What Britain can learn from the bicycle capital of the world

PUBLISHED: 14:00 13 January 2019

Workers in Ford End Road, Bedford, circa 1936. Photo: Getty Images.

Workers in Ford End Road, Bedford, circa 1936. Photo: Getty Images.

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Britain has slipped way behind other European countries in how it caters for cyclists. But, says CARLTON REID, there is still time to catch up.

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Brexit-besotted Brits may have voted – by a wafer-thin margin – to take the United Kingdom out of the European Union, but back in 2016 you wouldn’t have known it from Manchester’s bus shelters: in block orange letters, and with a windmill icon beneath, citizens on Oxford Road were advised to “Go Dutch!”

This wasn’t guerilla stencilling from the city’s beleaguered bicycle advocates; it was an official message from Transport for Greater Manchester. A £1 billion makeover had made the road – one of the busiest bus routes in Europe – safe for cyclists. Cars were funnelled on to parallel roads; cyclists were given their own kerbed lanes, and buses became faster than ever. This is what the Dutch call ‘unraveling’: separating the vehicle types and protecting the squishy humans. Such makeovers are normal for the Netherlands, but not normal for the UK.

British bicycle advocates are among the most ardent of pro-Europeans. They want for Britain what is so banal and ordinary in the Netherlands: safety for those citizens, young and old, who chose to dot around on bikes. To cycle nuts (and I am one) to “go Dutch” does not mean to split a restaurant bill, it means the freedom to pedal without fear.

Normal, everyday cycling may now be considered intrinsically Dutch, and somehow alien on this sceptre’d isle, but in 1949 more than 25% of Brits rode their bikes daily (today it’s 2%). There are many reasons why we lost this culture of everyday cycling, and many reasons why it’ll be tough to recreate it with bus-shelter campaigns.

According to many of those who believe in build-and-they-will-come, the elevated level of cycling seen in the Netherlands today is due to engineering alone. They point to the fact that small children cycle to school by themselves on the unravelled cycleways that vein the country. Indeed, for bicycle advocates, the Netherlands is considered the pink of perfection.

And it’s easy to see why the Netherlands is so beloved by bicycle advocates. Brides, grooms, and their guests cycle to wedding receptions; aircrews glide to Schiphol Airport on butter-smooth cycleways; patients and medics arrive at hospitals by bike; pregnant women ride until they deliver; and you don’t walk a Dutch dog – you take it for a ride with its lead tethered to your bicycle saddle.

Everybody rides. Well, not quite everyone, but the cycling levels are high compared to almost everywhere else on the planet. According to the Dutch government, the Netherlands is the only European nation with more bicycles than people. When he’s asked by Dutch people why he moved to Amsterdam, American author Pete Jordan explains it’s so he “can be stuck in a bicycle traffic jam at midnight”. In his book In the City of Bikes: The Story of the Amsterdam Cyclist, Jordan wrote: “I found myself riding behind a slow-moving pair of cyclists. Looking ahead, I saw a long line of cyclists in front of me. I was stuck. It was past midnight. What the hell were all these people doing out on their bikes? That’s when it struck me: It’s the middle of winter; it’s past midnight – and I’m stuck in a bicycle traffic jam.”

Cycling infrastructure in the Netherlands isn’t set in aspic, it’s forever being improved. The latest innovation is the snelfietsroute – a high-speed ‘motorway’ for cyclists. Four hundred miles of these have been built since 2015, with more in the pipeline. These fast cycling routes connect cities – about ten miles apart – and grant cyclists greater priority at junctions than motorists. The level of cycling provision across the nation – and often at least partially EU-funded – is nothing less than astonishing.

Little wonder, then, that study tours to the Netherlands are so popular with urban planners from around the world – they flock to see how they could make their home cities ‘Go Dutch’.

Prior to the Second World War, cycling in many European cities remained both popular and normal. Bicycles were not just for children, they were for almost everybody – ministers and midwives, doctors and dentists, bakers and butchers, schoolchildren and soldiers, postmen and pilots.

