Side by side

The photograph below is one of a number I took on my last visit to the city of Utrecht. It’s a fairly ordinary Dutch scene – just some everyday cycling in an urban area. But in the foreground we can see quite a telling detail – two children, cycling side by side, chatting to one another. Screen Shot 2016-08-21 at 22.27.03They look utterly relaxed; not worried about anything, talking without a care in the world, despite cycling on one of the busiest streets in Utrecht city centre. They don’t have to worry about motor traffic here; the only concern, really, is allowing other people to pass them, which is easy on a cycleway of this width.

Side-by-side cycling is, of course, a completely normal activity across the Netherlands. Screen Shot 2016-08-22 at 07.05.44

It happens everywhere – not just on cycleways and cyclepaths, but also on roads.

Screen Shot 2016-08-22 at 07.05.17

Every time I have cycled with someone else in the Netherlands, I have been able to spend the entirety of the journey beside them, talking to them.

Side-by-side cycling isn’t a specifically Dutch trait – it’s a natural human instinct to want to be beside someone, looking at them, rather than stuck behind or in front of them, only able to talk by yelling, craning your head around. We don’t walk along, line astern – we walk side-by-side, and of course cycling should be no different. We want to be sociable, and to engage with the people we are travelling with.

The reason side-by-side cycling is so common in the Netherlands, therefore, isn’t the people. It’s that the environment allows it. Either cycleways that are separated from motor traffic, and that allow other people cycling to pass easily, or genuinely low motor traffic streets that are shared, but easily allow drivers to pass people cycling side-by-side, without inconvenience. It’s not hard to understand why people will cycle socially on a street here –

Screen Shot 2016-08-25 at 08.52.13… But not on these streets.

Screen Shot 2016-08-21 at 22.15.25 Screen Shot 2016-08-21 at 22.15.41 Screen Shot 2016-08-21 at 22.16.50

Of course, on genuinely quiet streets, British people will cycle side by side, and we will also start to see side-by-side cycling on busy roads where good quality cycling infrastructure has been built. All the examples below are on the new Superhighways in London – CS6, CS3, and CS5.

Screen Shot 2016-08-21 at 22.21.59 Screen Shot 2016-08-21 at 22.21.48 Screen Shot 2016-08-21 at 22.22.12 Screen Shot 2016-08-21 at 22.23.19 Screen Shot 2016-08-21 at 22.25.33

Again, all these people just look relaxed, and happy. The environment allows this kind of cycling.

So perhaps the most important thing about side-by-side cycling, from a campaigning perspective, is that it is a good indicator of a quality cycling environment, be it a cycleway, or a street. If it isn’t happening, on either a main road, or on an allegedly ‘quiet’ street, then there’s almost certainly something wrong with the cycling environment.

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16 Responses to Side by side

  1. As one wise Jedi almost said, Dutch cyclists don’t ride single file so as to disclose their numbers.

  2. In the UK walking to secondary school is a social thing to do. Cycling is unsociable; it sets you apart from everyone else: you leave at a different time, ride on your own and when you arrive you have to go round the back to the bike racks while everyone else walks in together ahead of you.
    Many teens enjoy the company of walking together and in any case are excruciatingly self conscious about cutting themselves off from their peers like this.

    Choosing to walk even when it is far slower rather than cycle is a real thing here. Even those few who do cycle often get off and push their bikes alongside their friends when they meet up with them on the way.

    Decent cycleways would make cycling more sociable, more children would cycle and then more children would decide join them without stigma to be with their friends.

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  4. Tim says:

    Apologies if I’ve mentioned this before but a Dutch woman I met living in Oxford commented that it was very notable that cycling side-by-side in this more sociable way wasn’t possible in the UK, even somewhere like Oxford which is known for having a lot of cyclists. As she put it, you might as well not be riding with a friend because you can’t talk to them (and all the traffic noise doesn’t help). You might as well travel separately.

    Also worth pointing out that car drivers/passengers always take up space for sitting two-abreast, even when a car only has a single occupant (!). Plus you’re insulated from all that traffic noise. So taking the car with a friend always makes for easier conversation than taking the bikes. I quite sure this helps normalise car use over cycling in the UK. And once again, car users are causing the problems – taking up space and making noise – but are insulated from those problems themselves.

    • I don’t entirely agree with your Dutch friend: I cycle next to my friends chatting, but only on off-road paths or quiet roads. It always cheers me to see teenagers cycling together in groups around here.

