Dutch thoughts part three

Staying in a small town 10 kms from Groningen, I borrowed my host’s bike and rode in to town to see how it managed to become the place with the greatest modal share of cycling in Holland. I had been there five years ago and discovered that it was not just happenstance,but a deliberate result of keeping cars out of the city.
Riding in, it was noticeable how car traffic thinned out as I got closer to the rather badly reconstructed main square, which had been badly damaged by heavy fighting in the war as the Canadians chased out the Germans in 1945. The inner ring road has virtually no cars and, of course, lots of space for cyclists. Inside that ring, there are virtually no cars. Indeed, the crucial decision to encourage cycling rather than cars had been made in the 1970s when that ring had become chock full of traffic.
The reason for the town’s success in achieving a modal share of over 50 per cent for cycling is nothing very complicated. The crucial point is not only being pro-bike but to some extent being anti car. That is the stumbling block for policymakers in this country. You need both the carrot and the stick.
John Whitelegg made that point in a critique of the Lancaster Cycling Demonstration Town about which I have written previously on this blog. There’s no getting round it – policymakers have to start putting the squeeze, ever so gently at first, on car users in order to encourage a modal shift. Sadly, I don’t think they will ever do it here.
While Groningen is famous in transport circles, Utrecht is a town best known for its once powerful bishops and for having the largest tower in the Netherlands but there too the number of cyclists was really striking, even more so than in Groningen. People say, rather dismissively, that its because Utrecht and Groningen are student towns, but that is to underestimate the sheer ubiquity of cycling.
In Amsterdam, too, jogging round the Vondelspark at 8am, the streams of cyclists in all directions, sizes, ages and speeds using it as a short cut on their way to school, college, business or leisure.It was the sheer variety that was so wonderful – kids with their dads pushing them on gently, mums with two toddlers in a front trailer, besuited gents on their way to their accountancy firm and old age pensioners off to look after their grandchildren. Oh God it made me feel wistful and wonder where we went wrong…

posted by Christian Wolmar at 01:10 | 6 comments Leave Your Comment

Dutch thoughts 2, the trains

Friday, 14 March 2008

The Dutch train system is little more than the size of the old Network SouthEast with more major towns connected by services called Intercity but which trundle along principally at 100 kph. The trains are pretty basic, the seats hard, no creature comforts, fairly surly ticket inspectors but as a way of moving lots of people around reasonably quickly and efficiently, it works.
In my Dutch travels, I have so far taken half a dozen trains and they have all been on time. I even made a 4 minute connection with ease, not something that the National Rail Enquiries timetable would suggest.
Lots of people seem to get on and off at every stop, which suggests that the average distance travelled is quite short. Oddly, not many people carry bicycles, which is somewhat discouraged by the authorities. They prefer people to have cycles at each end of their journeys and judging from the astonishing number of bikes at every station, lots do.
Like with all train systems, it is not all that easy to manage if you are not sure where you are going. The information on the panels is all in Duch, with no translations other than at the really big places and sometimes a train will indicate a destination implying it is a direct service when, in fact, a change is required.
The service is all clockface, the same time past the hour, every hour, and are timetabled so that you can get from any town to any other with a quick change. It is noticeable that the trains stop at the main stations for quite a few minutes which is presumably padding in the timetable to ensure that the timetable is adhered to. Apparently, there were major problems a few years ago when the track company was separated off, but these have been resolved and certainly I have had no trouble at all. And one final thing – all the trains are electric which is extremely pleasant and something that the Department for Transport could come and observe.

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