October 2011 archive

Misinterpreting Interpretations

No! No! No! Not ‘Go DITCH’…..

Now that the internet has uncovered the realities of cycling in Denmark and The Netherlands and people in Britain have started to discuss what it means to ‘Copenhagenize‘ and ‘Amsterdamize‘ and realised that the cycling infrastructure design and implementation in Britain lags a bit behind the Falkland Islands and London Cycling Campaign members voted to ‘Go Dutch‘ and Norman Baker MP stated that we could learn from our Dutch colleagues and handsome, gifted young men start a Cycling Embassy to eventually start lobbying and exchanging ideas with British, Dutch and Danish friends and more friends beyond, there now follows the desperate period where British people start to speak with sudden authority interpreting what it all actually means such as this latest offering from the Guardian Bike Blog.

To many, ‘Going Dutch’ means having segregation everywhere! There are many British people, who through no fault of their own, are not Dutch or are in any way conversant with the Dutch experience. Thus the very notion of segregation will instantly make people instantly think of their local high street, housing estate or country lane and try to mentally cram in a couple of with-flow cycle paths with separating kerbs. And then dismiss the idea as bunkum.

The fact is that ‘Going Dutch’ does mean having segregation everywhere! But there’s one fundamental caveat; The British assume segregation to mean ‘segregating cyclists from the road to ‘improve traffic flow’ for motorised traffic’ whereas the Dutch mean ‘segregate motorised vehicles from people to improve movement for everyone’.

Through the years, the British have created a lot of bypasses, relief roads, motorways, urban expressways and the like. The Dutch did the same but gradually worked towards making it not impossible, but an utter pain in the buttocks to get across the town being bypassed in a car, in effect forcing motorised traffic to use the new infrastructure built. The British didn’t and are still paying the price with heavily congested town and city centres. In fact we keep using it as some perverse justification to build more bypasses, relief roads, motorways, urban expressways and the like. Here’s a clip from ‘Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy’ made in the very early 1980’s that captures it perfectly.

With traffic where it should be, it then becomes a lot easier to transform areas that were for people into areas for people, and giving planners a chance to make cycling and walking very direct, pleasant and safe options indeed. It also becomes less like political suicide to start suggesting things like ‘Strict Liability’, defined by Wikipedia like so,

‘”Strict liability”, supported in law in the Netherlands,[1] leads to [a] driver’s insurance being deemed to be responsible in a collision between a car and a cyclist. This makes car drivers very wary of bicycles.’

The fact is that no-one is saying that there should be segregated kerb-separated cycle tracks on every single road like a country lane, not even the Dutch or the Danes, but it is all about creating a complete & segregated network with quick and easy continuity. It doesn’t help that cycle infrastructure in this country resembles something designed by someone who really, really, really hates cycling. But to dismiss them arbitrarily because of not understanding their true context in mainland Europe is a cheap shot. Even if they only create the ‘Placebo effect’ to which the Guardian Bike Blog post alludes. I’d prefer that to consistent fines from the EU for failing to meet air pollution targets, or more gastric band surgery or one of the worst road safety records for cyclists and pedestrians in Western Europe (as tragically demonstrated in this moving blog post from Embassy Press Officer, Mark Ames). Unbelievably in this country, having crap infrastructure is often used as an excuse to do even less as opposed to more. Continual improvement, quality control and development seem to exist in every other thing you will come into contact with in your day except British Cycling Infrastructure.  Now that my Study Tour experience has really started to sink in, I shall be revealing more over the next few weeks (and years) mainly through the Embassy website as well as addressing further how all this should be taken to a wider British audience that doesn’t know yet how much they love riding a bicycle like previous generations.

I leave you with this ditty I’ve quickly put together for the Cycling Embassy from footage taken by me on the Study Tour and then from my commute to work (Worthing to Brighton) on the Monday morning after returning home.

A Very British Revolution

Of course, we saw this all the time on the Study Tour of The Netherlands…

It is now over a month since I returned from the Cycling Embassy Study Tour to The Netherlands. It has taken this long for it all to really sink in and I advise any of you who have any interest in cycling, transport policy, planning, or you just want to see what a country can do when it actually gives a shit about its people by giving them unfettered freedom and choice on how they get about their communities whilst giving consistent investment in their health and wellbeing. In fact, I advise you to go anyway just for the bike ride. At least over there you aren’t bullied by people in 1 ton metal boxes who think that they are essential to ‘progress’ and that killing at least 1,700 people per year is ‘one of those things’.

