Bike bans in pedestrian zones make no sense, but not why you think

Last week I visited the Dutch city of Zwolle, the Netherlands City of Cycling in 2014.  It's a pretty, historic city surrounded by countryside and has a pedestrianised heart.  But what I saw there made me reconsider banning bicycles from pedestrian-only areas, but not for the reasons why you might think.

Many cities - both in the UK and elsewhere - have pedestrian zones where people using their feet to get around can relax in a safe environment where they don't need to be worried about being knocked down by speeding cyclists, or any other traffic for that matter.  Where there are lots of people, especially around shops, this has always made sense to me.

The West Country town I grew up in had a large pedestrians-only shopping area, where you were expected to lock your bicycle on the perimeter and walk in.  Even as a young man I remember being approached by security guards and given a telling off for pushing my bike through.

Things were different in Zwolle.  I'm not sure if bikes were technically permitted but I saw many in the pedestrian area.  A few were being slowly cycled to available bicycle parking, but the majority of them were being pushed.  I saw two friends; one woman on a bike and one man on foot, making a journey together through the city centre (photographed, below)  Would their journey have taken place if a strict bike plan was in place?

An older woman was using her bicycle as a shopping trolley, filling her basket with goods she brought as she pushed the bike from store to store.

I remember hearing Danish urbanist Jan Gehl recount a story about his mother who, when she became too frail to cycle, would still walk with her bicycle - it was her dignified access to mobility, without having to revert to using a walking frame.

Pedestrians are important, and in pedestrian areas should always come first.  As with much in life however the situation is not black and white; people have a complex approach to their own mobility.  I wouldn't want to see cyclists riding at speed through shopping areas, or obstructing access with mountains of parked bicycles, but I realise there's more to bicycles in pedestrian-only areas than initially meets the eye.

P.S  For more wild and reckless behaviour like using a bike in a pedestrianised area, see this film by the City of Zwolle which features their Bike Director getting a backie from various residents - something which landed London Mayor Boris Johnson in hot water this week and for which he was slammed by the CTC! (Film in Dutch only, sorry!)

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Why there’s more to successful cycle paths than just building cycle paths

Wherever you are in the UK, you’re never too far from a so-called “recreational bike path”; a family-friendly cycle route separated from the roads and often built on converted railway lines.  Thanks largely to the work of the charity Sustrans these routes criss-cross the country.  Some are wildly popular, both with long-distance touring cyclists as well as with families out for a ride and a day out by bicycle.


In previous discussions cycling friends of mine have denigrated these paths, describing them as “choked”, “slow” and in one instance “stuffed with nodders on bike-shaped-objects.”  But I take a different view.  The Mums and Dad you find hitting these trails in the school holidays might not ride the best bikes, or even self-define as “cyclists”, but when it comes to rehabilitating the bicycle with the British public every journey counts.

In order to encourage adults to start cycling again (often for the first time since their teens) we need to make the experience as simple as possible.  What’s more, you shouldn’t have to make a large up-front investment before deciding you’d like to try riding a bike once more. And that’s where I think we are going wrong with our recreational cycle paths here in the UK.  It turns out there is more to building successful cycle paths than just building cycle paths.

Fun in the sun on the Venice Beach bike track, Los Angeles. 

On a recent trip to Los Angeles I was astonished to find that there - in the very heart of the world’s most car-sick city - was a resoundingly popular recreational bike path.  Running along the length of Venice Beach, the track itself was smooth, wide and separated from pedestrians.  It passed Venice pier, Muscle Beach and other interesting spots and on the Friday afternoon I visited it was packed with people of all ages cruising up and down on bikes.  Roller skaters, cycling ice cream salesmen and shady palm trees helped to lend a festive air.  We turned off the path and rode for a few blocks away from the beach to see if the whole district was a cycling nirvana, but found ourselves alone.  The people on bikes were stuck resolutely to cycling up and down on their safe cycle path.  I watched the riders, and started to think; what made this path such a success?


