Well, Fancy That! No 3: Riding a Bicycle Doesn’t Always Have to be ‘FUN!’

Team Sky found it easier to cycle as a group to the shop to buy Cycling Weekly and Red Bull for Cavendish as apparently ‘Safety in Numbers’ really works in Britain.

Here’s a challenge for you – go to any shop selling newspapers and magazines and try to find anything of substance regarding bicycles as transport. Sure, you’ll find lots on the subject of cycle sport from time trialling to triathlon to mountain biking to leisure riding but nothing on just riding to the shops. That’s because it would be commercial suicide to attempt such a thing – cycling as transport should be a boring, humdrum activity as opposed to a particular ‘lifestyle’ or activity filled with thrills and spills requiring the purchase of specialist kit. In Britain however, we don’t do boring and humdrum. Cycling is all about ‘FUN!’ or ‘Olympic Legacy!’ if you like.

When I visited the Netherlands on a David Hembrow Study Tour last year, I baffled the locals by getting my camera out and taking photos of the cycle infrastructure (at least, I hope that’s why they looked baffled). They simply couldn’t grasp why someone would want to take pictures of something that was, to them, so boring and taken for granted, or photos of them doing such utterly routine stuff like going to a cafe to meet friends, going to school, or to the shop to top up a mobile phone. To be honest, my wife would have agreed with the Dutch. I’m going to be 40 in November.

The fact is, in Britain, going to a cafe to meet friends, or to school or to the shop to top up a mobile phone are not  regular activities undertaken by bicycle. Cycling around a forest or seafront or reservoir are activities undertaken by bicycle because it’s ‘FUN’! And you can buy a magazine to assist with all the tips on high-tech equipment to ride and wear (including racks to mount your bicycles to your car to go to that forest or seafront or reservoir). After all, adults and children are advised to get training and read a large manual of advanced techniques before really tackling British roads to go to a cafe to meet friends, go to school or go to the shop to top up a mobile phone.

In the Netherlands [and I would imagine Denmark also], all this boring, humdrum bicycle as transport stuff goes on, and yet they still manage to have an intensive and varied cycle sport scene. They have Road Cycling and Cyclo-Cross and BMX and Track Cycling and Mountain Biking and Human Powered Vehicles (yes, dear Reader, I did write Mountain Biking). See? In cycling terms, even in Europe they know how to have ‘FUN’!!!

It would be easy at this point to say something along the lines of, ‘well, at least the Dutch and the Danes know where to draw the line between sport and transport’ but that would be the wrong, and blatantly untrue distinction to make. Whilst I was cycling around Groningen and Assen on their bicycle infrastructure, our group was frequently overtaken by individuals or groups of cheery club cyclists in full kit on road bikes. However, because we were going through towns and villages where any infrastructure and population was obviously at its most dense, I found that although they were travelling quicker than us, it was respectfully quicker. They were always travelling at what the Starship Enterprise would call ‘Impulse Power’. The distinction I found, and I stress this is based purely on what I observed, is that they were cycling as though they still had a debt of responsibility where people were, the same as motorists. If they just kept their legs ticking over at a not unpleasant speed [for them] they knew they would be able to open up the speed later in their ride (particularly as Dutch Infrastructure is about segregated ROUTES and not the usual British misinterpretation). The point I wish to make is that the bicycle infrastructure provided is suitable for everyone – not always perfect, but more pleasant and often more direct than the road. It’s perfectly possible to travel at speed too.

The Dutch and the Danes know how to have ‘FUN!’ But they also know how to get to the shops and their children to school correctly.

The problem Britain faces is multi faceted but I’m going to quickly focus on two; Firstly, is the fact that practically every piece of bicycle infrastructure designed and implemented to date is diabolical, and one cannot blame the hardened experienced ‘FUN!’ loving cyclist for being deeply sceptical. If motorways were designed in the same cavalier fashion with piecemeal budgets, minimal consultation and guidelines that are readily ignored, then both driving and cycling on specific infrastructure would be ‘FUN!’  but in a white-knuckle, terrifying fairground ride sort of way. I personally think that level of excitement should come from inside a library book as opposed to cycling to the library to get that book.

