The Dutch masterclass that shows how Britain is falling further and further behind.

As David Hembrow of A View from the Cycle Path fame is often keen to point out, the clock is ticking.

On the 4th March 2013, Andrew Gilligan, the Mayor of London's Cycling Commissioner, stated that "it took 40 years to turn Amsterdam in to Amsterdam".  But of course it will take even longer to turn London in to a cycling nirvana on a par with Amsterdam if we never start.  Indeed, we were 40 years behind Amsterdam over 100 days ago.  That's 40 years plus 100 days of unnecessary road danger, unpleasant cycling conditions and avoidable deaths and serious injuries of people on bikes.

Gilligan and others ride "OV Fiets", the Dutch national rail hire bicycle.

Lucky for us then, that news reaches ibikelondon that Mr Gilligan and a number of Transport for London bods have recently spent some time cycling in the Netherlands and admiring some of the country's finest cycling infrastructure, alongside Kaya Burgess of The Times who spearheaded that newspaper's excellent and ongoing Cities Fit For Cycling campaign.  Who knows, maybe they learnt some valuable lessons from the safest place to cycle in the world, where more people cycle than anywhere else?

And for those looking to learn from the Dutch model, in this hyper-connected world in which we find ourselves living there's a whole host of learning resources floating around for free on the internet.  It should not take us 40 years to stop "being behind" because it is now so much easier to learn and implement new ideas in our information-enabled age.  If they so wished, engineers at TfL HQ could send a design brief for a new bike-friendly roundabout design to a consultancy in Rotterdam and have PDFs of draft Dutch proposals back by tea time, something almost unimaginable just 13 years ago.
And 13 years ago, the Dutch were not just making liveable cities; they were making the following video too.  "Fiets 2000" is fascinating on a number of levels.  Firstly because it shows the Dutch at their best; going about their daily business by bicycle, in an environment where young and old alike have priority over the movement of motor vehicles around packed cities - always a joy to behold.  Secondly, because it shows how planning for moving people is really carefully thought out, in an integrated fashion, and the extent to which cycle infrastructure is key to this.  The video really is a masterclass in how serious cycle planning should be, and what its positive impact will become.  
Lastly, and most importantly, this video from 2000 is interesting because it shows that we are not 40 years behind the Netherlands, but that we are constantly slipping further and further back in time.

Utrecht, which features throughout this video, was extensively remodelled in the post-war period like most British cities in order to accommodate growing motor vehicle use.  Since this video was made, the entire city centre has been completely remodelled again in order to reduce the impact of the worst excesses of 1960s modernist planning, to create more public space by returning one of the main canals to the city centre (by completely removing a dual carriageway which had covered it) and to replace some office and retail building stock which was in need of an update.  Tens of thousands of bike parking spaces have been moved, tram routes have been re-directed, road space has been removed and water and public space returned.

Catherine Bridge in Utrecht through the ages, courtesy of BicycleDutch

Of course, during all of this building work the Dutch haven't simply closed down the centre of the city and ordered people on bikes to dismount; they've built an extensive network of detours and alternative routes in order to stop the city from grinding to a halt; 22,000 cyclist a day cross the viaduct over the old canal / dual carriageway.  Mark from the superb BicycleDutch blog has an excellent over view of the work taking place, and how the city is handling the thousands of displaced cyclists during the construction period.

Here in Britain, and more specifically London, we are also capable of re-building elements of our city at speed when we want to.  We designed, built and delivered the best Olympic Games in just 7 years.  Crossrail, the new high-capacity cross-city underground train line which is currently tearing up great swathes of central London, is on schedule to open in 2018 just 11 years after construction works broke ground.

But we are also capable of circuitous decades of hand-wringing, and dithering on a national scale.  Utrecht may have been completely reborn in the past 60 years, yet our national cycling campaign the CTC can't - after 135 years of existence - even bring itself to publicly admit that the Dutch way of planning and building for people on bikes is the best way.  As David Hembrow puts it "What do we want? Gradual Change! When do we want it?  In due course!"

I'm heartened to hear that our planners and politicians are starting to visit across the water for lessons on how truly to bring about a cycling revolution, but with the clock ticking all the time there really isn't any time to loose.

The Mayor and Andrew Gilligan must understand that when you say you're 40 years behind your cycling rivals, saying so doesn't stop the onward march of time.  As the Netherlands re-plan and re-pave their cycle-friendly cities we are always falling further behind.





If you want to help put pressure on our politicians to really "Go Dutch", join over 60,000 others and add your signature to the Get Britain Cycling petition.

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Izzy said...

"engineers at TfL HQ could send a design brief for a new bike-friendly roundabout design to a consultancy in Rotterdam......"

