On 18 June three campaigners, a Campaign employee, a council officer, a Labour councillor and a Green Party representative set off on a cycling study tour in Assen where we were hosted by David and Judy Hembrow and their daughter Eliza.
Despite arriving late in the evening and dealing with some bicycle reassembly complications, the team was up bright and early on Friday morning to see what Assen had to offer cyclists.
It did not take long (about five seconds) for all to realise that the cycling provision in Assen is world-class and leaves Cambridge and indeed the rest of the UK far behind. The paths are smooth and wide with priority over junctions. Cars and bikes do not mix except in quiet streets where speeds are low and rat-running prevented. The school rush was a sight to be seen with students of all ages on bicycles, some attended by parents (also on bikes) and some cycling home independently.
Even on day two when we cycled the round trip to Groningen along country roads, the infrastructure was incredible. We had our choice of high-quality cycle paths including one that went straight past the airport. We were able to observe the thoughtful approaches to bus stops, not only for those cycling past the stop but also for those cycling to it, who benefit from plentiful parking spaces, some under cover. We even saw a service station on the road side of the cycle path to ensure the interaction of cars and cyclists is kept to a minimum.
Upon arriving in Groningen, we learnt that the difference in the Netherlands is not due to culture or attitude. As soon as the infrastructure is not provided and cars and cyclists are forced to mix, the same hostile behaviours occur as here. A rather nasty incident of bullying from a taxi driver was the result, occurring within minutes of arriving in central Groningen. We also saw roads that were designed to be shared by bikes and buses where buses would drive in an intimidating way towards cyclists. Even in Assen we saw examples of new shared-use designs which clearly put pedestrians and cyclists at risk. The result: increased numbers of collisions and increased incidents of cycling on pavements, as cyclists do what is necessary to feel safe and move through the junction. We saw numerous examples in just a few minutes of cars putting cyclists in danger by not giving way where required.
The generally excellent cycling infrastructure of Assen has not been to the detriment of cars. Good motorways are provided that allow cars to make fast and safe journeys on roads where cycles are not allowed. The trip may be longer in distance but it is much faster owing to the suitability of the road for the type of vehicle (rather than zig-zagged rat-running through residential streets). Cars can get to where they need to go, although through-routes are limited only to the necessary places. This results in much less traffic for all. There is more than enough car parking at homes and in retail areas, which keeps parked cars off the roads and verges and makes cycling safer. However, we found that most retail car-parking areas were not particularly full. Why would people drive when cycling is such an appealing and safe option?
Sunday was the last day of our tour and we enjoyed a day of leisure to explore the countryside surrounding Assen. The off-road paths were well maintained and of a higher quality than many major cycle routes in the Cambridge area. We also found that the cycle paths were of such good quality that they were even used by road/racing cyclists. Not a cyclist to be seen on the road anywhere.
Other highlights included the racks upon racks of cycle parking at railway stations, the novelty of seeing all the wonderful things that Dutch people carry with ease on their bikes and the exceptional treatment of cycling routes around roundabouts. But the greatest highlight was the feeling of safety and freedom that cycling in such infrastructure was able to offer. We all agreed that returning to our bicycles at home would be a shock to the system after such a wonderful experience.
This tour provided many insights that could not possibly be recorded in time for the deadline of this newsletter. However, we are preparing a report where we hope to share the details of what it takes to make a cycling city as accessible and efficient as Assen.
Roxanne De Beaux