Another visitor to the Netherlands gets it

An extract from Bella Bathurst’s excellent The Bicycle Book, which is well worth a read. Bella visits the Netherlands.

… on a sunny day in early July I head out of Amsterdam towards the north of the country. Assen is a medium-sized town in Drenthe with a broad, wide canal leading straight into the centre of town, a TT track and the same comfortable, well-proportioned red-brick architecture that all of Holland is made from. As in every Dutch railway station, Assen has a bike rental shop which will hire you something for as long as you need it. The resulting Gazelle is heavy and strong with three gears and two baskets. Once it’s in motion, it has roughly the same momentum and stopping distance as a medium-sized oil tanker. I set off northwards along the canal towpath past the lines of trees and barges spaced at regulation intervals and then up onto the main road out of town.

But that road does not look like it would look in Britain. In Britain, roads are solely and exclusively for cars. Out in the country they sometimes have short stretches of pavement, but more usually it’s all just tarmac and road kill. Here, they have a much more elegant solution. First there’s a pavement, then a cycle path, then there are trees, then there’s a road. And the same on the other side. It all somehow fits in not because the buildings are any wider apart, but because the roads are thinner. And because there are paths specially for bikes already there, all sorts of things start to happen. The assumptions that one makes in Britain no longer apply; the whole way one cycles is suddenly called into question. Springing from the Dutch belief that cyclists have a legal and moral right to exist comes a whole series of equally bizarre notions: that you don’t have to cycle defensively, that you are not just about to get wiped out by an HGV, that you do not have anything to fear. The UK has eight casualties per 100km [sic] cycled; the Netherlands has 0.8. And since you don’t have anything to fear, you don’t have anything to prove. If you don’t have anything to prove, you don’t have to compete, either with motorists or with your fellow cyclists. Here, people cycle because they’re interested in reaching their destinations. Everyone spins along at roughly the same pace – a steady, comfortable 20 to 25 kph. Everyone rides as upright as if they were sitting at the kitchen table back at home, and everyone looks perfectly capable of pedalling halfway to Brussels if necessary. No one shows off or rides anything flashy or bangs on the bonnets of transgressing vans. It is all very strange.

I may be mistaken, but judging by her description, Bella was not heading north, but west, beside that ‘broad, wide canal’ – the Vaart.

‘A pavement, then a cycle path, then there are trees, then there’s a road. ‘ You can cycle on the path with an umbrella, quite happily.

The road itself is thin – the carriageways, unlike in the UK, are just about wide enough to accommodate a lorry, and no more.

There is no space between the carriageways, either. Motor vehicles pass close to each other. The street space, as Bathurst says, is just used in a different way – ‘it all somehow fits in not because the buildings are any wider apart, but because the roads are thinner.’

Cycling in Assen is completely different from cycling in the United Kingdom. It is entirely relaxed. There is no need for defensive or assertive cycling. The description Bella Bathurst gives is accurate – there is no fear. Consequently people of all ages, genders and abilities cycle at their own pace, and in their own clothes. It’s as natural and easy as walking.

Bathurst goes on to write that, in the Netherlands, cycling

 isn’t a poor man’s form of transport, it isn’t a rich man’s hobby, it’s not a child’s toy or a machine for proving one’s virility. It just isn’t an issue. The main English-language bookshop in Amsterdam has three floors of books, and a transport section full of material on cars, trains, Spitfires and Fokkers, but not a single line on cycling – not route guide, not a map, not even something on mending a puncture. Cycling here is so ubiquitous it’s a non-issue. It doesn’t belong to anyone, so it belongs to everyone. It’s just a bicycle – as universal, unexciting and miraculous as a pair of legs.

Despite the decades-long proven track record of the Netherlands in demonstrating precisely how you make cycling available to all as an obvious and easy transport choice, a curious amount of effort seems to be expended in Great Britain dismissing that very same approach of the Netherlands, and instead attempting to persuade those who currently don’t cycle – including people of the same age and gender as those in the picture above – that cycling in the road, amongst and alongside buses, vans and HGVs, is something they might actually want to do. An approach that has a consistent track record of failure, principally because people already know that they don’t want to cycle alongside buses, vans and HGVs. Glossy advertising and promotional material, persuasion and marketing, is not going to address this simple fact.

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8 Responses to Another visitor to the Netherlands gets it

  1. davidhembrow says:

    Bella came here a few years ago and Judy and I showed her around. The hotel that she stayed in was on the west, and she rode several times along the Vaart to get there and back, using both the secondary route along the South of the canal, which you’ve shown above and where we had roadworks a few weeks back and also the primary route on the other side of the canal.

    However, I think she may really be talking about heading North because Judy rode to Groningen and back with Bella, and the main route parallels the canal (though it’s not always visible from the cycle-path).

  2. Wyadvd says:

    I would love a network like that here! It has to be implemented nationally on an all or nothing basis.

    By the way road fatalities are expressed in deaths per billion km travelled , not per 100km travelled. It think I would die 16 times a week otherwise!

  3. Harry says:

    Why don’t we all club together to pay to send Norman Baker on a study tour with David?

  4. Pingback: High Time in a Low Country: Exploring the Netherlands « judefensor

  5. Peter Clinch says:

    “Cycling in Assen is completely different from cycling in the United Kingdom”… Pretty much anywhere I’ve been in NL is completely different to the UK, but you shouldn’t assume any one place in NL is entirely representative. Try starting your Dutch cycle experience in a fairly obvious and common start point, the rental at the Amsterdam station that connects to Schiphol when you’ve landed on an afternoon flight, and I suspect you’ll find matters rather less relaxed and far more need to be assertive!
    “It has to be implemented nationally on an all or nothing basis” dooms you to nothing. If the Dutch can’t make Amsterdam as user-friendly as Assen (and they can’t because there isn’t the room and there are a lot more people (on bikes and off), not because they don’t want to) then I can’t see us making the whole of the UK that good.

    What has to be implemented is the Dutch concept of bikes being at least as important as anything else at the planning stage. Getting across Amsterdam may be a rather rude awakening compared to Alkmaar (I’ve not been to Assen, but have had lovely leisurely experiences straight from the station at Alkmaar near where I have family), but I’d certainly rather cycle across the capital than drive there! So rather than “Assen-standard infrastructure everywhere or bust” (which will be bust) we should be looking at Dutch-standard “plan for bikes as well as the space will reasonably allow”. Which may (or may not) involve separation and infrastructure in any given location.

  6. David Camp says:

    Getting across even central Amsterdam by bike is a breeze! When you learn a few car-free backstreet routes such as Leidestraat, it all gets very easy. The principal challenge comes not from cars, but from crowds at crosswalks, tourists stepping into bikeways, etc..

    Here in Spokane, in the US, we have an amazing cycling climate, excellent terrain and very outdoorsy people, but getting cycling into city planning is incredibly difficult, and our cyclist death rate proves it. Every time I hop on my bike, I miss The Netherlands.

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