Windmills and Wheels: Cycling the Netherlands
The Netherlands, May-June 2015
Cycling is an increasingly prominent feature of UK transport and planning policy and the bicycle is widely recognised as an inherently urban tool for creating liveable cities. In light of this, The Academy of Urbanism Young Urbanist Network embarked on a transport-and-urbanism cycling study tour to the Netherlands from end of May to early June 2015. This was an opportunity to experience, first-hand, the quality of life that comes from bicycle-centric transport. It also allowed participants to see some of the excellent recent examples of architecture and urbanism in the Netherlands, such as IJburg.
Leaving from Liverpool Street station via train on Thursday evening (28 May), participants travelled overnight by ferry from the UK to the Hook of Holland, arriving Friday morning (29 May). From there, they cycled to Utrecht, a city where 33% of all journeys are made by bicycle. In Utrecht the following day (30 May), participants had a superb cycling tour of the city courtesy of Herbert Tiemens before cycling up to Amsterdam in the afternoon. After an incredible tour from cycling advocate Pete Jordan in the morning, and an afternoon of relaxing and sightseeing in Amsterdam (31 May), the group then cycled back on Monday (1 June) to the Hook of Holland for their overnight return ferry. Arriving back to a balmy UK on Tuesday morning (2 June), the group then dispersed and made their [comparatively] treacherous journeys through London back to work and home.
Below is a compilation of thoughts and reflections from the participants upon return to the UK, addressing the following questions:
- How do you currently commute to work in London?
- What was the best bit of cycling in the Netherlands? What did you enjoy the most?
- What was your least favourite bit? What was stressful/unpleasant?
- What did you learn from the trip? How did it inform your understanding of cycling, planning urban design and so on?
- What opportunities do you think there are for implementing Dutch style cycling in a place that you know?
You can read a write-up of last year’s trip from Young Urbanist George Weeks here, and an insightful reflection from Ben Hockman on the 2015 trip here. You can also find an album of Photos on the Academy’s Flickr stream here.
How do you currently commute to work in London?
Almost every day by bicycle.
On the underground or the overground. Sometimes I cycle, but not regularly. It’s still fairly scary to cycle on the roads of London.
Bike, walk, bus or train, whichever is most convenient or desirable on the day
I often cycle, but consider myself a ‘fair-weather cyclist’ – so, if it is raining or too cold, I will take the tube. I take the bus for leisure trips as well and do a fair amount of walking on weekends.
Cycling. From London to Holborn. Even when it’s raining. My work has shower facilities and there is space in my office for the storage of extra clothes in case of emergency.
I cycle. It is just under three miles from my flat in Camberwell to my office in SW1. It takes 15-20 minutes. There is no way that I could do it in twice the time by any other means. And this is me in normal clothes on a heavy Dutch bike.
What was the best bit of cycling in the Netherlands? What did you enjoy the most?
It’s hard to pick a best bit. Clearly the infrastructure is world class. It was interesting to see how they dealt with some classic cycling infrastructure conflicts; bus stops, delivery bays, roundabouts which are particularly challenging in dense urban environments. There were also details that I liked; for example the smooth quality of the asphalt, which seems to be well preserved by an absence of utilities running beneath the cycle lanes. Often at home, good new asphalt is quickly ruined by utilities works.
However despite the rides through the cities offering more direct inspiration for high quality cycling infrastructure, in some ways I enjoyed the long range trips through the countryside the most. The ease with which we could travel long distances in a group made me very ambitious about all of the other places that I might be able to cycle to which I have never considered before; Kent (to see my parents), Norfolk (on holiday with friends late in the summer) and Barcelona (football tour in October, but why not? Can I make it through the Pyrenees…? Not sure about this one but we’ll see.)
In a city like London where it is very easy to become addicted to doing things all of the time, somewhat ironically, I felt that doing the long rides gave me some time and space to relax, enjoy some music, listen to a podcast or an audio book, or chat with my companions.
Oh, and the cycling tours were very interesting.
