In four days in Utrecht last week, I took nearly 400 photographs of people cycling.
Part of this exuberance with a camera can be attributed to my innate geekiness about cycling, but mostly it stemmed from the sheer excitement I got from seeing a city functioning so beautifully, with calm streets that are safe and pleasant for walking and cycling, wherever you wish to go.
I gorged on cycling while I was there like a starving man at a banquet, sneaking out of the hotel at night for extra pedalling around, fully aware that the holiday wouldn’t last, and I would soon be back to being menaced and threatened – both intentionally and unintentionally – by drivers once I got back to Britain.
By complete contrast, in all but a handful of the hundreds of photographs I took, the people cycling in Utrecht were doing so free from interactions with motor traffic. No matter where they were – on main roads, on side streets, in residential areas, or out in the countryside, people were cycling in isolation from motor vehicles.
This separation takes different forms, but it is almost total (David Hembrow has written about how it works in Assen). Many of the streets in Utrecht’s city centre are either completely motor vehicle-free, or are designed in such a way that their use will only make sense for drivers making necessary access to properties.
But this isn’t, of course, the only type of separation in Utrecht; there are the more familiar cycle tracks on main roads.
The removal of motor traffic from city centre and residential streets means that it is concentrated on distributor roads like this one. And while ‘concentrated’, in practice the amount of motor traffic using these streets is significantly lower than the equivalent British urban distributor road, largely because a considerable proportion of the journeys being made along them are being made by bicycle – as you can see.
While cutting out motor traffic from residential streets and centres in Britain – without any other measures – would, I think, probably result in increasing the amount of traffic on other roads, in the Netherlands there is a coherent over-arching strategy aimed at facilitating bicycle use. That means separating bicycle users from motor traffic, even on main roads that – by British standards – carry very little motor traffic at all.
These roads have low speed limits, and low traffic levels, which would lead many British cycle campaigners to argue that separation is not necessary alongside them. Cycling on the road here would be much more enjoyable than it would be on an equivalent urban street in Britain; the speed and volume of traffic is appreciably lower.
But the Dutch think differently. They care about the quality of the cycling experience; they will not place children in front of buses and lorries travelling at low speeds, and in low volumes, unless it is completely unavoidable. The purpose of these cycle tracks is, specifically, to insulate cycling from driving; to ensure that cycling from point A to point B is entirely safe and comfortable, for anyone.
This is where many British cycle campaigners get confused. They think that cycle tracks are a form of surrender of the road, when the truth is that they are a form of liberation. They make cycling better. The streets in question will often have all the conditions they typically demand – 30 km/h (18mph) speed limits, and low traffic levels – but cycle tracks are still provided, for the simple reason that they make cycling considerably more enjoyable and relaxing. The infamous Hierarchy of Provision makes no sense in this context.
The cycle tracks form part of a coherent strategy of modal separation, that makes journeys across a major city as stress-free as a ride along a quiet country lane. The quality of the cycling experience is not sacrificed to some nebulous higher goal of retaining the carriageway – ‘our carriageway’ – as a place where motorists should be deferential. Cycling is put first because of separation. To pretend otherwise is as absurd as arguing that removing pavements and making people walk in front of motor vehicles is a way of prioritising walking.
It is this ability to cycle anywhere you want to, without fear, and in total safety (both objective and subjective) that explains why people of all ages cycle in such huge numbers in Utrecht.
My partner has not cycled on any British roads – ever. The only time she has ridden a bicycle since she was a teenager was on our last visit to Utrecht. She won’t like me mentioning it, but she has, for the moment, some trouble steering around tight corners. And yet – once again – I felt completely happy taking her with me on a 15-mile ride, heading straight out from the city centre into the countryside, and back again. She was happy too, despite her lack of bike handling skills, because she never felt threatened, or unsafe. (In fact her most serious problem was in the city centre, where she had to steer around pedestrians and other people riding.) She can’t drive, so the sense of liberation she got from travelling such a distance independently was palpable.
Coming out of the city, the ring road was easily negotiated.
