Are we really the best European city for clean transport? I don’t think so.

At the beginning of September I went on a short fact-finding tour in the Netherlands. I’ve been mulling over how to begin to describe what I saw there. I think it will probably take more than one post, but here’s a start.

The notes I wrote on the train home read:

“I want what they’ve got:

  • Real choice about how to travel
  • Peaceful and sociable spaces in town
  • Freedom of movement for kids
  • Equal access for disabled people”

Sounds good, doesn’t it?

Choice

In the Netherlands, people choose to ride bikes for many of their everyday journeys. If they prefer to drive, they can, but the choice to cycle is, by design, the quickest and easiest for journeys where the bike is the common sense option – getting to school, taking small children to school, going to work if you live within cycling distance, food shopping, meeting friends, going to parties, attending sporting events, relaxing in the countryside, and so on.

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Peaceful and sociable spaces

Roads in town centres and residential areas are designed to be nearly car-free – traffic is controlled and directed away from where people live, shop and relax.

Before I went to the Netherlands, I thought I would be finding out about the details of street design – kerbs, widths of cycle paths, traffic lights and so on. I did learn something about those things, and there are many impressive ways in which those details make cycling in the Netherlands a pleasure.

But in fact the most important lesson I came back with was that mass cycling in the Netherlands is the result of a process of holistic town planning. It’s not a narrow transport issue, but one which encompasses housing, health, business and retail policy.

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Freedom of movement for kids

The average age at which Dutch children begin to travel independently to school is just over eight and a half. 90% of secondary school children cycle to school, sometimes commuting over distances of up to 20km.

Having arrived at school by bike, children are then easily able to get themselves to their friends’ houses, to their after-school activities, and home again. Imagine how much less traffic we would have on our roads if all those journeys were being made by bike here.

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Equal access

The Netherlands has a dense grid of smooth, wide, traffic-free paths. This network is the key to enabling safe cycling by people aged 8 to 80. It also enables people who use other kinds of wheeled transport – wheelchairs, hand cycles, disability scooters, tricycles, electric bikes, etc – to travel independently around town, between towns and into the countryside.

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So, can we go Dutch?

Cycling around Brighton this month, I have been struck by the comparatively poor quality of our cycling infrastructure, compared with what I saw in the Netherlands.

But I’ve also been thinking that there are several areas of the city where we already have the beginnings of the kind of nearly car free networks that make cycling attractive and popular in Dutch towns. With a little more imagination and courage, residential areas like Hanover could be transformed into safe spaces for children to explore and play. In the Netherlands, my outlandish fantasy for our neighbourhood is pretty close to reality.

Yesterday I caught the Bike Train to Stanmer Park. Several children joined us, taking advantage of the rare chance to cycle in a sociable and friendly way, free from the danger of fast-moving traffic. I want what they’ve got in the Netherlands, not because I’m a cyclist but because I wish British children could have that kind of freedom all the time.