Independent mobility

One of the most striking things about cycling in the Netherlands is the difference in the demographics you encounter. On my usual cycling trips in Britain, the people cycling around me are typically aged between 20 and 50, and mostly male. Children and the elderly (especially children) are almost entirely absent.

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By contrast, cycling in the Netherlands broadly reflects the population at large; it is available to all, to anyone who chooses to ride a bike.

Elderly people in particular formed a considerable proportion of the people I met while cycling on my recent trip. This is probably a function of the fact that, cycling from city to city in the middle of the day, I was more likely to meet people who weren’t working, or who were retired. But even at the weekends, the proportion of people cycling who were elderly was large, and the numbers, in general, of elderly people out and about was (to my eyes at least) truly remarkable – totally different to Britain.

Bikes with electric assistance are increasingly being used by this age group in the Netherlands. This couple passed me with ease near Gouda.

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As did this couple in Nijmegen.

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Close examination reveals the small battery parks on the top of their rear racks.

I think these electric bikes are truly wonderful – they give people the freedom to travel huge distances, partially or wholly under their own steam, without having to worry about getting tired or exhausted. And in hilly areas (like Nijmegen) they just make cycling more pleasant. This elderly couple in Wageningen (also hilly) had the added reassurance of power assistance.

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Trikes – which offer a greater amount of stability – were also in evidence –

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And of course a bicycle is a mobility aid in its own right, allowing people who would ordinarily be using crutches to travel with freedom.

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The powered mobility scooter was also very much apparent, its users employing exactly the same infrastructure as cycles.

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People whizzing about in powered wheelchairs were a common sight.

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Most touching of all was the way in which friends or couples were still able to travel about together independently side by side, even though one could evidently no longer ride a bike.

Screen Shot 2014-04-22 at 23.44.39 Screen Shot 2014-04-22 at 23.45.06So, really, I have to laugh when I hear people suggesting that cycling infrastructure creates problems or difficulties for those with mobility problems. Done properly, as it almost always is in the Netherlands, it’s the complete opposite – totally liberating. A good environment for cycling is a good environment for all.

Please also read Mark Wagenbuur’s excellent and detailed post on these issues, if you haven’t already!

This entry was posted in Infrastructure, Mobility, Subjective safety, The Netherlands. Bookmark the permalink.

42 Responses to Independent mobility

  1. I love these posts. They’re a peek into what seems like a different planet, and a far nicer one. Thank you.

    I really hate Britain, and the way it treats its most vulnerable people. Last time I visited my great-aunt, we went to a little cafe 5 minutes away from where she lives and it occurred to me that there is no way she could have made the journey on her own. I don’t need to name the town, because they’re all the same. Profoundly, deliberately hostile.

    THIS is why campaigning is worthwhile. It is to stand up for people whose needs have been swept aside, and to let everyone know that there is another way.

    • dave lambert says:

      Unfortunately very often the people most disadvantaged are also the people most vehemently opposed to any improvement in the cycling infrastructure. Ask a group of pensioners if they want more cyclists and the consensus will be a loud NO!

      • Michael J says:

        I wonder if that’s because they view the smaller number of bicycle riders as something they can control, whereas cars are so dominant that they don’t even begin to consider changing that? It’s become so normal that they’re oblivious to it? Plus they’ve lived through the boom in private car ownership – a sign of success in life.

        It’s all very sad.

      • That’s probably because the question has been phrased wrongly. Nobody likes “cyclists” – not even other cyclists!

        Ask them if they’d like to be able to get anywhere they want safely and pleasantly with minimal effort, while showing them photographs of their Dutch equivalents doing so, and I’m sure they’d want that level of freedom and mobility. Who wouldn’t?

        In short: this isn’t not about cyclists. Avoid use of that word!

        • Paul M says:

          Quite. Cycling groups could learn a lot from professional marketing people. In marketing, say consumer goods, you first identify a gap in the market, a “need”, if you like. (“Need” is not necessarily objective, like the need to eat to avoid starvation. It can be much more subjective, like the need for acceptance or approval, or to look cool, or to “pull” members of the opposite sex). Then you work out how to fulfil that need.

          The process of working that out will involve market research, in questionnaires or in focus groups, to refine your proposition, long before you start to market, advertise or promote it. But when you do your research you don’t start by asking “what do you think of this choc bar/gizmo/bicycle?” You tiptoe around the subject with more emotional or subjective questions like “do you get hungry mid-morning”, or “don’t you agree it would be great if you didn’t have to hunt for a parking space/loose change to feed the meter when you pop to the shops”. The answer to the first question could be a trans-fat, invert sugar “countline” confectionery bar, or it could be a banana. The answer to the second could be a multi-storey car park with no charges, or it could be a bicycle, but if you put the answers before the question, don’t be surprised what you hear, just disappointed.

