Misconceptions, and context – A View From The Cycle Path disappears

David Hembrow has deleted his blog, A View From The Cycle Path.

David is, of course, perfectly at liberty to do what he wants with his website, and I can understand entirely the reasons he has given for doing so, which seem to fall into two categories –

  • the cost in time and effort involved, with little reward – especially in the context of his work being used (legitimately) by organisations who pay a salary
  • the misconceptions and misrepresentations – often well-intentioned – that flowed from his work

Obviously deleting the blog is a solution to these two problems, but in both cases I’m not sure it is the best one.

David had already decided to stop writing new posts for the blog, citing the time and effort involved. In the light of this, the decision was therefore about whether to keep the blog online – perhaps with comments closed – or whether to delete it entirely. Of course, leaving it online would have allowed its use and/or abuse to continue. Likewise David would probably not have received any more reward for his efforts than he had done previously.

It shouldn’t be up to David to stop his work being misrepresented and/or ‘borrowed’ without attribution; I can see why he has felt the need to delete. But, selfishly, from a UK perspective, I’m desperately sad to see the blog go, because I think that on balance the benign and worthy use of the blog definitively outweighed the misuse.

I’m someone who has used a bicycle in the UK for about 15 years, sometimes for leisure, but almost continuously for transport (I have been car-less for a good proportion of that time). Yet I had absolutely no idea about what conditions for cycling in the Netherlands were really like, despite being a self-described ‘keen cyclist’.

I had a vague impression that the Dutch ‘loved bicycles’, and that it was ‘in their culture’ -neither of these things are really true, or serve to explain why Dutch cycling levels are so high, as I have discovered.

I had walked around the narrow streets of central Amsterdam, and seen that there were plenty of bicycles about, probably because of the narrow streets that meant it was difficult to use a car – this is a factor, of course, but ignores the network of cycle paths across Amsterdam, not so visible to the tourist, that facilitate bicycle use across the rest of Amsterdam’s road network.

I also had a notion that the Dutch have cycle paths, but I had no real idea what they looked like, or their quality.

Given the proximity of the Netherlands to the UK, my misconceptions about how cycling works there – as someone who was already highly interested in bicycles as an everyday mode of transport – speaks volumes. For whatever reason, knowledge and information about cycling in the Netherlands did not travel across the North Sea in anything like the volume it should have done – my poor understanding is testament to that.

Until David Hembrow came along. His blog opened my eyes.

Now it’s gone. People can’t misrepresent it any more, or borrow from it without attribution, or misread it; but at the same time, people like me won’t get the true picture.

We’ve also lost a resource that serves to counter the incorrect ideas that float around in the UK. Quite recently I was told, by Matthew Hopkinson, Director of the Local Data Company, which serves UK retail, that the Dutch approach isn’t all that practical in the  UK for shopping – because ‘everyone needs cargo bikes’. This simply isn’t true – people use fairly ordinary bicycles in the Netherlands, that can be loaded with reasonably large amounts of shopping. They use their cars for bigger shops. Cargo bikes aren’t actually all that common in the Netherlands. At the same conference, someone else stated that cycle paths ‘create a sense of ownership’ – as if cyclists were ‘claiming’ part of urban space for themselves. This, again, is misguided, because there is no distinction in the Netherlands between ‘cyclists’ and ‘everyone else’ – cycling is possible for nearly everyone.

Likewise the ‘misconception by Google Streetview’ that David Hembrow refers to will continue, in the absence of his blog; Google will, of course, remain available, and we will no longer have David’s blog to point out that Streetview might not exactly give the full picture.

To take a recent example. A street in Utrecht attracted some attention on the Cyclechat forum – specifically, this Google Street View of it.

Sample comments –

The usual complant about the width of the cycle lane – it needs to be about twice the width.

In a UK context, horrible. Cycle lane in the dooring zone on the left. Cycle lanes too narrow (note cyclist having to cycle outside it to cycle two abreast. Swing the camera round and see horrible pinch points with the central islands at the railway crossing – the last place I would want to have an accident and be lying on the ground with the barriers coming down.

