I’m just back from a week-long tour of the Netherlands, cycling between (and across) a number of cities and towns I hadn’t visited before. I travelled around 300 miles, across the entire country. I will obviously come to the good bits in due course, but I thought I would start by writing about the bad bits, for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, they demonstrate that the Netherlands has not had perfect infrastructure magically parachuted in from the sky. The country had (and in many places still has) a very British-looking road network, that has been improved and adapted over recent decades. The bad bits I encountered are either old – streets and roads where nothing has been done (or the bare minimum has been done) – or simply places where compromised designs have been put in place, because the Netherlands has exactly the same conflicts for space between motor vehicles and cycling as Britain does.
Secondly, these are the parts of my journey that actually really jumped out at me. I could cycle for four to five hours a day, completely relaxed, apart from at these locations, where I suddenly had to concentrate, and start worrying. As well shall see, many of these examples actually look pretty good from a British perspective; but in the Netherlands, they were the places were I felt most stressed, and the least relaxed.
Starting at the beginning. On my way from the Hook of Holland to Delft, a good cycle path alongside a major road just stops, and switches to being bi-directional on the other side of the road.
Not a huge problem, but quite jarring to suddenly have to deal with crossing two lanes of motor traffic, without any assistance. This was early on a Saturday morning, and I can imagine this road being much busier.
Further on, and as I approached the city of Delft, another good cycle path just tapered down to nothing, dumping me on the road on the approach to a busy junction.
In Gouda I came across this ‘always stop’ junction for cyclists.
The cycle track under the railway line meets a stop line, where cyclists are held while motor traffic progresses from their left, up to and through the junction (the green signal in the distance).
Then, the motor traffic is held, and cyclists get a green light, to move up to the stop line at the junction.
Quite safe, but this arrangement, combined with long waits (well over a minute) at the junction itself, made for a bad situation for cycling. Plenty of people were jumping the lights here, frustrated at having to wait for so long.
The town of Vlijmen, in the municipality of Heusden, was very poor, with no infrastructure at all to speak of, on quite busy roads and streets. It felt uncomfortable, even on a Sunday afternoon. But normal for Britain.
While Nijmegen was in general very good for cycling, it did have a number of roads and streets which were inadequate, and indeed poor. Some examples.
Nijmegen was the city I felt the least comfortable on my trip; but it vastly outstrips anywhere I have cycled in Britain. And remember; these are just the bad bits I am showing here.
In rural areas, my most uncomfortable cycling was on roads with ‘advisory’ cycle lanes at the sides of the road, and with no centre line.
Generally I encountered very little motor traffic on these roads (certainly by British standards), so these pictures are unrepresentative of my trip as a whole. But I was travelling in the middle of the day, not at peak times, and situations like those pictured here could, I suspect, be quite common.
Quite often ‘bunching’ of motor traffic occurs, and (in my experience) Dutch drivers tend to give you very little passing distance on these kinds of roads, on the assumption that you know what you are doing.
It was unpleasant to have to start worrying about whether drivers would give you enough passing distance, or whether they were going to attempt a stupid overtake – compared to the serenity of the rest of my trip. And in some places these treatments are very obviously inappropriate.
This is an ‘N’ category road, the equivalent of our ‘A’ roads, only a kilometre or so from a motorway junction. This just didn’t cut it, as far as comfort was concerned, with large lorries and tractors passing in both directions. It was a relief to get back on the cycle tracks that ran along this road for the rest of its length. Why this section has not been upgraded yet, I don’t know.
Other ‘N’ category roads were interesting, in that for the most part they had extraordinarily good provision running alongside them, but sometimes, in towns, they just gave up. In particular Doorn, near Utrecht, was exceptionally bad.
The same problem British towns and cities face – multiple queuing lanes for vehicles means there’s not much space left over for proper cycling provision (or indeed for walking). Further on in the town –
Here an (old) cycle track simply peters out, spitting you out onto a trunk road through the town, carrying heavy traffic. That is a lady carrying her family by cargo bike.
And because there is no cycle track in the opposite direction, you get children doing this – ‘salmoning’ up the road to get to the safety of the cycle track.
Cycle lanes like this on this kind of road would, I think, be considered quite good in Britain, but this was definitely the most exposed I felt on my entire trip.
Even very wide cycle lanes could suddenly create a feeling of discomfort. Here in Nijmegen this exceptional (by British standards) cycle lane was unsettling, compared to the cycle track I had been on moments before, as traffic came past me.
And there were problems in Utrecht too. This cycle lane has been put on the wrong side of the parked vehicles. The parking and the cycle provision should obviously be switched.
And some junctions in the centre of the city are in desperate need of an upgrade, like here at Nachtegaalstraat, where huge numbers of people are squashed into an inadequate central queuing lane which separates bus traffic from private motor traffic, only able to turn right. By British standards, entirely comfortable, but not really good enough in the context of the rest of Utrecht.
So by no means is it perfect everywhere. The Dutch have plenty of old roads and streets that need to be upgraded; they just haven’t got around to doing them yet. And in other places it looks like battles still need to be fought to get proper provision installed, at the expense of motor traffic.
But I should stress that these examples – in total about twenty or thirty places – are the only times I felt uncomfortable, or inconvenienced, on my entire trip of around 300 miles. The vast, vast majority of my trip was gloriously pleasant, easy and safe. More of that to come.