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.
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.