What should ‘Going Dutch’ mean?

Matthew Wright’s article in the Guardian yesterday was entitled

There’s more to ‘going Dutch’ than having a separate cycling lane

To which the obvious, superficial, response is ‘no shit Sherlock’, and the longer, more detailed response would be as follows.

Of course the Dutch do not provide separated paths on all their roads. On most residential streets, there simply isn’t any need, because the traffic volume and speed is sufficiently low for people on bicycles to feel subjectively safe alongside cars.

Beilerstraat, Assen

Beilerstraat in Assen. No cycle path here. This used to be a rather busy road, but careful planning has made it a rather stupid way to access the city centre by motor vehicle – so motor traffic volume (as you can see) is now very low indeed. Coupled with a restrictive speed limit, no centre line, and a rough surface, it feels perfectly safe to cycle here, two or even three abreast, despite the absence of a cycle path.

Oosterhaufstraat, Assen

Oosterhaufstraat, Assen. Again, no cycle path. Obviously. This residential area is impossible to rat-run through, by means of a combination of road closures and one-way streets. Consequently, the only people using these streets in cars will be those who live on them. Speed humps, tight radii corners and a rough surface all serve to keep speeds low.

DSCN9317

Noordersingel, Assen. No cycle path here either. This is a street that features in David Hembrow’s recent post, Transformation of a city street. You can read there how this once-busy road through the centre of town is now rather quiet. Cyclists have been ‘segregated’ from motor traffic here, not by cycle paths, but by deliberately making the roads difficult to use by car.

DSCN9393

Vredeveldseweg, Assen. No cycle path. Safety is provided by similar methods to Beilerstraat. This road is a direct route into the railway station from the east of the city – but for bikes, not cars.

DSCN9264

Vaart Noordzijde, Assen. A road shared with cars, but one that leads only to dwellings on this side of the canal (except if you are on a bike, where it provides a direct route to outer suburbs). Consequently, only residents will be driving here. Notice also the design of this ‘bicycle road’, designed to make it appear as if you are driving on cycle lanes.

I could go on. It is quite obvious that the Dutch do not segregate (in the obvious sense of providing cycle paths) on every road. So it is quite true, as Matthew Wright argues, that there is more to ‘Going Dutch’ than the provision of separated cycle lanes.

But while acknowledging this, it is almost impossible to overstate the importance of direct segregation on main routes; those roads where it is not feasible to constrain or remove motor traffic. This is an integral part of the Dutch approach. The Dutch make it safe to cycle on these roads, by separating you from higher traffic volumes. Allowing people to cycle in safety on these roads is very important, because ‘main routes’ are main routes for a reason – they are usually the most obvious and direct ways to get to and from important destinations. Places that cyclists will quite obviously want to go. So, from a Dutch perspective, not providing cycle paths on these routes would be a grotesque failure to accommodate the needs of cyclists.

If you read the London Cycling Campaign’s brief summary of their ‘Go Dutch’ strategy (which Matthew Wright links to in his article) you will see that they have got this exactly right. The headline explicitly refers to these ‘main routes’.

Londoners deserve real freedom of choice. We should be able to chose to cycle wherever we live, whatever the route, and whatever the destination. But years of car-centric planning has squeezed cyclists off major routes across and between boroughs. Unsurprisingly too many people are scared to get on their bikes to use these roads due to the high volumes and speeds of motor traffic – or else they simply put up with long, circuitous and inconvenient detours…

Ensuring that people feel happy riding along London’s major roads and routes is a key barometer for how cycle-friendly our city is. That’s why the ‘Go Dutch’ campaign option calls on all authorities to ensure there is clear space, Dutch style, for cycling along major roads in every London borough.

So the LCC are explicitly calling for cycle paths – but only on major routes. This is the Dutch approach. They are not calling for segregation everywhere.

Now it is true that this brief summary makes little or mention of the (Dutch) strategy the LCC would like to employ on London’s minor or residential roads, beyond stating that these new major routes will

require safe access to them from residential areas, promoting joined-up thinking across local areas.

which will undoubtedly encompass the kinds of solutions detailed in the photographs at the top of this post.

But this is a function of the overriding importance of making cycling safe on the most dangerous roads, the roads where cyclists are currently being killed, and the roads which are most off-putting to people who do not currently cycle. You also will not get the lower traffic volume on the quieter residential and back streets – the lower traffic volume essential for the Dutch strategies shown above – without making the bicycle a convincing alternative on the main roads.

