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.
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