Second is the fact that we are spectacularly awful at separating the ‘sport’ from ‘transport’. Some Britons like to think that by cycling to work, they have left the ‘Rat Race’ but all they’ve done is lock themselves into new one of their own construction. Consumerism finds a new and unexpected outlet with all the kit, cameras and, thanks to applications such as Endomondo, a smart phone negates the need for a cycle computer telling the rider everything from average speed to how many calories were burned each trip. A daily gauntlet has been thrown for the quick and the brave with a great deal of risk taking. The thought of ‘Going Dutch’ or ‘Danish’ horrifies them as they cling to the some divine right to the road. A right that has been effectively lost to the majority already.

I personally believe that there needs to be a standard in bicycle infrastructure that acts as a quality benchmark as opposed to guidelines that currently exist which, although are quite good, are all too easily discarded in the name of budgets or just simple lack of understanding of the bicycle as a mode of transport. There needs to be continuity, quality and more than a nod to what has enjoyed proven success in Continental Europe. A Standard that is suitable for every type of bicycle and caters for every type of rider.

There should never be a magazine about mass cycling as transport because it should be the routine, everyday thing you do to get to equally routine activities or more exciting adventures that start as soon as you walk away from a safely locked bike. Mind you, if there was such a magazine, I’d probably subscribe to it. I’d keep it hidden from my wife though. One must maintain an image of ‘FUN!’

Bicycle Film Scenes 2 – The Sixth Sense

Alternate scene from ‘The Sixth Sense’ by M Night Shyamalan

COLE

I want to tell you my secret now.

Malcolm blinks very slowly.

MALCOLM

Okay.

Cole takes an eternal pause.  A silent tension engulfs them both.

COLE

…I see people.

MALCOLM just gazes quietly.

COLE

I see people on bicycles…  Some of them scare me.

Beat.

MALCOLM

In your dreams?

COLE shakes his head, “No.”

MALCOLM

When you’re awake?

COLE nods, “Yes.”

MALCOLM

Cyclists, like in helmets with cameras and Hi-viz?

COLE

No, cycling around, like regular people…..Some of them don’t know they’re cyclists.

MALCOLM

They don’t know they’re cyclists?

Beat.

COLE

I see Dutch people.

MALCOLM becomes completely motionless.  Works to hide his shock.

He and COLE stare at each other a long time.

COLE

They tell me stories…in perfect English.  Dull things that happened to them on bicycles…  Things that happened to people they know. Going to school and the shops.

Beat.

Malcolm’s words are extra-controlled.  Revealing nothing.

MALCOLM

How often do you see them?

COLE

All the time.  They’re everywhere.

beat

You won’t tell anyone my secret, right?

Beat.

MALCOLM

…No.

COLE

Will you stay here till I fall asleep?

Malcolm nods, “Yes.”  Cole pulls the covers up to his chin and turns to the window in the room.  Malcolm is very still and stares at Cole.

MALCOLM’S EYES — slowly turn and survey the room.  They find nothing.  Malcolm returns to watching Cole.

COLE’S EYES LOOK AROUND THE ROOM WARILY…  WE MOVE IN ON THEM TILL HIS EYES FILL THE FRAME.

Beat.

And then we see what he’s staring at.  Through Cole’s hospital room window we see the entrance of the hospital building.

Rows of Dutch bicycles are visible.

I see Dutch People

A Caring, Sharing Britain

Architects Impressions - Great at showing what Britain could be like if Prozac was pumped into the drinking water.

We Britons love the idea of sharing space. Well, other people’s space. We love to come up with holistic transport solutions through these shared spaces, sometimes incorporating an architects sketched vision of roads reduced to near emptiness, an extra tree or two and everyone walking and driving with a sense of equality and good cheer toward their fellow humans, maybe pondering where to buy their next latte or iPhone.

