“Why wouldn’t you ride a bike?”

My partner has not ridden a bicycle for over 20 years. The reasons for this are manifold, but in essence, they boil down to the roads she would have to use being too unpleasant to ride on, in combination with the perceived difficulty of riding a bike in her ‘normal’ clothing. Until she met me, she had seen ‘cycling’ as something that was only carried out by hooligans on the pavement, or by ‘cyclists’, strange individuals who put on specialized clobber, and adopted strategies to survive on the road, which she saw as ‘the car’s environment.’ That she held this view, despite never having driven a car herself, only hints at the pervasiveness of this negative view of cycling, and cyclists, amongst the general public.

Well, she has now broken her cycling embargo.

Her very first journey, in two decades, was on a busy urban street, near the centre of a bustling city of 300,000 people,  a street undergoing roadworks, with buses, vans and other large vehicles overtaking us.

Hardly the best environment to start a nervous and wobbly ride, you might think, but of course, that street was not in Great Britain. It was in Utrecht, in the Netherlands.

Below is the video of that first ride, on Biltstraat. My partner is behind me.

We are separated completely from the main traffic flow, and can progress serenely at a modest pace. It was entirely relaxed. In fact the only thing we actually ended up worrying up was the rather large dog that appears at the 55 second mark – British dogs are often rather hostile to bicycles, but Dutch dogs seem to be more used to them.

Having paused for a coffee, we then discussed what to do next. I had only anticipated cycling up and down a few streets, just to give her a flavour, but having gained her confidence, we actually discussed doing something I hadn’t really anticipated would be possible – cycling all the way out of the city, into the countryside, to a pancake house she had read about in our guidebook, at Rhijnauwen, near Bunnik.

Would this be possible for a novice, who hadn’t ridden a bicycle for decades?

Our first challenge was to negotiate the ring road.  As we approached the large roundabout at then end of Biltstraat, my partner said, quite anxiously, ‘This looks dangerous!’ And indeed it did. There was no way she was going to cycle anywhere near it. But having reassured her that we would not have to worry about traffic at all, we continued, as shown below.

Easy. We then found ourselves alongside a busy dual carriageway, on this path.

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The very idea of us negotiating this kind of road in Britain, given her nervousness, would be ludicrous, but cycling along it here was wonderful.

Eventually we entered the suburb of Oost. Here it was slightly more challenging. The cycle paths were not separated from the road.

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However, the motor traffic was low in volume, and considerately driven. There were plenty of other cyclists around, and the path was wide enough to give my partner confidence. A van actually followed us as we crawled along (well, ‘crawled’ according to my ‘British’ urban pace) for a few hundred yards, before turning in behind us, rather than risking a pointless overtake. A revelation.

Back onto separated paths –

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Huge numbers of cyclists, mostly children. (In fact it was the numbers of cyclists that would present the greatest challenge to my partner, especially as we returned to the city centre at the end of the school day).

We then found ourselves on this access road, alongside the main road, leaving the city limits.

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We only encountered one motor vehicle – the van seen in the photo below – during the couple of miles we cycled along this access road.

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Plenty of other cyclists though, mostly teenagers, cycling into the city.

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Eventually, as we neared Bunnik, our access road switched sides of the main carriageway.

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A ‘lycra cyclist’ happily used this path. We only had to push the yellow button on the post to the right, and the lights changed instantly (there also seemed to be an induction loop that our bicycles set off). A large articulated lorry was forced to wait as we crossed to the path on the other side.

Another mile or so of cycling on quiet rural roads, and we were at our destination.

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We had negotiated our way out from the very centre of the city, on bikes, to a country house, and it had been remarkably easy.

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As we saw these other cyclists arriving at the pancake house, my partner – perhaps a bit exhilarated at having made it to our destination with so little difficulty – turned to me and said,

‘Why wouldn’t you ride a bike?’

And this was coming from someone who had not been anywhere a bicycle for two decades.

Why wouldn’t you, indeed?

Make cycling an obvious and easy way of getting about, and people will do it.

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This entry was posted in Cycling policy, Infrastructure, Road safety, The Netherlands. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to “Why wouldn’t you ride a bike?”

