Tag Archives: Netherlands

An open letter to Aaron Rosser and TfL

I wrote this a few days ago, but I thought it might become irrelevant after the big announcement on Thursday.

But I see now that this message is actually more relevant than it was before.

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,

S.C.

 


*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.

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Cycling in the Netherlands picture post #5: Older people

People who ride bikes in the UK are mostly fit, confident young and middle-aged men. Sure there are outliers of course (such as retired tricyclist blogger Zandranna) but these are exceptions to the rule and do not make up numbers of significance. Cycling in the UK does not offer equal opportunities for all.

These picture posts aim to show how good quality infrastructure means that people of all ages and abilities choose to use a bike for transport and leisure, unlike the UK style of riding on the road with cars and vans, which will mainly appeal to those fit, confident men aged 20-50.

So here I present photos of older people riding bikes. These are scenes which are rare in the UK but are commonplace and unexceptional in the Netherlands. As with my previous picture post, my brief trips to the Netherlands yielded so many photos that I had a hard time selecting which ones to use. I dare say you could hang around for a month in most British towns and never find any scenes like these.

The first photo shows a group of people out for a ride together. Note the friend in a mobility scooter further ahead. In the Netherlands, cycle infrastructure is designed to also be suitable for people with disabilities, which means that everyone has very high levels of independence and freedom.

Let’s see your Bikeability achieve that, Franklin fans!

A grey-haired woman rides a bike alongside a canal and a windmill in the Netherlands

An older woman rides a bike on the safe cycle infrastructure in the Netherlands

An older woman rides her bike along a cycle path, past houses with driveways

A grey-haired woman casually rides her bike one-handed along a Dutch cycle path

A late-middle-aged man calmly rides his bike past a cafe in the Netherlands

An older couple ride their bikes along a bicycle road in the Netherlands

An older man rides his bike past hundreds of parked bikes in a city centre in the Netherlands

And finally, an old favourite! I like this one a lot because it really does demonstrate how the Dutch infrastructure allows people of all ages and abilities to get around safely and easily. Can you imagine this man having the freedom to ride a bike around your town or village, or in the British countryside?

An elderly man rides his bike on a safe, wide, rural cycle path in the Netherlands

You can find all the picture posts here.

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Cycling in the Netherlands picture post #4: Children

I thought this would be one of the easiest picture posts to choose the photos for, but it turned out that I had so many photos of children riding bikes that it was hard to choose which ones to show.

It’s often said that children are the pit-canaries of our society, and if this is the case then we’ve got a problem. Our pit canary lost its feathers years ago and is now gasping for air.

One of my aims with these posts is to challenge those who insist that we can achieve mass cycling without infrastructure, by showing scenes that simply wouldn’t exist if the cycle paths weren’t there. I really can’t imagine any of these scenes happening on the UK’s roads!

Two young girls ride bikes home from school in the Netherlands, safely on the cycle path, away from motor vehicles.

A boy rides down a hill on a wide cycle path in the Netherlands, safely protected from the busy road.

Groups of schoolchildren ride their bikes on a safe, wide cyclepath in the Netherlands.

Three boys ride on a Dutch cyclepath, protected from the traffic on the road.

Two teenagers ride their bikes on a cyclepath in the Netherlands, protected from the main road.

A boy rides his bike across a junction in Holland.

Three Dutch kids ride their bikes past one of the many bike parking areas in Utrecht.

Three teenagers ride bikes on a rural cycle path in the Netherlands – up-hill!

Three Dutch girls ride home on a 'bicycle road' alongside the canal in the Netherlands.

Two boys riding home from school, practising riding no-handed! They are safely on a cycle track away from the motor traffic.

Two girls ride on a cycle path in Holland, beside a busy road with a tractor on it.

And of course there’s this old favourite too.

 


As this post is meant to be uplifting I recommend you ignore the following link, but if you really want to see the UK government’s equivalent vision of children cycling then click here. Just make sure you have a nearby wall handy to bang your head against.

 

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Cycling in the Netherlands picture post #3: Animals

Or ‘dogs’ to be more precise. (Although I did see people with cats in cat baskets being taken to the vet, I got no photos of them.)

In the Netherlands, it’s quite common for people to take their dogs with them when riding their bike. Either in a basket, a trailer, or scampering along beside, I’ve never seen such happy dogs as I saw in the Netherlands.

Three people on bikes waiting at a crossing. One is carrying an umbrella, the second person is carrying a crate of beer, the third person has his son on a child seat, and his dog on a lead.

Note that Super-Dad here also has his son in the child seat!

A man on a bike in the Netherlands, waiting at a cycle traffic-light. His son is on a child seat, and his dog is walking alongside them.

A man rides his bike on a protected cycle path in the Netherlands. His dog is sitting in the rear basket.