Exhibition Road in west London is a prime example (as shown above). The blog ‘Cyclists in the City’ summed it up beautifully for me with the headline ‘Sustainable Travel in London means spending lots of money to make car parking look prettier’ . It manages to acknowledge without commiting to removing the danger that you’d expect in an area of London where a very high tourist footfall for the wonderful museums nearby meets Transport for London’s commitment to cramming as much ‘smooth flowing’ traffic as it can through Central London (presumably for a bet – I’m running out of ideas as to why they are behaving the way they are). Instead it seeks equality by changing the surface treatment, adding street furniture and, in some cases, removing the split level between road and pavement. Its trying in effect to create a level playing field for all users. This is all very well, and I salute the intentions, but the day motorists think they are equal with other users will be the day when Hell freezes over, or introduces its own shared use facility.

In creating a shared space, an area has been created where groups such as the visualy impaired can feel far more vulnerable and their voice can easily sway the powers that be in a country already reluctant to positively embrace the bicycle. Exhibition Road became the subject of a judicial review raised by Guide Dogs for the Blind and in Woking, Surrey, cycling is now banned in part from what were shared use cycle/pedestrian areas in the town centre (as covered here by CTC’s Chris Peck in Guardian Bike Blog). Instead of working together, the humble bicycle has again become a common enemy.

Another concept of shared space that Britain will probably get spectacularly wrong is that of the ‘Woonerf’

Woonerf - Simple. And not some EU Plan to control our residential areas which is probably what UKIP & the Daily Mail thinks

Last August, from Bike Biz

Poll finds many are in favour of more areas where cars do not have priority – and that the law should protect vulnerable road users in such areas

A new road safety poll has found that the majority (58 per cent) are in favour of holding drivers legally responsible for accidents between cars and more vulnerable road users in pedestrian priority zones.

The poll was taken for road safety charity IAM (the Institute of Advanced Motorists) and quizzed 4,000 people on pedestrian-priority zones. Most were in favour of importing the ‘Woonerf’ zone concept from the Netherlands, used to encourage cycling and walking and designed to be used at walking pace.

Forty eight per cent thought the concept – with no pavements, giving cars, pedestrians and cyclists equal use of the same road space – is a good idea to bring to the UK, while 27 per cent thought they were a bad idea.

36 per cent said the pedestrian priority zones should be located in shopping areas, with a similar amount advocating the zones be installed where there is high pedestrian traffic. 33 per cent said they would be best used in certain residential areas, while 16 per cent said they should be used for all residential roads.

Improved pedestrian and cyclist safety were seen by 49 per cent and 43 per cent respectively to be the most beneficial result of bringing pedestrian-priority zones to the UK.

“Our poll reveals a surprisingly positive attitude towards better protection of cyclists and pedestrians, both in road layout and legal responsibility,” said IAM director of policy and research Neil Greig. “On the continent, attractive street design is used to make it clear where pedestrians have priority but this approach is in its infancy in the UK.

“The IAM supports any move to improve safety for pedestrians and cyclists, but research is needed into the best way to inform drivers about changes in legal responsibility, and also on the effect a Woonerf might have on the road sense of children brought up in such a zone, when later exposed to less protected areas.”

Respected blog Amsterdamize contacted BikeBiz to elaborate on the Woonerf concept: “The IAM’s incorrect about ‘woonerf’ and ‘confuses’ it with elements of Shared Space. ‘Woonef’ only relates to residential streets (home zones). Woonerven (plural) block cars from using it at as through ways, slowing cars down to walking speeds. Pedestrianised (commercial) zones in the Netherlands allow certain vehicles in at certain times (with automated rising pillars). There are more, different models giving priority to pedestrians and people on bikes. There’s no single solution but a range of proven means to pick from, as it goes hand in hand with urban design.”