Of course, they might want to agree vision, goals, strategy, targets etc first. Getting all this done in the context of current best-practice might also be important - so some trade studies might be worth doing.

Once they have a clear, shared understanding of what they're for and confirmed that a roundabout is the logical first step then they might want to get the Rotterdam consultancy under contract with clear spec, Statement of Work and Ts&Cs to ensure they deliver the results, responsibilities, liabilities, payment terms, etc required of a project like this which trace to top level goals and requirements so that they don't end up spunking £mm with a consultancy only to get criticized later for wasting money on a pointless roundabout that doesn't work and paying £kkk/year for its maintenance with no means of getting the money back (see numerous PPP hospitals). I'm sure this blog would (rightly) be first out of the blocks to criticize if they did.

Starting to execute something as complex as this by dashing off a quick roundabout design is a bit like starting your holiday planning by buying a snorkel - which might be a bad idea if you decide to go trekking in the Himalaya.

Think of it like your daily commute - you're steady Eddie - you know your route, you plan ahead for the lights and the junctions, you ride smoothly and on a typical morning you probably overtake the same black BMW 6 times; each time he scorches back past you (getting angrier and closer every time), only to have to stop at the next queue, and the next, and the next. Your bike is much slower than the BMW, but your journey is quicker. Time spent in planning and preparation might be frustrating for the users on the street but if it's don't properly it's never wasted.

Jim Moore said...

And those engineers can hopefully read, like I can, like I can see just above this comment where it says "If they so wished" at the start of the quote you used! If you're not just being a troll then you're just another obfuscating prick.

This is an inspiring blogpost and I'm not even British! Great examples given of what can be done in a relatively short time when the political will exists, which usually follows the majority societal desire.

David Hembrow said...

Thanks very much for the mention.

I certainly hope that Andrew Gilligan and the rest of them actually do get on with transforming London, and the rest of the UK, as a result of their trip.

British cyclists have been promised much over the last few decades, but those promises have so often been broken. Catching up only starts when the real work begins.

And the Dutch are of course not standing still and waiting for others to catch up. If any readers have doubts about what was promised in the video you found coming true, they might like to take a look at a video that I made four years ago of riding along that very same high-speed long distance cycle-route after it was completed.

ibikelondon said...

@Izzy Whilst of course due process is important, neither do we need to re-invent the wheeel. My point regarding using specialists in the field (ie Dutch engineers) is that this knowledge base exists out there and is much more easy to access than in years gone by. I think most people would agree that we live in an age that should allow us all to move a little bit more quickly than in years gone by (years which incidentally I only ever saw mere hints of due process as cycle lane paint was slapped around willy nilly and some truly shocking "facilities" were created.)

@Jim Moore Do be nice Jim, we like a bit of debate here but let's not get too hot under the collar. You're quite right about political will - here in London we are lucky that we now have that. What we now need is the design knowledge and skills needed to implement it.

@David Thanks for stopping by David, and thanks for the inspiration! Tick tock indeed!

Paul M said...

I was struck by the sequence showing how street narrowing was used in Utrecht to force cars to slow down behind cycle traffic - the bicycle as rolling speed hump, in other words.

I hope this is not cited as inspiration/justification for what has been done to Cheapside and a number of similar locations in London. There is of course a difference - the Utrecht example is a one-way street and there simply isn't anywhere else for the car to go, whereas Cheapside is two-way, with similarly narrow lanes but opportunities for dangerous overtakes in the face of oncoming vehicles or traffic islands. Still, in a UK context I can imagine motorists getting very aerated about being forced to move at the pace of a bicycle, and not necessarily a very fast one at that. If it works in Utrecht, that must be largely down to the cultural difference, of familiarity with bicycles and in all probability drivers being cyclists as well.

David Hembrow said...

Paul M: The problem with looking at Houten (a suburb of Utrecht shown in the video) as an example is that it's a place where many experiments took place. The bicycle roads where they used cyclists as rolling traffic calming are one of those experiments.

I found those roads not to actually be very nice to cycle on. Other bicycle roads which I've used elsewhere tend to be closed off to through traffic and these are a lot more pleasant to ride a bicycle along. The bicycle road in Assen is more recent than those that were shown in the video (2008). This is wide enough for a car to quite easily pass two bikes riding side by side, but the main reason it's pleasant is that there is no through motor traffic so very few cars to contend with at all.

Gusto said...

The Dutch are good example of how cycle paths and cycling should be conducted in and around cities. I only hope with the growing number of cyclists on our road, especially in cities such as London that the UK take note of countries such as Holland and replicate it.