Wednesday, 14 October 2015

A trip to the Netherlands

It's been a couple of weeks since I returned to the UK from my cycling trip in the Netherlands. This was my seventh trip there but only the third time I'd visited the country on my bike. On both of those two previous cycling trips I cycled directly from Hook Van Holland to Amsterdam along the North Sea cycle route and then cycled back along almost the same route again after a few days. Whilst those were both fantastic holidays and the first trip completely changed my outlook on how cycling could and should be accommodated I wanted to go back to visit other areas of the Netherlands I hadn't been to before and use more of the wonderful Dutch cycling infrastructure, particularly within urban areas. 

It's a great feeling cycling off the ferry and onto a smooth and wide segregated cycle track directly outside the ferry port. No matter which route you then choose to take it seems it'll always be a safe and comfortable route to cycle, no matter what your age or ability. 

After a few hours of always being accommodated extensively through urban and rural areas it really does feel like you've stepped onto another planet where cyclists are treated as equals to motorists. 

By using a combination of cycle tracks, bicycle roads and roads filtered to carry only very low numbers of motor vehicles it seems that anyone can easily get around the country by bike and it was a pleasure to see that wherever I cycled people of all ages were also cycling.

As well as the extensive, well designed and continuous cycle routes I enjoyed experiencing the joined up infrastructure network, such as cycle parking at railway stations. Although I've seen examples of this online before the sheer scale of some of the Cycle parking totally blew me away. Here is a video I shot of the 5,000 capacity cycle parking in the beautifully recently reconstructed Delft station.Visiting Delft was a last minute decision and I'm very glad I decided to detour. If you're a regular reader of the excellent Bicycle Dutch blog (and if you're not I highly recommend you become one) then you'll know that the Dutch have spent vast sums of money in recent years carrying out large infrastructure projects aimed at making their cities more people friendly. In Delft they've built 1.5 mile long tunnels under the city in order to remove the elevated railway tracks through the centre of the city and route the trains under the city. The railway viaducts are currently being torn down, removing physical barriers for people travelling across the city as well as improving noise for residents and the overall visual layout of the city.

Delft in 2009 and 2015, as captured by the google maps streetview car

The area around the railway station is currently a building site not too dissimilar to the building site at Victoria station in Central London. However in Delft cyclists are not expected to cycle among heavy construction traffic but are, of course, provided with safe cycle routes all around and through the construction area and a lot of work had clearly gone into creating this. 

One thing that always initially surprises me when I arrive in the Netherlands, but soon get very used to, is the huge amount of children cycling everywhere. 

Some are also of a very young age and often unaccompanied by adults, either cycling alone or with groups of friends. 

It is a wonderful thing to see especially during the school run which I was caught up in on several occasions

From late afternoon there was always a constant stream of children cycling wherever I was; in rural areas, in suburbs and also on the main roads in the centres of the town and cities I visited. 

In the Netherlands 49% of primary school children go to school by bike and more than 90% of children aged over 12 do so, compared to just 2% in Hackney
This continued long after the school run with children coming and going in the evening by bike, quite often in large groups and it was wonderful to see the freedom so many Dutch children have compared to British children in many of the car dominated cities of the UK.

Once back in London it then started to initially feel strange to not see children cycling on the roads, although after cycling to work on the first day back it became quite clear why so few of them do.  I described it on twitter as like coming back to a third world country but on reflection I was being far too kind. The main roads in London are horrific places to ride a bike and are choked with lorries, buses and heavy traffic all day long.  I was sat in a bar on one of the main streets in the centre of Utrecht with Mark Wagenbuur watching people cycle past as a girl, who was probably no older than ten years old, cycled past on her own I stated that a) a girl of that age would not be seen cycling on an equivalent road in London and that b) if a girl of that age was to cycle alone on a main road in Central London then it would attract some sharp comments about how unsafe it was. He just looked at me and said "well, that is because it wouldn't be safe for her." And he was absolutely spot on; it is dangerous to cycle on the main roads in London and we should not be encouraging children to do this.

A picture I took whilst cycling along Hackney Road, shortly after arriving back in the UK. Sharing the same road space as lorries on the main roads and then training and encouraging children to cycle on these roads is total madness. Cycling should be an accessible activity for everyone and not just for the brave few, willing to be trained in survival techniques.
Pedestrians were, on the whole, also well catered for both due to the large amount of either traffic-free or low-traffic routes in the city centres and the discouraging of through motor traffic in residential areas. Generous pedestrian crossings were provided at junctions and almost all side roads seemed to have continuous pavements. On many roads the cycle tracks made the space for motor vehicles much narrower than you would have here in the UK so tended to slow the traffic down and also the tracks and buffer between the tracks and the roadway pushed cars further away from the pavement making many streets much more pleasant for walking. Conditions were also, on the whole, a vast improvement for disabled people than a lot of streets here is the UK as there were much quicker and safer ways of getting around the towns and cities. I saw lots of wheelchairs and mobility scooters and all of them were making use of the cycle infrastructure.

