Comparing cycling in the Netherlands to Scotland

The following thoughts on comparing cycling between Scotland and the Netherlands are intended to be anecdotal, from my impressions of having been a cyclist in the Netherlands as a child and adult visitor; and as a commuter & recreational cyclist in Glasgow, Scotland for a year & ½. For more evidence based perspectives, please see blogs such as “A view from the cycle path” and “At War With The Motorist“. 

The cyclist

In Scotland the cyclist will often look as if they are about to take part in a very dangerous sport. Many cyclists wear helmets, and often hi-visibility clothing. It’s largely culturally accepted that cycling is an activity that requires special cyclist safety equipment, and state cycling information reinforces this. Clothing worn is often cycle-specific,  and tailored for energetic, sporty cycling. Cyclists often are male, and in their 20s to 40s.

Meanwhile, in the Netherlands, cyclists typically dress no differently from anyone else. They will be quite representative of the population as a whole in terms of age, from the young through to the old – dutch children cycle independently to school from age 8 or 9 or so (though, worryingly, this has increased from when I was young, when age 6 or 7 was common).  It’s not unusual to see parents carrying children, e.g. with seats on the rear rack, on the bar, and/or attached to the handlebar (for very young & light children), and sometimes all 3 at the same time. The “bakfiets” (barrow-bicycle) has also become popular as a flexible utility bicycle for young families.

Perhaps this is due to cycling in Scotland being undertaken often as a fitness activity, and not just as a way to get around. Perhaps the fact that Scottish cyclists tend to have to regularly practice “vehicular cycling“, and having to cycle faster to safely mix with nominally 48.3km/h (30mph) motor traffic, means they need sportier clothing. While in the Netherlands, cycling is something you do to get around – to get to school, to work, to do “boodschappen” (shopping), or nearby friends.

The sports/fitness cyclist of course also exists in the Netherlands. They are a tiny minority of the population in the Netherlands, just as in Scotland, though perhaps a little less so. However, unlike in Scotland, they are also a tiny minority of cyclists. Cycling is simply a normal part of life for most people in the Netherlands.

The bicycle

Bicycles in Scotland tend to be sports-bike derived. They’ll either be road-sports or mountain bikes, or hybrid of these mildly adapted for about-town. They’re nearly always equipped with derailleur gears, which are quite fragile and need constant maintenance. Derailleur gears means chain-guards are impractical, so oily chains are always exposed. Lights are bolt-on after-thoughts, usually battery-driven. Many bikes do not have full mud-guards, e.g. because they are sports-road bikes that have no fittings for them, or because they are mountain bikes on which they are not fashionable. Some mountain bikes may have seatpost mounted half-guards. Many bikes do not have luggage racks, but where they do, it’s usually made from a thin-gauge aluminium which can not carry more than 25kg or so. Brakes are often rim-caliper brakes – which require regular adjusting. Mountain bikes often have suspension, for downhill cycling over rough terrain, which saps pedalling energy.

Bicycles in the Netherlands are usually hub-geared, often 3-speed. This means no derailleurs, which means its more robust and needs much less maintenance, and also that the chain or belt can be fully enclosed. Brakes tend to be low-maintenance drum brakes (the rear often actuated by pedalling backwards). Lights are often dynamo-driven, and even integrated into the bike on some modern designs. Low-drag hub dynamos are common these days, supplanting the rim-driven bottle dynamos still common on older bikes. Rear racks tend to be far more sturdy, as it is common in the Netherlands to use them to give a friend a lift – particularly among teenagers & young adults. For an idea, have a look at the Batavus 2012 city bike line-up (UK site, but the models & specs differ a little, to cater for UK preferences).

The environment

The road environment in the Netherlands is nearly always built to cater as much for the safety and convenience of pedestrians and cyclists, as it is for motorists. Cycling infrastructure is integrated with road design, and has been evolved and improved over decades, with safety for all users engineered in.

Older dutch road & path design

In dense urban areas, speed limits are 30km/h (18.6mph), sometimes even less.  Where ever possible, road users are separated and each given their own, clearly delineated space. So pedestrians will have their foot-path, cyclists their cycle-path, and motorists their road. Where space is constrained, cyclists may have to use the road – in which case the speed limit will practically always be reduced to 30km/h or less. Care is taken to reduce, if not avoid, the impact of conflicts between different road users at junctions and pinch points. On streets where motor traffic may encounter cycle traffic, the junction with side streets may be given raised kerbs, with tight angles, to slow down cars coming in or out of those side-streets. Cycle paths are generally very smooth, clean and well-mantained. You can cycle on them with normal bikes, with no problem.