Cycling through the wonderful residential areas between Rotterdam and Utrecht and admiring their SUDS set up. Also the guided cycling tours at Utrecht and Amsterdam were really enjoyable. Loved the cycle parks at Amsterdam and Utrecht, even though we were exhausted and cold when we got to Utrecht. I also enjoyed the fact that I got better/faster on the bike as we got to the end of the trip. Utrecht really impressed me, the cycling
infrastructure and the place itself, I would have liked to have spent more time there, especially at that make-shift cafe place at the University. Love the Dutch and their banter!
One of the best things to find out and experience is how well the Dutch has implemented what I’d call CDI (connectivity, directness, integration). We can add a P for protection to that.
On a national level all the cycling paths are so well connected that the transition between town/city to countryside to city seemed seamless. At the same time dedicated protection to people riding bikes is clearly felt, especially in cities’s junctions, and always following a ‘fit for purpose’ criteria, meaning in most of the main arteries crossing towns there will be a dedicated cycle path and for example in residential roads there will be either bollards to reduce motor traffic or signs mentioning bicycle priorities and motor traffic as a ‘guest’.
Most (if not all) of the cycle paths and cycling infrastructure is direct, according to the user desires to move from A to B. It was clearly well thought from a user perspective how to make bike journeys from door to door without walking, not even to different floors levels to use the parking space (as we experienced in Utrecht).
Integration to other transport systems, especially trains stations are incredibly well designed, with attention to detail. From how to use the system to how to find your bike and accessibility, all was designed to create a pleasant and easy experience for the user.
I think a cycling culture so embedded in the dutch society plays a big part in how politicians/planners make decisions. In the Netherlands there are no divisions or constant labelling of people as ‘cyclist’, ‘driver’, ‘pedestrian’. Using a bike is clearly normal. Someone using one is not a ‘cyclist’, but rather your daughter, your mum, etc. This mentality, on top of the CDI makes huge levels of cycling. Designing and improving constantly for the 50%, not the 5%. Another point to mention is that someone using a bike in Holland only needs a bike and nothing else. Everyone is without cycling accessories and they mostly use an utilitarian bike designed to live outdoors requiring little maintenance. Not even they have to carry a lock as this is incorporated in bikes to lock the back wheel, meaning they can leave the bike outside shops, friend’s houses, etc, improving the directness of journeys.
Also very noticeable is that all people driving they do really look and wait for people on bikes at junctions.
Connectivity/culture/flawless infrastructure. Just all round good integrated planning and thoughtfulness.
Really, everything was the best part about cycling in the Netherlands. I was struck by how accommodating the infrastructure and road design is to cyclists. During the whole trip (over 200km) we probably went onto the roadways less than a half dozen times. The entire rest of the trip was on segregated cycle lanes. Also, I really enjoyed that cycling at a leisurely pace is normal. In London, I tootle along in my high heels at what may be considered a ‘slow’ speed and am amazed at how fast people feel they have to cycle. However, when you put bikes on the road with cars, they feel the need to compete so that is likely why the culture of MAMIL’s in London purveys. It was just overall such a pleasant experience to feel safe and worry-free while cycling around the country.
The freedom to cycle without consistent anxiety of death. It really does feel like a privilege to be able to cycle within and between cities and know that you can simply enjoy the act of cycling without having to worry about large motorised vehicles. It is really quite amazing that in the space of half a day, you con traverse between major Dutch cities by bike – and it is even more impressive that there are a variety of cycle routes you can take. In this respect, I was most impressed by the segregated cycleways and bicycle prioritisation at all but major road junctions.
The consistency of exemplary cycling provision is the best thing. Cycling is not simply a “nice-to-have”, tacked onto existing infrastructure by well-meaning local authorities; it is EVERYWHERE. The notion of a cycle track that peters out, or is bisected by a gate or stile is complete alien in the Netherlands.
The signage is good too. Being used to UK cycle routes (which, when they exist, are normally a specific, end-to-end trail), I initially would be unnerved when cycling past a sign saying “Utrecht 13km)” – thinking “oh no we have missed the turning for Utrecht”. But then at the next junction, there would be another sign, in the same direction saying “Utrecht 13km”. Just as with road signs in this country, Dutch cycling signage reflect that the country is a joined-up network of consistent routes and that many paths may be followed from A to B.