The removal of large amounts of motor traffic from the centre of towns and cities make them feel much calmer and more civilised places to be. I visited Houten one morning where it really did feel as though I was visiting a film set as bicycles and people talking were the only sounds I could hear in the very centre of the town. This was the same case in Gouda and also in many areas of Utrecht. 

Something that isn't mentioned often enough and that is how fast cycling is in the Netherlands. Not just on the designated "fast" routes in rural areas between cities but also in the cities themselves. On Monday morning between 08:00 and 09:00 I took photos of people cycling in the rush hour in Amsterdam at Haarlemmerplein, Mr. Visserplein and at the cycle track that runs through the Rijksmuseum. I was stunned at just how quickly I was able to cycle from one side of the city to the other at such a busy time, so much quicker than the equivalent distance in London where I would have been held up, stuck behind congested motor trafficMonday morning rush hour in Amsterdam was a joy to be part of, watching parents and children cycling side by side having a chat, nursery school children sat on their parents bike eating breakfast, groups of friends cycling to school together; all doing so without the stress and worry of interacting with motor traffic. 

As I cycled along Weesperstraat shortly before 09:00 on my way to the Rijksmuseum a van driver within the heavy traffic was having an awful road rage fit and beeping his horn at other motor vehicles. He then pulled some ridiculous undertake that pushed him about two cars further up and returned to beeping and shouting at no one in particular, within his van. No one else cycling around me seemed to even notice and I started to think about what if you transported that idiot to the Shoreditch Triangle and what an unpleasant and dangerous environment that would make for people cycling in the area. Despite all the talk of strict liability I saw an awful lot of really bad driving like this in my time in the Netherlands but it was always "over there" on the road. 

I was sharing some videos of people cycling on twitter it was a bit disappointing to get comments back about people not wearing helmets, which is just an utterly ridiculous statement to hear when you're cycling in the Netherlands. These are streets where people cycle in their thousands all day long, including many, many young children and serious head injuries are not a concern at all. It is a non issue. This is exactly what cycling should be like; we're the abnormal ones for strapping helmets and high viz on like we're about to enter a war zone just to get to work.

The Dutch concentrate on safe road design and separating incompatible road users rather than industrial style safety clothing

I found it pretty depressing to be back in London after getting so used to being able to safely cycle anywhere I wanted in complete comfort. I had to pick my daughter up from nursery on my first day back and after picking her up we travelled along Pitfield Street and Whitmore Road through the resurfacing works on Cycle Superhighway 1 (where Hackney Council and TFL bizarrely think resurfacing a road, narrowing it, making it two way and not reducing any of the huge amount of motor traffic that uses it makes it a "cycle route"!) CS1 is far too dangerous for me to cycle with my three year old so like most parents and children I cycled along the pavement here in order to get to the Regents Canal where I could safely cycle back to Hackney Wick via Victoria Park, knowing that this route will be closed by 4.15pm within a month. I started to feel sad, jealous and angry thinking back to where I had been just 24 hours earlier and how I could have safely cycled with my daughter wherever I wanted to go, at any time. 

Instead I'll have to spend the next few months paying money after dark in order  to spend at least twice as long (on a good day) stuck on the bus or a densely packed overground train to get my daughter home safely. 

The bus network in Utrecht is very reliable as the buses are not slowed by being stuck behind people cycling. Parents also have the choice to cycle with their children in safe conditions and are therefore not forced to use public transport or buy a car, as they often are in Hackney

There has been a lot of nonsense written about the under construction Cycle Superhighway 2 recently but the authors of these pieces also believe that Dutch cycling infrastructure can't work in the UK because of Zwarte Piet and windmills so their views should of course be ignored and certainly not recycled into biased national newspaper articles. There are, quite clearly, some design issues with CS2 but that does not mean the principle of segregated cycle lanes should be ruled out altogether

I cycled hundreds of miles in the Netherlands and never once came across a "floating bus stop" that looked anything like this
A cycle track in Utrecht running behind a "floating bus stop" and past a one-way side street (two way for bikes). Easy for pedestrians to cross and clear priority for both pedestrians and cyclists crossing the side road. Much better than the CS2 bus stops with its unprotected left turns 
The scene on Mile End Road on the old non segregated CS2 after Brian Holt's death less than two years ago. People cycling will no longer have to share the same space as lorries here, hugely improving the safety of cycling on the A11. All TFL roads need well designed cycle tracks.
People will continue to die whilst cycling in London and it will always remain a minority mode of transport unless we stop the silly notion that training or encouragement will make any difference at all and instead just copy what is proven to work. Cycling in the Netherlands was not perfect, there was some badly designed cycle infrastructure and also some very busy roads that had no provision for people cycling at all. However this was rare and I felt that I would have been perfectly happy to cycle with my daughter almost everywhere I went. It can be quite difficult to sufficiently describe what cycling is like in the Netherlands in a blog post, it really is something that has to be experienced so I would recommend that you take the ferry from Harwich with your bike and ride around for a few days, just as I did. The main towns and cities are only a couple of hours ride away from each other and I spent the whole week cycling in jeans, a hoodie and trainers on a heavy Dutch bike. David Hembrow also runs study tours in the north of the country, and although I've not attended one I hope to one day.