Essentially, a ‘Woonerf’ isn’t a through route to anyone. Therefore it is easy to reduce the speed to walking pace and create parity between residents because it would be patently stupid and anti-social to have it any other way. The sign in the picture above says it all; there’s a house and people playing outside with the car set at a smaller scale. The car has its uses but it isn’t important in this area – people are.

I don’t have a problem with this country trying shared space. I do have a problem with what appears to be this country’s complete and total inability to look at other countries and learn correct interpretations and best practice approaches to shared space, home zones or cycling infrastructure that people can actually use as opposed to us doggedly sticking with something that would have made Evil Knievel think twice. LCC recently voted in favour of persuing ‘Go Dutch’ at their AGM and already people are warning of ‘segregation’ and nodding gravely even though they haven’t the faintest idea what it means in a Dutch context.

When the London Cycle Superhighways launched, I cautiously welcomed them as I thought they were a good idea in principle. However, I stupidly believed that they lent themselves heavily on the Danish model (right down to the colour)  – Copenhagen had tried creating cycle routes on minor roads parallel to main roads that cyclists were using as they were quieter (a bit like London Cycle Network +) but no-one used them as that was the planners telling cyclists where they thought they should go as opposed to where cyclists were actually going (Mikael Colville-Andersen of Copenhagenize explains this and more in a talk he gave in Melbourne which I urge you to watch. The relevant bit is here). The result is a typically weak British compromise that has now resulted in two needless deaths in three weeks at Bow Roundabout in East London. Painting the same crap Barclays Blue doesn’t change anything – like when Marathon changed to Snickers.

Outside London, Warrington Cycle Campaigns ‘Facility of the Month’ site gives ample rib-tickling moments of Authorities trying to ‘get’ the bicycle and ‘get’ the idea of shared space rendering shopping area, bus stop and pavement potentially dangerous to cyclist and pedestrian alike.

It’s like we’re stubbornly using a Sat-Nav instead of stopping and asking directions even when it’s blatantly sending us miles out of our way creating more delay to our collective journey. I guess in this case the Sat-Nav is a PC with Google Streetview where we can look at a Dutch, Danish or German street and delude ourselves that we can instantly understand the context and can speak with authority on it. All we have to do is stop and ask directions and start a proper dialogue with our neighbours. Now that would be sharing.

Misinterpreting Interpretations

No! No! No! Not 'Go DITCH'.....

Now that the internet has uncovered the realities of cycling in Denmark and The Netherlands and people in Britain have started to discuss what it means to ‘Copenhagenize‘ and ‘Amsterdamize‘ and realised that the cycling infrastructure design and implementation in Britain lags a bit behind the Falkland Islands and London Cycling Campaign members voted to ‘Go Dutch‘ and Norman Baker MP stated that we could learn from our Dutch colleagues and handsome, gifted young men start a Cycling Embassy to eventually start lobbying and exchanging ideas with British, Dutch and Danish friends and more friends beyond, there now follows the desperate period where British people start to speak with sudden authority interpreting what it all actually means such as this latest offering from the Guardian Bike Blog.

To many, ‘Going Dutch’ means having segregation everywhere! There are many British people, who through no fault of their own, are not Dutch or are in any way conversant with the Dutch experience. Thus the very notion of segregation will instantly make people instantly think of their local high street, housing estate or country lane and try to mentally cram in a couple of with-flow cycle paths with separating kerbs. And then dismiss the idea as bunkum.

The fact is that ‘Going Dutch’ does mean having segregation everywhere! But there’s one fundamental caveat; The British assume segregation to mean ‘segregating cyclists from the road to ‘improve traffic flow’ for motorised traffic’ whereas the Dutch mean ‘segregate motorised vehicles from people to improve movement for everyone’.

Through the years, the British have created a lot of bypasses, relief roads, motorways, urban expressways and the like. The Dutch did the same but ensured that it became an utter pain in the buttocks to get across the town being bypassed in a car, in effect forcing motorised traffic to use the new infrastructure built. The British didn’t and are still paying the price with heavily congested town and city centres. In fact we keep using it as some perverse justification to build more bypasses, relief roads, motorways, urban expressways and the like. Here’s a clip from ‘Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy’ made in the very early 1980’s that captures it perfectly.

