A cycling conference staged by the Dutch Embassy hears from traffic safety experts from the Netherlands.

British traffic engineers learn how to Go Dutch

Last year the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands ran four ‘Go Dutch’ conferences in selected UK cities. This year there has been a conference in Birmingham and today was Newcastle’s turn. (Newcastle is twin city of Groningen, one of the most cycle-friendly towns in the Netherlands). 100+ delegates in Newcastle’s Civic Centre heard from expert speakers from the Netherlands, from France and from the UK, including from the Department of Transport. The conference – chaired by Christian Wolmar, ex of Cycling England – was paid for by Newcastle City Council, with organisational input from Cyclenation and the Newcastle Cycling Campaign as well as Newcastle City Council’s cycling officer.

Wolmar introduced the VIP speaker at the conference by reminding delegates that Cycling England – before it was binned by the Coalition Government in the ‘bonfire of the quangos’ – had been working on getting more people cycling, more often. “Exactly the sort of thing we are going to be talking about today,” he said, somewhat glumly.

Fred Olthof, head of economic development at the Dutch Embassy in the UK, opened the conference by stressing that “biking is in the genes of the Dutch” but he added that political decisions to make transport safe were available to any nation.

Responding to Olthof, Councillor Nick Forbes, the leader of Newcastle City Council, gave an inspirational speech outlining how Newcastle would transform conditions for cyclists in the city, and the region as a whole.

Forbes said cycling had grown by 30 percent in Newcastle in the preceding three years. He called it a “quiet revolution” and that with the recent award of £11m from the Cycling City Ambition grant from the Department for Transport, Newcastle could build on this grass-roots start. 

“Many areas of Newcastle were built around the time of the Industrial Revolution,” said Forbes. “There was a massive expansion in the Victorian era, a time when where you worked was at the end of the street. But in the post war period much of our infrastructure was re-designed around use of cars. Let’s not forget that, in the 1950s and 1960s, the car was seen as the future. It has to be admitted that much of our physical infrastructure is based on an old fashioned model, on how our economy used to work.”

“Cycling,” said Newcastle’s council leader, “challenges that orthodoxy. Now is absolutely the right time to be radical. The challenge is how to reshape Newcastle’s economy so it’s a more sustainable and fair economy; an economy which respects people and the environment. Cycling is integral to how we want to transform this city.

“We want to provide strategic cycling routes, and more cycle parking. Every new development we consider as a council will consider infrastructure for cycling.”

Forbes said Newcastle – a city which experiences high usage of public transport, and with 41 percent of households which don’t own cars – could become a healthier, more liveable city if it invested more in the “social realm”, including increasing its promotion and support for active travel modes.

“[Thanks to Public Health England] we have direct responsibility for public health in the city,” said the council leader. “The social prize is better health but also greater connectivity.”

He took a potshot at motorists: “Car drivers are insulated from the world around them. Car drivers are less likely to recognise the common humanity of those outside cars. We have to reconnect those people to the environment.”

Forbes said cycling had a key role to play in Newcastle: “When I was at school every kid knew how to mend a puncture. We’ve lost those skills. If we’re to build a new cycling culture it’s not just about installing infrastructure in the right place, or making cycling affordable for more people, we have to rebuild the culture, show people how to maintain their bikes and not just leave them in the shed, rusting away.”

Finishing off, he said: “We have the desire and commitment, and the resources, to change cycling in Newcastle for generations to come.”

Changing cities has been the life work of Lynn Sloman, author of ‘Car sick’, and another former member of the board of Cycling England. She gave the conference keynote. 

She welcomed Forbes’ speech: “Exactly where we need to be at,” she said. “How brilliant.”

She called Newcastle’s City Ambition bid “terrific”.

“I’ve read lots of the bids,” Sloman told conference delegates. “This one is really exciting.”

But is it really possible to create a culture of cycling in a city that doesn’t already have it, she asked? The answer wasn’t from the Netherlands, she argued, but from Spain. Seville ‘went Dutch’, she said.

“Seville has a population of 700,000 and has many big roads, but it also suffered from awful traffic congestion. And with siesta time, there were four rush hours per day. The city was grinding to a halt. In 2005 the city administration made the bold decision to go for it on cycling. Led by urban consultant, and former biologist, Manuel Calvo, 78 km of cycle routes were planned to be built in two stages over over four years.

