This article was published in 2006, in Newsletter 68.
In total, thirteen of us took the ferry to the Netherlands. This included four council officers (Clare Rankin and David Bradford from Cambridge City Council, Lindsay Rushmore and Patrick Joyce from Cambridgeshire County Council), four Campaign members, and five Campaign committee members (Lisa Woodburn, James Woodburn, Martin Lucas-Smith, Paul Tonks and myself).
We had planned to take our bikes on the train to Harwich, but unfortunately this train takes only three bikes. Even spread over multiple trains this was not going to be practical. In the end we all travelled by shared car from Cambridge to Harwich.
Previous Campaign trips have concentrated on particular cities which are claimed to be particularly well suited for cycling. I felt it was important to see that, in the Netherlands, they don’t just have cycling cities but that the entire country has been made very pleasant for cycling. I think this was seen by all the participants.
The first day
Soon after leaving the ferry, I offered a crisp €10 note to anyone who found a ‘Fietsers Afstappen’ sign. This is the local equivalent of ‘Cyclists Dismount’. It is indicative of how differently cyclists are treated than in the UK that in four days no-one managed to take my €10. I have never seen one of these signs on any of my visits and that is why I felt confident to make such an offer, even though we were going to areas that I’d never visited before.
Something similar could be done in the UK with regards to ‘Play Street’ signs. They are supposed to exist and you can get points on a driving license for ‘Play Street Offences.’ However, I’ve never seen the sign in use. They’re very common all around the Netherlands, though.
Unfortunately the first afternoon and evening was very wet and windy, but we found good food along the coast and, eventually, the hostel in Noordwijk, having ridden along some very pleasant paths in the dunes and having got lost briefly in the residential areas of The Hague.
The paths through the dunes deserve special mention. Here we found smooth paths at least 3 m wide for cyclists with parallel (though not in all cases adjacent) pedestrian and equestrian paths. None of these user groups are expected to put up with conflicting with one another and each has a surface suited to their needs. Any parallel road is some distance away. If better conditions for cycling exist I’d like to see them.
The second day, and the meeting
Luckily the weather was rather better on day 2. We had an early lunch in a pancake restaurant catering mainly for cyclists, followed by a very informative presentation in the government building of The Hague. Here we made contact with local cycling officers, the cycle campaigning group Fietsersbond and the bicycle parking specialists Biesieklette.
Many interesting facts came out of this meeting. To get an idea of scale, note that The Hague has roughly four times the population of Cambridge.
Within the city boundary there are 270 km of cycle paths and 100 km of cycle lanes. The surface quality of the paths (which we had considered excellent) had been a major issue in their recent local elections so they are being upgraded. The sometimes bumpy traditional ’tiles’ are being replaced by smooth tarmac. As anywhere, there is a lot of old infrastructure which may not be such high quality.
The minimum width for a unidirectional path is supposed to be 2.1 m though they admitted that a few were still as narrow as 1.8 m due to existing conditions. Bi-directional paths are a minimum of 3 m but they’re aiming for 4 m in new provision on bridges etc. This space is all for cyclists. They do not now build shared use paths because the shared use does not function well. Separate footpaths are provided. There is a grid of main cycle paths less than 500 m apart across the city providing many parallel routes.
In addition to the very many sites for unpaid cycle parking in the city (2500 spaces at the central railway station – shown above – are about to be upgraded to 6000 spaces), there are 19 different sites run by Biesieklette which provide paid cycle parking. It costs €0.60 a day to have your bike guarded. These paid sites provide an additional 6500 spaces which are only a small fraction of the total.
These sites are run as a social enterprise providing employment for the long term unemployed. In order to make sure the parking looks good and doesn’t detract from the city’s appearance, they employ artists to design the sites. There are also other locations for watched cycle parking. For example, virtually all railway stations in the Netherlands include cycle hire and repair and have watched cycle parking. The Hague was no exception.
All have a 30 km/h speed limit. There is a budget for extra residential cycle parking. This is almost always installed, even near historic buildings, because it looks better than haphazardly parked bicycles. The racks used (narrow versions of Sheffield racks for new installations) are designed to look attractive.
Fietsersbond considers that it has a good relationship with the council and considers that the council plans well but doesn’t always get the implementation right. Two fietsersbond members are on the Municipal Transport Committee. Nevertheless, they do complain about conditions for cyclists. ‘It’s always a money problem.’
We mentioned it, not them. The concerns in planning are directness, speed and comfort. Cycling is not considered to be a safety issue.
Employers can pay their employees mileage for their commuting. Some pay this only to cycle commuters.