By allowing local journeys to be made easily by bicycle, the quality of life in Dutch urban areas is very high. This applied particularly to the many small towns that we encountered between Gouda and Utrecht. While people here clearly are car owners (including some seriously expensive machinery; I saw an Audi A8 6.0 Quattro in someone’s drive), they don’t have to use them for everything.
What was your least favourite bit? What was stressful/unpleasant?
I think that Katrine has already called this. It was the cycle back from Liverpool Street to my flat. What a plunge back into reality! Or the difficulty of taking the bikes on the trains.
If I’m going to pick anything from Holland at all; I’d scrape around the barrel for these couple of items:
1. Wayfinding. Sometimes the signs weren’t so easy to follow. I remember being 5k outside of Gouda on the first day and not seeing a single sign for Gouda in about 20 minutes.
2. Cycle Parking for Tourists. It seems that there is so much competition for cycle parking in the larger cities, that the poor naiive tourist doesn’t stand a chance. I was also a little confused as to whether we would be allowed to use any of the new mega multi story cycle parks because we don’t have Dutch ID cards.
Cycling home to Clapham from Liverpool Street during morning rush hour in London, after just having spent such an awesome few days cycling in Holland. Apart from that, it was all positive for me.
I found the red light district to be quite seedy and unpleasant this time round. Apologies for dragging everyone there! It used to be fun and happening when I was a youngster, but not so much anymore. Also, the rain on the Sunday did not appeal to me much – that was the wettest day I’ve had in Holland in all three visits there throughout the years.
There were not unpleasant experiences during the trip. Regarding to cycling however, I think the fact that scooters are allowed on the cycle paths needs somehow to be addressed. I wonder if this is putting elderly people off cycling in Dutch cities….
Nothing stressful per se, as with any trip it would be nicer to have a bit more time to explore all the cities along the way, but with constrained time I think the trip was well balanced.
It was all so enjoyable it is really hard to fault the trip and/or the Dutch cycling infrastructure. I do agree that at times the wayfinding could have been better, but our trusty navigator George was on top of it! Although the country’s geography lends itself to cycling, it can be a bit tedious sometimes going on flat surfaces – that is not to say that I wanted hills to climb, but when you go at a level grade the whole way, you are constantly pedalling and don’t get a break. You stop pedalling and you quickly stop moving forward. Hills were few and far between but a welcome respite from the constant pedalling. That is just being really picky though, it really was all very good.
Being woken up at 5:30 in the morning by Dutch announcements on the ferry PA system.
Having to remember that this cycling nirvana is unique to the Netherlands and that to the majority of people in the UK, such an environment is so far off the radar it may as well be in Patagonia.
What did you learn from the trip? How did it inform your understanding of cycling, planning urban design and so on?
Having never cycled in Holland before, the first thing that I learnt was that cycling infrastructure like this exists at all. I didn’t realise it would be that good.
However, when I started to ask why, I wanted to put the whole thing in some kind of historical and political context so for that part, the tours by Anita, Herbert and Pete were great. The role of the municipalities in the development of the civil infrastructure is apparently very strong; from the establishment of a strategic network, to the detailed implementation and maintenance of the built assets. It became clear that the Dutch equivalent to the UK’s highways authorities had the resource to continually develop their streets and roads (including their cycle ways) and make small improvements where necessary.
Then there were many examples of effective management of conflicts and constraints. i.e how cycle lanes and parking can be added to narrow streets that already have parked cars, or around aforementioned roundabouts and bus stops.
To speak quite generally, the principal idea that kept coming to me was pragmatism. It seemed to run as a common thread from strategic planning through to implementation and maintenance. For example, the relatively thick pavement construction as standard for cycle paths ensures minimum maintenance against a slightly higher capital cost. Or the constraint of the Utrecht cycle parking building by the surrounding utilities in the ground, rather than diverting the utilities at great cost. This pragmatism is enabled because of the power and resource of the ‘highways authority’. Where constraints might limit capacity in one location, they can probably make it up somewhere else as part of the city-wide strategy.