“The city administration came back and said that was not ambitious enough. 80kms had to be built in two years, to fit in with the electoral term. It’s important for politicians to get quick results. Seville went from 0.2 percent of all journeys done by bicycle to to 6.6 percent of all journeys. There was a city bike rental scheme, a free folding bike scheme for students and uni staff, and the city took away space from cars and replaced it with 2.5 metre cycle tracks, separated from motor traffic. Women now make up 50 percent of cyclists in Seville, up from 20 percent.”

How much did this cost, asked Sloman? Not that much, really, she said.

“It cost 30 million Euros, or about 11 Euros per citizen per year. As we found with Cycling England, any town can increase modal share for cycling, and it gets easier and easier as more cyclists are added. There’s no single secret ingredient. All the change factors have to work together. To turn a car driver into a potential cyclist there are several barriers to overcome.”

These include: "habit (“I always drive, and park in usual place”); social norms (“all my friends drive”); knowledge gap (“no mental map of pleasant cycle routes”); and, finally, there’s objective reality: poor quality cycle routes, busy roads, and dispersed development are huge barriers. You can’t expect a transformation to cycling when only one or two of those things change. All of the factors have to change; they’re inter-related.”

Sloman said high-quality continuious ‘signature’ cycle routes for all main radial corridors in any given town or city were also important and that infrastructure has to be part of a whole: “Too often, cycle routes dump you back on the carriageway at the worst point.”

She added that maps and on-the-the-ground signage were important, as was cycle training and cycle promotion festivals and rides.

“I call this the millstones and lifebelts strategy. Fail to tackle one of the barriers and that’s a millstone that can bring down the rest of the programme. Increasing cycling is about a mix of solutions, the lifebelts, it’s not just about engineering!”

Next up was Jan Ploeger, a long-term cycle campaigner and now mobility manager for the province of South Holland.

“I am fully aware of the differences between the Netherlands and the UK and how people look at bicycles," he said. Ploeger was chair of the editorial staff of the CROW Design Manual for a bicycle-friendly infrastructure, first published in 1993, revised in 2006, and considered to be the ‘bible’ of Dutch cycle infrastructure.

“The spatial planning is very different in the Netherlands. We’ve had a long history of a continuity of planning. And cycling has been important in the Netherlands for more than a century. Yet, sometimes, in the Netherlands we don’t like cyclists.” 

He showed a picture of a Dutch cyclist with a road sign saying ‘Cyclists: get off.’ But, on the whole, the Netherlands was a bicycle nation, he said. Cities such as Delft made political decisions to push “cars out of street after street,” said Ploeger.

“Those streets that got rid of cars first are now the best shopping streets in Delft.”

He said the Netherlands benefits from having compact cities and towns: “There’s mixed city planning. There are not many large shopping malls outside cities, and schools are situated near to homes. Everything is close in the Netherlands.”

Ploeger stressed that cycling was a social norm in the Netherlands and had been for a very long time.

“Cycling is fully accepted in all ranks of society,” he said. “There’s a positive attitude to cycling and to cyclists. Everybody is a cyclist.”

He showed a slide of workplace density in London and in the Netherlands. “Distances are kept short,” said Ploeger. “Workplaces are evenly spaced, there’s less no central density of working places like that in London.”

He added that he had been to Stevenage, which installed Dutch-style cycle infrastructure in the the 1960s and 1970s, but where driving remained king.

“Stevenage had the characteristics of Houten,” he said. But people drove and not cycled.

Paris-based Phillipe Crist, an economist at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, said the UK could learn much from the Netherlands but must also look to the Danish model, especially what has been done for cycling in Copenhagen.

Cycling is 56 percent faster in Copenhagen than driving, he said.

“Cycling is for people who want to go fast over short distances. In the UK, 67 percent of all journeys are less than 5 miles in length yet 37 percent are done by car, and currently just 2 percent by bike. There’s a huge potential for cycling trips in the UK.”

And more cycling is better for the local economy, said the OECD economist.