          • paulc says:

            you run with a series of questions that all require yes answers and in the end, the respondent has inadvertently ended up agreeing with what you want the result to be which would usually have been a straight no if directly asked.

        • Har Davids says:

          I think there’s something intrinsically wrong with a society where something as basic as riding a bike generates as much animosity as seems to be the case in larg parts of the UK. A bike is a simple and efficient means of transportation, and people who don’t get that, are a sandwich short of a picknick, especially if you’re a politician who’s supposed to have a long-term view of society. Bikes are safer, cleaner, healthier and more convenient in most urban areas, so why bother coining another word? Cars have had their moment, and that stopped when everbody owned one.

      • I agree and would offer that it’s “how you tell them” that counts.

        Standard public consultation is notoriously single-topic, suggests a decision has already been made, and aggravates people. Worse still, much of it is done online when many older people in particular remain without the skills to use computers.

        True public engagement helps people to find for themselves the benefits to them of what is proposed and to influence improvements. Well moderated engagement filters the reasoned comments from the nutty ones whilst the responses are properly analysed by the engagement specialist who remains visibly independent.

        A specialist public engagement professional of my aquaintance says the secret is making people feel that their comments are important even if they are not acted upon. People want to feel that they have been listened to and had a chance to comment.

        If you experience public engagement events you might be surprised to see what I’ve always observed: that in reality the public probably want the things we advocate: message boards and other contributions, typically using sticky notes and other media, consistently show demands for “more parks”, “safe places to play” and “places to cycle”. Events like Ride London show that there must be a huge amount of untapped support for better conditions for everyday cycling. The ultimate is to make people believe that your proposal was their idea all along (in the nicest possible way, of course).

        Certain groups, particularly those with sensory disabilities, oppose change, and really oppose “cyclists”. Whether we like it or not, cyclists create fear among those with sensory disabilities as bikes are silent, and some cyclists (like people generally) don’t behave themselves. Many partially-sighted pedestrians consider cyclists as “silent asassains”. Their genuine and understandable concerns underline the need for separate, clearly defined cycling infrastructure and improved public realm that helps people navigate their routes. Predictability and reassurance are key, and if such measures can be incorporated and demonstrated, with concerns taken on board properly, we will build support.

        I think it’s important to employ disability cycling groups like Wheels for Wellbeing to work with stakeholders to assess the quality of what’s built in accessibility terms and then engage with other disability organisations and individuals from a position of experience.

        Ultimately though, to get our ideas accepted we need to adopt an attitude of “benefits to all”. What are the benefits to pedestrians, public transport users, traders, disabled people, and indeed cyclists from the measures proposed? How does the scheme encapsulate those benefits, for example by improving the public realm and replacing island crossings with zebra crossings? Did you know that many disabled people are unable to cross roads except at formal crossings, making roads into real barriers?

        When we achieve engagement rather than “consultation” we will be able to succeed in delivering ambitious and high quality projects that result in people of all ages riding bikes and accepting that cycling is a good thing, not just for cyclists but also for everyone else. Better, more liveable places, reduced motor traffic, more people enjoying the outdoors and the public space of the street, more images like the ones shown in this post–in Britain.

        A great example of this is Waltham Forest Council. Their public engagement in relation to the Walthamstow Village filtered permeability and main road bike tracks is the best I’ve seen for a long time. The idea of asking all responsible officers to stand in the street and answer questions and concerns from the public by explaining the pilot scheme’s rationale probably helped an otherwise controversial scheme become a reality. The use of leaflets and website infographics has probably also helped: really interesting and enlightening information is cheerfully and well presented. I am sure that this will result in dividends for regeneration, liveability and indeed cycling among all ages in the borough and help to moderate opposition.

  2. platinum says:

    This is one reason why those cyclists who say we don’t need good Dutch-style infra in preference for asserting their rights to cycle on the roads are essentially shooting their older selves in the foot. You might be able to cycle vehicularly today, but all of us are going to get old, slower, wobblier, slower reflexes, worse eyesight, more forgetful etc.

    If the road situation in Britain stays as it is, there will come a day sooner or later when you will have to give up cycling. In which case you’re going to be asking yourself why you didn’t campaign for safe segregated routes when you were younger.

    • I really can’t see why anyone would campaign to keep their “right” to use the road. I’ve had enough experience commuting in London using vehicular riding techniques to know they won’t save my life. They can try to mitigate against the impatient and dangerous drivers but at the end of the day if they want to get past they can invariably use their car as a weapon and my sense of self preservation takes over and I end up seeing red. I can’t go out with my cycling with my children and the only time I went out riding to the shops with my mum and eldest daughter it was terrible – I spent the whole time at the back effectively being a point guard. I’d be a lot more comfortable, and a heck of a lot less sweaty on arrival, if I had safe segregated infrastructure to use that meant I didn’t feel I had to maintain 20mph+ to be “safe”.

