wrong with "cyclists breakfast" type events which target those who already cycle and reward them for doing what they already do. These events don't do anything much to grow cycling but they support people who are already doing the right thing and help to make life enjoyable.

Fast cyclists benefit from good
infrastructure just like anyone else.
They have the same need for direct,
safe and easy to follow routes.
Make sure you cycle. Try types of cycling that you've not tried before. i.e. if you've never toured, try touring. If you've never raced, try racing. If you've never been out with the local CTC group, go and meet them for a Sunday ride. Of course, I'm not telling you that you must do any of these things if you really don't like the sound of them, but in my experience it's all good fun. Cyclists are a small enough minority already and do not benefit from being perceived as separate "tribes" with different needs. Build bridges between cyclists so that you can work together towards infrastructure which will work for all of you.

Learn about good infrastructure
If you believe it is practical to ban all cars then you can skip this section. Otherwise, changes to infrastructure will be needed if cycling can ever be made acceptable to the population at large.

Become knowledgeable about infrastructure that works for cycling. Don't propose things that you wouldn't want to use yourself. Everyone, from 3 year olds on tricycles through to experienced fast cyclists, benefits from exactly the same things. i.e. direct, safe and easy to follow routes for cycling which are comfortable and pleasant to use. Don't seek out alternatives to well tried designs for infrastructure simply on the grounds that they are novel, less expensive, or not Dutch. Why look for an alternative unless something else from somewhere else has proven to be more successful than the best Dutch examples ? The Netherlands is not perfect, but it is the leading nation in cycling for a reason. If you're considering something else it'd better be good.

Try to get politicians and planners to come on our study tours. Come along yourself. This blog started originally as a way to keep in touch with people who'd been on the tours. The tours started because we realised back in 2006 that no-one was doing such a thing. There have always been many misconceptions about what had been achieved in the Netherlands and we do our best to show people how it really is. We're now in a unique position to explain things with the perspective of having lived both in the UK and the Netherlands and because we speak English as a first language this helps to prevent misunderstandings.

We're not affiliated to any government agency and we pull no punches. We show not only where things are good, but also what doesn't work so well.

Other good stuff
Please also read Mark Treasure's blog post from earlier this week entitled "Why do the Dutch cycle more than the British ?"

Still wondering about the success of mass cycling events ? Get up high enough and you'll see lots of people take part even in cities which set ludicrously long time-scales for progress on cycling.