Excellent idea, a lane specially designed to keep cyclists in the door zone.

I think fast cyclists would probably take primary on that road.

I’d say it’s awful, for all the reasons outlined above, and then some, but inspection reveals it is in Utrecht and therefore I must be wrong.

These comments are all entirely understandable. The cycle lane – such as it is – is rather narrow, and does indeed pass close to parked cars. I can agree that having to cycle in something like that, on a British High Street, would probably be a terrible experience.

As it happens, I have actually cycled along this street in Utrecht – Burgemeester Reigerstraat. It lies in the south-east of the city, and runs directly in and out of the centre.

It’s a fairly busy street, dotted with cafes and restaurants. There’s also a small suburban railway station, halfway along it.

Here is my video I took while cycling along it, in the same direction of the Streetview image on Cyclechat. It’s only 1:42 long, but it gives a good indication of the conditions for cycling.

The layout of the road pales slightly into insignificance when you see what the cycling experience actually looks like.

In a UK context, the layout is, in principle, pretty appalling, with the narrow cycle lanes, the pinch points, and the door zone issues, but in practice these issues don’t really matter, essentially because this street has very low motor traffic volume – roughly equivalent to a lightly-trafficked suburban street. Four vehicles over the course of a two-minute video, taken at about 4pm on a Friday, equates roughly to around 100-200 vehicles per hour, gives some idea of the (motor) traffic volume.

There is a good reason for this – the road, despite running radially in and out of the city centre – is not a route into the city for motor vehicles. Nobelstraat, the continuation of this street across the canal, is a one-way street for cars. You can see the somewhat tortuous route you would have to take to get into the city by car, from the Burgemeester Reigerstraat –

This goes some way towards explaining why no vehicles overtook my partner and me while we were cycling along the street – it’s not a useful route into the city. Consequently it’s pretty quiet.

By contrast, making a journey along this street by bicycle, from the suburbs into the city centre, could not be more direct.

Note that a cycle path runs straight across the Wilhelmina Park, to the south-west. You can see a clip of this path here –

It’s basically a road for bikes, running directly into the city. (There’s a footpath on the other side of the hedge).

And although there aren’t cycle paths along Burgemeester Reigerstraat, there are paths on the streets further into the city centre, Nachtegaalstraat –

And Nobelstraat –

In this latter video, you can see that the road is for the exclusive use of buses, in the direction we are travelling.

Further still into the city, Potterstraat (the subject of this video by Mark Wagenbuur, and this post) becomes entirely private motor vehicle-free.

The surrounding arrangement of streets, therefore, makes using a bicycle an obvious choice by comparison with the motor vehicle, and is one of the reasons why it felt relatively safe to cycle along Burgemeester Reigerstraat, despite its apparent lack of safety in a Google Streetview image.

That is not to say there aren’t issues. This was the street that my partner, who hadn’t ridden a bicycle for well over a decade, felt the least safe on – particularly having to negotiate her way around the parked lorry – during the entire day’s cycling in and around Utrecht. Getting back on to the cycle path was a relief for her.

The door zone is also problematic, although I strongly suspect that Dutch drivers are much, much more careful about how they open their car doors on streets like this, given the high volume of bicycles whizzing past their car doors, than a UK driver would be on a typical UK street.

Dutch streets are of course not perfect, everywhere, and there will be gaps, and failings, in the network. But because the streets feel so safe for cycling practically everywhere elsewhere, designed to high standards, and because car use is impeded to a great degree, these gaps are not all that important.

Naturally this surrounding context, and what a street actually looks and feels like to cycle on, cannot really be captured from a one-off glance at Google Streetview.

That’s why I think it’s a tremendous shame that David has deleted his blog; doing so will not stop misconceptions about Dutch cycling and urban planning from occurring, and the deletion will make it harder to correct those misconceptions.

As Jack Thurston of the Bike Show has said

So David Hembrow has deleted his blog. We can all go back to imagining what cycling in the Netherlands is like. Saves on reading I suppose.

