Second Class Citizen

Well, I knew I was back in the land of reality before I’d even got through passport control yesterday: rolling off the ferry, the half-dozen of us on bicycles were held up waiting in the queue while all the very important people in their nice warm comfortable cars went through before us. *sigh*. I suppose I should just be grateful that it wasn’t raining.

Karl McCracken (of Do the Right Thing) was then on hand to lead me and Claire Prospert of the Newcastle Cycling Campaign on an impromptu tour of the best and worst of Gateshead’s cycling provision (it turns out that the Tyne, like the Thames, has a very distinct north-south divide, and Claire had never cycled on its south bank either. She looked a lot happier once we were within sprinting distance of a bridge…) If I hadn’t just been in the Netherlands, I might have thought that some of it wasn’t all that bad: there were a few off road lanes, an underpass bypassing a nasty big roundabout and the millennium bridge with its own special section for bikes. But there were some horrors too: like a large three way junction on a dual carriageway where we needed to turn right without so much as a pedestrian crossing, let alone a bike one. The bike lane we were following (a painted line along the pavement at this point) gave us no clues as to how we were supposed to get across. In the end, we took our lives into our hands and just sprinted when it looked like the traffic was stopped at a red (we couldn’t see – the lights were just for the cars). We survived, but it didn’t exactly seem like an invitation to get on a bike. You wonder whether, really, the powers that be would actually prefer it if you didn’t.

I promise, I really do, not to bang on too much more about cycling infrastructure and return to regular updates about the state of the ford (around 3 ins of water this afternoon), the weather (raining again) and my poor neglected garden (neglected. And the bastard mouse has eaten the rest of my beetroot). But before I do I have to emphasise just how different it is across the North Sea. It’s not just that Dutch bike lanes are nice and wide (and by nice and wide, I mean up to four metres wide …) or that you get the green light first at traffic lights so that you’re out of the way of cars turning, or that there are loops in the cycle lane to detect oncoming bikes so they get a green light as they approach a junction, or that you have your own dedicated lane on roundabouts, or that on some roads bikes have priority over cars, or that it’s cars that go all round the houses on brick paving to make speeding uncomfortable while cyclists go direct on smooth tarmac, or that cyclists get their own bridges and their own multi-story parking and even their own bins – you could probably find examples of that even in the UK, in places. It’s that it’s like that everywhere. Wherever we went, from tiny villages to big cities, every single road seemed to have bikes catered for in some way or another. Every single road. From what I’ve seen, you could drop a novice cyclist – or a child – anywhere in Assen or Groningen and they could cycle safely and comfortably to anywhere else without needing a native guide to get them there. There’s nowhere in the UK where you could say that now. When it comes to cycling, the Dutch travel first class. In the UK we barely make it out of steerage.

And for those of you thinking, well, that’s very nice but really, it’s not very realistic to think we could do it here – well, just watch this video of kicking out time at a primary school in Assen and tell me that life in the UK wouldn’t be 100% better for everyone – but especially the (reportedly) unhappiest children in Europe – if we could have that too.

The holiday snaps are below.

Cyclist crossing a bike bridge - my last morning in Assen

This was one of the main routes into town for cars - now it's only a through route for bikes. The circle at the end is for people whose GPSs haven't quite caught up...


The obligatory 'Dutchman cycling with umbrella' shot. For viewers in the UK, this is not a road, it's a two-way cycle path

The obligatory 'station bike parking crammed with bikes' shot. There was a guy standing there scratching his head looking for his bike earlier, but I missed the moment

In case you're wondering what 4metre wide cycle paths look like we measured this one: they're wide

Assen town centre. This is actually a road but it's only really accessible for deliveries so there's almost no traffic on it. Except bikes, of course

Little kids cycling home for lunch - some accompanied, some not

a scramble junction: the cars are stopped in all directions and all the bikes get a green light. This was mid-morning so a bit quiet; I imagine it would be a sight to behold at rush hour.