A young couple riding a tandem on a Dutch cycle path. A large dog is sat in a trailer attached to the back of the bike.

man-and-dog

outside-school

Even the family dog can take part in the school run!

two-boys-and-dog


You can find all the picture posts here.

 

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Cycling in the Netherlands picture post #2: Shopping

Time for another picture post! This one shows people going shopping. A rather dull, every day activity really, but one which most people would never dream of using a bike for in the UK. In addition to the general fear of cycling on the roads, sensible bikes with storage aren’t the norm here, there is often no cycle parking, and shopping centres are usually designed with only cars in mind.

Most Dutch people would think this a very boring blog post, as in the Netherlands it’s a common sight to see old women filling panniers with their shopping and riding off, for example. But that’s something you’d never see in the UK, and it shows that shopping by bike is perfectly feasible for people of all ages when you have the right infrastructure.

It’s interesting to see that at supermarkets in the Netherlands the cycle parking area is right beside the entrance, as opposed to the standard UK provision of a few wheel-bender bike racks shamefully hidden round the corner by the bins.

A bike parking lot outside a supermarket in the Netherlands. Hundreds of bikes can be seen with customers amongst them.

Many bikes parked outside a supermarket in Groningen, Netherlands. A young woman rides past on a bike.

A middle-aged woman rides a bike on a cycle-path in the Netherlands. She has a shopping bag on her handlebars and flowers in the panniers on the rear of the bike.

Bikes and shoppers outside a supermarket in the Netherlands

Bikes parked outside a supermarket in Woerden, Netherlands. Shoppers are loading items into their bikes' panniers. The bike parking is nearer to the shop entrance than the car parking!

A person cycles home from the shops in Amersfoort, Netherlands. Both panniers are full and they are holding a large shopping bag on the rack behind them.

A huge number of bikes parked outside a supermarket in Utrecht, Netherlands. Shoppers can be seen.

Cycles are parked ouside shops in Groningen, a woman is riding away with shopping bags hanging from her bike. A man waits with his Saint Bernard dog in the large front compartment of his 'bakfiets'.

 

I don’t know why the only supermarket in these photos is Albert Heijn — other supermarkets are available in the Netherlands and people cycle to those too! Maybe I should mention Jumbo, C1000 and Plus, just to even out the balance a bit.

 


You can find all the picture posts here.

 

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Cycling in the Netherlands picture post #1: Families

A picture is worth a thousand words, and most of the words I write tend to be rather cynical.

In an attempt to focus on something positive instead of banging on as usual about why cycling in the UK is so awful, here is the first of a series of photo-posts. The aim of the series is to show how people in the Netherlands enjoy and benefit from the cycle infrastructure — and to show how good we could have it, too.

This first instalment shows how Dutch families use the safe cycling conditions as an easy way to get around town. These photos don’t show rare occurrences — they’re all simply normal everyday scenes in the Netherlands.

A family riding bikes on a cycle path in the Netherlands.

A woman and her son ride safely along a cycle path in the Netherlands.

A mother and her two daughters set off at the traffic lights.

A mother and daughter cycling in the Netherlands.

In the Netherlands, a mother cycles to the shops with her young daughter in the large container at the front of the bike.

A young family prepare for a journey. Father and toddler on one bike, mother rides a 'bakfiets' with the baby in.

A family riding bikes in the Dutch countryside

Families ride bikes on the Dutch cycle paths.

A woman rides her bike along a cycle path in the Netherlands, her toddler in a seat behind the handlebars. The child is drinking from a bottle.

 

And I didn’t say the f-word once!

 


You can find all the picture posts here.

 

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Continuous paths across minor junctions

It seems to me that one of the keys to successful cycling infrastructure is getting the detail right. Not everything has to be a massive gesture or huge engineering. Among the many things which impressed me on my recent visit to the Netherlands is how minor junctions are often handled.

In most countries, the tarmac on the road connects to the tarmac on all the other roads without a gap. If you live on the UK mainland, the tarmac on the road outside your front door is joined to the tarmac outside my front door without a break. It’s quite a feat when you think about it! We’re all connected by roads.

The footpath outside your front door, however, probably only circles the block of buildings in which you live. To get to the next path, you have to cross over part of the uninterrupted network of tarmac which covers the land.

This is so innate, so built-in to our way of thinking, that it goes unquestioned. Of course the roads are connected, or you can’t drive from one to the other! But it doesn’t have to be this way, as I discovered on the first night of a recent trip to the Netherlands. It’s such a small thing, such a simple thing that it’s hardly worthy of the word ‘engineering’ and yet the subliminal message it sends to road users is massive.

(This might well have been covered already by David Hembrow – it seems that most Dutch road innovations have! – but I can’t find it if it has.)

