What an incredible week I have just had in the Netherlands! Barely a moment to stop for a herring, and I wouldn’t have either, were it not for the persuasions of Meredith from Amsterdam Cycle Chic. She told me herring is chic. But as soon as I had munched down that little cat fir ball, it was back to work giving interviews. If you collect stories about me, the way I always have, and you live in the Netherlands, you would be rather heavily loaded in newspapers now, as is my luggage.
Amidst all the cool stuff, from meeting Gerhard at Sunrider, to some serious meetings, the memory I’m itching to share, is of sitting with a Canadian and an Englishman, listening to an American, Henry Cutler from workcycles, telling us about first moving to Groningen and feeling as though he’d found some kind of Galápagos Island of cyclists.
It was an odd assortment of nationalities, either a gathering representing the 4 corners of the Anglo-sphere, or 3 loyal subjects of the queen’s commonwealth not mentioning America’s defection out of politeness to Henry, because he likes bikes. Wars aside, all 4 of us are from the same roots, bicycle racing, and are all enthusiasts for safe cycling conditions for our kids to enjoy.
Okay, so the odd one out is myself, for being the only one of the group now heading home to a very dangerous cycling country, while the other three are tucking their children into beds there in Amsterdam. You know, I have good cause to hate all Australians, for taking a beautiful country and giving it over entirely to cars. But then I guess I could say the same to most populations on Earth. Except, of course, for the cognisant Dutch.
Is there anything at all then, that I can say to the world’s leading bicycle nation? Well, the Dutch press value my views, and sent all their most charming journalists to extract them all raw. So here is an amalgam of the things that I told them.
I meet two types of cyclists in the Netherlands. There are those who are proud of how bikes under bums in their country are no more remarkable than the shoes on their feet, and who rightly think the world could learn a lesson from this perfunctory cycling they do with such grace. But I also meet many Dutch cycling enthusiasts who are frustrated that more is not done to encourage longer range bike trips on faster and better equipment. Now sure, I adore the sight of a black beater-bike as much as any connoisseur of old wisdoms, but I do wish everyone in the Netherlands who commutes by rail for distances of between 5 and 15km, would consider adding a faster bike to their quiver for trips such as these. I say that as a typical endorphins addict, but one who has thought about the benefits of endorphin-fueled bicycle transport to modern life.
We evolved to be physically active, to hunt and gather our food. Now a workday can be completed in bed. At least we can say most of us still have one thing that’s physical remaining to do, since most of us still need to physically move between home, work, school and the shops. So, in the interests of longer and healthier lives, would it not be prudent to design our cities in such a way as to harness the opportunity this movement provides, for daily exercise?
You know, walking only raises MET rates by 2 to 6 times those when we are resting. But cycling, you see, raises our metabolisms by 4 to 16 times! Using a new generation of quality fast tires and efficient hub gears, and riding on routes that prioritise bicycle traffic, anyone with the fitness of a daily bike user can tackle a 10km door-to-door trip in 30 minutes or less, while for the racing bike or velomobile rider, each-way commutes of as much as 30km are not beyond comprehension. The problem is that only endorphins addicts like me would see the appeal. If only we could find some way to make longer journeys appealing to non-hero-type cyclists on that flat featureless landscape of dykes and canals, we could lessen Dutch peoples’ reliance on modes with no fitness benefit, such as driving, rail travel, walking, and slow cycling on the congested cycle-tracks that lead toward stations.
The standard benefits of cycling couldn’t be harmed by our broadening of the mode’s scope. Any measure to raise the mode share from its static position around 26% nationally in the Netherlands, would help lower that country’s greenhouse emissions, activate even more of its public space making it more inviting and safe, and increase chance interaction and discretionary trips, two benefits of bike culture to the knowledge economy.
But there would be some unique side effects too. If the rail trails and waterfronts that bicycle highways are likely to follow had greater volumes of bicycle traffic, some of the derelict industrial sites that these kinds of routes used to service would be more attractive as redevelopment sites. Any buildings there would have lower carbon footprints than if they relied on roads for their access.
So how do we encourage longer distance bicycle commuting in the Netherlands?
We need an approach to the design of cycling facilities that mirrors our approach to facilities used for ablutions. We know hand washing after going to the toilet has positive public health benefits, so we impose building regulations that not only make it possible to wash ones hands when leaving the toilet, but make handwashing hard to avoid. What does that mean for the way we design cycling facilities?
Out on the bike path it means rooves to protect cyclists from rain. Nearly all Dutch cyclists will tolerate a short ride in the rain to the station, but fewer will embark on a longer trip in the rain. You may own the best waterproof jacket, but still your trousers, hair, and footwear will get soaked through without even more overclothes, that still are imperfect. But why are we even speaking as though cycling must slap us in the face with the elements? Convertible cars are outdoorsy, but we don’t expect their drivers to put on gore-tex jackets whenever it rains. We expect them to roll up the soft-top.
Next we will need for workplaces to have a range of secure bike parking options, ranging from a space beside office workers’ desks where their panniers become a part of their workstations, to secure bike parking adjoining showers, lockers, and laundry facilities. While we don’t want the sports cycling image to crowd out all others, we can hardly penalise those who ride farthest and hardest. They are the ones who will cost us the least with their health care and who will have an extended work life.
At home we want the process of coming or going by bike, even with the whole family, to be as convenient as coming or going by car if one lives in the burbs with one of those internal access indoor car spaces. We want primary entrances designed as bicycle entrances so that it seems unnatural to come on foot or by car.
At the shops we want to walk our box bikes or bikes with front baskets down aisles and use them like trolleys, and we want to ride around inside arcades as though they were narrow streets—ideas I’ve heard from Anne Lusk. We want lockers where we can deposit items we have purchased in one store while we go back to wander about in some other. We want to be able to queue and pay while wheeling our bikes and not feel as though we’re disturbing people without bikes. We want takeaway packages and cafeteria trays that attach to our handlebars. We want every nagging inconvenience that deters us from shopping with bikes to be turned on its head, even if that reduces the amenity of people who do not use active transport.
Those are things that can be done to encourage bike transport. Ideally they would be coupled with measures to steer cyclists away the trains, which can’t be too hard. For over four decades, Dutch planners have limited the speed and numbers of cars in the city, funnelling vehicular traffic instead toward highways and ring-roads. Similar strategies should be employed to divert some bicycle traffic from stations, toward bicycle highways. Bike paths needn’t be widened in the blocks nearest stations, but left congested. Just as parking in the town encourages vehicular congestion where people are trying to walk, adding bike parking at stations—automated retrieval systems, for instance—would only make stations more like black holes, in the sense that they would have an infinitely large mass of bikes approaching what seems like the infinitely small space of each train.
I could say more, but might save my words for my next book (assuming I write one). I’m leaving you with a picture of a Moutlon F-frame that saw hanging up in Henry’s shop.