I cannot stress this enough. This is something that David Arditti has recently written about in great detail, and convincingly so.

I think the new LCC campaignGoing Dutch,  has it right, which is why I have been supporting it. The start of a real cycling revolution in outer as well as inner London must be to create “clear space for cycling” (as this campaign words it) on main roads. The main roads are the routes people actually need to use to get to the places they need to get to. They are in general the most direct and useful routes and the roads which have space that could be be reallocated with least political pain and most obvious gain. Like the A5, Burnt Oak Broadway, at the north end of Stag Lane. Here, a huge width available between building lines means that, with a proper re-design of the whole width of the road, it could easily include Dutch-style, high-quality, protected cycle tracks, plus good pavements, plus two lanes of general traffic in both directions, plus some parking for the shops. If it was all designed correctly, on Dutch principles, neither the parking nor the bus stops would interfere with the cycle tracks, which would have signalised priority at junctions.

David goes on to write that

This is the kind of thing the Dutch and Danes did at first. They put in the really useful cycle facilities in the places people really needed them on the main roads. They established the primary cycling network. That is the thing that really gets cycling up at first, and establishes in people’s minds the viability of the cycling option, with quality, high-profile provision.

I can’t put it better than that.

Needless to say, you will find, on the LCC website, and in the current edition of their magazine, plenty of detail about what they want to achieve on residential roads. For instance

Cycling on minor roads to and from main roads will be safe and convenient through the application of measures such as: a universal 20 mph speed limit where people live, learn, work, and shop; use of cycle lanes; universal two way flows for cyclists; and filtering cyclists and pedestrians smoothly through restricted access routes for motor traffic (whether right at the junction with main roads themselves or at key locations nearby).

But Matthew Wright obviously isn’t happy with the LCC strategy, otherwise I doubt he would have written his article. He thinks, quite plainly, that there is far too much emphasis on the ‘main routes’ aspect of the Dutch approach, and, in short, he wants a different kind of ‘Going Dutch’ campaign – one that emphasises speed limits, and strict liability.

[LCC] campaigns for a 20mph speed limit (widespread in the Netherlands), and the crucial issue of strict liability would make a more sensible centrepiece for Go Dutch.

And he concludes his article -

 the biggest barrier on the road to creating a widespread cycling culture in the UK is tackling speed limits and a pro-motorist legal bias.

Is it? Maybe. Maybe it isn’t. Wright does not back up this statement.

Now I’m not disputing that these are genuine problems, but I think the importance of ‘strict liability’ when it comes to building a mass cycling culture is vastly overstated. As Freewheeler has written, strict liability

is often misinterpreted as referring to criminal law, meaning that responsibility for a crash is attributed by default to the least vulnerable road user, i.e. in a collision between a car and a cyclist the car driver would automatically be held responsible. In fact in European law it has no such meaning. Rather, it refers to civil law and has no relevance to criminal law whatsoever. Its application largely relates to insurance and makes road users liable to compensate for any injuries arising from the use of their vehicle on the road, whether it is a car or a bicycle. Under Danish law a car driver who hit a cyclist would be held liable by the driver’s insurance company. However, if the driver was not charged with a criminal offence and the cyclist was held to be at fault the insurance company would seek to be reimbursed by the cyclist.

It is worth reading the piece in full, particularly the detail that Ontario in Canada has a version of strict liability, which has had no effect on cycling levels whatsoever, and also Norman Baker’s (correct) opinion that

driver behaviour change is more likely to be motivated by serious personal consequences, whether it be death or injury to themselves or others, or criminal punishments such as loss of their licence or imprisonment, than they are by any insurance issues.

The deeper problem is that Matthew Wright isn’t convinced by a strategy of building cycle paths at all. This is not immediately apparent from his article, but there are a number of clues. He talks about a culture of mutual respect between cyclists and drivers in the Netherlands as being a crucial part of the success of cycling -

Dutch perceptions of their system are as much about a culture of respect as they are about separate lanes

But this fails to acknowledge that the culture of respect is built upon the fact that (nearly) everybody is a cyclist. There is no such thing as ‘a cyclist’ in the Netherlands, no ‘them and us’; just someone choosing to use a bicycle instead of their car. Crucially, this mass-cycling culture has only been made possible through Dutch cycling policies, of which an integral part has been cycle paths on direct routes. The culture of respect flows from the subjective safety (cycle paths included) which allows everyone to cycle.

