Notes from the Low Countries

Bicycle street Utrecht

“After having visited the Netherlands in the past, I was aware of their advanced cycling culture, but arriving on this study tour was a real eye opener.

Notes from Irish Delegation Dutch Cycling Study Tour 2015

by Phil Skelton.

Coming in to the Dutch cycling study tour, I really didn’t know what to expect. I come from a different cycling background to most of of the participants. I’m a leisure, sports and commuter cyclist who does around 12,000kms of bicycle riding each year, mostly leisure and sport

(Yes I wear Lycra. For those who don’t understand why, well, for longer distances it’s simply more comfortable and saves a fortune in Sudocrem!).

I arrived in the Dutch city of Utrecht having been in France cycling with other Wexford cyclists and completed a 180km called La Ronde Picarde.

This is the type of cycling I do for leisure.

My commute involves a 3km spin across Wexford town where I encounter a meagre 20 metres of cycle lane. The rest is on shared roads with motorised vehicles. Cycling infrastructure in Wexford is scarce, mostly unjoined and therefore mostly unused. What commuters there are, mostly choose the relative safety of the footpath. Wexford doesn’t have much of a congestion problem so the advantages of cycling to work are not as obvious as for more densely populated areas.

This excellent Dutch cycling study tour was like arriving in another planet. Everywhere we went, the infrastructure was there to make cycling as safe and pleasant as possible. It was great to see how the Dutch had gotten to this point; how they solved roundabout safety, how they created cycle streets, how they build their cycling lanes using 3cm thick red asphalt (as opposed to our thin layer which creates a lumpy surface after a few years), how they joined up their thinking with secure bike parking etc. Indeed everything that could possible make bike riding as comfortable, safe and convenient as possible.

Dutch Style Roundabout.

I like to people watch and seeing how the Dutch interact with these facilities was a joy to behold: Secondary school kids cycling from school shooting the breeze, flirting, joking and laughing. Small children out cycling with a parent chatting away. People in general chatting to each other. People going about their daily business whether it be shopping, meeting others etc all done from the comfort of a bicycle and moreover without the associated stresses of interacting with hurried traffic.

I also didn’t witness the proliferation of overweight and obese citizens we in Ireland have become accustomed to.

While in Utrecht, I spent three great evenings with my nephew who was over from Oxford Uni for a conference. I ended up in a few student type establishments with him. It was perfectly natural for the students to cycle to and from these places. I’m not sure what Dutch laws are about having a few beers and cycling but it seems like common practice there.

Now I compare all this to what I witness in Ireland.

How can we get from where we are at to this cycling utopia and all of its inherent benefits?

Where we certainly need to start is to increase funding for connected cycling infrastructure greatly and do so on an ongoing basis. We need to stop rolling out landmark, costly unreasoned infrastructure. We know we don’t have to reinvent the wheel here. The Dutch seem to have it nailed and mostly it should be copy/paste.

In the meantime there needs to be a huge education drive to kick start a paradigm transport shift. We certainly need a safe passing law and probably some form of presumed/strict liability law to keep current cyclists cycling and to add the sense of security and safety to encourage others until we have our own infrastructure in place.

I would greatly like to see our Irish roads planners do a similar visit. The Netherlands is real eye opener and when the wheel has already been invented, let’s stop trying to reinvent it!