First, some diagrams. Here’s how we treat junctions in the UK:

A British-style road junction, where the minor road disrupts the footpath.

I’m not an expert diagram-maker, but I think you’ll all recognise this as a standard UK road junction.

And here’s how we discovered similar junctions to be in the Netherlands:

A Dutch-style junction, where the footpath continues over the minor road, giving priority to people walking.

A diagram of the kind of thing we saw in the Netherlands. Again, it’s simplified and not to scale, etc., but it gives you an idea of what I’m talking about.

And here’s some photos of what I call “continuous path”, firstly from a bike rider’s point of view:

The view of a Dutch-style continuous-path minor junction from the view of a bike rider. The cyclepath and footpath both continue across the junction, and the minor road is disconnected from the main road. Cars have to mount the pavement and cross both paths to get between the two roads.

There’s little doubt who has right of way from this point of view. The white squares make riders aware that there’s a potential hazard at that section.

And from the point of view of a driver or rider on the minor road:

The view of a minor road junction, from the minor road. The footpath and cyclepath both sever the minor road's connection to the main road, and therefore it's clear that vehicles leaving the minor road do not have priority.

To a driver leaving the minor road, it’s clear that they do not have priority here, as they have to drive up a ramp and over the cycle- and foot-paths to access the main road.

It’s not entirely clear from that photo, but leaving or joining the side road means driving up a ramp, over the path and back down again. Here’s a close-up of one:

Close-up of ramp which enables vehicles to cross the continuous path

It slows cars down, and subconsciously tells drivers that they are no longer on the road, but crossing a footpath.

I didn’t get a photo from the view a driver on the main road would have, but you can have a look for yourself on Google StreetView here. Here’s a photo of a similar junction at a different location, where again it’s clear that priority lies with people on the cycle path or footpath:

A view of a continuous-path junction from the main road. It's clear that drivers entering the minor road do not have priority over people on the footpath or bike path.

A different location, view from the road. It’s clear that you can’t just sweep around the corner like in the UK.

I think the design here has a psychological effect, and the clues are all on the floor. Having to drive up a ramp onto the level of the path, and the path surface looking and feeling different to the road surface and continuing across the junction, makes it clear that people walking and riding here have priority and that a motor vehicle is a temporary guest passing through a non-car domain.

Compare this with the British way of doing things. Firstly, at most junctions the road takes priority and the path is severed:

A standard UK-style junction of a main road with a minor road. The footpath is severed and the road sweeps around into the minor road.

A very similar junction in London. Cars clearly have priority here, the wide corners of the junction mean that you barely have to slow when turning. (Image from Google StreetView, click photo to view on there.)

At some junctions in the UK there has been an attempt to implement the “continuous path” style by adding a hump, but as usual they seem to have got the detail wrong:

A British attempt at a continuous-path junction, which fails as the path is still clearly severed by the road, even though it rises up, the double yellow lines continue around the junction, and "look left" and "look right" are painted on the floor next to tactile paving.

A UK attempt at a similar concept.

Clearly, the road continues around the junction here, despite the change in level. There’s tactile paving, “look left” and “look right” markings, double yellow lines continue around the corner. Pedestrians stop for vehicles here, not the other way around. You can have a look for yourself here, and there’s plenty of other examples about.

Not every junction in the Netherlands has this type of “continuous path” but we found it to be common. It’s a great way to show priority, and to slow vehicles down. We never had any problems with this type of junction, vehicles would always wait for people on bikes or on foot to clear the junction before crossing.

Of course, in the UK, cars turning into a road should give way to pedestrians who are already crossing, but in practice this never happens. It’s another example of the perfect fantasy world populated with reasonable, logical automatons that the Highway Code is set in. In reality, the pedestrian either retreats or runs across the road so the turning vehicle doesn’t have to slow down or stop. The stakes are simply too high for pedestrians to enforce this rule, and most people I’ve asked have never even heard of it.

Implementing this kind of junction in the UK would be physically easy – there’s really nothing special going on here, engineering-wise. However, getting the DfT to approve such a simple measure could take years…*


Update, 22nd of August 2012

Mark Wagenbuur of BicycleDutch makes it clear in a comment what I didn’t in the article: that the break in the road also helps signal to drivers that they’re changing road type, from a faster road into a slow residential area.

And Paul James covered this type of junction on Pedestrianise London back in February. I knew I’d seen it somewhere before!


*Update, 25th August 2012

I’m wondering now if the DfT would even need to approve such a thing here in the UK. Surely there could be a short “pedestrian zone, except for access” at the end of a street, thereby creating the same effect within current UK regulations? Sure, it might be a bit sign-heavy (there would need to be ‘pedestrian zone starts’ and ‘pedestrian zone ends’ signs at each end) but still do-able I reckon.

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