The Vondelpark in Amsterdam is a large public park to the southwest of the city centre, located in a prosperous district of large houses that were constructed in the 19th century. It’s about the same length as Hyde Park, although somewhat narrower, which means that it’s around one-third the area of the park in London.
This substantial park is large and very attractive, with beautiful tress, sculpted gardens and lakes – it’s quite easy to get lost in the centre of it. On the times I visited, it was full of people walking their dogs, or jogging, or visiting the cafes within it, alongside groups of school children doing exercises, or other groups doing yoga.
Unsurprisingly for a park in a major Dutch city, it was also full of people on bikes.
These pictures have not been cherry-picked. They are entirely representative of the people cycling through the park; the young, the old, families, businessmen and women, and amongst them, the occasional ‘recreational’ cyclist, wearing a helmet and lycra.
None of the cyclists pictured here, however, are wearing sporting equipment or clothing that would mark them out as ‘cyclists’ once they step off their bikes. Superficially it might appear as if they are all out on a ‘leisure’ ride; the sort of activity you might see in a British park, where families go to ride around for fun, safe from interactions with motor traffic.
But in reality nearly all the cyclists in these pictures are actually going somewhere, making a trip, rather than going for a bike ride for the sake of it. They might have been shopping or working in the city centre and are returning home; they might be meeting up and heading into the city for an evening out; they might have picked up their children at a nearby school and are escorting them back to where they live.
The park – although a very attractive place to cycle – isn’t somewhere that people need to go to cycle in comfort, because the rest of the city is pleasant to cycle around. The people pictured here are only using the park as one leg – a quick, convenient leg – of their journey across the city. More about this below.
As you can see in these pictures, the ‘path’ that people are cycling on isn’t really a ‘path’ at all, instead being what could reasonably be called a wide road.
That means there’s very little conflict between the large numbers of people cycling through, generally at quite a reasonable pace, and the other people who might be walking or ambling about. (The only motor vehicles in the park are the occasional police patrol car, or park maintenance vehicle.)
The width of the equivalent path in Hyde Park – remember London has aspirations to be “a world-class cycling city” – compares very poorly, despite there being, quite literally, acres of space available.
At best, half the width of the route in the Vondelpark, even without counting the gravel tracks that exist alongside the tarmac road in the park in Amsterdam for joggers and walkers.
It’s noteworthy, however, that this route in Hyde Park is where you are most likely to find people cycling in ordinary clothes in London. In particular, there’s a high percentage of tourists trundling back and forth on Boris bikes.
The reason for this aren’t hard to discern – it’s a safe environment, with no interactions with motor vehicles. I’m sure more tourists would like to cycle around Parliament Square or Trafalgar Square, but frankly I expect very few are willing to do so. And that brings us to a major problem with the route across Hyde Park. Unlike the Vondelpark, that safe environment in Hyde Park stops rather rapidly at either end of the route across it, meaning that the use of this path is quite limited as a route to anywhere else for the more nervous or less confident.
Quite a large number of people are using it as a route, but they are either negotiating Bayswater Road or Kensington High Street at the western end (hardly pleasant places to cycle), or, at the western end, Grosvenor Place or the West End itself once the eastbound off-carriageway provision ends with the Mall – and hence they tend to be young or middle-aged men capable of cycling at faster speeds and more confident at cycling amongst motor vehicles. Indeed, last summer I cycled through the park on my way to Shepherd’s Bush, observing how the numbers of females, the elderly, or the young, on bikes – quite high in the park itself – dwindled to zero as I cycled along Bayswater Road, entirely the domain of fit young men.
Likewise if you are coming from Victoria station – one of the main transport hubs in central London – and you wish to cycle across Hyde Park towards west London, you will have to negotiate this stretch of Hyde Park Corner, holding a line approximately in the middle of the road so that you are in the best place to take the exit for the park.
Perfectly fine if you keep your wits about you (this video was taken immediately after Boris’s underwhelming performance at the Times’s Mayoral Husting on cycling in April). But in reality only a place for the quick and the brave. There’s an enormous amount of space here for a safe cycling route – it’s at least five or six lanes wide – but at present you have to hold your nerve and cycle in the middle of the road (or failing that, cycle up the left hand side, then abandon and use the pedestrian crossings).
Bayswater Road, or Kensington High Street – the natural exit points at the western end of the park – are hardly any better. So demand for the route across Hyde Park is obviously being suppressed by the conditions outside of it. This isn’t true of the Vondelpark, where, as I hope to show now, cycling across it simply forms part of a smooth and continuous network, with conditions that feel – and are – just as safe as within the park.
The map below is taken from a Fietserbond cycling route map of Amsterdam, covering the area around the Vondelpark. At the top of the map you can just see the start of the outermost of the rings of canals in the city centre; the park runs along a diagonal axis, pointing towards the city centre.
A green line runs straight through the park (I should stress that these green lines only represent cycling routes recommended by the Fietsersbond – you can, in practice, cycle anywhere in Amsterdam without encountering hostile conditions, and no need to “keep your wits about you”).
At the southern end of the park, you can see how the route continues directly straight across a major road, the Amsteleveenseweg. Like this –
Likewise to the north of the park, heading into the city, a major road passes over us on a bridge – we don’t have to negotiate this road at all.
And then a bicycle- and pedestrian-only bridge over the canal –
Every effort has been taken to make sure that the route as a whole is safe, direct and easy to use; just as enjoyable as cycling in the park itself. Separation from motor vehicles is the guiding principle outside the park, and that makes cycling outside of it just as pleasant as cycling in it.
The same cannot be said of Hyde Park.