i b i k e l o n d o n

"We all cycle" - the rise and rise of proud cycling cities

I'm spending the summer in the Netherlands, and have been learning so much about cycling in their cities.  What has become clear to me is that Dutch cities are increasingly competing for a share of the visitors who come here to learn about the Netherland's cycling and planning culture. Utrecht, host of this year's Grand Depart, is not alone in this - note how this incredible video touting their cycling achievements is presented in English rather than Dutch and really tries to "show off" the city as a beautiful place to visit (which it is, I hasten to add).

I think this is an interesting phenomenon for two reasons; firstly the internet is being recognised by cities as an effective tool for reaching and inspiring many people around the world, getting them excited and clearly demonstrating exportable concepts.  There's also a clear attempt here to attract high-spending tourists who are on learning-based trips.  In short, visiting cities to find out how they work has become a mini industry of its own!

What do you think? Have you spent time visiting cities in order to learn and find out what you can do in your own city? Do videos like this make you want to visit somewhere more? Could pro-cycling messages like this help to make the case for cycling in the city where you live?

For more information on cycling in Utrecht, visit utrecht.nl/we-all-cycle/

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Bike bans in pedestrian zones make no sense, but not why you think

Last week I visited the Dutch city of Zwolle, the Netherlands City of Cycling in 2014.  It's a pretty, historic city surrounded by countryside and has a pedestrianised heart.  But what I saw there made me reconsider banning bicycles from pedestrian-only areas, but not for the reasons why you might think.

Many cities - both in the UK and elsewhere - have pedestrian zones where people using their feet to get around can relax in a safe environment where they don't need to be worried about being knocked down by speeding cyclists, or any other traffic for that matter.  Where there are lots of people, especially around shops, this has always made sense to me.

The West Country town I grew up in had a large pedestrians-only shopping area, where you were expected to lock your bicycle on the perimeter and walk in.  Even as a young man I remember being approached by security guards and given a telling off for pushing my bike through.

Things were different in Zwolle.  I'm not sure if bikes were technically permitted but I saw many in the pedestrian area.  A few were being slowly cycled to available bicycle parking, but the majority of them were being pushed.  I saw two friends; one woman on a bike and one man on foot, making a journey together through the city centre (photographed, below)  Would their journey have taken place if a strict bike plan was in place?

An older woman was using her bicycle as a shopping trolley, filling her basket with goods she brought as she pushed the bike from store to store.

I remember hearing Danish urbanist Jan Gehl recount a story about his mother who, when she became too frail to cycle, would still walk with her bicycle - it was her dignified access to mobility, without having to revert to using a walking frame.

Pedestrians are important, and in pedestrian areas should always come first.  As with much in life however the situation is not black and white; people have a complex approach to their own mobility.  I wouldn't want to see cyclists riding at speed through shopping areas, or obstructing access with mountains of parked bicycles, but I realise there's more to bicycles in pedestrian-only areas than initially meets the eye.

P.S  For more wild and reckless behaviour like using a bike in a pedestrianised area, see this film by the City of Zwolle which features their Bike Director getting a backie from various residents - something which landed London Mayor Boris Johnson in hot water this week and for which he was slammed by the CTC! (Film in Dutch only, sorry!)

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Why there’s more to successful cycle paths than just building cycle paths

Wherever you are in the UK, you’re never too far from a so-called “recreational bike path”; a family-friendly cycle route separated from the roads and often built on converted railway lines.  Thanks largely to the work of the charity Sustrans these routes criss-cross the country.  Some are wildly popular, both with long-distance touring cyclists as well as with families out for a ride and a day out by bicycle.


In previous discussions cycling friends of mine have denigrated these paths, describing them as “choked”, “slow” and in one instance “stuffed with nodders on bike-shaped-objects.”  But I take a different view.  The Mums and Dad you find hitting these trails in the school holidays might not ride the best bikes, or even self-define as “cyclists”, but when it comes to rehabilitating the bicycle with the British public every journey counts.

In order to encourage adults to start cycling again (often for the first time since their teens) we need to make the experience as simple as possible.  What’s more, you shouldn’t have to make a large up-front investment before deciding you’d like to try riding a bike once more. And that’s where I think we are going wrong with our recreational cycle paths here in the UK.  It turns out there is more to building successful cycle paths than just building cycle paths.

