Personal impressions of cycling in the Netherlands: lessons for Cambridge

I share David Hembrow’s enthusiasm for cycling facilities in the Netherlands. Never having cycled there before, I was both surprised and impressed by what we saw and learned during this visit. I strongly recommend Cambridge cyclists, both fast cyclists with their lightweight cycles and ordinary cyclists like me with basic bicycles, go to see for themselves. It is simple to take the boat from Harwich to the Hook of Holland with your bicycle and to set off, as we did, from the port along good cycle routes from the start.

Here are some personal impressions, overwhelmingly positive but including some which are negative, which I have brought back with me from this fascinating visit:

My colleague, Dave Bradford, and I thoroughly enjoyed our fact finding mission to the Netherlands. Cycling around The Hague, Utrecht and Houten filled us with enthusiasm and inspiration as to what could be achieved regarding the future development of Cambridge so that new residential areas reflect the value of cycling as an important and beneficial mode of transport in the city. A lot can be learnt from the Dutch experience of obstacle free, continuous routes which combined with the positive attitude and priority given to cyclists made cycling a real pleasure – and walking too with no guard rails and very few shared paths with cyclists.

With thanks to the members of the Cycling Campaign who invited us along to such an interesting and well organised trip. We look forward to continuing to work closely with the Campaign in the future to ensure that the cycling experience in Cambridge continues to improve and develop.

Clare Rankin (and David Bradford), Walking and Cycling Development and Promotion Officer, Cambridge City Council

Segregation

Most of the routes that we cycled along were segregated for most of their length, both from motor vehicles and from pedestrians. Cyclists there have a clear entitlement to their own space which is properly designed to meet their needs and is properly maintained.

The contrast with Cambridge could hardly be greater. Here, because cyclists only intermittently have their own space (in on-road cycle lanes, segregated shared-use pavements and the occasional special facility like the station cycle bridge over the railway), they tend to be treated as an awkward in-between category. Along roads, motorists are given priority and along pavements, pedestrians are given priority. Cyclists are usually only given road space where this can be done without inconveniencing motorists, and pavement space where this can be done without inconveniencing pedestrians. In the Netherlands I felt that as a cyclist I mattered and had a separate entitlement which was treated seriously.

A medium size road in Valkenswaard. There is still plenty of room on a shared path for both cyclists and pedestrians. There is similar provision for the opposite direction on the other side of the road.
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Even at traffic light crossings, cyclists are commonly given their own space and their own facilities. Detector loops change the lights as cyclists approach along their segregated cycle route. The traffic signals are at the same height as those for motor vehicles and can be seen well ahead by approaching cyclists (contrasting dramatically with the dreadful recently-modified crossing of Gonville Place in Cambridge!). I think that everywhere we went cyclists could cross even major roads in a single movement without having to wait on an island in the middle of the road. Pedestrians crossing alongside them had their own facilities which were, because pedestrians cross more slowly, often two-stage with a wait in the middle.

High-quality unobstructed path for cyclists and moped riders.
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In the Netherlands, cyclist (and pedestrian) space does seem to be more respected than it is here. We came across hardly any cases of illegal car encroachment or car parking on cycle routes. This contrasts with the situation here where cars so frequently park illegally in cycle lanes and encroach on them even more often. Is the Netherlands situation largely a product of better law enforcement? This seems unlikely. It is more probable that better design reduces conflict and increases mutual consideration.

But there are problems with the Netherlands system though these are ones that I would be very willing to accept in return for the benefits. These problems include the banning of on-road cycling along many roads where segregated cycle routes exist alongside, and the permission given to mopeds and motor scooters to use many of the out-of-town cycle routes (which I at times found intimidating).

Continuity

Cyclepath T-junction raised table.
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David has rightly stressed the absence of ‘Cyclists Dismount’ signs and the priority over side roads which users of Dutch cycle routes enjoy. The fact that such routes are straight and go directly over side roads on raised ramps where motorists give way is fundamental to the system. Without such priority, the system could not work. This is the innovation most needed for off-road cycle routes in Cambridge. It is now legal to install such facilities in this country and it is more than disappointing that in Cambridge, where so many people cycle, none have yet been installed, even on an experimental basis.