UPDATE – I notice that David Arditti has expressed similar sentiments regarding the deletion of A View From The Cycle Path

This entry was posted in David Hembrow, Infrastructure, Street closures, The Netherlands. Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to Misconceptions, and context – A View From The Cycle Path disappears

  1. Whilst it is a great shame that David has chosen to delete his blog we still have a fairly decent selection of video’s on Youtube (such as yours!) showing what it’s like to cycle in Holland. Admittedly we don’t have David’s expert commentary on these or the wonderful explanations he offered but they are at least a start.

  2. Richard Mann says:

    Graham Smith says it’s one of his favourite streets for taking people to (because of the variety of treatment). People have been visiting and studying the Netherlands for years: it’s not like we don’t know about it. Of course there are ignorant responses; listen to them, and try to understand where they’re coming from (there’s usually a grain of sense somewhere). But ultimately they are ignorable.

    The difficult bit is how to get the politics/space/money lined up in this country to move in that direction – people free to cycle in comfort on the most direct routes.

    • Indeed. We know what we need to do thanks to The Netherlands example, and finally there seems to be a growing consensus in cycling circles that The Netherlands represents what we should be doing here. How we get to the stage where the government is ready to invest is the big, difficult question

  3. Very good post; good mix of photos and videos to reinforce arguments. It’s blogs like these that go some way to making up for the disappearing blog. But perhaps David Hembrow could accept car adverts like this blog to earn revenue! (Not suggesting this blog should not – the irony perfectly reflects the world we are living in and the cultural shift that has to be addressed).

    • I think there’s meant to be a link there to whichever blog you are referring.

      • Ah yes should have mentioned it was an advert for a Ford Fiesta but it’s changed now. But my initial comment is about this blog, and indeed the myriad cycle and ‘liveable cities’ blogs that have proliferated over the past couple of years, a welcome development.

    • Regarding the adverts here – they don’t appear in my view of the blog, and they don’t appear to logged-in WordPress users, as far as I am aware.

      I certainly don’t get any revenue from them! It’s a WordPress decision to insert them, to fund WordPress costs. It would actually cost me money to block them out, as things stand. Although I might upgrade to WordPress VIP, which I think would give me some control over the adverts that appear here.

  4. The phrase ‘cargo bike’ is an overused one…are your children cargo? is shopping cargo? the Europeans, because they use a bicycle as transport, their bicycle design reflects that (unless its a sports bike) All Dutch bikes are sold with rear racks, maybe even a front rack, These are bicycles that have evolved to be used easily and daily, used to carry stuff…yet they are not described by Americans and us as cargo bikes. If you look at European manufactures of what we call cargo bikes they will often be described as transport bikes.
    The Europeans do not make a distinction between bicycles and transport bicycles, because their daily bicycles are all for transport. Sports bikes are a minority there, Just because a bicycle can carry more stuff, kids, shopping, etc does not make it a ‘cargo bike’. But because over the last 30-40 years the UK has become primarily a sporting bike nation, we feel we have to denote it as a separate genre, ‘Cargo bikes’ as we call them are not a separate entity, they are just more obviously built for transport.
    It is my opinion that the classification of all UK bikes as ‘sports and leisure’ goods is demeaning to the bicycle as a facilitator of people and detrimental to the work that cycle campaigners are doing on the infrastructures..
    Without being correctly categorised the bicycle will always continue to be regarded as a plaything and bicycles that can obviously carry more ‘stuff’ will always be regarded as a minority interest and very much marginalised, treated as freaks and mechanical curios..
    Bikes can be made more useful, just adding bags and racks can make it a ‘cargo bike’, what we are actually talking about is bikes for transport, and bikes for sport…once the line is drawn, and the bicycle is correctly categorised by the likes of eBay, Amazon, the government, British cycling et al. Only then will the daily use bicycle be then talked about in the correct contexts during government discussions etc, funds will be allocated separately, campaigners will be able to talk about infrastructure without the muffling fog of sport.
    Mr Hembrows Blog may have inspired many, but perhaps the time is right to try to fly unaided, to really think about what we want, what we need, what is really possible. Think afresh about how we alone can help move things forward to help make the bicycle this nations preferred form of local transport. There is much to be done, but it’s not all about routes, it’s about perceptions and very much a battle of hearts and minds.