In the mid-1930s, there were 15 million cycles in daily use in Germany and seven million in France. In the Netherlands every second citizen owned one – a Dutch Ministry of Transport report of 1934 revealed that bicycles represented a staggering 95% of the vehicles in regular use. In Britain, there were 12 million cyclists and fewer than two million motorists.

Cyclists dominated on many British roads, including the new ‘arterial’ ones. On approaches to large factories and dockyards, cyclists at clocking-off time would clog the roads solid. According to a 1935 Ministry of Transport census, cycles accounted for 80% of the vehicular traffic in Bedford. For the UK as a whole, the minister of transport admitted: “It is indisputable that the number of cycles on the road is far in excess of the total of all other classes of road vehicle, public and private, passenger and goods.”

Partly out of a desire to shovel cyclists out of the way (of motorists, such as MPs) and partly to keep cyclists safe, the British government decided in 1934 to ape the Dutch. In February of that year, Colonel Bressey, the Ministry of Transport’s chief engineer, contacted the director of the Dutch infrastructure ministry to ask him about the wide cycleways his department had built beside a number of new arterial roads in the Netherlands.

W. G. C. Gelinck responded with plans, maps, and other advice, all in English. “In Holland, with the great number of cycles... all modern roads are provided with special cycle-tracks apart,” Gelinck told his counterpart. “No traffic betterment for motor traffic can work unless the cyclists have left the main roads. [They are] a perpetual danger for themselves and for the traffic.”

Impressed, Bressey commissioned the building of Britain’s first kerb-protected cycleway, a two-and-a-quarter-mile stretch of uneven concrete from Hangar Lane to Greenford Road in Ealing, London, kept separate from, but adjoining Western Avenue, a relatively new arterial speedway (today’s A40). The nearly–9-ft-wide cycleway was operational by May 1934.

Over the next ten years, British local authorities used fat MoT grants to build more than 500 miles of these Dutch-inspired cycleways. (Between 1937 and 1941, if they didn’t include cycleways in their road building plans, local authorities didn’t get any central government grant funding.)

When councils constructed social-housing estates – such as the St Helier Estate in London – they were invariably provided with Dutch-style cycleways.

Amazingly, many of the 1930s cycle tracks still exist, but are hidden in plain sight, or have become overgrown and unloved. Some of the wide, kerb-protected 1937-vintage cycleways built in residential areas are today assumed to be service roads, and motorists park their cars on them, not realising the paths, with their original concrete surfaces and which were often pink when new, were built for cyclists, and are more than 80 years old.

Most of the 1930s cycleways were short, but some – such as the one that can still be seen, somewhat truncated, beside the A127 between Romford to Southend – provided more than 18 miles of kerb-protected safety for the cyclists of the day.

Fittingly, some of Manchester’s long-forgotten 1930s cycleways are being incorporated into the new ‘Beeline’ network of routes for pedestrians and cyclists championed by the city’s walking and cycling commissioner, the Olympic gold medallist Chris Boardman. Boardman’s desire for his adopted city to ‘Go Dutch’ is fully supported – with cash and clout – by Greater Manchester’s mayor Andy Burnham.

A month before 2016’s referendum, when he was still Labour’s shadow home secretary, Burnham predicted that Leave would win. “I don’t like saying that,” he told Cambridge University’s Varsity student newspaper, “but I feel that from talking to people in my own constituency. The mood is not to stay in.”

Two months ago, talking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Greater Manchester’s metro mayor warned: “What we have got to do is open our eyes to what is unfolding here and that is that no-deal is quickly becoming the frontrunner... We cannot let that happen.”

But anti-Brexit Burnham also expressed fears that a Peoples’ Vote would “cause real unrest on the streets of Greater Manchester”.

What’s no longer up for debate is his decision – Brexit or no Brexit – to transform at least some of these streets into people-friendly highways modelled on engineering typical in the Netherlands. Like the rest of the UK, Manchester is set to become a little less European but, ironically, the city’s streets are going Dutch anyway.

Carlton Reid is the Transport Journalist of the Year in the Press Gazette British Journalism Awards For Specialist Media 2018. Follow his project to research – and rescue – the UK’s 1930s cycleways at bikeboom.info/1930s

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