I noticed this gem over the weekend on Twitter (thanks to Kats Dekker). It’s a quote from the forefather of Vehicular Cycling, John Forester.
The bikeway advocates are so imbued with the imagined virtues of the Dutch bikeway system, that it makes cycling safe for the incompetent and creates many cyclists where there were few before, that they have transformed, in their own minds, the defects of the Dutch system, its slow speed and long delays, into virtues.
I think it is now common knowledge that Forester – despite being so absurdly influential in cycling policy for a considerable period of time – is completely clueless about Dutch practice. This cluelessness is partly due to blatant prejudice, but also because he’s never even taken a look for himself.
Forester said that, besides a childhood train journey through Holland before World War II, he has never been in the country. “However,” he told me in an e-mail, “I have several cycling associates who have cycled there, and they inform me that they didn’t like cycling there for reasons which I see as eminently reasonable and conforming to my feelings about the few imitations implemented here.” [Quote from Pedaling Revolution, by Jeff Mapes]
Anyone who has visited the Netherlands would know that you are never suffer ‘delays’ while cycling, let alone ‘long delays’; nor is ‘slow speed’ an intrinsic quality of the Dutch system. Forester has just assumed that to be the case, without any evidence.
Nevertheless the idea that Dutch tracks are for ‘pootling’, or for ‘slow cyclists’, is remarkably persistent among a good number of prominent UK cycling advocates, particularly many who should know better. In the Netherlands, according to these individuals, you apparently have to cycle slowly everywhere; if you’re a ‘fast’ cyclist, woe betide you if you get stuck behind a granny, or some schoolchildren. You’ll be stuck! Richard Lewis of the London Cycling Campaign is just one person who seems to think this, although there are many others like him.
You are a lot more like a vehicular cyclist in Denmark than you are in the Netherlands, where you are much more of a pootling cyclist. The Dutch stuff encourages slower cycling – which some people say is more civilised, and perhaps under certain circumstances it is.
Well, without wishing to be rude, I have to say this is nonsense; as wrong as Forester’s silly notions about Dutch infrastructure.
One of the most obvious reasons why it is nonsense is that the use (both legal and illegal) of Dutch cycle tracks and paths by scooters is rapidly becoming a serious problem, as Mark Wagenbuur has recently detailed. Why would scooter users – particularly those whose scooter is legal only on the roads – choose to divert onto cycle paths if they are ‘slow’? As Koen writes in the comments below Mark’s piece
Ironically, the very fact that fast moped riders sometimes illegally use the bicycle path, because they prefer it over the main road, even though they should be riding on the carriageway, is in itself an indication of the quality of this separated bicycle infrastructure.
If you are still sceptical, I’ve compiled a collection of videos taken on cycle paths and tracks in a variety of Dutch urban locations. I should stress that this is not a complete picture of the Dutch cycling experience – cycle tracks form only a part of typical cycling journeys. However I have focused on tracks and paths because that is where it appears to be assumed one will be ‘held up.’
Starting with city centres, here are videos of tracks in the centre of Rotterdam, Amsterdam and Utrecht. (For reference – given that this is now a hot topic in London – note that the Utrecht track passes behind a bus stop).
These are busy locations, but it’s not really valid to claim that you are ‘impeded’ cycling here. It’s perfectly possible to pass other cyclists using the full width of the track. Even if you are delayed, it would be only momentary; it bears no comparison with the typical delays you will encounter cycling amongst heavy motor traffic.
Another city centre location, this time a track in Groningen -
Cycled twice -
Note that this cycle track serves as a service road for vehicles accessing side streets, and parking bays. It’s wide and smooth enough for that purpose. Note also that, just as in the Utrecht example, it passes behind bus stops, meaning that you can cycle free from the stress of having to overtake – and be overtaken by – buses. It’s very civilised, and pedestrians and cyclists interact calmly. The system works beautifully.
Two-way cycle tracks are common in many locations in the Netherlands. Typically they will be found alongside larger roads, and with restricted access to and from side roads, to minimise conflict. This one is in the centre of Assen.
Very easy to cycle fast on this track, and to pass people who might be cycling slower than you. The same is true of two-way tracks in the suburbs of Assen – this one connects the new, large development at Klosterveen with the city itself.
And another two-way track in Assen. No hold ups. (The video also shows how motor traffic is held while cyclists have their own green signal on the junction, something I touched upon in this earlier post).
On a one-way track nearby, I find myself cycling behind a mother and her daughter, cycling side by side; perhaps the greatest fear of those who wish to cycle fast.
As the video explains, it is actually very simple to pass people cycling side by side like this in the Netherlands. A simple ring of the bell, and those ahead of you will move over to allow you to pass. I choose not to do so in this case as there’s no need; we’re making good progress, and I am part of a group.
Here’s a video of a similar track in Groningen, albeit without car parking. Very easy to cycle fast, and to overtake others, as the scooter riders demonstrate.
Suburban tracks in the Netherlands typically look like small roads. They are as wide as, if not wider than, a conventional UK country lane, but for the exclusive use of cyclists and pedestrians. Here are some examples.
There is no way on earth you would ever be ‘held up’ on a cycle track this wide.
Finally, while I have been describing the process of cycling on Dutch tracks and paths themselves, it is very important to stress that you aren’t ‘held up’ at junctions either. While making left turns (the equivalent of a right turn in the UK) will often have to be made in two stages, the light sequence will usually be designed in your favour, so that second leg comes quickly. Conversely, right turns – the equivalent of a left turn in this country – are always possible, no matter what is happening on the junction itself. That is because cycle tracks typically bypass signal controls when it is not necessary to stop bicycles. Mark Wagenbuur has an excellent post detailing these designs; here’s just one small example from Amsterdam.
I suspect the reason why the assumption that Dutch cycle tracks are for ‘slow’ cycling is so persistent is because of a category mistake. ‘Fast’ UK cyclists look at the Dutch experience and see plenty of people cycling slowly, in the way they want to – the type of people who are very rarely seen cycling on Britain’s roads. They then assume that Dutch paths are ‘for’ this type of slow cycling. Forester makes a version of this mistake; that because Dutch cycle paths allow for ‘incompetent’ cycling, so this must be the only kind cycling possible on them.
But this isn’t true at all. Dutch cycle tracks are for everyone; the mere fact that they attract plenty of ordinary people is a virtue of their inclusiveness, not a fault of their design. They are safe and attractive, and fast and direct. This is a message that David Hembrow has been communicating – or attempting to communicate – for years. I wish it would start to sink in.