    • I think – in a UK context – that when people refer to ‘cargo bikes’, they mean bicycles with buckets and/or extra arrangements of seats. That is, slightly specialised bikes like the Bakfiets or a Christiana.

      I certainly don’t think that a standard Dutch bike, with racks and so on, would be described as a ‘cargo bike’, by anyone.

  5. You miss my point…it is only us that seperate them out as cargo bikes…the europeans regard them as bigger bikes that can carry more…many many dutch bikes (for example)are equiped with things that carry more stuff…that stuff is everyday stuff, shopping kids etc. For them a ‘cargo bike’ is just a bigger bike….its not a seperate entity.

    the real issue for us….is the difference between sports….and transport.. not transport and more useful bigger transport…

    it has huge implications for the bigger picture..

  6. Brent says:

    As you say, he’s entitled to do what he will with the blog. However, I find the reaction somewhat petulant. Only a handful of blogs worldwide have ever made any money, and it’s no secret that poaching and plagiarism are the Internet’s dirty underside. But because of his reaction to these well-known and common factors, we have lost one of the more important resources regarding Dutch cycling.

  7. Fatbob says:

    Hembrow’s influence has been incalculable but as Rob says, maybe it is time to fly unaided. There is “stuff” still out there and as far as I’m aware, The Netherlands aren’t yet inundated by the North Sea!

  8. Don says:

    This is a crying shame. A View from the Cycle Path was undoubtedly one of the most important resources in the world for cycling campaigners and anyone interested in the Dutch model of doing things.

    I sincerely hope that David will see fit to re-instate the blog in some archived form, so we still have access to its invaluable content.

  9. Greg Collins says:

    Great post. Excellent commentary on a rather sad situation and a lot of thought provoking comments…

    … my usual fly in the ointment though; how are we going to change our UK car-culture such that “Dutch” cycling is feasible here. Who will champion it politically? Who will vote for it? Who will pay for it? Who will sacrifice their perceived ‘rights’ to enable it?

    • Vocus Dwabe says:

      If the name of the game is segregated cycle tracks – which I think it has to be, if we want anything even slightly better than the sorry mess we have at present – then it’s inevitably going to mean nibbling width from the nation’s vehicle carriageways and quite possibly the pavements as well: or where that’s not possible, establishing bicycles-only routes by gating city-centre back streets to prevent through motor traffic. That’s going to go down very badly indeed with the motoring lobby and the Daily Mail; so the only way to sell it will be to persuade motorists that it’s to their advantage as well, by (i) removing bicycles from the traffic flow and (ii) reducing congestion through making it more attractive to do short-distance journeys by bicycle than by car.

      Frankly, I don’t see any UK government having the will to do that until petrol is nearing £2 a litre and the number of cyclists has doubled from its present level. Remember what short work the car lobby made of the proposal for presumed liability back in 2005: “War on the Motorist”; “Putting Cyclists Above the Law” etc. etc. (and that was a Labour government…) There’s a dim realisation abroad that something needs to be done: but it isn’t very widespread as yet, while there are an awful lot of people with a vested interest in things remaining as they are: not least many cyclists themselves, who have grown up with city-cycling as a combat sport and probably prefer it that way.

      A start was made last week: but it’s still a daunting task. So pity about the Hembrow blog: it was a mine of information on how they actually do things over there. I can read Dutch; but I suspect I’m pretty unusual in that respect.