Most of the route we took from this point on was on this kind of cycle path – wide enough for side-by-side riding in each direction.
Outside of the city limits, most of our riding was on rural lanes. The separation of cycling from motor traffic applies here too, with most of the lanes we used limited to residents only.
This transforms these routes into blissfully peaceful tracks, where you will essentially only encounter other people cycling – as well as the occasional driver accessing their house, or delivering to a property.
Over the course of our day out on the bike, we directly interacted with no more than ten motor vehicles – the scariest of which was a large tractor using one of these access roads to get to his fields. We also had a taxi driver who left me muttering ‘so much for strict liability’ as he came towards us at some speed, leaving only inches to spare, on the narrow lane below.
Oh, and this driver too, who, just like the tax driver, came past us like a bullet. Again, strict liability in action.
These incidents were really jarring, coming as they did out of the blue, during a day of almost complete freedom. Not only did they demonstrate to us that Dutch drivers really aren’t all that better behaved than their British counterparts (that could be the subject of another post), but they also showed how the quality of the Dutch cycling experience is built around separation from driving. In Britain these kinds of interactions would be much more frequent, given that cycling will almost always involve continuous exposure to drivers. Even with much higher driving standards, you will still encounter idiots, but in the Netherlands your chances of meeting them are considerably lower.
It took us about twenty minutes – at a relatively slow pedal – to get back into the city centre from the countryside, and it was easy to see why these paths are so popular. They form a crucial part of typical cycle journeys, that are fast, safe and direct – and, of course, free.
Dutch riders like to wheelsuck (they’re not stupid) and small, disparate groups would form and disperse as we pedalled along.
And back in the city centre, we returned to streets that, while in principle are ‘shared’ with motor vehicles, are almost entirely free of them in practice.
There was one jarring moment on our journey back into the city – a driver had parked on the pavement, partially blocking a cycle lane at the point where motor traffic is (very briefly) reintroduced into close physical proximity, to separate it out from the bus lanes on the left.
We had to abandon at this point, and walk for a little bit, because my partner did not have the confidence to negotiate this kind of situation. But this was – tellingly – as bad as it got during our entire trip.
There are, of course, bits of infrastructure in the city that are not quite up to scratch, but you can see that they are old, and it is surely only a matter of time before they are upgraded. It seemed to me that there is a huge amount of improvement work constantly being undertaken across the city; infrastructure is continuously being updated.
Old cycle tracks with paved surfaces are – of course – being replaced with improved surfacing, as junctions get rebuilt.
You can almost smell the fresh tarmac on many cycle tracks in the city centre. And to our amazement the rural road we used (that, for the purposes of driving, is limited to residents only) had been beautifully resurfaced since our last visit.
Even the temporary cycle infrastructure is of an extraordinary quality.
The overwhelming impression given by this continuous improvement, and more importantly by the whole way in which cycling is catered for, is that you are really and truly valued. Dutch towns and cities want you to cycle, and show you that they do through the effort they put in to making it a safe, convenient and enjoyable experience.
The way you can completely bypass large junctions and only realise afterwards what had been on your left.
The way you can cycle on the same road as triple section bendy buses, and not worry about them.
You can cycle like this – without a care – because you are insulated from danger, both objective and subjective, wherever you go. This is the liberation that comes from separation.
I should stress that these efforts are not strictly anti-motoring. If you want, you can still make journeys by car in the city of Utrecht, although your route (especially in and around the centre) may be much more circuitous than you might expect. The policy is more specifically about putting motoring in the correct context in urban areas; prioritised below walking, cycling and public transport. These have been made the obvious and attractive choices.
Outside of urban centres, where motor vehicle use is a more appropriate mode of transport – a way to travel between towns and cities – driving is less inhibited, but in urban areas, it is indirectly restricted by measures that ensure cycling remains safe and direct. Where cycling would be made subjectively or objectively dangerous, or inconvenient, it is motoring that gives way. And that’s not a problem at all if you make cycling the safe and easy option it should be.