It would be fair to say that I came back from The Netherlands a changed man. An angry man at that. It’s all very well to sit in front of a computer, to look up a Dutch street on Google Streetview and draw your own wierd and wacky conclusions based on the British experience. It’s quite another thing to actually go over to see it in context and realise that their roads are not wider, that they didn’t always have masses of cycle infrastructure and that what they have got isn’t always perfect but they are constantly innovating and striving to make it so. When you look at a typical street in Assen, it becomes instantly apparent what local and national Government thinks about the bicycle. You can draw your own conclusions from looking at a typical British street – in fact, it’s probably better to focus on the pavement because that’s either where a bicycle symbol might be painted or where the cyclists are anyway because they view riding on the road as an extreme sport requiring clothing and lights that make you visible from Neptune.

Recent events in the news have thrown light onto another problem that can be encountered when pushing for decent cycling infrastructure based on best practice from mainland Europe.

We hate Europe.

Not all of us of course. I certainly don’t and if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you probably don’t either. As far as the latest call for a referendum goes, I personally believe that in the midst of a really big crisis, it’s not particuarly advantageous to turn to your neighbours and tell them to go f*** themselves. To a British cyclist [and therefore a small minority view], the Netherlands is a country of wonderful infrastructure where people of all ages are out on their bicycles, of multi storey bicycle parks, of railway stations where only having space for 20,000 bicycles gets the alarm bells ringing with local authorities, of schools where children are trusted and can cycle independently from a young age with their friends with no adult intervention. However, to many British people, The Netherlands is a place of red light districts, hen/stag destinations, clogs, Max Bygraves singing ‘Tulips from Amsterdam’, round cheeses, canals and a language that sounds like a bit of a laugh that got desperately out of hand.

A cycle path in Assen. It even has it’s own lighting.

In an earlier post, I stated my opinion that the reason 20’s Plenty campaigns across the country generally work is because they are community led campaigns as opposed to being cycle-specific. This despite Rod King (the jolly nice Founder of 20’s Plenty For Us ) being a pinnacle of the Warrington Cycling Campaign. Even though the benefits of 20mph speed limits in populous areas should be patently obvious, 20’s Plenty allows a wide range of community groups to ‘buy in’ to the concept. It seems strange that in the early years of the 21st Century, curtailing someone’s right to drive like a pillock should be regarded as part of an arsenal in the ‘War on the Motorist’ – stranger still having just returned from a country where 30kph (18mph) is the default on residential streets.

The point of today’s sermon is that promoting decent cycling infrastructure is difficult enough coming from a minority, and quite often not a particuarly liked minority at that. However, when combined with the fact that mainland Europe is being used as an inspiration, it may be too much for many to bear. If I close my eyes, I can see the smoke and sparks billowing as the Daily Mail Europhobicometer slams into overdrive.

We have to be thoughtful and innovative about how we take the message to a group of people that don’t know they want to cycle yet. Also to planners and engineers that may in some instances be reluctant to take different practices on board. Whilst on my travels in The Netherlands I saw examples of great community spirit as people of all ages went about their business by bicycle; I saw groups of children chatting away on their way to school and college. I saw groups of elderly people and couples off for a nice social ride in everyday clothing, sharing the latest news without harassment. I saw hundreds of children being picked up from school by bike, hurredly telling their parents and grandparents what they did that day. In a way, it was looking back to a Britain that I once knew where I cycled to school and on adventures with friends. Where local residents cycled to the local shop to buy a newspaper without fear or being regarded as a f***ing taxdodger. In a sense, it could be argued that countries such as Denmark and The Netherlands are more British than Britain as they have retained decent values that are still about in Britain but have been tempered by consistent anti-social, car-centric policies. I believe the Dutch and Danes are on to something that’s worth fighting for.

I leave you with this latest offering from Mark Wagenbuur that I urge you to watch as it is utterly superb. In particular, look at the dire situation The Netherlands found itself as it entered the 1970’s. Then think about a typical school run in Britain today and wonder how it could ever get better with current policy.