I’ve just come back from a far too short trip to the Netherlands, staying for a couple of days in the wonderful city of Utrecht. Having read – jealously! – about the conditions for cycling in the Netherlands on David Hembrow’s excellent blog, I went with pretty high expectations about what I would find, and I have to say, I was not disappointed. It was a massive eye-opener, and frankly coming back to the UK and immediately experiencing the fairly degraded conditions for cycling in the area where I live was fairly depressing.
If I had to describe succinctly how cycling in Utrecht appeared to me, I would say that it is simply a different form of walking – a slightly faster one. There was no real distinction between the types of people walking, and the people cycling. Not in their clothes, nor in their ages or gender, nor in the way they talked to each other, nor in the way they seemed relaxed while moving about the city. Everybody appeared to cycle, and they do it easily, in normal clothes, and from door to door, chatting and smiling as they progress. Cycling looked, and felt, easy.
I find it hard to imagine children this young cycling into the centre of any UK city at all, let alone cycling in and looking so happy and relaxed, and so ordinary. Yet in Utrecht, families cycling around together is commonplace. More pictures -
Now, of course, these children are cycling with traffic – but only on narrower streets, where vehicle speeds are limited, and in areas where it is very difficult to drive around. On busier streets, with faster traffic flow, there is separation, like this -
This is what it is all about. It’s about making cycling the natural thing to do. I suspect that is why cyclists and pedestrians mingled quite easily, even on busy shopping streets; this was something that I had not really been expecting. Even on narrow passageways between building works around the Old Canal, many cyclists did not dismount, and simply negotiated their way past pedestrians.
Again, try to imagine someone cycling like this – even ultra-cautiously – in the U.K., where cyclists seem to be irrationally viewed as the ultimate urban menace, who need to be kept away from pedestrians at all costs. In Utrecht, it’s completely normal – no-one appears to bat an eyelid. That’s probably because everyone cycles, and a person on a bicycle in the city centre is therefore not viewed as someone too poor to afford a car, or a lycra lout, or an adrenaline junkie, and so on.
A picture of rush hour commuting, on my last evening in Utrecht.
The next evening, I arrived back in the U.K., and the first cyclist I saw was a chap in a flourescent yellow jacket, helmet, glasses, lycra leggings, mounting a racing folding bike, with clipless pedals – ready to do battle with the rush hour traffic outside Horsham station. I don’t blame him – this is what you have to do to cycle here. I find that the least stressful way of getting about is to try to keep pace with vehicles, at least when I am forced to use the road – which is most of the time. And you have to wear a helmet, because you’ll probably be blamed if you get killed by a negligent motorist if you’re not wearing one. Ditto for hi-viz.
But, please, can we not start making commuting by bicycle look a little more like the picture above?
Is that not something to aspire to?