Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Why we're not ready to go Dutch

Like many others with an interest in cycling, I've been to see life on two wheels in Amsterdam. I wasn't there in any official capacity of course. Unlike those who journey there to stroke their chins and muse how such a cycling culture could be exported to Blighty, my role was to admire and envy.

There is much to admire in the life of the Dutch cyclist, not only in Amsterdam but right across Holland. For a start, it's flat - blissfully, endlessly, pancake flat. Then, cyclists are king. Trains include plenty of provision for bikes. Should you prefer to leave your bike at the station you will find a multi-storey parking space not for cars but for the thousands of bicycles left by commuters.
Bicycles await their owners outside a Dutch train station


Cycle racks exist outside shops, restaurants and pubs. Many areas of busy town centres are accessible only to bicycles and pedestrians. You can even ride serenely straight through the middle of the Rijksmuseum. Imagine doing that in the National Portrait Gallery.

The bicycle is as much an emblem of Holland as windmills, canals and raucous English stag parties. Unfortunately, its cycling culture is about as likely to make a successful translation to English roads as its coffee shops are to a Sussex seaside town. As George V put it, that really would bugger Bognor.

Why? Because the differences run so much deeper than improved cycling lanes.

Let's look first at the Dutch cyclist and their bike. With few exceptions you won't see helmets, Lycra and high-viz on the streets of Hoevelaken. Cyclists have an entirely pragmatic approach to bicycles not as a way to exercise but as a means of getting from A to B or in this case, Amersfoort to Bloemendaal.

Cyclists are wearing everyday clothes and in so doing, sending a clear message that riding is an everyday activity and not a risky business. Those lovely flat roads mean they don't have to choose lightweight racing machines over which to crouch. They choose instead lofty, sturdy bicycles whose high, backward-sweeping handlebars put the rider in an upright position. Perched tall, well above eye level for other motorists they can see and be seen. It's a confident, assertive position from which to take the lane.

From their high, elegant vantage point cyclists move slowly, purposefully and smoothly, seemingly without effort. The elderly and the juvenile ride at a shared, leisurely pace giving all but the occasional unwary pedestrian ample time to react.

If cyclists are more laid back then so, certainly, are other road users. I took a ride in a taxi. Waiting at a red light dozens of cyclists streamed in front to halt ahead of the car. And the driver? His chatter didn't miss a beat. Contrast that with my last cab ride in London when I innocently enquired whether a taxi might be able to collect me and my bike when I return to the city for the Ride London 100. This was the response I received:

"I hate cyclists. You won't find a cab driver in London with a good word to say for cyclists. I wouldn't have a bike in my vehicle."

Nice.

In England, our roads are a battleground. The term road rage certainly didn't originate in Holland. We come to blows over supermarket parking spaces. We hog, hoot, curse and chase. It's not just cyclists who get in the way. Other motorists are too slow, too fast, inconsiderate or "Blind as a bloody bat!"

Are there too many of us, squeezed into bottleneck spaces? Are we just less able to share?

Turn to any report about cycling in local or national media. Scroll down to read the comments. Two tribes, gone to war. A point is all that you can score. Cyclists aren't people on bikes we are 'bikes' accused of riding red lights, racing on pavements, wishing our own deaths. Motorists aren't people in cars we're 'cars', guzzling gas, destroying the planet, out to murder. We've dehumanised our enemy, the first step in any battle.

Mention 'road tax'. Light the touch paper and retire.

When did we get so angry?

Our landscape is different. Our roads and road users are different and despite the advances of recent years, cyclists remain a minority on English roads. Until more people ride, our highways won't be safe for cycling. And more people won't cycle because of fear - real or imagined - that our roads aren't safe for cycling.

We won't go Dutch merely through the introduction of better cycle lanes, though that would be nice. We won't go Dutch until we become a little nicer to each other and a lot more tolerant. Maybe those coffee shops hold the key to safer cycling?
The sign of things to come?