Wednesday, 23 August 2017

I've seen things you people wouldn't believe: Part 1 - Introduction

For those who follow me on Twitter, you will know that I've been out of the UK on a family holiday for the last couple of weeks. We have been mainly in the Netherlands with forays into Belgium and Germany. This is also my 250th Blog Post!

This was a holiday and not an infrastructure safari, but as you might expect, I have managed to get plenty of photos. I have also been lucky enough to get to cycle around Amsterdam (city - photo below and its suburbs) as well as some rural parts of the southern province of Zeeland. I have also driven around and walked in all of the places we visited and so this helps with my perspective as an engineer.

I have been thinking about the best way to recount my travels and so I have decided to run this as a series of blog posts, concentrating on the Netherlands - there is too much to deal with in a single post and so this week will be the first of a series (which might get interrupted by other subjects - you know how it is). 

I am going to be talking about things I have seen in a snapshot. I haven't experienced the layouts and features on a daily basis and so I can't possibly understand the inner workings of the design and operation of non-UK infrastructure, so please bear this in mind. On the other hand, I have experienced infrastructure as a tourist in relatively unfamiliar surroundings and so this is quite interesting from an "experienced safety" point of view (signal-controlled motorway slip road, below);

One of the things we are often told about the Netherlands is that it is a nation of cyclists, that cycling is in the Dutch DNA and other such nonsense. The country is, without a doubt, a fan of the motor car (despite the high fuel prices) and there are some vast roads such as the A1 (motorway) shown here where it runs between Weesp and Muiden;

However the organisation of the country's highway system enables people to easily choose cycling for short journeys - indeed, in the more rural area we stayed, cycling was a useful mode for people travelling to their nearest town such as these two women on their way to Hulst and there's no silliness about asphalt being laid in the countryside for cycling on;

On the myth front, I can confirm that I have cycled up and down Dutch hills (OK, flood defences and bridges in many cases, but there are real gradients to be found, especially on the coast); 

I have also cycled where there is no specific cycling infrastructure (more common than you'd have thought) such as in the town of Muiden, but the filtering of the street system means that the only motor vehicles you will encounter will be those people who need to be there;

I have also cycled on some really poor layouts which should not have been built such as this roundabout with annular cycle lanes in Hulst and so there is the warning about not copying something because it is Dutch and also a message to my hosts that they need to be careful with complacency;

People often say that the Dutch have more space to play with than is the case in the UK. That's utter nonsense of course - there are plenty of old (pre-car) streets where there isn't lots of space (in common with the UK) it is just that it has been used well such as in the narrow streets of Maastricht which have been filtered for motor traffic;

The overarching impression I have taken away is that cycling is pretty much for everyone in the country because the highway system has been designed that way. Nobody is being asked to cycle long distances (you can if you really want) and for local trips, it is quite simply easier than jumping in the car. In fact, you could just park at the station or bus stop and let public transport take the strain as could be seen at the end of the Metro line at Gaasperplas, 25 minutes from central Amsterdam (which has direct access from a cycle track of course);

What I also saw was that the Dutch will invest in decent infrastructure because separating people cycling from fast-moving and heavy traffic is the right thing to do, even if there isn't going to be thousands of people using it each day such as this cycle track provided on this bridge (on a national road which is like a UK A-road) - even at a weekend, the roadies are out as they are in the UK, but they are far more protected!

I wasn't alone in my cycling. I had company from my son and one of my daughters (the other one didn't want to cycle - long story) and for me this is an even greater advert for what the Dutch have done to enable cycling;

So, please join me over the next couple of weeks where I will try and pipe my thoughts into something sensible to give a feel of what has been done just across the North Sea.


  1. Hulst town council may be rather dismayed at your comment on their Rotonde Zoetestraat. They've been planning the roundabout for ages and the sewer replacement and roadwork took nearly two years. Spoiler alert: civil engineering porn.

    The local primary school turned out to greet it noisily because it is so much safer than the previous five-road junction.

    1. I guess this is about context - what might work perfectly well (and perhaps better than before) didn't feel safe to me and I wouldn't repeat that design in the UK.

  2. I'm British but live in Utrecht. We have a similar style roundabout near my house and I understand where your'e coming from. When I first tackled one (in a car as it happened), I found it uncomfortable too. However, now I've driven and cycled around it a few times I think it works.

    The key difference being (IMO) that Dutch drivers are much more used to look for cyclists. I can speak from personal experience that I'm VERY careful on that roundabout when I'm driving. Most drivers are also cyclists, and most cyclists are also drivers. That shared empathy helps alot.

    I'd probably agree with you that it wouldn't work in the UK. I enjoyed the post and look forward to reading the rest about your trip!

  3. Let me tack on about the drivers. The Dutch drivers seem to have much more respect for other road users. This seems to be the same in Munich where I now live. In Munich some of the infrastructure has been panned by advocates but the drivers and probably enforcement make the system work. This starts with the testing for vehicle licenses. After 2.5 years of biking in Munich I'm almost afraid to bike back in the US for fear of expecting drivers to stop and wait....

    1. From what I saw, there were still plenty of poor drivers, but not as many as I encounter in the UK.