Rolling Out the Red Carpet

September 8, 2016

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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More Thoughts from the Netherlands

July 1, 2014

So much has already been said about cycling in Amsterdam in various blogs that there’s not much more I can add to the general amazement at all the bikes and all the people on bikes and all the different kinds of bikes and the little kids on bikes with stabilisers cycling right in the middle of a big city and, well, just, you know, bikes. Everywhere. However, now that the general amazement has worn off, a few points have occurred to me thinking back over our weekend trip:

1. It’s actually quite stressful to cycle in Amsterdam, due to all the bikes. We’re not really used to sharing our cycle paths with anything other than the odd dog walker and maybe another cyclist coming the other way. Trying to insert yourself into a flow of bike-borne traffic,* especially when you’re still instinctively looking the wrong way at junctions, can lead to you learning some interesting new Dutch swear words. And once in, it’s even harder to stop with all those silent bikes coming up behind you. Best just to go with the flow, and hope that eventually you will find some way to escape.

2. Scooters in the bike lane are a nightmare. Stressfulness aside, and even with the odd hapless looking-the-wrong-way visiting bike blogger in the mix, in truth everyone seemed to rub along fairly well in the maelstrom, just swerving out of the way when necessary and adjusting their speed to meet the conditions, but the scooters just blast along regardless, weaving through everyone else. As one of our party commented, the only good thing about it is that it makes the Dutch seem a bit human because otherwise everything would be a bit too perfect. Of course, we may be biased because we’d barely arrived before all four of us were almost wiped out by a scooter blasting round a corner at high speed.

3. The Dutch have an inalienable right to cycle side by side with their mates. I knew that they had nice wide cycle paths so that you could cycle side by side, but I hadn’t realised just how ingrained this was into cycling culture – it is not considered a nice-to-have. Not just on the nice wide out of town paths, but right in the middle of the city where there are meandering tourists and scooters and people in a hurry also using the bike lanes, there will be two Dutch cyclists going at a stately pace side by side, chatting away. I consider this a mark of the highest civilisation.

* At the Vondelpark, where the central path is basically a huge river of bikes, we watched a Dutch dad launch his young son on what appeared to be his first stabiliser-less maiden voyage into the endless stream. I suppose that’s the way to learn to cope – but it did strike us as being similar to teaching someone to drive on the M25.


Statistics for Dummies

June 30, 2014

We’re back from the Netherlands and a crammed 72 hours of cycling and adventures (you can read the slightly more official report here). I had a great time drooling over all the cycling infrastructure, while the other half, having discovered that one side-effect of mass cycling is huge numbers of fit-looking women with great legs, has also become something of an evangelist for the Dutch way. The sun shone, the headwinds were mostly kind, and all went very well, apart from the motor scooter that nearly took out all four of our party on an otherwise blissfully pleasant cycle path – oh the irony – and some navigational issues on the way in to Amsterdam.

On our way back, Marc from Amsterdamize very kindly not just pointed us in the right direction, but rode with us till we were practically half way to the ferry terminal (at the aptly name Halfweg). That meant that, even after a fairly leisurely lunch, we got into the outskirts Ijmuiden with more than an hour to go and our thoughts began to turn towards stopping for coffee and some well-earned cake.

‘Even if we got a puncture now, we could still make it in time,’ one of our number said rashly, and I rapidly shushed him before the Puncture Fairy could hear us. He, being a rational medical man, pointed out my folly, and explained all about regression to the mean and centralised tendency theory and all the other reasons why simply mentioning a puncture does not in itself make a puncture more likely. Which is why I now know that the fact that I then got a massive puncture from a metal spike that went right through my Marathon Plus back tyre, is simply a coincidence…

Still, as he did very kindly also fix the puncture and we did as predicted make it to the ferry on time (while, in a final surreal touch, being serenaded by a Dutch male-voice choir singing Wild Rover as we came round the final corner) – he is forgiven.