      • T.Foxglove says:

        “I really can’t see why anyone would campaign to keep their “right” to use the road.”

        I’m not really demanding my “right to the road” more demanding that I’m not forced to use a shared use path, partially blocked with street furniture, bolshy pedestrians, dogs & children, having to effectively giveway to driveways let alone side roads.

        Provide decent infrastructure and give people the choice, road or cycle track, the majority will choose cycle track.

    • Tim says:

      This is very true, and as southlondoncyclist’s reply suggests, the realisation can come earlier than retirement – my preferences as a footloose fancy-free commuter were hugely different to those as a parent trying to do the school-run by bike, amongst all the chelsea-tractors and buses.

      I’m glad of the inclusion of the link to Mark Wagenbuur’s article. I love that video, and I sometimes wonder if there’s more mileage in pointing out how uncivilised, backwards and unsophisticated our infrastructure makes us look, compared to our more progressive European neighbours.

  3. disgruntled says:

    Even here in the UK a woman in a mobility scooter told me she follows the cycle routes because they’re easier for her to use

    • bz2 says:

      According to a friend, whose parents own a bicycle shop, the common procedure is for elderly women to buy an e-bike, with their husbands claiming not to need such a contraption… until a few weeks later, when the men show up to buy one so they can keep up with the wife.

    • Jan says:

      Without context, it’s hard to judge that picture. In Amsterdam, we have a even shorter bicycle path (shown here:, which is perfectly usable and a main connection for cyclists. The roads connecting to it are a shortcut for a large, traffic light controlled intersection. This 1.5 meter of cycle path allows cyclists to take the shortcut, while keeping car traffic looping back to the main roads.

      • Dan B says:

        It isn’t hard to judge the first picture. It’s clearly a part of the pavement that’s had a cycle lane painted onto it without any thought as to road layout, corner angles or how riders and pedestrians will interact.

        The length of the lane isn’t the real issue, but the fact that it isn’t any sort of cycle infrastructure at all. One more example of this country taking road space from pedestrians and giving it to motor vehicles.

        • Jan says:

          What I meant is: if you look at my Dutch example from close up, you’d likely be puzzled as well why there is a 2 meter stretch of bike path in the middle of nowhere. Of course, it’s dutch, so it’s nicely paved in red, instead of just a blotch of paint, but otherwise, it looks like some left-over from a removed path.

          However, if you know the circumstances, and the amount of bike-traffic (>1000/day) on that stretch, it suddenly makes sense.

          From the first picture, I don’t know the story, so I find it hard to judge. It might solve a particular issue, or not. I do expect cities to take shortcuts, and choose for cheap paint instead of some decent solution. I do not expect them to randomly start painting bike paths without any purpose.

        • michael says:

          Streetview reveals its part of a much longer on-pavement cycle path that is, as is the norm with crappy UK cycle paths, constantly interrupted with driveways that it has to give way to.
          The problem is simply that it ought to have right-of-way over the driveways – as the road itself does – but of course it doesn’t.
          (Its in New Beetwell Street, not Beetwell street as the article says).

          • Jan says:

            That’s interesting. I’ve seen the constantly interrupted cycle paths in Germany, but if I remember correctly, only on places where there’s no priority for the main road (so ‘right over left’ gives the side road priority). If the main road HAS priority, and at the side roads/driveways there is no bike path, forcing the cyclists to use the main road, wouldn’t the cyclists automatically have priority as well?

  4. As ever, thank you Mark for a brilliant post. As I rode in this morning through sunny Hackney, the streets are teeming with riders. It’s great to see, and it really is becoming very mainstream here. But, and it’s a huge but… there are no children and very very few elderly riding. We have fostered conditions which preclude so many from being able to use the roads.
    How to change it….?

    • The London Cycling Campaign needs to drop the existing bunch of Franklinists that they have in Hackney and form a new branch there, for a start.

      Oliver Schick (of Hackney Cyclists) and Vincent Stops (of Hackney Council) are far too cosy, if you ask me. The cycle campaign should be pressing the council for better, yet in Hackney it seems like they’re all slapping each other on the back over tiny things.

      • Not familiar with the Hackney issues, but as a cycle campaigner in a different area, I can understand how that can look, but also why is arises.

        People who are cycle friendly in a council are often fighting a war on several fronts: trying to convince their colleagues and elected representatives of the benefits of cycle infra, trying to reassure other road users, residents, disabled groups that they don’t lose out, while being badgered by cycle campaigners on the other, who say it isn’t good enough. You risk alienating people on your side, who feel they can’t win whatever they do. Nobody ever lost a job or an election by building more things for private motor cars.