A few years ago I was lucky enough to cycle in Taiwan (check out this ride from the capital, Taipei)  In the city of Taichung the local government have converted a disused railway to create a cycling route which stretches for a number of miles along the river and in to the country.  There I saw whole families (some on only one bike!) out enjoying themselves for the day on hired bicycles.  There were tandems, and cargo bikes and bikes with baby seats.  There were electric pedal-assist bikes and bikes with sound systems and bikes which looked like small family cars.  The trails were packed with riders, stopping off at small track-side cafes for drinks and snacks or hiring another bike when they got bored with the other at one of the many hire shops.  They even had ride-in toilets so you didn't have to worry if you'd not brought a bike lock with you!  It turns out that the same amenities in Taiwan which make this path work are the same amenities you find in Los Angeles, and it’s what we are lacking on our British paths.

Ride-in toilets for security conscious cyclists who don't have a lock. 

In Los Angeles all of the cycle hire stalls were run by the same business, meaning bikes could be dropped off at any point along the route.  If people got tired of riding they could simply drop off the bike without having to ride back, or they could do a one way journey with the wind behind them without having to contemplate a strenuous return trip.  The ice cream salesmen on bikes added a further level of amenity, whilst well-observed and safe cycle parking clusters were positioned at interesting points along the route meaning people could lock up their bikes with confidence.

Small businesses selling food, drink and hiring out bicycles line the Taichung bike path. 

Gem Bridge, near Tavistock. Beautiful, and somewhat empty of cyclists.

In Taiwan, the bike hire was cheap and plentiful and once again right on the path itself so that the ride started in pleasure straight way.  On a recent trip to Devon I cycled on the impressive Gem Bridge, a beautiful structure which fords a deep valley and connects two newly-opened sections of converted railway line.  But in order to access the path from the nearest town, Tavistock, was a torturous route crossing main roads and down little alleyways.  It may not have the best eco-credentials, but people need to have “park and play” access to these routes in order for them to be a success.

Of course, these successful cycle routes had all of the usual things you’d expect, such as smooth surfaces, good sign posting, and safe bike parking.  But there’s a role for business - such as bike hire and small cafes - in making better recreational cycle routes that we don’t utilise enough in the UK.  It helps to create jobs, keep money in the local economy and enable rehabilitating bicycle journeys for people who wouldn’t usually ride and need their bike served up on a plate.  What’s not to like?

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Now that the Tour de France has left, what else can Utrecht teach us about cycling?

I'm on a summer trip, making a tour of Le Tour following the riders around Antwerp, Namur, and even riding with the peloton in a race car.  It's been a brilliant journey and now I am on my last stage, returning to the scene of the Grand Depart, Utrecht in the Netherlands, to see what this cycling city looks like once the pro riders have passed by.


I've partnered with Ibis Hotels for this trip and all of the staff have been so friendly and helpful. Utrecht was the same; "Of course you can ride today", said the cheery receptionist "It takes more than a bit of rain to stop the Netherlands from rolling!" I looked out the window at the rain blowing in sideways and decided to fortify myself with the fantastic breakfast before I set off, grabbing the keys to a bicycle rented directly from the hotel.  The Ibis in Utrecht is just a five minute ride in to the city centre along a pretty canal lined by windmills and old town houses - not a bad start to my day, despite the weather.


The clouds darkened and rain intensified, but this didn't seem to deter Dutch riders who cycled on regardless.  Rain coats were pulled out of bags, hats were donned and umbrellas were lifted, making it immediately apparent I was in a totally different cycling situation to the UK.  You could ride down the Tottenham Court Road in London at peak time in the rain whilst holding a big umbrella if you wanted to, of course, but I wouldn't recommend it.  Here, things are different.


Hints that the Tour de France had recently been this way were everywhere.  Shop windows were decorated with bicycles, flags were hung over every street and a statue of the city's most famous daughter - Miffy the bunny - had been put up in the tourism office. Naturally, she was riding her bicycle.  The facade of the popular cafe Winkel van Sinkel was decked out in yellow jerseys, too.


But even though the pro riders had left, there's still a festive cycling feel to Utrecht that stems from the many thousands of people on bikes who cycle here every day.  I saw small children being carried on their parent's bikes, middle-sized children riding alongside on their own, and teenagers enjoying their mobility and being totally independent.


