I remember David Arditti once describing the experience of viewing pictures of Dutch cycling infrastructure, while sitting in a British conference a few years ago, as like seeing scenes beamed back from another planet – such was the difference between the road- and streetscape that we were seeing on the projection screen, and the familiar British roads and streets that we had encountered outside the venue, and indeed in the places where we live.
Much as I am now reasonably familiar with the Dutch city of Utrecht, every visit I make there has the a similar astonishing impression. Despite only being a mere 200 miles or so, as the crow flies, from south east England, the difference in the nature and character of the cycling environment in this city, and the nature and character of cycling in it, is so mind-bogglingly different to towns and cities in south east England, it really is like being on another planet. Indeed, as I write this, I’ve noticed a new piece by Andrew O’Hagan for the LRB which contains descriptions of London cycling so utterly at odds with nature of cycling in Utrecht – as we shall see in the pictures that follow – that the two places really could be on different spheres.
Perhaps the most striking thing about Utrecht is, of course, the staggering volume of people cycling, especially in rush hour, but also throughout the day. I have observed before how the ‘boom’ in cycling in London is essentially a commuter boom, limited to central London, and to the rush hour; cycling disappears from central London after 9am. This isn’t the situation in Utrecht; cycling is omnipresent, with what seem like continuous flows along the main routes throughout the day.
This is the case both on the main roads – which naturally have separate cycleways – and also on the streets which form useful routes, but have low motor traffic levels.
At peak times the flow becomes a flood, a dense mass of people on two (or more) wheels.
As is clear from these pictures, the other reason why cities like Utrecht feel like another planet is the character of the cycling itself. People who are cycling are dressed just like pedestrians. Helmet-wearing, and hi-viz clothing, are totally absent. As Chris Boardman puts it in this wonderful video –
I’ve spent a couple of days riding around the streets of Utrecht, and I’ve seen tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of bikes, but I haven’t seen a single cyclist. I’ve just seen normal people, in normal clothes, doing normal things, dressed for the destination, not the journey. The bicycle is a simple, fun and inexpensive way to get from A to B.
Indeed, the only hi-viz clothing I saw in five days in the city was worn by police officers, and by the construction workers directing people cycling at the temporary junctions through the construction site by the railway station.
Apart from racing cyclists, heading out of the city in lycra of an evening, helmet wearing amongst adults was non-existent; amongst children, a tiny minority of those perched on their parents bicycles had been given a (usually far too large) helmet to wear. Children riding independently, however, were also entirely unhelmeted.
The behaviour of people cycling is also ‘pedestrian’. By that I don’t mean that they travel at walking speed, but that they engage in activities they would be engaging in, if they were walking. Chatting side-by-side; listening to music; eating; carrying objects; talking on phones; travelling along with a dog beside you; and so on.
This behaviour, and this absence of safety equipment, isn’t because of any innate rebelliousness, or lack of concern for safety. People are just responding to the environment they find themselves in. Cycling in the city looks and feels safe – principally because, thanks to the design of the environment, it is safe. Interactions with motor traffic are minimal, or non-existent. On the main roads you are clearly separated from it, as in the photograph above; on side roads, design ensures that the only motor vehicles using these streets will be doing so in order to access properties on it, meaning motor traffic levels are very low. People can relax, everywhere, and that is reflected in how they behave.
Likewise, a good sign of a safe and attractive cycling environment is that children who are old enough to ride a bike do so themselves, rather than being ferried about on their parents’ bikes. Perhaps this wasn’t quite as common here in Utrecht as in a city like Assen, (this may have something to do with slightly longer trips in Utrecht, it being a larger city) but nevertheless young children riding independently was a common sight.
My impression was also that women formed a distinct majority among people cycling in the city – certainly during the day. Rush hour was more balanced, but it was not unusual for me to arrive at traffic signals and find myself the only male queuing at the lights.
Cycling here is a mode of transport for everyone. Nobody is excluded from cycling. From what I could see ethnic minorities were cycling around just the same as everyone else, on exactly the same types of bikes, in the same way.
