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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.