The cycling history of Amsterdam from Pete was really interesting, I now think I should have also bought the book. Also it was fascinating to learn about the station development at Utrecht.
Holland’s commitment to cycling is far stronger than ours is in the UK, which is evident, and it is much more ingrained in their society. Cycling (as a method to commute to work) is only really taking off now in the UK and especially London, so we have some way to go yet before we change the culture here and get away from our over-reliance on the private car. It is much easier to implement and deliver cycling infrastructure in Holland as they develop on their existing base. In the UK we are essentially starting from scratch in the case of most places. Their planning system is also different to ours and the ‘layered’ approach thereto and the infrastructure layer facilitates cycling provision far better as we have seen.
All the tours were fantastic and very informative, especially Anita’s regarding integration with the train network and forward thinking, Herbert’s with Utrecht challenges in a growing population, solutions to it and quirky sights, and finally Pete’s with Amsterdam cycling history and how they solved problems like theft or parking.
I learned a great deal on the trip. It takes a shift in perception to make concrete and lasting changes, and requires the backing of not only governmental bodies, but also the citizens and businesses. Particularly in Amsterdam, I understood that it was the concentrated effort of a number of local activists who challenged the status-quo to bring about real change in the design of the city’s roadways. However, it seems that the city (and indeed the country) is now a victim of its own bicycling success with rampant bike theft, severely overcrowded cycle parking facilities, common abandonment of bikes, and insanely busy cycle lanes in rush hour. It takes some vision and innovative thinking to overcome these challenges, but ultimately the country is thriving due to its incredible connectivity and ease of getting around.
That we need to invest in cycling and get more people regularly cycling around their cities to build political momentum, in turn, encouraging more investment. It’s a bit a catch 22 situation, but strong city governance can certainly steer us in the right direction.
The needs to continually invest in and improve the cycle network. Even somewhere as exemplary as the Netherlands, they are always building new infrastructure, such as new bridges, improved paths and better junctions. There is no end state and it was very interesting having cycled the route the previous year, to see how things and come on in the intervening twelve months.
What opportunities do you think there are for implementing Dutch style cycling in a place that you know?
I have spent the weeks since returning from The Netherlands hungrily assessing every single street I have passed through in London for the opportunity to add in cycling infrastructure. My conclusion so far is that the majority of our streets are easily wide enough for segregated cycle lanes. Moreover, since part of my day-job also involves the design of drainage systems and utilities corridors for new housing developments in London, I often also see opportunities for Sustainable Drainage Systems together with the cycle lanes as part of my newly imagined street. Perhaps the landscape benefits that SUDS can bring to a street could help sell the cycling infrastructure case to local residents? I do not believe the line that London’s streets are too narrow for cycling infrastructure. 1% maybe. But even on them, something can be done. As George said to me on the trip, “It’s about priorities”. However these are not original thoughts of my own and many people had these ideas before me. So the question is why are we not implementing them? Currently to my mind, it comes down to our political setup.
Not many local planning authorities have clear cycling infrastructure strategies, nor do they condition that new roads as part of a development would need to add in segregated cycle lanes (or at least demonstrate that they may not be required on the smallest of mews streets). Moreover, cycle lanes on small residential streets between new housing blocks need to plug into something; the main highway network.
In my own dealing with local highways authorities, I have met some very talented and motivated individuals who have great vision for their borough. My impression however is that they do not have the money or the resource to implement their vision on their patch, despite the demonstrable value that can be added to the local environment and prosperity of the area when cycle lanes and suds are introduced. I think that their resourcing and power falls far short of their Dutch counterparts.
There is a disconnect that limits their power and the interest of the politicians in the local government layers above and it appears to be ability for local government to levy and keep property and business taxes in their borough. I therefore am very interested as to where the city regions devolution agenda will go and the opportunities that can spin off from that.