We further have an illuminating section, from Wright, on the safety of cycle paths -

The safety of having separate lanes has often been questioned. Though there are many variables, and conclusions are contested, most studies suggest that separate paths, if anything, make cycling more dangerous, because junctions – where most accidents occur – are more complicated.

‘Most studies’ being those cherry-picked by John Franklin. It is noteworthy that not one of the studies in the list linked to dates from later than 2001, and the only Dutch study referenced by Franklin dates from 1977. Given that the Netherlands is effectively a country-wide testbed for separated cycling facilities, this is an astonishing omission. Franklin’s own bias against cycle paths, and how it intrudes into his supposedly objective research, is increasingly well-documented.

Needless to say, there is plenty of evidence out there that cycle paths can and do improve the safety of cyclists – but for some reason Wright chose not to look for it. He also has a curious attitude towards the fact that Dutch cyclists are more safe than any other cyclists anywhere in the world, despite cycling on separated paths for a considerable portion of their journeys, which you can read in his response to an Amsterdamize post on this topic here (again, worth reading in full). Wright’s argument is that cycle paths are in effect a ‘placebo’ (a word he uses elsewhere) which despite being more unsafe to cycle on than the road itself, encourage more people to cycle, so creating the ‘safety in numbers’ effect, that apparently outweighs the safety disadvantage of using the paths in the first place.

separate lanes make people feel safer, which makes more of them cycle, which creates a virtuous circle with more drivers aware of cyclists’ needs, etc.

Even if  this is true, cycle path critics still have to acknowledge that cycle paths – in the end – make cyclists safer, as they have in the Netherlands. In other words, we should not forget that placebos work. Simply pointing out that – in isolation – paths can be more dangerous than the road neglects the overall, documented, improvement in safety, and cannot therefore be used an argument against them on these grounds.

We finally have the passage in Wright’s Guardian article that I take most issue with -

LCC’s emphasis on “London’s main roads” is also strange. With the exception of short stretches of essential main road-sharing (over bridges, by stations etc), why would you want to cycle in such noise, danger and pollution, when there are faster and more pleasant routes through back streets, parks and towpaths?

It is not ‘strange’, at all, to emphasise boosting cycling on main roads, for the reasons I have outlined, at length, above. These are the roads that people want to use – self-evidently, that is why they are ‘main routes.’ Routes through ‘back streets’ are rarely faster (and indeed, often just as unpleasant, in that you will often encounter belligerent drivers on streets narrowed by parked cars). I raised this subject with Wright last night on twitter, pointing out that taking ‘back routes’ for a journey I used to make from King’s Cross to UCL would require me to more than double my journey length, if I chose not to cycle on Euston Road.

His response was not satisfactory.

I am not going to cycle all the way south to Tavistock Place – to use a segregated facility of the kind that Wright opposes – to avoid Euston Road, especially when I would still have to deal with the King’s Cross junction, and the busy roads around Euston. Nor am I going to cycle through Somerstown, which also involves the busy York Way and Goods Way, and again, negotiating Euston. These are lengthy journeys – more than double the direct route – and still involve danger.

So why can we not campaign to have cycle paths on Euston Road? There’s plenty of space, given that it is three lanes wide in each direction, with a central divider as well.

But Wright disagrees, asking me

Where would Euston Rd Lane go? Or Piccadilly?

‘Where would it go’, indeed. Likewise on Piccadilly, there simply isn’t the space for a cycle path.

DSCN7920

I’ve documented plenty of other London streets where there just isn’t the space.

Wright also argues that nobody would want to cycle on Euston Road, because it is heavy with traffic, polluted, and there’s nothing to see. The fact that encouraging cycling on Euston Road – by taking some space away from motor vehicles and reallocating it for bicycles – would go some way towards solving each and every one of those problems apparently escapes him. He also takes a worst-case scenario, suggesting than any cycle paths that are built would be stopping at each and every side road – but this is hardly what LCC are going to campaign for.