I find it odd when people credit the high cycling rate in the Netherlands to being down to "culture". There is, of course, an element of cycling culture as children literally grow up on the bike and are transported to nursery on the back of theirs mums bike, just as their mum was transported to nursery on her mums bike 30 years ago, and so on. However this would not happen were it not for the safe infrastructure that is provided for them. Children cycle alone on main roads in the Netherlands from a very young age and protected cycle infrastructure is of course key to that; put these people in Hackney and they'd be on the bus or car like most people.

The UK did used to have a "cycling culture" and it wasn't until the 1960's that this stopped being the case. We can bring those days back and create the conditions, just as the Dutch did, where large numbers of people see cycling as a perfectly normal way to get to work, to see friends, run errands and allow their children to cycle independently to school. London is slowly starting to build this infrastructure and some other cities in the UK also seem to be slowly progressing. However it must continue and the next Mayor should be aiming to build cycle tracks on all TFL controlled roads. We should stop building "cycle superhighways" and instead just build cycle tracks on the main roads where lorries and buses run. Local councils should be forced to install cycle infrastructure when they upgrade roads or build new ones. Closures of residential streets should not be classed as "cycling infrastructure" but schemes that benefit the local community as a whole. Highway England, Traffic Wales and Traffic Scotland should begin building high quality cycle infrastructure along the main motorways and Dual Carriageways of the UK. Yes, it will take many years and in some areas sacrifices will have to be made but we have to start somewhere, just as the Dutch did. If we were to aim to build the same level of infrastructure that they have in the Netherlands here in the UK then we could also produce a safe cycling culture, safer conditions for pedestrians, quieter and calmer cities, less pollution, faster and more efficient public transport, a healthier nation and plenty of other benefits as well. However without the infrastructure cycling will always be a minority activity.


  1. Good stuff! I very much enjoyed your tour vicariously and also your posts. Well done and all the best for making it happen at home.

  2. Agree 100%. Very well presented the feeling of most cyclists. I went to holland early last minth but only had the chance to cycle for a day. It was a fantastic feeling. Yoy would not feel you are cycling when you are on the urban areas. Its like watching a film or when you do the jogging on nintando wii where yiu will not see any single motor vehicle. I cant waut for my next visit.
    spot on i really enjoyed your whole of this post. Well done.

  3. Of course we'd all love to see this kind of infrastructure and road layout in the UK (not to mention a similar absence of helmets, garish lycra and pointlessly over-specced bikes). But we just don't have the room. Dutch cities are more spacious and less densely populated than in UK cities, so of course they can afford to devote a significant proportion of their road space to bikes. In the UK, the only way you can do that is by taking away road space from cars, and any party/council that did that would get wiped out at the ballot box.

    A further point is that the Dutch are - mistakenly in my view - over-keen on segregated road space. This just gives car drivers carte blanche to drive as fast and aggressively as they want on 'their' roads while forcing cyclists into narrow sidings. Road space should be shared, not segregated, with cars taking third-place priority after bikes and pedestrians (because they are the most dangerous).

    What is needed in the UK, rather than Dutch-style schemes that we don't have room for and are politically unlikely to happen, is a wholesale re-assessment of who should have priority on the roads and who the roads should primarily be designed for, coupled with a reassessment of the 'right to drive' mentality. But I'm not holding my breath (unless I'm cycling down the Euston Road of course).


  4. I was in the Netherlands last week. Many good infrastructure designs stood out, including how continuous cyclepaths are, and the abundance of actual car parking spaces in residential areas. Houten was the nicest town I have ever been in, there were children everywhere and barely any cars. I was almost speechless while riding around it. I was also slightly surprised to see that car parking in Houten is free for the first 2 hours, so clearly the cycling option is much preferred! I have lots of photos from Houten:

    There is a lot more filtered permeability that I expected, and the flatness was also noticable, although there were a few artificial hills. Many people lack creativity when thinking about cycling infrastructure in the UK. Just yesterday I was talking about cycling in the Netherlands and the person I was talking to replied with "but the problem is that it's very flat there". Yes it is, but cycling clearly isn't impossible here. A dense grid of infra would help to avoid some hills, artificial hills can be made less steep, people can walk up hills or get a bike with more gears, and the government could set up grants or subsidies for electric bicycles in hilly areas or nationwide. There are also a couple of things that the UK could do better than the Netherlands, such as not allowing motor scooters on cyclepaths and using asphalt for residential streets rather than brick (which I often found to be quite bumpy).

    1. Against 'Flatness' you have a counter balance in the Netherlands; you have 'Wind'. If people can cycle in Dutch winds, they can easily manage English hills.

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