Groningen, waiting for the bridge to close after a boat passed. For impatient bikes and pedestrians there are bridges on either side so they don't have to wait. The hi-vis guys are road workers, nobody wears it to cycle.

23 Responses to Second Class Citizen

  1. ian... says:

    Looks fantastic Sally…and haven’t we got it all wrong over here!

  2. disgruntled says:

    The sad thing is, we’re wasting a fair bit of money building rubbish bike lanes: if only all of that had gone into something of that quality we’d at least be making progress rather than fighting to stand still.

  3. Autolycus says:

    How right you are. Somewhere on one of the bike blogs I read a knowledgeable piece about how it’s not so long that the Netherlands were much closer to where we are now than we can imagine. So it can be done, with enough will.

  4. disgruntled says:

    I think they were closer in the seventies to where we were then – declining cycling rates but not on the floor as it is now in the UK. But yes, they have managed to reverse the decline

  5. Richard Mann says:

    “Every Single Road” – exactly. That’s the problem – there isn’t enough room on a lot of UK roads. If you want to treat “every single road” in towns, you either have to get rid of an awful lot of traffic, or you have to use cycle lanes much more than the Dutch do, and think about child-friendly routes as a separate network.

    That the Dutch have lots of cycle tracks is not exactly a great revelation. The question is how we apply their principles to our built environment. The nearest to a coherent approach for a UK city is what has been done in Oxford: cycle lanes and separate quiet routes.

    • livinginabox says:


      The Dutch have exactly the same problems as us, it’s just they weren’t prepared to see more children die on the roads because they might inconvenience drivers. The UK’s national shame is that we find quite acceptable to do so and in order to salve our consciences we pretend it’s inevitable. It isn’t.
      Some background:
      ‘Roads, Casualties and Public Health: the Open Sewers of the 21st Century’

      You need to see this:

      and this:

      Of course there are numerous good reasons why we should promote active transport, a few are listed here, there are more: reduced working days lost through illness; reduce carbon emissions; reduced road KSIs; reduced transport-related deaths and morbidity; fighting obesity and all the diseases of inactivity. BTW, according to the Telegraph, obesity alone costs the NHS £7 billion a year. So, the financial benefits are substantial and vastly outweigh the costs of not doing so. However, instead we chose the fantastically costly and unusable Trident whereas the Dutch chose cycling, weren’t we the stupid ones!

      • livinginabox says:

        ‘reduced transport-related deaths and morbidity’ should have read: ‘reduced transport pollution related transport-related deaths and morbidity’

  6. disgruntled says:

    Well, what I said was ‘every single road seemed to have bikes catered for in some way’ – which doesn’t have to mean bike tracks or lanes, it could mean something like no through routes for cars, exceptions to the one way system for bikes (which was pretty much universal) or full blown bicycle roads where bikes take priority over cars. Naturally, one side effect of this is that it gets rid of a lot of traffic, at least in those roads where there isn’t a lot of room – and also makes sure that the quiet, child friendly routes are also the most direct and quickest for bikes – pretty important when you’ve only got little legs!

    It’s been a looong time – 20 years – since I cycled in Oxford so I can’t begin to compare it to what I saw in Groningen or Assen. But you’re absolutely right that we have to think how best to apply the principles that seem to have worked so well for the Dutch to a UK city.

  7. tom says:

    Richard, i think you are missing the point here. The system to aspire to is one where you do not build a separate child network and adult network. You build one high quality network that serves everyone. Yes this will take a long time and yes it will need some traffic reduction, some segregation plus some really good engineering. When you’ve achieved that in oxford please get on your soapbox until then keep fighting the good fight 🙂

  8. disgruntled says:

    I do think that we can both aspire to the really top class facilities the Dutch have, while still celebrating the progress being made in the UK. We’ll do more united than divided …

    • Richard Mann says:

      Indeed. If you’ve got space/money/politics to implement the full Dutch solution, then go for it.