I imagine that if a local authority can collect its local business and property taxes, it can demonstrate a financial case for investing in its public realm. (ie. it will receive the money back over time through taxes on the subsequent increase in property value and business revenue). Currently that business case cannot easily be made because all of the money generated by the investment goes back to the treasury, not the investor (the local government). I think that the electorate would also therefore be more interested in the development of the urban environment around them if they see it as something that can democratically be moulded.
I currently have too many conversations with people that work in other professions who do not see the urban environment as something malleable that can be changed and done better. The footway, the parking bay, the carriageway and the dying tree surrounded in asphalt just ‘is what it is’.
Our best chance to create a better cycling environment would be through amedning strategic planning policy, by making it more specific. Perhaps we need to set a prescriptive national cycling standard, which each LPA can then implement, rather than having vague policies, where we end up with such differences in cycling infrastructure between places. Our cycle paths essentially stop and start, rather than being continuous like they are in Holland. Now that I have witnessed and experienced what a good cycling country can and should be like, it will give me an idea of how I would like to shape future development proposals, ensure that existing cycling links are enhanced and that new developments are designed to best possible standards in terms of cycling. We need to rethink how our roads and footways/pavements are designed, in order to attempt to separate the motorised vehicles from cyclists. Perhaps we should start to enlarge the footways and split them between pedestrians and cyclist through the use of different surface finish. If cycling is made safer and more pleasant many more people would chose it as a method of commuting. We need the developers on board with this idea and we need more investment (public and private).
About places to implement Dutch style cycling, there could be various opportunities. Clearly all new developments like stations, residential blocks, workplaces could implement Dutch style parking facilities. There could be countless opportunities to connect towns through dedicated cycling paths. About changing design and layouts of physical space within cities, that could be more challenging, however not impossible. The fact that in many parks in London people cannot cycle is just the beginning of a systematic layout of barriers to cycling. Definitely all other London boroughs can learn something from Hackney where at least everyone can cycle in all parks within the borough, leading to feel a bit Dutch even for few minutes of the journey.
How to learn from the Dutch, and why can’t we get it done?! let’s hope that we can start making some headway in this, the main thing from my understanding is strong political will, people (not “cyclists” ) need to engage with the system and hold their elected members to account, write to your councillor, MP, EuroMP, etc. Cities towns and countries are much more civil when a second thought doesn’t have to be paid to jumping on a bike to get from A to B.
Every city and town is an opportunity.
At present, the most promising place in the UK is Cambridge which has a relatively high cycle mode share and the UK’s most “normal” cycling culture. It also has political commitment to improving the cycling environment and is investing heavily in high quality new cycle infrastructure to accompany its rapid growth. There is a real opportunity to extend the provision of consistent, Dutch-quality infrastructure across the entire city and thus form a blueprint for other places in the UK looking to deliver a similarly high quality of life.
“Pete’s tour of Amsterdam was extremely enjoyable. Not only does he have an immense knowledge of the history of the city and its bikes, Pete will also take you to those important sights where cycling past collide with the present infrastructure. A gem of a tour.” – Diego Marando
I have thoroughly enjoyed the trip. It’s really pleasant to be part of the cycling culture while riding in the Netherlands and not to be nuisance/part of a subculture as per the view of many on this side of the shore.
Anyways, back to the rather different reality this morning. I did walk with my bike for few blocks leaving Liverpool St station. I noticed someone (I think he was a courier) with a bike and panniers next to him. On the inside of one of the panniers there was a kind of big sticker/sign saying ‘Every lane is a cycle lane’.
Riding back home I saw a disturbing sight: a young man lying on the pavement (alive, injured and in shock) surrounded by other people and police. Another accident in London roads. What it was somehow freaky is that it happened exactly in the same junction where I had an accident last November, and that I see this just after returning from cycling paradise.
“Pete was passionate and knowledgeable about the history of bikes and cycling in Amsterdam. His insights into the transformation that cycling has had on the city struck chords with our group of planners and architects. He was an engaging speaker, enthusiastic tour guide, and generally fantastic overall. I would suggest anyone with an interest in cycling take his tour – and don’t forget to buy his book In the City of Bikes.”