One of the classic comparisons between places with ‘bad’ and ‘good’ policy and attitude towards riding a bike is between the UK and the Netherlands.
Riding a bike in the UK while going about every-day tasks, despite bright spots in places such as Cambridge and London, is woefully misunderstood, underfunded, and in some quarters, arguably frowned upon as inconveniencing people travelling by car.
Rather than rehash the obvious benefits of cycling over personal motorised transport in towns and cities, I feel it a good idea to actually look at what infrastructure we could have in the UK to facilitate these benefits.
This is based upon my experience living and studying in Utrecht, the fourth largest city in the Netherlands, for a year a few years ago, and subsequent visits to the city.
Utrecht has a population of 330,000, set to expand within a few years to 370,000, larger than the 318,000 people who call the Reading and Wokingham urban area home.
From my perspective, it really is a case of ‘build it and they will come’. I was immediately struck on first arriving in Utrecht by how the infrastructure there and elsewhere facilitated riding a bike being part of everyday life (even for some-one like me born and bred in Cambridge).
Within a day of my first arrival, I had bought a bike and was soon happily cycling the 14km return trip daily between my accommodation in the Lombok area of the city, and the Uithof University campus on the other side of the city.
Grocery shopping and seeing friends both utilised my bike as transport. It needs to be remembered that the Netherlands has not always been a cycling country.
In the 1960s the country faced many of the same issues as the UK, with historic town and city districts bulldozed (or planned to be) to facilitate construction of large motorways and roads.
Towns and cities were choked with motor traffic, and it was partly the advent of the Kindermoord protests against deaths of children in accidents involving motor traffic in towns and cities that led municipalities and central government to think again about the future transport direction of the country.
Utrecht was and still is undergoing major changes as part of the CU2030 regeneration scheme. The Centraal Station is being completely rebuilt, as is the Hoog Catharijne shopping centre.
This was and continues to reshape cycling routes and facilities in and around the station in particular. The big additions have been the covered cycle parking facilities around the station: Jaarbeursplein and Te Knoop on the western side, and Stationsplein on the eastern side of the station. Collectively, these will provide c.22,000 bike parking spaces when fully completed.
I will let the pictures of these facilities speak for themselves.
Fig 1: Entrance to Stationsplein bike park. It does not look much from the outside, with construction still underway around, but it’s what’s inside that counts. The stairs and escalator give access to Utrecht Centraal train station, the principal rail hub of the Netherlands.
Fig 2: Once inside, wide paths allow people to cycle to and from the racks. The indicators (close-up below) show how many spaces there are on the upper and lower racks on each aisle.
Fig 3: Close-up of a capacity indicator for an aisle of racks (boven = above; onder = below).
Fig 4: Moving on to Jaarbeursplein, on the western side. The parking here is split over 3 levels, and is situated under a stepped/ seating area leading up to the western entrance of Utrecht Centraal station.
Fig 5: As well as the double deck racks ubiquitous in the Nether-lands, Jaarbeursplein is testing out some space-saving upright racks.
Fig 6: The blue and yellow bikes on the right of this image from Jaarbeursplein are OV Fiets, the nationwide bike share scheme operated by the national rail company, NS.
The scheme is a lot more wide ranging now than when I first encountered them in 2012, with more docking stations away from stations that allow people to collect or drop off a bike for the first or final mile/s of their journeys.
Fig 7: Te Knoop is the newest of the bike parking facilities around the station, opened in April 2018. Quite empty at the moment (it was a Sunday morning when I made my tour), however there is a lot of space.
It is not just bike parking where the UK is put to shame by the Netherlands: more impressive is the route network that criss-crosses the country, linking every village, town and city.
In rural or less built up areas, smooth red asphalted bike paths run completely segregated from motor traffic. In towns and cities, great efforts are made to segregate bike traffic from motor traffic.
Fig 8: Measures taken at a busy road junction at the western edge of the city, near the Amsterdam-Rhine Canal. The two-way bike path is fully segregated from motor traffic on the roads. Bikes have their own traffic lights, alongside a separate pedestrian crossing.
Fig 9: Principal bike route through Utrecht city centre, this part along Lange Jansstraat. There are paths on each side of the bus route for cyclists.
Fig 10: A little further east from Fig 9, the same route runs along Nachtegaalstraat. As can be seen, there is room for bikes to be ridden two abreast.
There is differentiation between surface finish showing which part is for bikes, and which for pedestrians. A few parking spaces are provided for cars; however these are interspaced with trees and bike parking.
Fig 11: Further east again, on Prins Hendriklaan, a woman cycles past the Rietveld Schröder House. This street is a shared space between motor traffic and bikes; however the red surface finish and the clear block paved division between the carriageways shows that bikes have priority here, with motor traffic permitted as guests.
However, in some places there is the paint & markings approach prevalent in the UK, in locations that could promote conflict between bike and motor traffic.
Fig 12: Here a segregated bike path merges with motor traffic, as the street space reduces to pass a bus stop. The standard red surfacing helps remind drivers who has priority; however there could be potential for conflict here.
Fig 13: The construction works around the central station have resulted in some less than ideal temporary measures for bike riders.
It is useful to remember that even the Dutch infrastructure design standards are not or cannot be followed in some places, and that these standards have adapted and changed over the years.
Also, from personal experience riding a bike in the Netherlands, motor traffic is generally a lot more tolerant of bike traffic than it is in the UK.
This a brief snapshot based on personal knowledge of one city in the Netherlands; however the approach to bike infrastructure is nationwide. It goes to show what some planning and foresight can achieve.