Debate about cycling and its impact on public spaces and high streets has been raging in Enfield since the council landed £30m to implement a ‘mini-holland‘ highway scheme a couple of years ago. Whilst the arguments started as level headed and informative, not least because of the Council’s inclusive approach to engagement, it soon became polarised between a small group of vocal, but stubborn, local businesses and petrol heads who seem to think that the only way to access a shop is by parking right outside it and driving your purchases home and a cycle lobby who, whilst at least based in reality, was often an impenetrable mass of statistics and percentages. OK, perhaps I exaggerate for comic effect, but the caricatures are familiar. I had become disenchanted and divorced from the debate, despite the hearty efforts of some good friends who have absolutely embraced a life based on self propelled transport without cause to wearing tight fitting shorts and wrap around shades (I salute you guys…you know who you are). I can only feel for those agnostics who wanted to know more but were bombarded by shouty extremists with immovable opinions.
My summer holiday in Holland was chosen not because a desire to see the mother of cycling societies at close quarters but because their CentreParcs was cheaper than our CentreParcs and the trip across the Channel offered the potential to see friends and former colleagues in Amsterdam. I did not expect my head to be turned by the majesty of their societal organisation and the central and essential place that cycling plays in that, but the spectacular success of it meant that my head inevitably was.
Before I endeavour to describe this, let me make one thing clear. Central Amsterdam – those tourist bits you might have seen – is not the best example of cycling and cycling infrastructure and its positive impact on society. Amsterdam is certainly dominated by bikes – the many enormous and bewilderingly crammed multi-storey parking areas outside central station will tell you that. But the centre is a muddled mass of trams, buses, backpackers, tourists, sightseers, residents, employees, smells, sights. The cycling infrastructure is muddled and seemingly incomprehensible. The real magic happens in the small cities and the suburbs – Leiden, Aalkmaar, Haarlem, Schiedam, Zaanstad. Places akin to suburban London; places akin, my friends, to Enfield.
Our first experiences were in Schiedam, a small city on the western side of Rotterdam, famous for having the world’s tallest traditional windmills, six beauties hugging the canal around the northern edge of the centre. Our hotel was in Nieuw Schiedam away from the historic core. Late arriving at our hotel, we drove the couple of miles to the centre. The trip was eventful.
The roads were clear and well signed. Every road into the centre was lined with a segregated cycle lane, which were often busier than the roads. We had to negotiate a left turn off the main road, and were immediately struck by the road markings, which gave cyclists priority at the roundabout. As a driver, I became much more cautious. The road after the roundabout – still a key road around the city centre – was a narrow sinuous carriageway for the car, almost residential in nature – bounded by wide green segregated cycle lanes and footpaths. Again cyclists had priority across the road, something I would never forget after almost coming to blows with a cyclist crossing in front of me who made no effort to slow down. It was immediately obvious that all across The Netherlands, cycles are king and the people are his loyal servants.
British people think nothing of going to CentreParcs and willingly giving up their cars, thriving on the excitement of getting between places without risks from other traffic, enjoying dedicated and attractive cycle routes and reaping the physical and spiritual health benefits of powering oneself around. It becomes obvious, second nature. We were no different at our resort in Zandvoort on the west coast, though Dutch parks are smaller, and you’re not so much cycling round the park as cycling round the area, which is easy because most of Holland is not unlike an enormous CentreParcs, in as much as cycling is obvious and becomes second nature.
My wife, our 7 year old daughter, 4 year old son and I took two cycle jaunts, one 4km north towards Overveen and one 9km east to Haarlem. The first was exclusively along dedicated cycle paths alongside each side of the road, at times also alongside segregated bus lanes. The condition of the paths is excellent, they have dedicated sign posts and of course they are busier than the road.
The trip to Haarlem took in dedicated cycle lanes alongside the roads through coastal Zandvoort, a section of cycle lane through the national park which brought us out on more dedicated cycle paths alongside the roads from the edge of Haarlem to the city’s glorious centre. Here we experienced our first roundabout as cyclists with absolute priority over any other form of transport, and the Dutch propensity to narrow the carriageway for cars down to a single width rather than compromise the width of the cycle space on both sides of the road where the urban form is restricted. Cars just have to sit and wait, such is the Dutch way.
…to be continued