I have no doubt that all that freedom stems directly from the excellent cycling infrastructure which you'll find all over the Netherlands, but what I was particularly impressed by was how the Dutch don't sit on their hands, but are always seeking to improve things.  I went for coffee with Mark Wagenbuur from the brilliant Bicycle Dutch blog.  He took me out to a junction on the edge of the city, smiling proudly all the way, that we had last visited together in 2012.  Back then, he had described it to me as 'the most dangerous junction in Utrecht' and I was inclined to agree.  Cyclists were forced to merge with a lane of fast-moving traffic turning right, and to ride together alongside a metal fence for about 100metres.  Just three years later and the situation has entirely changed.  Engineers have 'found' the space to continue the cycle track safely through the junction, and the right turning traffic simply waits in a lane of the rest of the road.  Of course, it's not a question of 'finding' space at all but simply a choice of what to do with the space that you have and who to allocate it to.  


The same junction, above in 2012, as it appears today, below in 2015. Notice how space has been 'found' for the new and safer cycle track without taking the pedestrian's pavement away.


I had been impressed by the new junction, but it was nothing compared to the building project which is nearing completion in the city centre.  When I first visited Utrecht the space in this photo was part of a multi-lane city ring road built in the 1970s.  All it did was create traffic congestion and bring more cars in to the city centre, where there was no room for them.  So the city planners decided to push the ring road further out of the city - to loosen the city's belt, if you like - to create more space for people.  


The move has allowed for the total redevelopment of the train station, created space for a new shopping area and offices and very soon the dirt that you see in the photo will be removed and replaced with water, re-connecting two sections of the city's ancient canals.


At the new station the city's cycle racks are being refreshed and new bicycle parking areas are being built.  On Korte Jansstraat in the old town, a road which used to be clogged with two lanes of car parking has been re-surfaced in red bricks and the parking spaces moved away.  Rather than harming the businesses there, the streets were busy with shoppers and restaurants had laid out new tables and chairs.


This is my third trip to Utrecht and each visit has left me with the same impression; that this is a city rapidly growing, improving itself, identifying the planning mistakes of the past and quietly getting on with rectifying them.  It's lively and packed with young people and University students.  Better still, it is easily connected to the rest of the Netherlands and Schipol airport by the fantastic national rail network.  Utrecht proved with the Tour de France that they know how to throw a good bike party, but if the world's cycling cities were in a race Utrecht would in the break away every day.  Why not make a visit to see for yourself?


Tour de France Stage 4: Citadelle de Namur, Belgium


After riding in Antwerp and spending the day with the peloton, my tour of Le Tour continues, today bringing me to the Belgian city of Namur.  There was a huge gap between the break away and the main bunch, who crawled up the hot, dusty road to the summit of the Citadelle, where I captured this photo.

It was a hugely exciting stage on the cobbles and a dramatic win for Tony Martin.  Tomorrow I leave the pro-riders behind and return to the Netherlands to the host city of the Grand Depart, Utrecht, to find out what happens in a cycling city after the racing cyclists have gone.  Stay tuned!


In the thick of it. Today I found out what it's like in the middle of the Tour de France...

The cyclists ride at breakneck speeds whilst all around them there is ordered chaos; mechanic’s cars, radio cars, official cars and of course the infamous publicity caravan.  Spectators waive their picnics from the roadside as the riders tear past.  Boozey kids run alongside, shouting and jumping up and down.  More than a few crowd members get perilously close in the quest for a perfect snapshot to share with friends.  I took a ride in the Tour de France, and here’s what it’s like to be right in the middle of the world’s most famous cycling race.

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The summers of my youth were always filled with the Tour de France, enjoyed by the whole family as much for the lingering shots of magnificent French scenery as for the riding itself.  We cheered on Greg Lemond and talked endlessly about Lance Armstrong as though he were some kind of cycling superman.  Looking back it seems like a cycling age of innocence, but I loved all the poetry and drama of a journey around a nation by bike. Not just a journey, but a race no less.