I can see that proper Dutch-style cycle paths on our main roads might be an unrealistic goal, to those critics and campaigners like Wright. That we should instead go for the ‘low-hanging fruit’ like lower speed limits, stricter enforcement of road traffic laws, and so on – the kind of ‘Dutch’ solutions that Wright wants LCC to campaign on, apparently because we’re just never going to get proper Dutch-style cycle paths on our main roads.

But that’s no reason to not even campaign for it in the first place. Why don’t we try? LCC are doing it, and I’m going to back them wholeheartedly, not least because I fail to see how we can genuinely get more people cycling in London by ignoring the busiest roads, and telling people to take piddling diversionary routes around back streets.

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5 Responses to What should ‘Going Dutch’ mean?

  1. Kim says:

    I really do wonder what is the point of groups which never bother to try, and then complain that nothing is ever going to change. They have defeated themselves without even trying to change things. So they would be better to shut up, get out of the way and let people with vision try and make a difference. One thing is for certain, things aren’t going to change unless we try. Carpe diem!!

  2. Another aspect of the article I take issue with is that while certain legal requirements (such as bells and lights) are mentioned; there are laws applicable here that do not apply in the Netherlands (having two sets of brakes, not carrying a passenger without a proper seat) as well as various exemptions such as right turns on red and the very prevalent contraflow cycling. I do however suspect that there may be more attention towards irresponsible behaviour like drunk cycling.

  3. Don says:

    I’m really glad this this debate has ballooned beyond Matthew Wright’s mixed-message article, which I don’t think was helpful at all. It just makes me wonder why we have to make things so effing complicated in this country!

    I would move to the Netherlands but its not hilly enough for my liking ;-)

  4. Robert says:

    An absolutely excellent piece. The Go Dutch campaign has prompted me to join the LCC. We need to think big to effect change.

  5. Pete Owens says:

    Matthew Wright is spot on – and those arguing that the difference between the UK and the NL is about segregation are missing the point completely.

    The key is the hierarchy of provision – see:
    http://www.ctc.org.uk/Default.aspx?TabID=4923
    which originated from Dutch design principles – where in the UK our traffic engineers are only prepared to consider segregation. This is not to oppose segregation, but to recognise it is the least important feature of achieving a cycle friendly environment. Indeed the only reason many Dutch cycle-paths (and the paths themselves really are not all that different) are remotely workable is because the DO act to reduce traffic through their towns, they DO reduce the speed of traffic, when they design junctions their first concern IS the convenience and comfort of pedestrians and cyclists, rather than the throughput of motor traffic and the ARE prepared to reallocate road space away from motor traffic. Having done all of the above, then the vast majority of Dutch roads become cycle friendly – with no need for cycle facilities at all. While in the UK we only build cycle paths, whether this is along a quiet residential cul-de-sac or attempting to cross a multi-lane approach to a large roundabout. And where cycle facilities are still needed the become possible, precisely because of the lower traffic speed and volumes and reallocation of space.

    It also means that cycle infrastructure is put where it is best suited – on high speed rural highways where there are few junctions and the towns where most cycling and walking is done are improved mainly by controlling motor traffic.

    Now, if you are going to be serious when advocating segregated facilities, you really do need to be honest and accept the overwhelming evidence that they cause a safety problem at junctions. It is not just a case of poor UK design, the evidence comes from studies around the world (including NL) and nobody has yet come up with and adequate solution. It arises from basic geometry and is an inevitable consequence of arranging for conflicting traffic streams to approach a junction. Cherry picking a quotes out of context, and often of opinion rather than fact, that appear superficially to contrarian really does the argument no credit. It is no use claiming to support good segregated infrastructure if you are not prepared to oppose poor or inappropriate segregation.

    Cycling is safer in NL despite of rather than because of the facilities. And the reason is that their roads are much safer in the first place. And they are safer for all vulnerable road user INCLUDING PEDESTRIANS. And the reason pedestrians are very much safer in the NL self evidently has nothing whatsoever to do with the existence or quality of cycle-paths.

    Now, having said all that, this is NOT to oppose all cycle paths as worthless, just to put them in their proper context. In appropriate situations – such as high speed inter-urban roads where there are few junctions the risk of being run over from behind outweighs the risk at junctions then they are fine. But these are not a high priority. Most cycling is local, and within towns on the vast majority of streets of the sort that the Dutch would not segregate, but treat with the measures described above. It is these things that make the NL different from the UK not the cycle paths that are common to both.

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