  1. Kristin says:

    Congratulations! We’ve been having a discussion about why women don’t ride bikes more often. What do you think of this article?

    http://www.grist.org/biking/2011-06-20-bicyclings-gender-gap-its-the-economy-stupid

    • stabiliser says:

      Kristin, that seems to correspond directly to my experience. My partner just didn’t see cycling as something she could do – it didn’t fit with her fashion sense, and it just isn’t attractive for her to attempt to cycle on the busy roads where I live. There are no reasonable alternatives to using those roads.

      I certainly found that the majority of cyclists I saw in Utrecht were women.

  2. Alex Taylor says:

    The “Fietsers afstappen” (cyclists dismount) sign in the first video (at about 0:35) is interesting – according to David Hembrow, such things are incredibly rare. Also interesting that you cycled right through it😀

  3. donk says:

    Looks fantastic, wonder if I can persuade my mrs (who sounds similar to yours re: cycling) to go to Utrecht🙂
    The segregated lanes look very good for meandering/steady progress, just wondering what it’s like for people who wish to ride fast, for commuting, training or just for fun. Can they take to the roads? Is it safer than the UK and is it accepted or frowned upon by drivers? If you want to go quick you don’t go down a busy cycle lane.

    • stabiliser says:

      On some lanes, you can’t go too quickly. The paths are certainly wide enough to pass other cyclists, but most people using them are not going fast at all, so it would strike me as a bit rude. Nearly all Dutch bikes have 3 gears or less, and are heavy, so speeds are inevitably not going to be that high.

      But I think a reduction in speed is an acceptable trade-off for the much more relaxed nature of the riding. I usually ride around town at speeds of 15-20 mph in the UK, but I guess in Utrecht I barely broke 10 mph. It didn’t seem to matter though – I was having fun.

      As it happens, I did see plenty of ‘lycra cyclists’ (of which I am occasionally one myself!), but mostly in the evenings, presumably heading out of town after work for leisure rides. They were using the lanes, and were able to progress at a reasonable speed.

      Commuting in Utrecht seems to be done at a relaxed pace, in ordinary clothes.

    • J.. says:

      Once you leave the town center and find the open road, the cyclepaths are great for commuting. Busy school routes and sunny sunday afternoons might crowd up the paths sometimes, but usually it’s a breeze. I commute long distances at relatively high speeds (18-20 mph) and I’ve hardly ever encountered any problems.
      A lot of paths are mandatory for bikes, so you can’t take the road. (Those are indicated by the blue signs like the one in the first video (@0:37).) In most cases you wouldn’t want to take the road, and there are exceptions for some specific instances.
      BTW, the yellow “afstappen” (dismount) signs are usually put up as sort of an advisory safety measure,
      and to preempt lawsuits. Everyone ignores them.

  4. Pingback: Why *would* you ride a bike? The UK experience | As Easy As Riding A Bike

  5. donk says:

    I guessed that would be the case for the cycle lanes at commute times, everybody taking it easy, relaxed pace and it would suit the majority of cyclists and all those potential cyclists too scared to ride at the moment. I assume recreational/utility cyclists use the lanes, racer/training cyclists use the roads….but UK drivers dislike cyclists being on the road if there’s a grotty, pothole-ridden, stop at every side junction, joke of a cycle lane next to the road. Was wondering if drivers would be even more hostile if there was a well designed extensive segregated but slow(ish) cycling infrastructure. Maybe the speedy dutch riders only go out on cycle lanes at night or out in the country side?

    • stabiliser says:

      Perhaps my post has given a misleading impression of the overall Dutch experience. There are certainly not segregated lanes on *every road*. In fact, they exist only on a small minority of roads, mostly on busy urban streets, and alongside fast intra-urban roads.

      Speedy riding is probably not the done thing in urban areas – but it is certainly possible on the paths outside of towns. The photos in the post itself are a good example – we were using an access road (which was wider, and had a better surface, than most UK rural roads!) that ran alongside the main carriageway. You can see a photo of a lycra cyclist using this network, without any difficulty. I would say he was doing at least 20 mph when he passed us at that crossing.

      I can’t imagine that the Dutch would construct intra-urban tracks that did not allow speedy riding like this, and if they did not, cycling would certainly be allowed on the main carriageway.

      Finally, I would note that – in my experience – Dutch drivers are extraordinarily considerate of cyclists. Probably because most of them *are* cyclists. So the hostility probably isn’t even going to be an issue in the first place.

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