Cycling as a proportion of journeys
The Hague promotes itself in many ways, particularly as an ‘International City’ given that it hosts many prominent international organisations, but not especially as a cycling city. They consider their rate of cycling to be ‘quite low’. Despite this, the simple figure for cycling is 30% of journeys, which looks to be a little ahead of Cambridge’s 28%. When you look at what this figure actually means then you see that more is going on. Cambridge’s figure is for commuters in the very centre of the city. The Hague has roughly 30% of trips under 7.5 km over a very large area extending well beyond the city limit. The figures are higher if you look at just the centre.
Training is offered primarily for immigrants in order that they can take a normal place in Dutch society.
After the meeting we took a train to Utrecht, 65 km away. Non-folding bikes need a ticket in the Netherlands and this costs a not insignificant €6. It covers your bike for a whole day’s travel so is better value for long journeys than for short ones. The passenger ticket for The Hague to Utrecht was €9.10. That’s about £6 for a passenger without a bike or £10 with a bike. That compares quite well with the £17.90 fare for Cambridge to London even though that takes bikes for free.
In contrast with our experience in the UK of wanting to take a train to Harwich and being disappointed, we all turned up without booking, there was room for our bikes and those of quite a few locals on the same train.
Utrecht’s headline figure for journeys under 7.5 km by bike is 43%. Even though we had missed the rush hour there were a lot of cyclists about. From Utrecht we rode to our hostel in Bunnik taking a different route from that planned (though still pleasant) and arrived in time for dinner.
The third day
We rode along country lanes to Houten, a town designed around cycle paths. Here you find that cycle paths take the direct routes and that the mostly indirect roads give way to them where they meet. After coffee and cake we took the train to Eindhoven and rode south from the city to use some forest cycle paths (still made of smooth tarmac even though the ‘road’ alongside was not) over the Belgian border to visit a trappist monastery and to sample their beer before staying in the Valkenswaard hostel.
The fourth day
We rode back towards Eindhoven, riding through a few villages until we had to catch the train back to the mid afternoon ferry.
Netherlands versus Cambridge
While it is commonly claimed in the UK that transport priorities favour pedestrians and cyclists, in the Netherlands this is a little closer to the truth. Cyclists have their own space. Their own roads. They do not fall between motor vehicles and pedestrians always clashing with one or the other group as is so often the case here. Cyclists have status and cycling is a ‘normal’ thing to do.
A cyclist in the Netherlands can reasonably expect to be catered for in any direction. Getting lost doesn’t mean finding yourself off the only decent local route and having to ride on busy ‘A’ roads instead of a quiet route; you just find a different cycle route, quite possibly parallel to the one you had intended to ride on in the first place.
Cyclists get priority at very many road junctions. Green lights for straight-ahead cyclists usually light before those for drivers to avoid a situation of drivers turning across your path trying to race to the junction. Lights at junctions turn green as you approach. Drivers of motor vehicles give way to cyclists, especially at side roads.
It’s not only utility cycling that is more common in the Netherlands. The Dutch take all aspects of cycling more seriously than we do. Cycle touring is more mainstream and there is far higher participation in cycle sport in the Netherlands (look how many Dutchmen ride the Tour de France, and how many Britons). You see groups of fast Lycra-clad people training at speed using the cycle paths. Those in town are as slow as town roads, but rural paths are suitable for cycling at any speed.
Utility cyclists wear normal clothing on sensible bikes which don’t damage their clothes. Groups of children or of elderly people are seen riding for fun. Family groups (even extended families over three generations) are a common sight. All demographics are included.
I believe that the main reason that cycling is so popular in the Netherlands is that it is made pleasant and convenient at all times. On returning to the UK I found that once again I had to get used to motor vehicles passing within a few inches. It was most unwelcome.
For a few years now I have done cycle promotion work in the summer. I have spoken to hundreds of people who do not cycle but would like to.
By far the most common reason why they say they don’t cycle is that they feel it is too dangerous.
While it is true that cycling in the UK isn’t exceptionally dangerous measured per mile, the feeling of vulnerability is very real. Some roads are very dangerous and many more act as barriers to cycle journeys for at least some cyclists.
Even on the Cambridge Cycling Campaign Members email list there is regular discussion of stories of unpleasant or dangerous situations on roads shared with inconsiderate drivers. There is a very good reason why it is difficult to persuade people to take up cycling given our current conditions.
I’ve cycled in the Netherlands on many occasions and it never ceases to amaze me just how well designed, pleasant and fit for purpose their cycling facilities are. Towns and roads are designed as if people actually matter. Cyclists have equal importance to motorists. This is true whether you go to an historic old town with narrow streets or to a newly built town.
Even in Cambridge we have a very long way to go to catch up with the level of cycling seen in the Netherlands.
The Dutch have countered both the feeling of danger and the danger itself by building excellent infrastructure. Cycling feels like the right thing to do. It is convenient, relaxing and pleasant. This has resulted in a fantastic culture of cycling amongst all social groups. The infrastructure makes this possible. If we had the same infrastructure here we could grow a similar cycling culture. Without it we never will.