Perhaps I should start this post with a few admissions…Firstly, I’ve only got back on my bike fairly recently (after a couple of years of virtual non-cycling), so my views might be a little naïve/fervent; secondly, we’ve just returned from a wonderful few days in the Netherlands, where biking is a completely different experience; and, lastly, I ride simply for pleasure and convenience… I’m not a commuter or a long-distance biker!
As many of you will know, I’ve lived in Bristol for the past 11 years or so. It’s a lovely vibrant city and, as far as biking is concerned, it seems we’re very fortunate. In 2008, it was named as the country’s first “cycling city” and, a couple of years later, a study in Cycling Plus magazine named Bristol the most bike-friendly big city in the UK. It’s true that that there are an increasingly number of cyclists, bike shops and traffic-free routes but, as a recent convert to the benefits of cycling, I think there’s an awful long way still to go.
The car is definitely still king here. A good number of motorists still seem to regard bikers as the scum of the earth/third-class citizens (drivers of lorries, buses and white vans seem to come to the fore on this!). Pedestrians actually aren’t much better – all too frequently completely ignoring bike lane markings and then getting irate when cyclists try to weave their way between them.
It’s all SO different in the Netherlands.
Yes, I know it’s pretty flat, but there’s also a completely different mentality when it comes to cycling. The hierarchy of vehicles, pedestrians and bikers is COMPLETELY different. Even in cities (ok, so I can only speak from experience of Amsterdam and Utrecht!), it seems that cyclists have PRIORITY. There are well-designed, designated cycle-lanes everywhere. Pedestrians are, crucially, “aware” of cyclists and take due account when crossing bike-lanes and the like. Motorists are bottom in the pecking order and seem to take due account of this (in terms of speed, manners etc) whenever bikes and vehicles have to share routes. This may sound like wishful thinking on my part but, having seen it in action, I’ve been very impressed. Significantly, there are also LOTS of bike-parking areas (including a massive 3-storey bike-park in Amsterdam!) and the bike-lanes are CLEARLY marked – usually in a different colour/material to roads and pavements.
While we were in the Netherlands, we also stayed a few days in Houten (a commuter town some 9km south-east of Utrecht, with a population of just under 50,000). It has a large number of child-friendly bike paths and, critically, the road network is NOT designed for through traffic. People are encouraged to travel by bike and train… and they DO (and all ages too!).
Cycling has always been a popular form of transport in the Netherlands (most people have bikes - there are apparently more bikes than people!) but, actually, much of the infrastructure has been built since the 1970s… and has continued to be improved.
Investment has been crucial.
I would certainly accept that Bristol has a few issues when it comes to cycling. For example: a) it’s not exactly flat, b) the transport network has to contend with lots of river crossings and c) it’s probably the worst city in the UK when it comes to getting around by car. But, I would suggest that, with some bold thinking, the city could be transformed when it comes to transportation. Afterall: a) you could always fit a small motor to your bike (as many people in Holland do to offset strong winds – a little expensive, yes, but small change compared with car travel)(and/or get the Council to install a bike-lift for getting up Park Street?), b) they have just a few stretches of water and bridges in Amsterdam and seem to cope(!), c) by making the Bristol ring road WORK and reducing car use drastically within/across the city as far as possible - by making it far more inconvenient to use the car, and d) encouraging more people to use bikes by creating LOTS of “bikes+pedestrians only” streets (car use would be tolerated for access only… and car drivers would have to accept that they’re bottom of the pecking order - SO many potential bikers are put off by the fact that they know they’d have to contend with rude, impatient car/lorry/bus drivers on the same street/thoroughfare as them).
Yes, I know I’m probably being far too optimistic/unrealistic and I also appreciate that such changes won’t happen overnight.
It’s a new MINDSET that’s required.
Photo: this photograph was taken from our hotel window in Amsterdam – the busy street had two bike lanes (one in each direction!) plus pavements… and cars were tolerated for access only.
PS: Before you strike me down, I’d also be the first to admit that there are some pretty poor/intolerant cyclists too!