This was all before talk of drugs, “enabling” Doctors, self-administered transfusions and blood bags in the hotel room fridge.  Doping cast a deep stain on professional cycling, and it was a long time before I allowed myself to get back in to bike racing.  It’s all the fault of Mark Cavendish, really.  His technical prowess and sheer bravura meant I’d find myself tuning in for the sprints again. Then came Sir Bradley Wiggins.  A Brit winning the tour was the stuff of dreams when I was a kid, but then it actually happened.  Seeing young rider Simon Yates power to the top of Hay Tor during the Tour of Britain in 2013 meant I was roadside - along with about a million other people - to cheer him on when the Tour de France visited our shores last year.

So when official Tour partner Ibis Hotels got in touch asking if I’d be interested in spending the day right in the middle of the race, they didn’t have to ask twice.


The route from Antwerp to Huy was one of the first ‘real’ stages after the ceremony of the Grand Depart in Utrecht (a time trial) and a flat spin across the green fields of Holland.  With Quintana, Contador, Nibali and of course Chris Froome all keen to prove their metal in the initial stages there was plenty of scope for pushing, shoving and hard racing from the off - and the first real uphill finish; the short and steep Mur de Huy.  Both Froome and Cavendish were out of the 2014 Tour within the initial 5 stages, so there was lots to prove.

Going to spectate at the Tour is a funny business.  You’ll stand on a dusty roadside for many hours, and the whole thing flashes past you in a matter of minutes.  The cyclists themselves pass in mere seconds.  Being stuck in the middle of it all gave me a totally different perspective.  The first thing you notice is the speed at which the entire convoy clips along.  These boys - all 198 of them - don’t hang around.  And somewhat paradoxically for cycling the centre of the convoy is a noisy place.  There’s no elysian wheeling through the countryside here - right behind the cyclists are roaring mechanic’s cars, powerful Police motorbikes with sirens, commissaires hurriedly jabbering on their radios, helicopters and not to mention the crowds.  Despite the tumult, they do a great job of cheering and shouting at the riders and its surprising how much of what they say is legible.  Chris Froome must hear people telling him to cheer up all of the time.


Not all of the drama in the peloton takes place at the front of the bunch, either.  Domestiques - the worker bees of the Tour - are always falling back to pick up supplies from their team cars (themselves zipping along at a steady 40kph or so) and relaying it forward to their team mates.  Bidons are hung out of car windows and you watch as the riders grab hold, perhaps for a second more than is sportsmanlike.  The team crew and the cyclists amiably chat as though riding next to a tonne of car moving at speed with a man inside shouting at you is the most natural thing in the world.  No wonder Britain is doing so well in pro cycling these days.

And what of the Brits?  There’s Froome of course, and Cavendish who’ll be relishing the absence of young German sprinter Marcel Kittel this year.  There’s eight other British names - compared to last year’s four - and this when well-known names like Wiggins and David Millar are past their peloton prime and not in the Tour.  Ian Stannard will be working hard to pull Chris Froome safely across the cobbled sections tomorrow, whilst hour-record-grabbing rider Alex Dowsett will be looking for a good ride after fracturing his collarbone earlier this year.  Geraint Thomas, Luke Rowe and Peter Kennaugh will be riding for Team Sky under the tutorship of Sir David Brailsford, whilst the 22-year-old Yates twins - Simon and Adam - are racing with Australian team Orica-GreenEDGE and are the riders I’ll be watching most closely.  Steve Cummings, riding aged 34, will be in a lead support role in his team MTN-Qhubeka.  Surely a golden age of British pro cycling if ever there was one?


Along the route, entire communities find themselves making the most of an enforced day off.  Their streets, no longer enthral to the motor car, are closed down and become occupied by people again.  Kids chalk drawings on to the tarmac.  Families put out picnic tables and share food with friends and neighbours. In Tienan we saw a Belgian oompah band keeping a whole village entertained.  There’s a certain holiday atmosphere which, coupled with sunshine, makes for a wonderful day out.

Today’s stage raced along at incredible speed.  With nerves in plentiful supply and lead riders keen to establish their position, a crash seemed almost inevitable.  When the crash came, with about 60km still to go, it was a big one, leading the race director to temporarily suspend the Tour whilst medical staff dealt with a multitude of serous injuries.  Yesterday’s Yellow Jersey winner, Fabian Cancellara, completed today’s stage but has now withdrawn from the Tour after it became apparent he’d broken pieces of his back.  White jersey-wearer and young hopeful Tom Dumoulin is also out of the rest of the Tour.  Cycling is a tough sport.


