September 2011 archive

An Embassy in the Netherlands and an Embassy of the Netherlands

A chance for children, and at least two Cycle Embassy members, to play hopscotch in a Woonerf (or ‘living area’) where traffic is reduced to walking pace and the residents come first. Yes, I know….

Last Friday I returned from the Cycling Embassy Study Tour to Assen and Groningen in the Netherlands, led by David Hembrow. I am quite deliberately leaving it a while before I even attempt to blog more thoroughly about it as I want to allow some time for it all to sink in. It really was a three-day assault on the senses that went way beyond looking at some Dutch cycling infrastructure. To say it left a profound mark would be bordering on reckless understatement. The amusing aspect was the sheer bewilderment from the Dutch themselves that anyone would want to take photos and examine something that is taken so utterly for granted – the freedom of all citizens to travel with subjective safety by bicycle, if they so choose, regardless of age, gender, colour, creed, status or even what type of cyclist you are for sporting pursuits (we were overtaken by many road cyclists with all sorts of colourful team kit on). To them the act of getting around by bicycle is quite boring and not really worthy of conversation at all – just as it should be.

Another amusing aspect, as a quick teaser, is my first foray into movies. It is one of the famous bins (usually found close to Dutch schools) angled and at such a height that litter may be easily chucked whilst passing on a bicycle. Yes, the Dutch have even created the perfect symbiosis between bicycle and litter bin (like the Danes and their foot rests whilst waiting at traffic lights) The schoolkids fared slightly better than our efforts…

Anyway, whilst we were away, the Dutch launched their Cycling Embassy. Like the Danish Cycling Embassy, they will be exporting their knowledge and expertise that has had proven success, as opposed to the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain that I formed earlier this year that would welcome anything other than the current situation where Local Authorities are designing facilities for bicycles with no knowledge of bicycles – a bit like asking Orville the Duck to design the successor to Trident.

Here is the video of their launch. I know it has featured on other blogs but it really does need repeating as it really is superb.

I shall be posting far more frequently as I catch up with everything else and try to put everything I’ve seen in a British context. This should be easier than you think (certainly easier than I once thought) and easier than some may have you believe.

Step Into The Unknown

My Wife and I are still fortunate enough to be invited to parties that don’t involve Jelly, cakes with pictures of Postman Pat and tantrums if the participants get tired (but enough about me! ha, ha, ha, ha, ha etc). Although it’s always nice mixing in adult company, inevitably conversations at such affairs will turn to children – most notably, reasons why couples are putting off having them. I find these conversations fascinating (after I’ve got over the fact that they are better presented than me with a healthy, optimistic glow and enough disposable income to pay for yet another foreign holiday to a land so far away, the locations in my sons story books can barely hint at). What I find particularly fascinating is that the reasons given for not having children aren’t too dissimilar to the reasons given by this country for not adopting standards of best practice in cycling infrastructure based on countries that have had proven success.

We can’t afford it yet

When someone says this, what they generally mean is, ‘we want enough money to enjoy our current lifestyle complete with baby’. They have no idea yet as to how much their lives change fundamentally when a child comes into the equation – they can’t do and we wouldn’t expect them to. We could try explaining to them that they will make savings by not going out as much as you will want to be with your new baby at all times. Plus, you will perpetually feel as though you have just cycled the Tour de France on a Raleigh Grifter. You make ‘sacrifices’ only to realise that they weren’t really sacrifices at all and you could have done without long before.

It’s the same with decent cycling infrastructure. We fail to realise that, if implemented correctly with consistent political will and a budget more in line with a serious transport project as opposed to a weekly food shop at Asda, the country’s transport habits could change fundamentally. Massive savings could be made to health, road maintenance, environment and also wellbeing (a safer community is one that has people walking and cycling around it). Decent infrastructure, like all nice things will cost money. But it will be better than carrying along as we are and trying to fit the bicycle around it – seeing the crappy conditions that cyclists are provided with at the moment,  designed with no real knowledge of what a bicycle is actually capable of – which is tantamount to neglect.

We haven’t got the space

My Wife and I made some ‘sacrifices’ to move into a two bedroom house in anticipation of having a child (although we were never extravagant in the first place). We logically took the view in our lazier, more carefree days that one child would need one bedroom. We didn’t anticipate the clothing that lasts two seconds before the next growth spurt or The Battle Of The Grandparents To Save The Local High Street By Buying Everything In It For Your Child. These are nice problems to have and unwittingly puts us in the ‘sexual fantasy’ category for IKEA Marketing Managers looking to sell more storage solutions. Obviously everything can fit. We just needed to think more carefully about how we used our space.

One problem I’ve found recently is that when people think of Dutch Cycle Infrastructure, the word ‘Segregation’ may instantly spring to mind. ‘Segregation’ is a bit of a dirty word in British Cycle Campaigning as it is taken to mean ‘losing one’s right to the road’. This is to miss the point of segregation completely. Quite often Dutch segregation is achieved by getting the cars off the roads rather than building bike paths next to roads. This is something that people very often miss – including the Dutch. They have looked at their public spaces and thoroughfares and found useful and pragmatic ways to put the public first by correctly identifying and reducing the danger or completely removing the danger from the equation.

Quite often British campaigners will try to imagine what a Dutch street looks like and then try to mentally Photoshop it onto a street in their locality, instantly drawing their own weird and wonderful conclusions. This does not take into account vehicle speeds, volume, local networks etc. The Dutch have standards dependant on all these variables and prescribe solutions based on what they find. There’s space alright in the UK – we’re just too used to the car to think any other way and are too used to being beaten into accepting dreadful compromise. One thing is for sure – we have to address the current solutions offered to us.

We’re not ready!

There’s never a ‘right time’ to have a baby. Even with all the books and manuals in the World, it can seem like taking a leap into territory completely unknown to anyone else. If unsure, it helps if you can draw on experience, such as visiting a friend or relative that has a baby so you can get a feel for what’s involved and they can answer any questions you might have.

To get a feel for what is involved in decent cycling infrastructure, I’m leading a party of nine from the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain to the Netherlands to go on a Study Tour, organised by David Hembrow. We will ask questions, run a tape measure around the country, take too many photos and videos, and try to gain as much knowledge as we can so we can share it with you (just like when a baby arrives, I guess).

It may certainly be the case that some solutions over there won’t work over here.  But our solutions at the moment are appalling and I personally feel that we have a lot to gain. A lot of overseas solutions are not only alarmingly similar to what many in Britain believe is the right way such as reduced speeds, home zones and the like, but some have been campaigning for years to get it. If we can help to widen and clarify the knowledge base, then it won’t be such a step into the unknown.