      • The problem here is the steps you describe can be linked together. At present the main reason people don’t cycle is that it’s perceived to be dangerous because of the volume of motor vehicle traffic. Therefore to encourage people to make more short journeys by bike we NEED to make it more feel safer by REDUCING the volume of motorised traffic.
        Restricting vehicular access to city centres would be a start but it needs to be part of a bigger design that includes cycle routes into the town/city centres, preferably on separate tracks.As these steps are implemented, they become self feeding🙂 More bikes=less cars=roads feel safer=more bikes=WIN!

        As an avid city cyclist I have become used to the “combat sport” style of riding but that isn’t very helpful if we are aiming to make cycling appealing for anyone from the age of 8 – 80 and would love for it to be less stressful!

  10. Mick Mack says:

    @Rob_from RUB, aren’t all bikes transport? Whatever they’re used for? I’ve always seen my bike as a tool, as in Ivan Illic’s ‘Tools for Conviviality’. It is useful as it allows movement through space and time and to help carry my needs with me; in addition it has an aesthetic appeal to my sense of myself as a human being. I feel in control, but can let go and do not feel separated from my environment, despite this external object on which I travel.

    ChesterCycling says “But because the streets feel so safe for cycling practically everywhere elsewhere, designed to high standards, and because car use is impeded to a great degree”, this is the crux for me. Well designed, intelligent and empathetic to the vast majority of people who either walk, cycle or use public transport. If there were more of this… The private car MUST be IMPEDED. The auto and petro-chemical industries hold sway. That is why, IMO, there is no movement. No political spine to do otherwise.

    I agree with Rob that surely we have the knowledge between us. I don’t see either the economics or practicalities – i.e. engineering design, as the problem, although they represent a hurdle to be surmounted. The issue is the Auto-industry lobbying, that is, the vested interests. The economic case for doing otherwise is there in abundance. The environmental case is there in abundance. The vested interests coupled with the spineless politicians are what is holding up the process to achieving what is eminently possible. I believe the change will happen when we do it ourselves. Unfortunate, but drastic circumstances call for drastic measures.

    • Mick, absolutely all bikes are transport, some are for sport and are not really relevent for the discussion about road infastructure…the problem is that only you and i (+92 and rising folk on a mypetionsite) think that bikes are transport. Every bicycle retailer retails sports and leisure goods apparently, my bank only has a classification for sports shop, retailing cycles. eBay, amazon, insurance companies regard the life changing bicycle as a sports good…Even the government discussions last week were clouded by dissussions about sponsored rides and weekends on the hills. If the bicycle continues to be regarded as a sport in this country we will continue to have an uphill struggle. In the Netherlands bikes are transport, maybe not even enjoyed by all, maybe not even thought about by others, its a means to get from one place to another…mundain transport…With all the fiscal and spacial constraints that will always hold up physical changes. Let us take something from the dutch and that’s regard for the bicycle as a transport tool. a reclassification from sport to serious local transport tool would focus eyes on the practical side of bicycles and then perhaps council and government discussions and budgets will not flit from mountain to road side.

  11. snibgo says:

    Good post.

    Most UK cycling (61% of miles in 2010) isn’t for leisure or sport. We’ve always had silly ideas that bikes are merely toys or for fun.

    While we are on terminology, I note the post doesn’t regard bikes as vehicles (“Four vehicles over the course of a two-minute video” etc). I can understand a desired distancing from “vehicular cycling”, but I think it helps our cause if we still call our machines “vehicles”, aside from the fact that they are, legally.

    I agree that we need to inconvenience the motorist.

  12. Mike Chalkley - Chair Bournemouth Cycling Forum says:

    100% agree with this article. In fact, I was thinking of emailing David to try and persuade him to leave up at least the more informative pieces. He is unique in what he does and over the years has completely changed my attitude on campaigning from a ‘Shared Space/Vehicular Cycling’ one to understanding that the Dutch holistic approach is not just the ONLY way forward but is far more than just about bikes.

    I will email him – please everyone else reading this, do mail him as well as his blog is as important to UK cycling as any work any of us do individually. It may even be the thing that finally tips us towards decent roads.

  13. Pingback: Through the eyes of a Google Street car | wheelsonthebike

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