        Early engagement with cycling groups is the key to good provision, and you don’t get invited to the table if you are consistently openly hostile. Push for more, but do it politely. And make your councillors and council officers feel good about small successes, so they want to have more of them.

        • Unfortunately, Hackney LCC are committed vehicular cycling evangelists. They won’t push for more, they will only push for solutions which place people on bikes among motor vehicles. See the recent LCC “local asks” campaign for their brand of “space for cycling” which actually removes existing space for cycling, in favour of space for motor vehicles.

          • Dan B says:

            I wouldn’t class the removal of motor traffic from Narrow Way and making it 2-way for cycles would class as removing existing space for cycling in favour of space for motor vehicles. A lot of the filtered permeability they want should be applauded too. I agree that there should be protected lanes though. However, there are several ways to promote cycling ahead of motor traffic, and I certainly wouldn’t say Hackney LCC were wanting any good (worthwhile) infrastructure removed.

        • Jitensha Oni says:

          It’s precisely because the protocol is as you describe, that the UK gets the infrastructure it does. If you can show me “good provision” in more than a couple of places of highly limited extent in at least the last 5 years on highways outside of the half a dozen or so high modal share areas, fine, but as far as I can see nothing significant has been provided, unless there is a severely compromised definition of “good” which is like the DEFRA definition of “moderate” when it comes to air pollution. IMO, popular shows of dissatisfaction such as Pedal on Parliament are much better ideas – they may eventually help to break what is a completely superannuated mould.

          Meanwhile those with mobility problems around me – and there’s a care home just up the road with a lot of users of various mobility aids covering a wide spectrum of ages – don’t even get footways fixed for them to use independently, which many could if they were of the standard that Mark shows from the Netherlands.

          • “It’s precisely because the protocol is as you describe, that the UK gets the infrastructure it does. If you can show me “good provision” in more than a couple of places of highly limited extent in at least the last 5 years on highways outside of the half a dozen or so high modal share areas, fine, but as far as I can see nothing significant has been provided, unless there is a severely compromised definition of “good” which is like the DEFRA definition of “moderate” when it comes to air pollution. IMO, popular shows of dissatisfaction such as Pedal on Parliament are much better ideas – they may eventually help to break what is a completely superannuated mould. ”

            Where ‘popular’ is about 5K people? I did go on ride to go with the Get Britain Cycling debate, but I’ve yet to see a result of it. It barely got national press. Doesn’t seem to be bringing much pressure to bear.

            Besides, protesting is not mutually exclusive with the kind of campaigning I have described – indeed I just said I do both. But while people are trying to get enough of the public to give a damn about cycling, planning applications and road designs are still going through, and need scrutiny and dialogue with councils. Positioning oneself as an extreme outsider that no-one can work with won’t get change either.

  5. Schnauzer Minelli says:

    When I went to Sweden last time I encountered the same ‘phenomenon’, only it’s normal there. Fair enough, it wasn’t Stockholm but a major town of around ~150K outside Stockholm and I was really happy to see older people, kids, families… a fair share of the overall demographic of that town… cycling.

    On a different matter, I filled in the cycling campaign postcode thing they are doing at the moment and sent emails to my local (Labour) councilors in Highgate and the answers proof exactly what is wrong and why there is not more cycling infrastructure. The answers I received from both were demoralising and completely besides the point. It will be a long long way…

  6. Jim Moore says:

    Great photos, great points made, great post! And the comments so far have been very insightful and constructive which is a reflection on what you’ve done here.

    Presumably you really enjoyed your trip. Comedown is a bitch, but at least you’re only a ferry ride away unlike moi Down Under.

    As I always like to say, your efforts are much appreciated.

  7. michael says:

    I suspect the more people drive everywhere when young, the less capable they are likely to be of getting around any other way when old. And the more they will oppose any provision for non-drivers, and the more dangerous they themselves are likely to be as drivers.

    There are so many vicious-ciricles-within-vicious-circles here.

  8. David Bates says:

    “So, really, I have to laugh when I hear people suggesting that cycling infrastructure creates problems or difficulties for those with mobility problems. Done properly, as it almost always is in the Netherlands, it’s the complete opposite – totally liberating. A good environment for cycling is a good environment for all.”

    A perfect summary to an excellent article. Many thanks.

  9. surfsensei says:

    Reblogged this on Infrastructural and commented:
    This excellent blog posting, below, gets to the core of the issue of designing transport infrastructure for the purpose of enabling people to move around easily safely and at good speed; this is not the same as the aim of enabling motor traffic to move easily, safely and fast.
    I have seen some of this difference myself in the Netherlands and it is something to give encouragement in what can be frustrating campaign efforts; as one commenter says, it is worth campaigning, or we can be sure nothing will improve in UK.
    Best wishes, and safe journeys, to all of you who are trying.

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