The Scottish sports cyclist might, however, not be entirely happy with the dutch cycling environment, as cycle-paths often are mandatory. Dutch sports road cyclists often complain about being restricted to narrower cycle-paths in places, while ordinary dutch complain about having pelotons of fast roadies flying past at speeds similar to mopeds – which were banned from many cycle-paths in the 90s for the same reason. Various groups, representing both ordinary and sports cyclists, have been campaigning to allow/force such pelotons to use the road instead.

Brand “new” segregated path in Glasgow

In Scotland, cycling infrastructure is more rare. Cycling infrastructure often seems to be designed & built separately from the general road, and does not get a lot of funding. Infrastructure is usually done extremely cheaply, e.g. by designating existing footpaths as “shared use” and putting up a few signs, or by painting an advisory lane on the road. The shared-use paths sometimes have rough surfaces, such as gravel on tow-paths or even very rough cobbles (the Clyde-side section of NCN75 in Glasgow, from Broomielaw to the SECC), making them unpleasant or even completely unsuited for use by normal town bicycles. Which may explain the popularity of very heavy, suspension mountain bikes here in Scotland. On-road cycle lanes often are very narrow and go through the highly dangerous “door zone”, where cyclists can be knocked off their bike into the path of the 48km/h (30mph) traffic.

Even when segregated paths are built, because there is so little investment, very little of it can be built, or , as in the case in the photo here, it’s simply sectioned off from an old & broken road without being properly resurfaced first. Where paths cross side-roads, or where the segregated paths run out (which is often, as so little of it can be built), very little thought is given to reducing the impact of conflicts between cyclists and motor traffic. If thought is given, it will be the cyclist who is required to give way with a “Cyclists Dismount” sign, not the other way around. The local authority may even deliberately require the cyclist to negotiate kerbs, again making life hard for anyone on a normal bicycle.

The lack of separate infrastructure means Scottish cyclists have to choose between cycling on road, amongst fast motor traffic, or often inconvenient shared-use paths where these exist and perhaps illegally cycling on pedestrian footpaths where they do not. Roads in urban areas are often designed to maximise traffic flow. Single lane streets with parking widen out to 2-lanes at junctions. Railings often are installed to segregate the fast, 48km/h traffic from pedestrians – potentially leaving on-road cyclists nowhere to go in any incident with a motor vehicle.

As cyclists are so few, and because they tend to dress distinctly, there seems to be tribalisation between motorists and cyclists. Some motorists view cyclists as obstructive “lycra louts”, getting in their way and slowing them down, even though in urban areas in Glasgow, average journey speeds are often limited to 20 to 30km/h by traffic lights – which is potentially slower than the cyclist. Congestion, caused by cars, not bicycles, can make journey average speeds much slower again. Despite, or perhaps because of, waits at traffic lights equalising average speeds for motorists and cyclists, motorists still will rush impatiently at, and not infrequently above, the 48km/h (30mph) speed limit. Some motorists can be ignorant, a rare few even aggressive. The cyclists in turn feel embattled, and often subjectively quite unsafe, due to this fast and sometimes close passing motor traffic – motor traffic they will often catch anyway at the next lights.

Weather

While the Netherlands might not get quite as much rain as Scotland, it still gets plenty of it outside the summer. That said, it doesn’t rain as often people think, and most cycle journeys in either country will be rain free. Also, the winters can be much much colder in the Netherlands. The dutch simply wear a rain jacket, carry an umbrella and put on more clothes.

Flat land

Much of the Netherlands is quite flat, Holland especially so. However, the south of the Netherlands, near the border with Belgium, can be more hilly and cycling is just as normal there, as anywhere else. The flatter parts can allow strong, continuous winds to blow across, which can be as much of a drag on cycling as any hill!

Overall

Despite the less appealing environment in Scotland, compared to what the Netherlands shows is possible at least, you can still enjoy some dutch style cycling, at least within Glasgow city. So many of the roads are wide and 2-lane, that with a little confidence to take your lane, by moving out away from the gutter and more towards the middle of it, or by riding 2-abreast if with company, you can get the motorist to, perhaps grudgingly, give you the space needed to enjoy nice, relaxed cycling in whatever clothes you’d normally walk out of the door with. Unfortunately though, I suspect many people in Scotland are put off cycling by idea they’d need to develop that kind of confidence.

Mass cycling in Scotland may first require that the roads see more equal investment for cycling. This in turn may require some leadership, and/or a significant change in economic pressures (e.g. fuel costs; public health costs of sedentary lives).

1 Comment »

  1. gregory said

    Hi Paul!
    A really good article here!
    Well done! We would really like to see you involve with developing cycling in Scotland!
    Thanks

    Gregory ,
    General Manager
    Glasgow Bike Station [Charity SC0427071]
    197 London Road, Barras Market,
    Glasgow, G40 1PB
    0141 552 2606

RSS feed for comments on this post · TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: