On Going Dutch, Cherry-Picking & Confusion

27/10/2011 16:14 by Amsterdamize

Fall Warning: this is going to be a long post. Why? Because this subject deserves all the space it needs. It deals with our neighbors just across the channel, a short distance away but light years apart when it comes to cycling. Which in itself is odd enough. A week ago I was approached by Matthew Wright, contributor for the Guardian Bike Blog:

Dear Marc, Hello, I am a journalist from London. I have enjoyed your site and have enjoyed cycling in the Netherlands many times. I am writing an article for the cycling column (The Bike Blog) in the British newspaper The Guardian about the differences in cycling culture between Britain and the Netherlands, and I would be very grateful for your brief thoughts about the topic. Most British cyclists think the Netherlands is heaven. I understand why. There’s no doubt that, overall, the facilities in the Netherlands are much better. But I think cycling in the Netherlands is also much more tightly controlled in a way British cyclists would find difficult to accept. I am going to suggest that if British cyclists want cycling to be taken seriously in the way it is in the Netherlands, they will have to accept more rules controlling their cycling. While cycling in The Netherlands, I have been stopped by police twice, for not using the cycle path. This would never happen in Britain. Police very rarely stop cyclists even when they ride through red traffic lights or on the pavement. Rules about taking bikes on trains are also much stricter in the Netherlands: you have to buy a ticket, and can only take the bike at certain times. In Britain it is free to take a bike on the train, and though there are rules, no one takes any notice of them. As long as the bike will fit, you can usually take it. I would be very grateful if you could send me a sentence or two of your opinion about the differences between attitudes to cycling in Britain and the Netherlands. These are the kinds of questions I will be asking in my article: if you have any other thoughts on the topic, please add them: - Are there more rules for cyclists in the Netherlands? - Do you think Dutch Police enforce the traffic law more strictly than British Police? - Are Dutch cyclists more responsible than British cyclists? - Do you think we can create a Dutch cycling culture in Britain without accepting more regulation and law enforcement? If I can quote it in my article, I will give a link to your blog in my article. The Guardian website is the second most popular in UK, and many thousands of people read the Bike Blog. Thank you very much Matthew Wright

Of course I was thrilled to do so, but quickly concluded I couldn't possibly sum this up in two sentences, so I decided to send him a couple more, then for him to decide on and pick from, hoping for the best:

The biggest difference between cycling in the UK and the Netherlands is that the Dutch take everyday cycling seriously and are provided the means to do so, for any type of user, often more so than for car drivers. An average Dutch person would not understand the fear of 'losing the right to the road' when the bike infrastructure is so much better, more convenient, comfortable, more direct and safer than riding in car traffic. Segregation is just one (important) part of bicycle policies in the Netherlands, complemented with integral spatial planning, traffic-calming, bike facilities & effective traffic laws that protect people on bikes (and foot). Cycling in the UK is still largely unsafe, as (also) its (recent) bike infrastructure is well below-par, inconsistent and hardly inviting to the general public. Thus, when you sell bad infrastructure to the public that even 'avid cyclists' wouldn't want to use, you've generated a negative sentiment that's hard to spin your way out of, no matter the millions of pounds you spend on marketing that message. You can't 'encourage' anyone to cycle when you give them a knife to a gun fight. It's that simple. The Dutch in the 70's were where the UK is now, the similarities are striking. It's safe to say that the UK can still turn things around, if people think it's worth fighting for, building public and political support. With so many cyclists dying on the streets, you'd think it would be. The Dutch did and turned things around, massively. It can be done.
Matthew, I underlined 'Dutch take everyday cycling seriously'. Could you link this to www.dutchcycling.nl, which has the Dutch Cycling Embassy promo video that I produced? Also, 'the similarities are striking' would link to this post on David Hembrow's blog, putting the above in further historical context, re: NL-UK-US.

He answered:

Your comments, and the links, are great. I will certainly link to you. Just what I need to give the Dutch point of view. We have a long fight on our hands here!

Great, it looked like the Dutch approach would finally be taken seriously in British mainstream media. This morning he posted his article: 'There's more to 'going Dutch' than having a separate cycling lane - It has taken the Netherlands 25 years to build up its culture of respect among its road users, and the law plays a big part too' I read it twice to make sure I read it right. So I decided to send Matthew a followup e-mail. From here on I'll be sharing virtually the exact exchanges we had. I do so, because I feel they are representative of the article, they were professional and we stuck to the subject at hand. I'll let you decide whether these exchanges bring more clarity to the Bike Blog post. My response:

Hi Matthew, I've just read your piece, I like it, the premise and overall line is very good, but there's one part, which I think is *very* important for your readers to understand the narrative around 'Dutch bike infrastructure', where things (Dutch perspective) get blown out of context: 1) "The safety of having separate lanes has often been questioned. Though there are many variables, and conclusions are contested, most studies suggest that separate paths, if anything, make cycling more dangerous, because junctions – where most accidents occur – are more complicated. 2) "In Germany, the law governing urban cycle path creation was recently changed. The ADFC (CTC equivalent) said: "Behind this change is a recognition, through research into road accidents, that physically separate cycle paths make the chance of an accident higher for cyclists than following the road." Re: 1) "The safety of having separate lanes has often been questioned." > You need to make clear by whom. Questioning safety is good, but what are we talking about? 'Having separated lanes' in UK (as it stands now) is much different, obviously. Also, what *kind*? British? Dutch? Certainly not Dutch design. Any study on Dutch road design for bikes will show you that safety for people on bikes is very much enhanced. Overall: NL has the highest cycle rate in the world, yet the lowest casualty rate. There's a reason for that. Thus, the suggestion that separated paths are more dangerous because of junctions has nothing to do with the Dutch situation. Junctions in the Netherlands have proper bike-integral design, dedicated & prioritized, and are perfectly safe. (as you must have experienced it yourself...) This paragraph doesn't make it clear to the reader at all that there's a distinction between the current state of junction design in the UK and NL. That part being at least very blurry, you then link to Cyclecraft. That's all fine but there lies part of the problem. John Franklin (who has built a vehicular cycling survival technique, but has been selling it as a cycling strategy for decades) has been anti-Dutch (paths) for decades (his influence on CTC policies has been enormous). So by using that Cyclecraft reference to back up your argument (which is very generally worded) you give that (flawed) piece of information the authority it doesn't deserve, at all. Plus: can you tell me what 'most studies' are? Re: 2) So from the first paragraph you jump to Germany to support your earlier claim. The German situation is better than the UK, but far worse than in the NL. I know that story well. The ADFC have basically given up on building proper(!) bike infrastructure and lacked the imagination to move forward. Germany's bike infra is of much lower quality and often lacking: not convenient, many conflicts with other modes & inconsistent in its connectivity. In short: junction design for bikes in Germany is a little better than UK, but doesn't come near any situation in the Netherlands. Bad design usually does make things more dangerous. But in those two paragraphs, you've connected Dutch bike infrastructure with the notion that separate infrastructure is dangerous, using examples that have nothing to do with Dutch road design. One is a very shaky piece from John Franklin, who hasn't even set foot on one single path in NL, the other example is from a different country where its cycling federation has given up trying and uses a flawed design's implications as argument against separated infrastructure. I hope you take this to heart and consider some changes to your article.


Thank you for responding so quickly. I was about to send you the link, but you got to me first! I would love to go into all of these things in more detail, but i have 800 words in which to present a complex topic: there will always be more to say. I have given many links to other sites, presenting a range of views, which readers can follow up for themselves. I think it's a good think British cyclists appreciate the range of Dutch strategies (traffic law, speed limits etc), and don't just assume lanes on their own are the answer. You may be right about the ADFC's lack of imagination, but they did tell me, last week, that they believe the evidence does not support separate paths. They haven't told me which studies, but they are a reputable organisation, and I'm sure they have some. I think that's important evidence for the readers to have. I also think the geography of the UK calls for a slightly different solution. London is a lot bigger than even Rotterdam, and the main roads are very unpleasant, even if there is a cycle lane. But there is loads of space through residential areas to cycle, in a way there perhaps isn't in smaller cities. So the approach needs to be different. I think the LCC campaign has focused on a very narrow range of the Dutch approach, and I am only trying to give a broader perspective. Personally, I believe the main reasons it's safer to cycle in NL is that most drivers cycle, and are more careful, knowing that the presumption of the law will be against them in an accident. The speed limit is also lower in most urban areas. Please log into the Guardian site and post these comments under the article. They won't change the article now.


I understand the constraints, but I think my points about the 2 paragraphs have a lot of merit. When you reference information that should in essence back up your claim/assumption, it at least needs to be solid. What needs to prevail is the context. You have to agree that an average reader will not make out the much needed distinction that *should* have been pointed out; 'Dutch separated bike infrastructure' is MUCH different and of very much higher quality than anything in Germany or UK. If we want to present the British public with means to debate & understand the implications, this should be emphasized. The issue of dangerous junctions is very important in London and elsewhere, but the framing of those 2 paragraphs doesn't really help the conversation, it only perpetuates the misunderstanding about sufficient bike infrastructure & pushes towards this notion that you should *by definition* question them...while Dutch bike infrastructure is a proven concept! I hope you understand this. "I think that's important evidence for the readers to have." As I said: if you have insufficient bike infrastructure & you do research on them without recognizing available successful design in terms of safety, then of course you're likely to come up with conclusions along those lines, it's more a confirmation of the status quo than a real comparative study. I've been following ADFC for quite some time and I can provide you with information that backs up my assertions. (When I'd call the reputable CTC and ask them something similar, they'd also say 'we believe the evidence shows our Hierarchy of Provision is solid.) Geography is an often used argument, even to the point that CTC members told me that London is special because it's much denser and has narrower streets (the 'no space for bike paths' argument) than the center Amsterdam or in the heart of other Dutch towns. First, density has no direct correlation with cycle rates. Second, if there's any country with dense cities/towns & narrow streets (while facilitating many modes of transport), it's the Netherlands. It's not about lack of space, it's about lack of will to set priorities for that space. Let's also be clear that there's a big difference between a cycle 'lane' (on-road) and a cycle 'path'. I've also criticized LCC for muddying the water on the Dutch approach, and they contacted me to ask to host them on their study tour in NL last week, but for some reason they (Mike) had a problem calling me. Think of this, Matthew: why do you think it's not cars vs bikes in NL? There are just people. Many people have cars (same as in UK) and the very same people also have bikes. Many of them also use public transportation. Hence, what turned things around from the 70's (a time where we'd gotten to the point that virtually all road space was allocated to cars and space (that was left from before/after WW2) was taken away from people on bikes), was the notion that you need to curtail the use of cars (through carrot-and-stick policies) and make others modes pleasant, convenient, comfortable and safe 'alternatives'. So you'll have people who commute to work by car, but pop into town for shopping on their bikes. You'll have people who commute to work or school (or shops etc) by bike, but use their car only for longer distances or in case of moving certain cargo etc. You'll have people who commute to work or school by train, but they get to the train station by bike (very popular, you may have heard of the ever present lack of bike parking & the consequent continually renewed investments in efficient bike parking at train stations). I could go on. The point: we would not be having this conversation had it not been for putting in and building all this infrastructure, these wide-ranging policies, facilities, legislation, education, etc, aka leveling the playing field. We'd be where UK is now, tinkering around the edges and stopping short of demanding to be taken seriously. (The Blackfriars debacle is a good example of the disconnect between the people who are supposed to provide for safe road environment and the reality on the ground. With TfL's mindset, it's no wonder they're being sued for manslaughter.) In NL it's been made possible for everyone, anytime, any means. I understand where you're coming from, but you're putting the horse behind the carriage. The main reason why it's safer to cycle is because people are given the opportunity in a proper way by facilitating their presence on the streets and roads, giving them at least equal infrastructure or prioritizing them in case the road environment requires this. Regarding Strict Liability: in the Netherlands that went into effect *after* mass cycling was established, as an extra layer on top, *because* cycling had become such an integral part of the transportation system. I'm not saying you shouldn't want it now, but on the whole it won't work independently of the aspects I mentioned above. I will certainly add some of the things I mentioned in the comment section.


I'm not sure our points of view are so different, really. I'd love London to have the facilities of NL, but it doesn't, and if we want to make it safer and more efficient, as quickly as possible, then we need to design ways that can happen as soon as possible. With some intelligent closure of streets, use of parks etc, and effective sign-posting, it would be possible to get anywhere in London without riding on busy roads. It just requires some joined-up thinking. In smaller towns, where the only road is the main road, then a separate lane is necessary, but in London, it isn't. Many smaller towns I've cycle through in NL don't have separate lanes, just quiet streets, along the lines of the Woonerf, a great Dutch idea. Much of residential London could be like that, with a bit of careful planning. I believe it would be faster and more effective than waiting for a full network of separate lanes in London. I asked the Dutch Cycling Embassy specifically whether cycle lanes are in themselves safer, and they just told me they create the 'perception' of safety. That's great as a way of encouraging new cyclists, but not very sensible as basis for a whole policy across a huge city. How can you be so sure that it is specifically the lanes which makes NL safe to cycle in, and not the speed limit & strict enforcement of it, liability, driver awareness, etc? My point about geography is that there is more space in the backstreets, parks etc of London than in smaller cities like Amsterdam. You really can get anywhere in London without using a main road, but at the moment it takes more time and care to plan than people have to put in. If it was properly signed, I believe it would work very well. I completely agree that the playing field needs to be levelled, but I think building separate lanes is only a part of the solution, and in London, quite a small part.