      • Tim says:

        Maybe I have misrepresented her by saying it “wasn’t possible in the UK”. Of course there are always exceptions, but I think it’s fair to say that for the overwhelming majority of routes it isn’t possible (or isn’t socially acceptable). Where I am in Manchester even on quiet roads I generally feel we need to split back into single file as cars pass. There’s one decently long off-road route I can think of – a converted old railway, now shared use – where one can cycle and chat. But even other off-carraigeway routes such as tow-paths, and some of the new segregated cycle lanes are all too narrow for cycling together (even before worrying about other cyclists who might want to overtake).

  5. It’s quite fitting you publish this today as I was “cycling side by side” in a way as I was overtaking some other riders along CS7 today at Clapham Common. Bearing in mind this section is 2 lanes with just a blue painted lane some old dear felt the need to toot me as she came up to overtake and then as she passed gestured to the bit of blue paint as she came past.

    Needless to say I was less then impressed, not least because I was only in primary so I could pass the slower riders ahead, she had another empty lane she could use and I was also aware I was approaching a side road that’s a hotspot for drivers overtaking riders then trying to left hook us by turning it. Again I wasn’t too surprised to see her pull back in ahead of me and then indicate to turn left….How much time did she save? Well the fact she turned into Rookery Road as I was went round her probably shows not a bloody lot!

    This I suspect is due to the environment as I notice that I tend to ride a bit slower on quieter roads or the newer CS lanes that are segregated and it’s also much more relaxing to ride on them 🙂

  6. Ollyver says:

    This is why I came up with the Chatting Index of cycling infrastructure.

    Level 3: Cycling side-by-side, chatting away.
    Level 2: Mostly chatting, but with interruptions.
    Level 1: No chatting possible, interruptions too frequent.
    (Level 0: Not sure the other person is even still alive, but can’t spare the attention to check.)

    The new London superhighways, even at rush hour, tend to be Level 3. My route at either end seems fairly good when I’m by myself, but the moment I try doing it with someone else, I realise that it is only Level 2, or even Level 1. (None of it is Level 0, because I never cycle on a Level 0 road more than once.)

    • Spoquey says:

      Today I was cycling to work when I spotted a friend on the Stratford-Bow-Mile End part of the “Super Highway”. I would have loved to cycle alongside her, to chat about this and that…. But the cycle lane would not allow anything but single cycling for most of the route. That meant having to yell at each other over our shoulders. Pinch points, narrow lane, cycle lane higher than the road level… You name it, it was a real put-off to normal chatting and cycling.

      This cycle “super highway” is not built for normal happy cycling, still less the increased volume of cyclists (recreational, school, commuter) that we need to tip the balance in the next few years.

      I am so disappointed that we may not have any improvement on this substandard infrastructure for the foreseeable future, unless we get a REALLY cycle-friendly London Mayor or UK PM in place. I don’t hold out much hope with Sadiq Khan, but I think Jeremy Corbyn will know what it’s all about!!

  7. andreengels says:

    “The reason side-by-side cycling is so common in the Netherlands, therefore, isn’t the people. It’s that the environment allows it.” – I would put that differently. The reason side-by-side cycling is so common in the Netherlands IS the people. The environment is the reason that it’s not as common elsewhere. It’s the same thing as I said (I don’t know if it was on this blog or another) when it was discussed that Dutch (almost) never mention infrastructure as the reason they cycle: Infrastructure is not the reason people cycle, or the reason they cycle side-by-side. It just enables it, removes reasons not to do it.

  8. Jitensha Oni says:

    Is it a statistical blip that it’s the hire bike users that are the most prominent side-by-side riders in your London pix?

    • Mark Williams says:

      There is so little cycling in London that it might well be a blip! In the only London photo’ with any significant number of riders in it, it’s not really possible to tell which are being sociable vs. which are just riding side-by-side because it is highly space-efficient. Likewise some of the Dutch photo’s.

      Looking at the LCN10 `superhighway’ photo’ it still amuses me how many of the local cycle(?) campaigners argued that it should be branded a `quietway’ instead :-).

    • Simon says:

      That’s what I noticed as well. I wonder if it’s to do with the bikes themselves?

      The Boris-bikes are sit up and beg bikes much like typical Dutch bikes. In contrast, most UK commuters will use more aggressively position bikes – dropped bars, etc, – which I suspect are less condusive to a chatty mood as they are designed to be ridden more quickly.

  9. Neliz says:

    I noticed very few helmets on the London road when people cycle side by side. They’re obviously feeling safe, which is what decent cycling structure is supposed to do.

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