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.

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Can we ‘go Dutch’ in Brighton?

Nearly 40% of Brighton & Hove households do not own a car or van, and a declining minority travel to work by car.

It’s very easy to live in Brighton without owning a car – the city is pretty compact, and it doesn’t take long to get from anywhere to anywhere by bus, bike or on foot. We have a good public transport networks (though of course they would be better if they were publicly owned, properly integrated and cheaper to use).

As you would expect, with the lowest level of car ownership in the South East, we also have a low proportion of people travelling to work by car – just 37%, compared to 60% in the South East.

However, this pattern is not replicated when it comes to bicycles. I couldn’t find specific figures for Brighton, but nationally around 43% of people own or have access to a bike. Yet only 5% of Brighton residents cycle to work. And that’s high, compared with the South East or the rest of England.

Why are cycling rates so low? As the BBC found out this week, the biggest reason is that people are scared to cycle on the roads. And who can blame them, when very little effort is made on most UK roads to keep people on bikes away from terrifying lorries, buses and cars?

After years of increasingly impatient pressure from campaigners in London and around the country, a growing movement led by cyclists is demanding decent space for cycling – protected cycle ways on main roads and smaller roads made truly safe, with low speeds and protection from rat-running.

This is not a revolutionary demand. It’s something they take for granted in the Netherlands, where nobody is “a cyclist” because everybody rides bikes. Children ride their bikes to school. Parents carry babies and toddlers on their bikes. People carry shopping by bike.

Though it seems the most natural thing in the world now, the Netherlands hasn’t become a cycling paradise by magic. It is the result of policy decisions and a serious level of spending. The Dutch decided to make cycling attractive and safe, rather than doing what the UK and many other countries have done, and designing roads only for cars.

I’m excited to be going on a short trip to Assen, in the Netherlands, at the beginning of September, to see how Dutch streets are designed. I’m hoping to come back to Brighton with ideas for how things could be different here, particularly for residential areas like Hanover, where I live. If anybody has specific questions they would like me to try and find answers to, please let me know in the comments box or on Twitter.