Fun in the sun on the Venice Beach bike track, Los Angeles. 

On a recent trip to Los Angeles I was astonished to find that there - in the very heart of the world’s most car-sick city - was a resoundingly popular recreational bike path.  Running along the length of Venice Beach, the track itself was smooth, wide and separated from pedestrians.  It passed Venice pier, Muscle Beach and other interesting spots and on the Friday afternoon I visited it was packed with people of all ages cruising up and down on bikes.  Roller skaters, cycling ice cream salesmen and shady palm trees helped to lend a festive air.  We turned off the path and rode for a few blocks away from the beach to see if the whole district was a cycling nirvana, but found ourselves alone.  The people on bikes were stuck resolutely to cycling up and down on their safe cycle path.  I watched the riders, and started to think; what made this path such a success?


A few years ago I was lucky enough to cycle in Taiwan (check out this ride from the capital, Taipei)  In the city of Taichung the local government have converted a disused railway to create a cycling route which stretches for a number of miles along the river and in to the country.  There I saw whole families (some on only one bike!) out enjoying themselves for the day on hired bicycles.  There were tandems, and cargo bikes and bikes with baby seats.  There were electric pedal-assist bikes and bikes with sound systems and bikes which looked like small family cars.  The trails were packed with riders, stopping off at small track-side cafes for drinks and snacks or hiring another bike when they got bored with the other at one of the many hire shops.  They even had ride-in toilets so you didn't have to worry if you'd not brought a bike lock with you!  It turns out that the same amenities in Taiwan which make this path work are the same amenities you find in Los Angeles, and it’s what we are lacking on our British paths.

Ride-in toilets for security conscious cyclists who don't have a lock. 

In Los Angeles all of the cycle hire stalls were run by the same business, meaning bikes could be dropped off at any point along the route.  If people got tired of riding they could simply drop off the bike without having to ride back, or they could do a one way journey with the wind behind them without having to contemplate a strenuous return trip.  The ice cream salesmen on bikes added a further level of amenity, whilst well-observed and safe cycle parking clusters were positioned at interesting points along the route meaning people could lock up their bikes with confidence.

Small businesses selling food, drink and hiring out bicycles line the Taichung bike path. 

Gem Bridge, near Tavistock. Beautiful, and somewhat empty of cyclists.

In Taiwan, the bike hire was cheap and plentiful and once again right on the path itself so that the ride started in pleasure straight way.  On a recent trip to Devon I cycled on the impressive Gem Bridge, a beautiful structure which fords a deep valley and connects two newly-opened sections of converted railway line.  But in order to access the path from the nearest town, Tavistock, was a torturous route crossing main roads and down little alleyways.  It may not have the best eco-credentials, but people need to have “park and play” access to these routes in order for them to be a success.

Of course, these successful cycle routes had all of the usual things you’d expect, such as smooth surfaces, good sign posting, and safe bike parking.  But there’s a role for business - such as bike hire and small cafes - in making better recreational cycle routes that we don’t utilise enough in the UK.  It helps to create jobs, keep money in the local economy and enable rehabilitating bicycle journeys for people who wouldn’t usually ride and need their bike served up on a plate.  What’s not to like?

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Now that the Tour de France has left, what else can Utrecht teach us about cycling?

I'm on a summer trip, making a tour of Le Tour following the riders around Antwerp, Namur, and even riding with the peloton in a race car.  It's been a brilliant journey and now I am on my last stage, returning to the scene of the Grand Depart, Utrecht in the Netherlands, to see what this cycling city looks like once the pro riders have passed by.


I've partnered with Ibis Hotels for this trip and all of the staff have been so friendly and helpful. Utrecht was the same; "Of course you can ride today", said the cheery receptionist "It takes more than a bit of rain to stop the Netherlands from rolling!" I looked out the window at the rain blowing in sideways and decided to fortify myself with the fantastic breakfast before I set off, grabbing the keys to a bicycle rented directly from the hotel.  The Ibis in Utrecht is just a five minute ride in to the city centre along a pretty canal lined by windmills and old town houses - not a bad start to my day, despite the weather.