Surface quality

I would like to thank Cambridge Cycling Campaign for asking me along to their recent study trip. This was my first experience of cycling in the Netherlands, and I came away with much enthusiasm as to how some of the things that I saw could be implemented over here. I found the continuity of routes, the almost total lack of obstructions and the sheer numbers of folk out on bikes to be an absolute joy. To the Dutch, cycling is a part of everyday life and for them, totally unremarkable. In the UK, we so often seem to view it as an extreme sport, and certainly not the mode of first choice.

It was heartening to note that on occasion, even the Dutch engineers must resort to solutions that are less than ideal. There were instances of cycle lanes running adjacent to parked vehicles, crossings without detection loops, and the (legitimate!) use of cycle tracks by mopeds – all things that come in for criticism in the UK. Riding for three days with narrow section wheels over block paved surfaces also proved to be a deeply uncomfortable experience – next time I’ll use a Dutch bike!

Good facilities really do make a difference to the cycling experience and we could all learn a lot from our Dutch counterparts – I certainly did.

Patrick Joyce, County Cycling Officer – Cambridgeshire

In Cambridge the poor surfaces provided for cyclists contrast with the much better surfaces commonly provided for motorists who need them much less. On-road mandatory cycle lanes are surfaced in a rough red material which is interrupted every few metres by a jarring junction between sections. Off-road, even new routes have their problems. The new route over Coe Fen has curious undulations which are not pleasant to cycle over. The tarmac of the much-improved shared-use path alongside Brooklands Avenue was laid directly on compacted earth and is, I think, certain to decay rapidly.

Here again we have much to learn from the Dutch. We encountered smooth red on-road cycle lanes and off-road cycle routes, most of which had good surfaces and seemed to be built to last. In the Hague cycle officials told us that the surfaces of cycle routes had to be better than the roads and that the city was, for example, systematically replacing the block paving used on cycle routes in the past with asphalt which provided a smoother surface. I would advocate that the County Council should consider employing a Dutch consultant (and perhaps Dutch contractors) to improve surface quality here. A start should be made with the red surfacing of on-road cycle lanes which is the cause of so much irritation and which could probably be remedied simply and at little cost.

Obstructions

Cycle routes in the Netherlands are kept free from the kinds of obstructions which are commonplace on off-road cycle routes in Cambridge. I don’t think we encountered any chicanes, lamp-posts, telephone kiosks, television cable boxes, road-sign posts or other such obstructions along any of the cycle routes we used.

Cyclepath humps before a crossing with another cyclepath.
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We did see posts to prevent motor vehicles from gaining access to cycle routes, but these were centrally placed, separating cyclists travelling in the two directions and causing no inconvenience. We did encounter one kind of obstruction which I had never seen before and which I liked – well-designed humps, just like road humps, which alerted moped riders and cyclists to a junction, and slowed those who were riding or cycling fast.

Cycle routes are kept clear of lamp-posts and sign-posts but pedestrian routes are not.
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Usually lamp-posts and road-sign posts were set in grass verges, but sometimes they were on pedestrian pavements. In most cases these would cause no difficulties at all for pedestrians who could avoid them more easily than cyclists, but I did see occasional instances where pedestrians with pushchairs or wheelchair users would have been obstructed. I was also concerned to see that, at junctions with main roads, cyclists always seemed to have kerbs which were properly dropped to be flush with the road surface, but the same was often not the case for pedestrians. I imagine that the expectation may be that pedestrians with pushchairs, and the disabled using powered wheelchairs or buggies, would instead make use of the cycle facilities which are so systematically unobstructed.

Unidirectional out-of-town path shared between cyclists and pedestrians.
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Although we were told by the cycling officers in the Hague that no shared-use routes – that is routes shared by pedestrians and cyclists as shared-use pavements are in the UK – are constructed, we did encounter several places where there were no pedestrian facilities and pedestrians would have to walk along a cycle route. But in general we can say that pedestrians benefit from the Dutch system. Generally they have their own paths and are not often in situations where they are likely ever to be intimidated by rogue cyclists.

Dutch design and new housing developments in Cambridge

‘Elephants’ feet’ crossings are common and make clear to drivers that there is a cycleway crossing.
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I would like to see a systematic effort to build fully segregated cycle routes in the Dutch style with priority over side roads in some of the major new housing developments to be constructed in Cambridge. There are exceptional opportunities at present to create new facilities which should stimulate cycling and reduce the conflicts between motorists, cyclists and pedestrians caused by unsatisfactory provision. Would Dutch designs really work well here? I think that they would but we can only be sure by trying them out. The sooner we get started, the better.

Rubbish net for cyclists on the move.
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James Woodburn