“Customers who arrive by bicycle make more trips and spend more overall than customers who arrive by car. Retailers should want more cyclists. Slow down customers, encourage them to stay, encourage them to return.”

He added: “Cars don’t buy things, people do.”

On cycle safety he said “The relative crash risk is low but people focus on this.” He said this over a slide saying:

“On balance, the monetised benefits from improved health are up to 20x greater than the combined health impacts of crashes and exposures to pollution.”

Shane Snow, cycling strategy facilitator at the Department for Transport, had the difficult task of convincing the audience the Coalition Government was truly committed to ‘Get Britain Cycling.’

He said it was up to towns and cities to take the lead and that those which won their Cycle City Ambition bids ‘got this’.

He showed a photo of a chic elderly lady cycling in a northern Italian city.

“That’s what ministers want to see in English cities,” he claimed.

He said one thing that could hamper people getting back into cycling is the drip-drip headlines about how dangerous cycling was.

“If this messaging goes on that perpetuates the theme that roads aren’t safe for cycling we won’t get any behaviour change. We have to get people feeling confidant.”

He said the recent announcements on cycling from prime minister David Cameron were “a big deal.” The PM’s personal involvement meant cycling was no longer “buried in transport.”

He also praised the work of the London Cycling Campaign.

“The debate on whether there should be separation or not separation has moved on. We have to create much better infrastructure. This position has changed over the past year, with the help of organisations such as LCC.”

Snow said the Department for Transport’s role is to “start to facilitate the development of networks.”

He added: “In the future, at new developments, the DfT will improve junctions over time, or at least won’t make conditions worse for cyclists.”

He said traffic engineers should engage with “not the Lycra-clad cyclist but the average cyclist.”

Traffic engineers must get out of cars, if they’re to improve road conditions for cyclists, he said. “Professionals need to be up to the job, they need to cycle.”

In a break-out session, Divera Twisk, coordinator of cycle safety research at the SWOV Institute of road safety research in the Netherlands, led a session on Dutch cycling infrastructure. She said cyclists died in the Netherlands, too. She showed a slide of a police investigation following a road incident involving Dutch cyclists and a motor vehicle. She also showed a slide of a child cyclist waiting at a traffic lights on a road, towered over by an HGV.

“We still have too many injuries and deaths,” she said.

“Since 2004, car occupants have been getting safer than cyclists. They have many safety devices. Serious injuries for cyclists are on the increase in the Netherlands. Most fatalities occur when cyclists are hit by cars, especially at junctions.”

She said provision of transport infrastructure in the Netherlands was always in a state of flux, always being improved, with safety in mind.

“Our cycle lanes can get too busy, leading to collisions. It’s getting so busy even our so-called safe cycle tracks are not so safe any more.

“Sometimes there’s also poor maintainance of the lanes. And there are not just problems from motorised traffic, speed differentials between cyclists are now very large also.”

She added: “It’s important to design a system that takes into account the limitations of people.”

“Education is first. Then infrastructure. Then vehicle design and [traffic law] enforcement.”

Segregation and low car speeds were both important, she said.

“Why do we allow a situation where lorries, cyclists and pedestrians share the same space? Bend the tool, not the person. It’s easier to design a safe lorry than create a safe lorry driver.”

Ton Hummel, a Dutchman working for Skanska in Bristol as a safety engineer, was in the same breakout session as Twisk.

He said there were “differences between different cyclists. Fast cyclists want to go faster.”

He stressed that such cyclists valued speed, and didn’t like interruptions to their journey. Such cyclist don’t like sharing space with pedestrians.

“For every pedestrian they encounter the cyclist has to brake then speed up again. It’s very inconvenient.”

He showed slides of typical UK ‘crap cycle lanes’. “Do the engineers really expect cyclists to ride on these routes?” he asked.

“Cycle routes must be safe, short, direct, continuous and comfortable. If they don’t meet all of those criteria, it’s not a good route. Cyclists won’t use substandard routes.”

He said that “physical segregation is definitely the safest solution,” adding “if a segregated route is safe, short and good there’s no reason not to use it. Even those against segregation would use it.”

In a warning, he added:

“If cycle lanes are not made good enough, there’s no point doing it.”

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