The sheer scale of the entire Tour operation becomes apparent at the finish line when you finally see all those riders, all those support vehicles and all those bikes in the one place.  It’s like a happy cycling chaos, with riders being ushered in to trailers, pursued by journalists, fans, erstwhile bike bloggers and doping control.  Masseurs swing in to action, whilst stage host Mayors beam from the podium for the cameras.  I can understand why Ibis loves supporting the Tour de France - all those riders, team directors and hangers on (not to mention the spectators) have to stay somewhere. Indeed, some 1,500 hotel room beds are reserved every night of the Tour just for organisers and teams.

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Ibis, who have been putting me up in their super comfortable hotels here in Belgium (I love their specially designed Sweet Beds and have been sleeping like a baby throughout my trip) decided that it wasn’t enough for a cycle racing fan to be allowed in to the thick of the action and had one final surprise in store for me; a transfer to a helicopter about 20kms out from the finish line to watch the peloton from up on high.  Watching the bunch snake its way around corners and up hills through the spectacular, green countryside is a memory that will stay with me forever, and I feel exceptionally lucky to have had such an opportunity.  Thank you, Ibis, for your support of the Tour, for such a welcoming stay and for an incredible day of cycling I’ll never forget!


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Everyone cycles in Antwerp (who knew?!)

I'm in Antwerp, Belgium, which will host stage 3 of the 2015 Tour de France tomorrow.  I'm here for the Tour (follow my Twitter feed for live updates tomorrow) but hadn't appreciated what a great cycling city Antwerp is.


Home to about a million people its Belgium's most populous city, blessed with a compact historic core which is criss-crossed by a web of tram lines and very good cycling infrastructure.  There's tonnes of Tour fans in town, and roadies were out in force riding the route ahead of tomorrow's stage, but I also saw lots of just about everybody else riding a bike as well.

As you'd expect, cyclists share with other traffic on small and quiet roads here, but where volumes or speeds of cars are high the bikes are given their own space.  And I was glad to see there was plenty of new cycling infrastructure in place and that it was well maintained; always a sure sign that a city cares for its cyclists.


From the moment you step off the high speed train at Antwerp Centraal (and oh my goodness me, train fans, what a station it is) the fact that you're in a cycling city is apparent - deep in the bowels of the station there's acres of secure bicycle parking, a mechanic's workshop and a bike hire station. There's a suite of city bike share schemes - depending on how long you need a bike for - but if you're just visiting I recommend Fietshaven's Yellow Bike scheme, where you can rent a fantastic bike for a full 24 hours for just €13.

It was great to see the beautiful merchant's houses in the bike and pedestrian-friendly city centre.  Cyclists are exempt from having to follow most one-way streets here, and bike parking abounds. But it is not just in the old town that the city has been thinking about bikes.  There were acres of heavily-used bike parking outside the nearly-new Berchem Station, and smooth, wide brand-new bike tracks to get you there. 


Beneath the river Scheldt, the 1933 Saint Anne's tunnel accommodates people on bike and foot, and allows you to take your bike down the original wooden escalators before a leisurely ride beneath the river with excellent acoustics!


I found drivers to be courteous and interaction between riders and cars seemed friendly. What's more I saw cyclists of all ages out enjoying a summer's Sunday ride.  Indeed, the leisurely cycle track that follows the railway south out of the city is so popular it could well do with being made even wider - that's what we call in cycle planning circles "a nice problem to have".


Antwerp had never been on my list of places to visit before. I knew it was here, of course, and that it was really just a short trip by train from London.  I had a vague idea that it was famous for diamonds, and shipping, but that was about it.  Well, more fool me.  Antwerp punches above its weight; both as a cycling city and as a destination in its own right.  I couldn't think of a nicer weekend away than riding around here by bike.

For more info on cycling in Antwerp go to Visit Antwerp.
Check for a profile of tomorrow's stage departing from Antwerp.
You can get to Antwerp via the Eurostar in about two hours, with tickets from £80.

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