      In the mean time, let other people work with the space/money/politics that they have.

      We need some positive practical models that can be sold to decision-makers, commensurate with their space/money/politics. Negative models don’t sell.

      The basic virtue of the Oxford model is that it has been tested against the space/money/politics constraint, and works fairly well. It’s a reasonable development path in a UK context.

      Nobody’s got close to implementing the full Dutch model on anything more than the odd street in the UK, as far as I know.

  9. tom says:

    Richard i’m not sure you’ve really articulated what this oxford model is. All i get is the idea of kids on pavements and adults in underwidth cycle lanes next to fast moving traffic. This doesn’t sound very attractive. Taken to its logical extreme (e.g. Scotswood road newcastle) it can mean more roadwidth being used than would be taken up by one good facility in order to create two substandard ones.

    • Richard Mann says:

      The essence of it is slowing the traffic down (especially on main roads and at main road junctions), giving priority to cycling, walking and buses, and as much continuity to cyclists as you can. This needs to be applied to long lengths of roads in the suburbs, to make the bulk of the cyclists trip comfortable. You can make it pretty comfortable with just cycle lanes, if traffic speed is down around 25mph.

      Scotswood Road is “interesting”, but not really what I’m talking about. It’s rather the treatment of the old radials (Westmorland Road, Elswick Road and Westgate Road).

      When the old radials meet the inner ring road there’s often big problems. This is where Dutch-style solutions might make the most sense. Our experience was that if we made the bulk of the routes comfortable, then the odd not-so-good junction wasn’t critical (or at least, a perfect solution could wait).

      Eventually, if the cycle routes and bus routes are good enough, then you can start restricting cars, at which point all sorts of things become possible. But you have to go at it in stages.

  10. neil says:

    can you inform me of were the junction you had problems with is located as without this important information i can send an officer to investigate.

  11. disgruntled says:

    Neil – I’m not entirely sure as Karl was leading the way and I don’t know the area. I’ll email him & get him to let you know

  12. Anonymous says:

    are the cycle access there made from soft tarmac as i note no-one was wearing a helmet

  13. disgruntled says:

    Anon – bit of a can of worms you’ve opened there … some Dutch cyclists do wear helmets – mainly those who race, usually in full team kit and on fast road bikes with drop handlebars, and some very little kids (this is a new trend I think). Everyone else doesn’t find cycling dangerous and so they don’t bother, the same way we don’t generally wear hi vis and helmets to go for a walk. Despite the lack of squidgy tarmac, Dutch death rates per km cycled are 1/3 of the UK’s so they seem to be right. We also didn’t see a single person fall off while we were there (despite us often stopping in the tracks right in front of them) because the Dutch are pretty awesome on their bikes having ridden them from the year dot. Because the cars and lorries are mainly separated from the bikes, people don’t get knocked off and the general design of their bikes with upright handlebars means, unless you are racing, you’d have to try quite hard to go over the front wheel and land on your head, which is pretty much the only way a helmet is going to do you any good.

    (BTW the cyclists who do get killed are more likely to be older, which means that they’re more vulnerable to the consequences of a fall; a slip and a broken leg can be fatal to anyone in their eighties even if it wouldn’t be to someone younger – and yes, we saw plenty of elderly cyclists there.)

  14. neil says:

    I must say that i would never ride with out a helmet as when the car which ran me over when if failed to stop at a roundabout , my helmet saved me as my head bounced off the bonnet with quite a bit of force. Its a shame that my ribs werent so well protected as it took a good few months for those to heal!

    • Someone says:

      Except the helmet was entirely unnecessary, the ANWB (the national motorist union (which originally was the cyclist union, weiirdly enough)) did an extensive number of tests of cars hitting bicycles and in none of those a helmet would have improved survival or rate of recovery.

  15. disgruntled says:

    which is why I’d rather not tangle with traffic at all, if it can be avoided

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