Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Cycling Solicitor Tim Beasley Goes Dutch!

Levenes Cycle Injury have been long time supporters of the LCC’s Love London, Go Dutch campaign. But what does going Dutch actually mean? A recent family holiday to the Netherlands gave me a chance to find out. I toyed with taking my carbon fibre road bike and decking myself out in full MAMIL regalia, but resisted the temptation and instead opted for a "when in Amsterdam do as the Amsterdammers do" sort of approach. So instead, I hired a cycle for the week.

Cycling Gear
Dutch Tim's Bike
It was a typical “sit up and beg” step through bike with 3 hub gears and a chain guard. It was pretty easy to ride, although I wondered why there was only one brake on the handle bars. I did not wonder for long, as the bike had a coasting brake which was something I was not accustomed to, but soon got the hang of. Riding along, I'd like to think you could have taken me for a Dutchman but for my Garmin device on the handlebar, my helmet (more on that below), and the constant look of awe on my face at the cycling infrastructure.

Dutch people cycle. It’s in the blood. It’s a normal activity. From the royal family down, the Dutch cycle. And why would they not? Cycling is a normal activity done by normal people. Normal people wear normal clothes, very little lycra or hi-vis was in evidence. In fact, I don’t recall seeing anyone wearing the sort of gear we are commonly exhorted to wear in the UK – “for our own safety”. And that brings me on to helmets. I wore mine but that was just because my helmet cam is attached to it. Frankly, I felt silly and so only wore it on one trip when I went out with the intention of getting some footage (video further down the article). I am so glad that I did not take my full gear, as I would have been more out of place than an Addison Lee cab in a bus lane.

Cycling & Public Transport
There was plenty of evidence of how normal cycling is. I came across a small town railway station and unless, I missed it, I saw no car park. The town that this station serves has a population of 38,000. Although, I didn't count them, there must have been about 1000 bikes parked at the station. And in case you want to take the bus instead, you can leave your bike at bike parks next to the bus stop. With such fantastic cycling infrastructure, who would want to take the car to the station?

Birmingham New Street is just in the process of a major overhaul with rumours of more cycle parking available, but somehow I doubt that Birmingham will have anything like you would find in the Netherlands. According to that ratio, Birmingham City Council should be installing about 26,000 cycle parking spaces outside New Street... I won’t hold my breath.

Cycle Paths
I am sure that people in the Netherlands cycle because it feels safe and it’s a normal everyday activity. You don’t have to wear special clothes or special equipment. This feeling of safety is achieved by separating cyclists from motorized traffic wherever possible. Cycle paths are everywhere, but they are not like the crap British cycle paths we're used to.

The problems with British cycle lanes are many. They are frequently too narrow, they disappear before pinch points, they go nowhere, they finish abruptly, where they are off road they tend to be shared paths with pedestrians, which creates nothing but problems for the cyclist (and pedestrian) not least because at each side road the cyclist has to give way to cars from the side. Why should motorized traffic always have the right of way? In the Netherlands, the lanes are normally (though not always) separated from the motorized traffic and side roads give way to the cycle path. Where there is the potential for conflict with pedestrians, white paint on the cycle path draws attention to this.

There is a fear amongst some in the UK that we will be kicked off the highway. I understand that in some parts of Europe, (though not as far as I am aware in the Netherlands) where there is a cycle path, it is the law that you have to use it. Well, from my experience of the cycle paths that I saw, I could live with that. Let me make it clear - I am not advocating such a law at all. All I am asking is why one would want to mix it with the lorries, cars and buses if the cycling infrastructure was on a par with what the Dutch routinely enjoy?

The Dutch are a clever lot. In fact, we have been learning from the Dutch ever since we sent for their engineers to sort out our drainage problems in Norfolk and the Fens hundreds of years ago. When it comes to junctions, they really have it licked. Where a junction is controlled by lights, there is a push button control for the cyclists. How neat is that?

I hate British roundabouts. Turning left, (which ought to be a simple matter) you have to follow the principles of “Effective Cycling” putting yourself in primary position to make sure you don’t get left hooked on the approach to the junction, or even worse, crushed by a lorry that comes up from behind and doesn't see you. Avoid being crushed by a lorry by putting yourself in front of it... I understand why that’s the way you have to do it in the UK, but I ask myself why it should be that way.
It may be fine for those already cycling, but it seems counter intuitive for those we want to persuade to get on their bikes. It’s not a persuasive argument to those families you see driving along with bikes loaded on a carrier on the back of their people carriers. These are people who cycle, but just try suggesting that their kids could cycle to school and see what reaction you get. Don't even get me started on what’s involved when turning right at a roundabout in the UK...

You can forget all that in the Netherlands. Roundabouts are a breeze because of the little kerbs on each shoulder of the island protecting the cyclist from this conflict. It’s not a bit of paint on the road that is all important, but the protected approaches on each corner.
Dutch style junctions are all over the news at the moment and You Tube is full of illustrations of how they could work with minimal adjustments to our existing roundabouts, this is the best example I found.

I urge the doubters to watch it, read Mark Wagenbuur's excellent Bicycle Dutch blog for more examples of Dutch cycling, or better still, go to the Netherlands and find out.

written by Levenes Cycling Solicitor, Tim Beasley

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