For those with mobility problems who can’t ride a conventional bicycle, the city is far, far easier to navigate than a British one – an environment designed for cycling is equally suited to hand cycles, mobility scooters, assisted trikes, and powered wheelchairs.
Law- and rule-breaking by people cycling is at a very low level, mainly because there are few laws to break, and because the city is set up in favour of people cycling and walking. The environment supports you in where you want to go, in safety and comfort; you don’t have to choose between bending rules and avoiding danger, or avoiding inconvenience, because safety and convenience is built into a ubiquitous network. Where there are rules that people can break, people generally obey them, because the rules makes sense, and because there are reasonable alternatives. (There are, of course, anti-social idiots on bikes, but they are drowned out by the mass of everyday people behaving normally and sensibly).
To give just one example, cycling is banned on a busy shopping street during the day, and from a short period of observation, I would estimate that around 90% did comply with the rules, and dismounted.
But this isn’t because Dutch people are any more compliant with rules than Britons; if you are travelling in this direction by bike, there is a parallel route just yards away where cycling is allowed, so naturally people travelling through will use that route instead. The people dismounting on this street are happy to do so because they are only travelling a short distance to shops on it. This contrasts with the typical British situation, where cycling bans are implemented on pedestrianised streets which are very often the only attractive and safe route from A to B. If you want people to obey rules, they have to make sense.
Admittedly this ubiquity of cycling (and of mobility aids on cycling infrastructure) does present some problems. The huge flows can be mildly irritating for people on foot at rush hour; there were some occasions where I had to wait 30 seconds or more to find a suitable gap to cross a cycleway safely, as did others.
To be clear, this is only a problem that exists for a short period of the day, and even at these times natural gaps do present themselves, and the wait is, of course, much shorter than one might expect at signal-controlled crossings of a road carrying around 50,000 people per day (on buses and on cycles). But I did find myself wondering if there are ways of resolving this issue.
Other problems present themselves in the volume of bikes parked on some streets – especially the narrower ones that still serve a through-function. Voorstraat, in particular, is not a brilliant pedestrian environment. A genuinely narrow street has one-way flow for all traffic, including cycles, a protected cycleway running in the opposite direction, and ungenerous pavements. Notably, a supermarket on this street had at least 100 bicycles parked outside it.
The pavement on the other side becomes increasingly narrow, with bicycles leant against buildings; buses thunder through on the road, heading towards the centre of the town, combined with access motor traffic. On an earlier trip a few years ago, I saw children cycling on this road, being tailgated by one of these buses.
It’s a far from brilliant cycling or walking environment. But the problems with this street would be much, much worse without the levels of cycling in the city. That supermarket would have cars coming and going, clogging the street. There would be most likely be two-way flow for motor traffic, presenting more danger and difficultly to people walking on the pavements.
Indeed, in general, the minor irritations and inconveniences one experiences on foot are vastly outweighed by the benefits cycling brings. Mass cycling goes hand-in-hand with a highly pedestrian-friendly city. The entire ‘old’ city centre of Utrecht is effectively an autoluwte, or ‘nearly car free’ area.
You can drive here, either to car parks, or simply to access properties; but from the way the streets are arranged, you won’t be driving through. Motor traffic in this red area is therefore at a very low level, meaning roads that at face value are ‘shared’ with motor traffic aren’t really shared at all.
It’s very easy to wander from one side of this area to the other without encountering a single traffic light. Indeed, there are only a handful of junctions with traffic lights within the ‘zone’. That means there is little or no delay to journeys on foot or by bike within this area. It’s cycling that allows mobility into and across it, that provides the viable alternative to the car, and that means, consequently, it is such an attractive environment. It is ubiquitous cycling infrastructure, allowing easy, comfortable and painless door-to-door journeys, that actually contributes to ‘placemaking’.
It should be stressed that this is a city of some 340,000 people, not some minor town. Utrecht ranks just outside the top ten English cities in terms of population. Yet it feels extraordinarily calm, peaceful, and civilised. Sitting at a bar of an afternoon, you can see people travelling past spotting each other, waving, saying hello, or stopping for a chat. Transport here brings people together, rather than separating them. We would do well to learn these and other lessons from such a brilliant city.