With traffic where it should be, it then becomes a lot easier to transform areas that were for people into areas for people, and giving planners a chance to make cycling and walking very direct, pleasant and safe options indeed. It also becomes less like political suicide to start suggesting things like ‘Strict Liability’, defined by Wikipedia like so,

‘”Strict liability”, supported in law in the Netherlands,[1] leads to [a] driver’s insurance being deemed to be responsible in a collision between a car and a cyclist. This makes car drivers very wary of bicycles.’

The fact is that no-one is saying that there should be segregated cycle paths everywhere, not even the Dutch or the Danes. It doesn’t help that cycle infrastructure in this country resembles something designed by someone who really, really, really hates cycling. But to dismiss them arbitrarily because of not understanding their true context in mainland Europe is a cheap shot. Even if they only create the ‘Placebo effect’ to which the Guardian Bike Blog post alludes, I’d prefer that to consistent fines from the EU for failing to meet air pollution targets, or more gastric band surgery or one of the worst road safety records for cyclists and pedestrians in Western Europe (as tragically demonstrated in this moving blog post from Embassy Press Officer, Mark Ames). Now that my Study Tour experience has really started to sink in (which the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain intends to make an annual event), I shall be revealing more over the next few weeks (and years) mainly through the Embassy website as well as addressing further how all this should be taken to a wider British audience that doesn’t know yet how much they love riding a bicycle like previous generations.

I leave you with this ditty I’ve quickly put together for the Cycling Embassy from footage taken by me on the Study Tour and then from my commute to work (Worthing to Brighton) on the Monday morning after returning home.

An Embassy in the Netherlands and an Embassy of the Netherlands

A chance for children, and at least two Cycle Embassy members, to play hopscotch in a Woonerf (or 'living area') where traffic is reduced to walking pace and the residents come first. Yes, I know....

Last Friday I returned from the Cycling Embassy Study Tour to Assen and Groningen in the Netherlands, led by David Hembrow. I am quite deliberately leaving it a while before I even attempt to blog more thoroughly about it as I want to allow some time for it all to sink in. It really was a three-day assault on the senses that went way beyond looking at some Dutch cycling infrastructure. To say it left a profound mark would be bordering on reckless understatement. The amusing aspect was the sheer bewilderment from the Dutch themselves that anyone would want to take photos and examine something that is taken so utterly for granted – the freedom of all citizens to travel with subjective safety by bicycle, if they so choose, regardless of age, gender, colour, creed, status or even what type of cyclist you are for sporting pursuits (we were overtaken by many road cyclists with all sorts of colourful team kit on). To them the act of getting around by bicycle is quite boring and not really worthy of conversation at all – just as it should be.

Another amusing aspect, as a quick teaser, is my first foray into movies. It is one of the famous bins (usually found close to Dutch schools) angled and at such a height that litter may be easily chucked whilst passing on a bicycle. Yes, the Dutch have even created the perfect symbiosis between bicycle and litter bin (like the Danes and their foot rests whilst waiting at traffic lights) The schoolkids fared slightly better than our efforts…

Anyway, whilst we were away, the Dutch launched their Cycling Embassy. Like the Danish Cycling Embassy, they will be exporting their knowledge and expertise that has had proven success, as opposed to the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain that I formed earlier this year that would welcome anything other than the current situation where Local Authorities are designing facilities for bicycles with no knowledge of bicycles – a bit like asking Orville the Duck to design the successor to Trident.

Here is the video of their launch. I know it has featured on other blogs but it really does need repeating as it really is superb.

I shall be posting far more frequently as I catch up with everything else and try to put everything I’ve seen in a British context. This should be easier than you think (certainly easier than I once thought) and easier than some may have you believe.