Rolling Out the Red Carpet

leaving Newcastle

Phew. I’m back after an exhausting but exhilarating few days in the Netherlands – it never fails to amaze me that somewhere that is so physically close to the UK, and in many ways culturally* so similar, can be so different as soon as you take to two wheels.

bus rail interchange

Now *this* is a bus stop bypass… Bike parking at a bus and train station

Dutch cycling infrastructure isn’t perfect, but it’s almost invariably a million miles better than anything you will encounter in the UK. Whether it’s crowded ancient city centres or brand new build districts, there will be either cycle paths, mostly smooth red tarmac and wider than one of our rural roads – or the cars will be so restricted that bikes (and pedestrians) have free rein.

Haarlem bike path

Bike path in Haarlem. This is not a ‘cycle superhighway’ – it’s just how the Dutch build roads and bike paths.

The result, as has been noted ad nauseam elsewhere, is that everyone cycles – from tiny kids to grannies, the latter normally steaming past you at disconcerting speed with little warning, shopping bags dangling nonchalantly from the handlebars.

big bike little bike

It’s energising for the average UK cyclist to spend time over there experiencing what life could be like – but it’s also somewhat depressing. Too often, we have seen politicians go over to somewhere in the Netherlands or Denmark and declare that they have seen the light, understood what it will take to bring about even a fraction of the cycling you see on the continent – only for us never to hear any more about it again. And in a way, I can hardly blame them. The minute you return to the UK and look around you, it’s almost impossible to imagine we can go about making the wholesale transformation needed to make them fit for people, instead of just the car. When you consider the enormous push back that has resulted from even quite limited attempts to rebalance our road network, you realise what a long journey we have ahead of us.

central Amsterdam canal bridge

Streets for people in central Amsterdam (including people in cars, if they must …)

big balloon

Got an unfeasibly large balloon to transport by bike? No problem!

Two things give me some measure of hope. The first was simply spending time with other energetic and imaginative campaigners who, like me, are looking to change the record about how we talk about cycling in this country. Not just my three companions, but Claire and Sally of NewCycling, who met us on the way back. Having other people who don’t just get it, but who are great fun to be with (and – when not tea-deprived – can see the funny side of most things) makes the whole thing feel like less of an uphill struggle into a tearing headwind.

And second, we do appear to have at least started on that journey, slowly and hesitantly though it may be. In Newcastle, we detoured on our way to the station to check out progress on the cycle track along John Dobson Street which has taken a lane from the traffic to create something as smooth and as wide as, well, your average Dutch cycle path. It’s only a few hundred yards long – but it is there and it’s head and shoulders ahead of anything else in Newcastle. Add in the new London Superhighways, and the plans (however contested) for routes fit for everyone in Edinburgh and Glasgow and we’ve only another million miles of road to go before we will all be able to cycle as happily as the Dutch.

John Dobson Street

Examining the new infrastructure on John Dobson Street. Fantastic for the UK – all 500 yards of it…

AND we’ll be able to enjoy a decent cup of tea at the end of it to boot…

* apart from the small matter of making tea – never travel to the Netherlands with three tea addicts who will spend all their time (when they’re not exclaiming over the fantastic cycling infrastructure) staring sadly at a glass of hot water with a tea bag containing any variety of tea but ‘proper tea’ still in its envelope on the saucer. In a way it was reassuring to know that there was something that wasn’t perfect about the place as we were struggling to find any reason *not* to move there immediately otherwise.

tea, allegedly

“what fresh hell is this?”

big boat, little boat

No reason to post this picture, except that the boat was really cute

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7 Responses to Rolling Out the Red Carpet

  1. meltdblog says:

    Indeed the focus cannot be on cycling alone, but on public use of space. The Dutch history is one of rejecting private car use in cities, with the more space efficient public transport, cycling, and walking all replacing parts of existing car use.

    Bicycle Dutch has some very accessible resources:
    https://bicycledutch.wordpress.com/2011/10/20/how-the-dutch-got-their-cycling-infrastructure/
    https://bicycledutch.wordpress.com/2013/12/12/amsterdam-children-fighting-cars-in-1972/

    It becomes much clearer in the smaller Dutch cities that retain their historic centres, where businesses still have access to roads for deliveries but without any through routes or on road parking you scarcely see any vehicles using them and people walk and cycle along.

    When driving takes longer than walking there is no reason to drive, but selfish interest promotes and sustains the fallacy of private cars on roads as the fastest transport method when its shown time and time again that private cars as the dominant transport fails to scale in cities. A visit to the US is a great contrast to the Netherlands where walking across the endless car parks puts a scale on the infrastructure needed to support private car use, spreading out the city and making walking impractical, only for drivers to be consistently stuck in traffic.

  2. Andy in Germany says:

    I hear you on the tea: the Germans are as bad although I’ve found it can be drinkable without milk…

  3. Heh heh, well, we Dutch don’t dilute our tea with milk, so we don’t have to make it twice as strong in the first place. Imagine the poor Dutchie’s surprise when she asks a cuppa tea in an Englis caff, takes a swig without dumping a load of milk in it and has her mouth pucker on her because of all the tannins… (I speak from experience, lol!)

  4. disgruntled says:

    Ha! I can’t really comment about the relative merits of Dutch and British approaches to tea because I am more of a coffee drinker… tea does seem to be quite idiosyncratic to nations (compared to coffee) though

  5. Autolycus says:

    But surely, comrades, we all know that proper tea is theft?

    (I’ll fetch me coat).

  6. Dawid Botha says:

    Thanks for the report on your visit to the Netherlands. Yes, not perfect, but wow, quite close in most towns and cities.

    Don’t lose hope! Remember the Dutch were where most of us – I am in South Africa – are in the seventies. The just took the plunge and it worked. In our town of Stelllenbosch (1679) about 30 miles inland from Cape Town, we have accepten an NMT policy which states that pedestrians, cyclists and cars should have equal opportunity….at least a start in theory, and we have a comprehensive cycle plan. Now to find the money and the political will to carry it out…and we will!

    Just eat the elephant bit by bit and don’t lose heart.

  7. disgruntled says:

    @Autolycus. Taxi!
    @Dawid – interesting to hear that things are changing in SA. Of course there’s some Dutch heritage there…

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