The clouds darkened and rain intensified, but this didn't seem to deter Dutch riders who cycled on regardless.  Rain coats were pulled out of bags, hats were donned and umbrellas were lifted, making it immediately apparent I was in a totally different cycling situation to the UK.  You could ride down the Tottenham Court Road in London at peak time in the rain whilst holding a big umbrella if you wanted to, of course, but I wouldn't recommend it.  Here, things are different.


Hints that the Tour de France had recently been this way were everywhere.  Shop windows were decorated with bicycles, flags were hung over every street and a statue of the city's most famous daughter - Miffy the bunny - had been put up in the tourism office. Naturally, she was riding her bicycle.  The facade of the popular cafe Winkel van Sinkel was decked out in yellow jerseys, too.


But even though the pro riders had left, there's still a festive cycling feel to Utrecht that stems from the many thousands of people on bikes who cycle here every day.  I saw small children being carried on their parent's bikes, middle-sized children riding alongside on their own, and teenagers enjoying their mobility and being totally independent.


I have no doubt that all that freedom stems directly from the excellent cycling infrastructure which you'll find all over the Netherlands, but what I was particularly impressed by was how the Dutch don't sit on their hands, but are always seeking to improve things.  I went for coffee with Mark Wagenbuur from the brilliant Bicycle Dutch blog.  He took me out to a junction on the edge of the city, smiling proudly all the way, that we had last visited together in 2012.  Back then, he had described it to me as 'the most dangerous junction in Utrecht' and I was inclined to agree.  Cyclists were forced to merge with a lane of fast-moving traffic turning right, and to ride together alongside a metal fence for about 100metres.  Just three years later and the situation has entirely changed.  Engineers have 'found' the space to continue the cycle track safely through the junction, and the right turning traffic simply waits in a lane of the rest of the road.  Of course, it's not a question of 'finding' space at all but simply a choice of what to do with the space that you have and who to allocate it to.  


The same junction, above in 2012, as it appears today, below in 2015. Notice how space has been 'found' for the new and safer cycle track without taking the pedestrian's pavement away.


I had been impressed by the new junction, but it was nothing compared to the building project which is nearing completion in the city centre.  When I first visited Utrecht the space in this photo was part of a multi-lane city ring road built in the 1970s.  All it did was create traffic congestion and bring more cars in to the city centre, where there was no room for them.  So the city planners decided to push the ring road further out of the city - to loosen the city's belt, if you like - to create more space for people.  


The move has allowed for the total redevelopment of the train station, created space for a new shopping area and offices and very soon the dirt that you see in the photo will be removed and replaced with water, re-connecting two sections of the city's ancient canals.


At the new station the city's cycle racks are being refreshed and new bicycle parking areas are being built.  On Korte Jansstraat in the old town, a road which used to be clogged with two lanes of car parking has been re-surfaced in red bricks and the parking spaces moved away.  Rather than harming the businesses there, the streets were busy with shoppers and restaurants had laid out new tables and chairs.


This is my third trip to Utrecht and each visit has left me with the same impression; that this is a city rapidly growing, improving itself, identifying the planning mistakes of the past and quietly getting on with rectifying them.  It's lively and packed with young people and University students.  Better still, it is easily connected to the rest of the Netherlands and Schipol airport by the fantastic national rail network.  Utrecht proved with the Tour de France that they know how to throw a good bike party, but if the world's cycling cities were in a race Utrecht would in the break away every day.  Why not make a visit to see for yourself?


Tour de France Stage 4: Citadelle de Namur, Belgium


After riding in Antwerp and spending the day with the peloton, my tour of Le Tour continues, today bringing me to the Belgian city of Namur.  There was a huge gap between the break away and the main bunch, who crawled up the hot, dusty road to the summit of the Citadelle, where I captured this photo.

It was a hugely exciting stage on the cobbles and a dramatic win for Tony Martin.  Tomorrow I leave the pro-riders behind and return to the Netherlands to the host city of the Grand Depart, Utrecht, to find out what happens in a cycling city after the racing cyclists have gone.  Stay tuned!