We’d decided to visit Haarlem on our bikes because we’d visited a day or two earlier by train and been impressed by the historic market square and cathedral, the beautiful streets and canals, the busy bars and cafes – many facing the market square – and the prosperous looking shops, boutiques and market that filled every central traffic free street. The station, 500m or so north of the market square, spills out onto a pedestrianised square and tidy bus interchange, leading the eye to the main street to the centre. This street is a simple road of two car width, but half of that width is dedicated to bikes and the other half barely sees a vehicle. As well as the large areas of parked bikes all along this road and the bikes zipping up and down the road in and out of town, something else strikes the British senses about Haarlem; it is peaceful and the air is clean and fresh. There are no noxious fumes, there is no standing traffic and what one hears is the chatter of people.
I think the ease of movement and the quality of the environment created by limiting car use encourages the town centres to be successful. I don’t think that environmental quality is necessarily connected to architectural quality either. In picking up fresh veg and fruit for our self catering week in Zandvoort, we dropped into a neighbourhood centre in suburban Leiden which we knew hosted two supermarkets; Lidl and Holland’s own Alfred Heijn. The centre was an unspectacular 1970s precinct not unfamiliar to those brought up in post war suburban Britain in the 1960s and 70s – low rise, flat roofed shops facing an internal pedestrianised street. In Britain, it would have been a setting for post-apocalyptic zombie flick, a struggling and stale relic of world in which the out of town retail and leisure park now rules over the local precinct. But this is Holland, where people shop local, use local facilities, get there – on the whole – on their bikes and as a result have a buzzing local shopping centre fulfilling much of their daily need. Whilst it also had ample, clean, bright, accessible and free underground parking for cars, this was two thirds empty. There was no noticeable vacancy amongst the 30 or so shops and during my whole stay I don’t remember seeing a charity shop or a bookie.
These are not isolated incidents. Aalkmaar in northern Holland is one of the most beautiful, surprising and well preserved cities I’ve ever had the pleasure to visit, and the structural approach to movement and the organisation of traffic and urban form is the same, allowing the experience of the city to be maximised by not flooding it with traffic, fumes, noise and conflict between incompatible forms of transport. We stayed in Hoofddorp for four nights, a modern town just beyond Schipol airport and experienced the same.
Aalkmaar in northern Holland is one of the most beautiful, surprising and well preserved cities I’ve ever had the pleasure to visit
It helps that the Dutch are adaptable and practical people, unconcerned by demonstrating status through the size and horsepower of their metal box on wheels (4x4s are exceptionally rare on streets) or, indeed, their bikes. They seem to value community and local roots (one Dutch friend said that a car journey of 45 minutes is thought of as ‘a long way’). How people ever find their bikes is mind-boggling given their similarity – functional, black, often without front brakes and gears, all with a built in key locks on the back wheel. Bikes are also customised in many ways – panniers, crates and boxes are commonplace to carry goods, trailers and carriers are common for kids and two child seats on the front and back of a bike are also regularly seen. No-one is excluded from the cycling way of life and it is the preserve of the everyday person. We saw one bike with a wheelchair on the front and, of course, mobility scooter users benefit by having well maintained, segregated and direct routes that they can also use to get about, making society as a whole more equal and inclusive. No one needs brightly coloured Lycra and an unfaltering awareness of dangers on the road to feel utterly at home pedalling around Holland.
This apparent panacea isn’t without its issues; the main ones seem to be the unfamiliarity that visitors have with their road user hierarchy, particularly in the busier parts of busy cities and the danger posed by allowing motorised scooters to share bike lanes. But, on the whole, the Dutch system is certainly one to be admired and aspired to.
It has not been an overnight job; it’s been 40 or 50 years of societal and cultural change that started with a rise against the growth of car use and their role in deaths on streets. It’s where we are now. But it is now second nature to them, and their lifestyle seems to expect it to continue. Allowing bikes to dominate has not destroyed the vibrancy of their places – it has enhanced them massively, encouraging a better and cleaner environment, providing a crisp and attractive cityscape for business and entrepreneurs and developing a reputation for innovation that encourages people to want to live, work, visit and stay in Holland.
One final important point; whilst cycling is at the top of the transport food chain, transport routes largely co-exist. Bike routes are not poor cousins shifted onto back routes or separated networks. It’s easy to see how this would not work, because it undermines the importance of the mode and creates indirect and, if not properly signed, confusing and contrived routes. We tried extensive separated cycle networks in our post war new towns; go and visit Stevenage to see how that worked out and how our urban planning is in love with and encourages the car over all else – and be sickened at the missed opportunity.
So, tired of the stats, the percentages and the uninformed opinions, I’ve seen how cycling practically works in Holland’s major cities, it’s large towns and its suburbs and I’m totally convinced that we have it wrong here; utterly wrong. Mini-Holland is a huge step in the right direction. Enfield must hold its nerve and if we do the rewards for our towns in the next generation are enormous.