To Aaron Rosser, TfL Cycle Superhighways project manager, and all at TfL who are involved with designing facilities for cycling:
Hello Aaron (and others at TfL),
We don’t know each other, but in my life as a transport campaigner I meet many people with whom I discuss transport issues. (Some of them even know my secret identity as the writer of this blog!)
Not too long ago at a road safety event I met someone who told me they’d had a good conversation with you about the Cycle Superhighways project. Don’t worry, my source was quite complimentary about you!
I’m told that you were very happy to discuss any aspect of the new CS designs, and that you’re genuinely enthusiastic about your work, which is great to hear. Of course, you have to work within restrictions beyond your control, from both inside TfL and out, which can limit your options. I was also told that you’re mildly embarrassed by the grandiose name for the project — it certainly gives you a lot to live up to!
Apparently, if you were given a blank cheque you’d go nuts with great cycling infrastructure all over London. I’m very pleased to hear this, if it’s true. You sound like a great person for the job.
But then one little morsel of information shocked and disappointed me: You haven’t been to study the infrastructure in the Netherlands?!
Please say it ain’t so! I really don’t see how anybody can be considered a suitable person to design cycling infrastructure if they haven’t studied the Netherlands, any more than someone could be considered an expert on Elvis Presley without ever having listened to his records.
Apparently, you’re planning a trip to Paris to see what’s going on there. This is good – Paris is a large city which has already begun responding to calls for better cycling infrastructure. But this, to stick with my Elvis analogy, is a bit like our supposed expert listening to the Pet Shop Boys’ version of You Were Always On My Mind without having heard Elvis’ recording.*
I’m sure TfL would like a trip to New York too – why not! As a London tax-payer, I endorse it. Please do visit New York, to see how they have transformed Times Square from a motorway into a pleasant space by removing motor traffic — then come home and do the same to Parliament Square and Piccadilly Circus. But visiting New York to study bike facilities is like listening to Gareth Gates’ version of Suspicious Minds instead of the definitive rendition.*
What I’m getting at is this: If you want the real deal, you’ve got to go to Graceland to see The King – by which I mean go to the Netherlands and see David Hembrow. I can’t recommend this guy highly enough. He’s had an enormous influence on the thinking of many UK cycle campaigners, many of them undergoing an epiphany which changed them from committed Vehicular Cyclists into dedicated Infrastructuralists (that is a word now!).
He’s had this effect in two ways. The first is his blog, A View From The Cycle Path, in which he calmly and clearly explains why Dutch infrastructure works so well. He deals with many of the myths and rumours about the Netherlands and shows why the country’s success can be replicated elsewhere. The blog has been hugely influential.
The cycling infrastructure movement in the UK would be nowhere near as strong as it is today — and I sincerely doubt that the Mayor would have been making any announcements about cycle paths — had it not been for David’s work.
Many dedicated people have been campaigning along these lines for years, some since the 1990s, but David’s blog showed thousands of us what good cycling infrastructure looks like, and how great it can be to live somewhere where cycling is a normal, every-day transport option for everyone.
The second way in which David has influenced many people is his Dutch cycling infrastructure study tours of Assen and Groningen, explaining how it all works and why it works — something which is difficult to fully understand unless you can see it in action, and see how everything joins up. Reading the blog is great, but the study tour gives you the real detail you’ll need if London’s investment in cycling infrastructure is to be spent wisely.
He is the right person to go to, because he was an active cycling campaigner in Cambridge for many years until he had his own ‘road to Damascus’ moment and emigrated to the Netherlands about five years ago. As a British cycling expert living in the world’s top cycling nation, he has a uniquely clear viewpoint which you are unlikely to find elsewhere. Like many cycle campaigners and urban planners, I have been on the tour and I can honestly say that it is time and money well-spent.**
I returned to London with a fresh set of eyes — I can see how the decades of poor design continue to harm the city, and how it could be massively improved. It would be a wise investment for TfL to send a team on a study tour with David.
Now, my source says that you’ve been provided with details of the study tour, but I’ve asked David and he says that nobody from TfL has been in touch. I have to ask: why? Is it too expensive for TfL to afford? Is the Netherlands not as glamorous as Paris?
You might think that a town such as Assen and a small city like Groningen have few lessons for London, but that would be a short-sighted view. Assen in the 1970s was just like many UK towns still are today, with streets full of parked and queued cars and “no space for cycling”, and yet it has been transformed into pleasant, safe, liveable place. With the London plans including the excellent concept of specific areas designed as “mini-Hollands” the lessons of Assen and Groningen are very relevant to London.
If you do want a big city experience with a wide river and skyscrapers, spend a day or two in Rotterdam. The conurbation stretches the equivalent of Ealing to Greenwich, and Holloway to Tooting. But this is merely a suggestion for further research, it is not a substitute for David’s thorough and information-packed three day tour.
If you’re going to do your best work then you really need to arrange a study tour with David. It’s a scandal that you hold this position and yet have never studied Dutch cycling infrastructure. That your bosses gave you the job with such a gaping hole in your CV, and haven’t even sent you to see the Netherlands, shows their lack of knowledge of what’s required in London over the next few years.
I’m not trying to be horrible to you here, I’m really not. I’m just trying to underline how much you’re missing out on. I think your own personal career, and London’s future, can benefit greatly from a few days with David in Assen and Groningen – so do it for yourself, but most of all, do it for Britain!
You can get from London to Rotterdam in under 4 hours with Eurostar via Brussels, or it’s a relaxed 9 hours or so by train then ferry, through the day or overnight, and there are flights too, of course. The Netherlands, which is #1 for cycling however you measure it, is right next door! There’s no excuse for not going to see it.
And if TfL’s really that skint, we’ll have a whip-round.
All the best,
*Okay, so Elvis wasn’t the first to sing these songs, but you know what I mean. One thing I’ve learned while writing this article is how many of Elvis’ songs were cover versions!
**I hope David Hembrow isn’t embarrassed by the flattery here, but I’m telling it like I see it. I have no financial interest in selling study tours! My only goal is to improve Britain’s streets and roads.