Let's agree to disagree. Nobody expects London or UK to be able to implement Dutch-like infra overnight. It takes a good long-term plan, sticking to it and connecting the dots. London and the UK have been dealing with just awful design guides and urban planning and to say that because of a time-frame you're forced to continue to tinker around the edges, is basically a fallacy. What would you rather invest in: more of the same that really won't get you to higher cycling rates and thus waste these efforts and money or invest in something solid that will actually provide that? Short-term thinking or a vision for better? They are not 'just quiet streets'. You have streets (purposefully traffic-calmed for cars) and roads where cars are restrained. This is designed that way. Rerouting through traffic and prioritizing people on bikes. Same is done in historic center of Amsterdam, where the streets along the canal are a hazard to drive through. People on bikes share the road with cars, but not the way you would see 'sharing the road'. Cars are basically guests and people on bikes are prioritized. At the same time, that car traffic is stuck with one-way streets, rerouted, with routes far less direct than where bikes can go. Despite the historic character of these streets, that was done by design, because this was not the case up until the late 70's. The Woonerf concept is often mistaken for something else in the UK. Woonerf is not about calming main traffic, but calming residential neighborhoods by making streets smaller/tighter, making through-traffic impossible (dead-ends) and slowing cars (that have a reason to be there) down to a walking pace. I'm very closely associated with the Dutch Cycling Embassy and I know their stance on these things and I'm 100% sure they didn't mean that it enhances JUST the perception of safety. Either something got lost in translation or you picked up on just that, because Dutch bike paths and lanes have proven to improve both subjective AND objective (real) safety. I know all the people at DCE so I can verify if you'd like. That and specific spatial planning, traffic-calming, liability, prioritizing of bikes in general etc, makes the whole package. I hear ya now, currently you'd do better avoiding the main roads, but like car drivers, others want to go the desired short routes (read: all want that 'convenience') as well. Putting so much focus on just separate lanes trying to come up with solutions for London, makes it actually all sound like a cherry-picked argument against the Dutch approach.


If I'd had 2000 words instead of 800, I'd have said more about Woonerf. With some political will, that system could be implemented in most of residential London within a year. It would make a huge difference for kids cycling to school, people going to local shops etc. It's not a short-term plan, it's just more practical for the majority of London, which consists of quiet, residential streets where, with a 30kph speed limit, there would be no need of a separate lane. It's LCC which turned the Dutch approach into a slogan about cycle lanes. I am trying to show that it's much more broadly based and needs to change attitudes, traffic law, signage, planning etc etc. I'm not against the Dutch approach at all, but it needs to be adapted to the environment of London, and considered in its totality, which is what - in a short space - I have tried to do. The first email I had from Tom [***] talked about the 'perception' of safety, so I asked him specifically about the safety of the lanes, and he didn't reply. I'd happily have included a thorough study confirming objective safety benefits of paths but no one was able to provide one.


I'm sorry, but you misunderstand the Woonerf concept, it is really not that broad that it enables kids to cycling to school or going to the shops, it's *purely* a concise residential measure, not for through traffic implementation. Like I said: woonerf entails walking-speed for car drivers (who have a purpose for being there, not to get someplace else) I'm of the opinion that when you want to lay that out in the article, you can't, on one side, cherry-pick half-checked/corroborated information from other countries/cities that lack the quality of the Dutch approach, not mention that distinction, spreading doubt about the safety of this infrastructure and THEN make it out like you're talking about the same thing, when you're clearly not. And to point out that 'it needs to be adapted to the environment of London and consider in its totality' is a bit rich, as you don't apply that reasoning in the former, making it sound like London or the UK is somehow 'exceptional'. The fact that Tom didn't reply to that specific question doesn't mean that the Dutch Cycling Embassy is of the opinion that bike paths *only* have a placebo function/effect. You really don't get to Dutch cycling rates with infrastructure that only *looks* safe. That's why these rates are still growing and the casualty rates are still falling. I have some basic information for you to generally back up the claim that bike paths are objectively safe: NL: - highest cycle rates in the world - lowest casualty rates in the world - nr of children killed on Dutch streets in 1973: almost 400 - nr of children killed on Dutch streets in 2010: 14 I still hope you'll reconsider making some changes. Best, Marc

I think the article is well-meant, but muddied and very flawed in its execution, both from a technically journalistic viewpoint and with regards to what's what in 'Going Dutch'. What does it really want to say? Go Dutch & you'll have to worry about losing your right to the road? Go Dutch, but you can't be sure it will work? Go Dutch, and you'll feel the burden of more responsibilities? Go Dutch, but it will take forever and London is a special case? Go Dutch, but the LCC doesn't *really* want it? Etc. I had high expectations and it didn't turn out the way I had hoped. A feeling often shared by my British followers, I imagine. Update: the LCC has responded to the article as well. Let me know what you think in the comment section, cheers. Before or after that, read Jim's take on it and watch this video he made, 'Compare And Contrast':

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