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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Over the last month I’ve been spending my Sundays in various Hanover streets, sitting in a drawing of a living room, littering planets around town and dressing cars up as hills and ladybirds. It was lovely – have a look at this Facebook page, this note and (especially) this blog post to find out more about what we did.
Creating the open house made me think about…
I crocheted most of a ladybird costume for a parked car, and roped in friends and family to make the rest of it. It took about two months to make, bringing home to me very directly just how big the cars parked all over our streets are. Each ordinary car occupies around 5 square metres of land.
As well as making big things into small ones, another art work I contributed was a scale model of the solar system. The sun, represented by a balloon, was tied to the top of the open house. The planets, to scale, were ridiculously small and scattered. When our open house was in Scotland Street, the solar system extended as far as North Street towards the south, London Road towards the north-west, and West Drive to the east.
In this model, the Earth is a peppercorn. We are floating through space on a tiny fragment of rock. All the air and water on which life on this planet depends is held within a thin skin on the very surface.
London Road and West Drive sometimes seem to be worlds apart. Making this model reminded me that we all breathe the same air, we are all part of the same ecosystem.
Private property and public space
We didn’t ask permission to set up our open house in the street, nor to make temporary use of the parked cars that form part of the landscape around here.
We were respectful of people’s need to travel, and always removed our decorations from cars if they were needed. If people needed to drive through the streets where we were (a very rare occurrence), we made space for them to do so.
However, our installations did effectively close the streets to traffic for a few hours, thereby opening them up as social, creative and playful spaces.
It made a change from the normal run of things, in which private individuals take control of the public street space, without permission, by lining the streets with parked cars.
What streets are for
I think that in a neighbourhood like Hanover, streets could easily be more than storage spaces for the private vehicles of just over half the residents.
They could be spaces for people to meet, talk, cycle, play, walk, scoot, skate and create. To a large extent, they already are. Whenever something like the Zocalo or the open house project comes along, people in Hanover embrace it.
But whenever a proposal is made to reallocate street space permanently for something other than car parking – for communal bins, for example – there is fierce resistance. Why is this?
I don’t know the answer, but I do know that we can’t carry on filling up our streets, our city and our planet with cars forever.
Somehow, we have to find a way to work out this knotty issue about private choices which intrude on our fragile shared environment.
It’s not just cars, of course. There is a threat to begin fracking in the Sussex countryside – an idea so breathtakingly foolish that it’s difficult to take seriously. But the energy companies truly seem determined to extract more and more fossil fuels from the Earth, in the face of all the evidence that this is the worst thing we can do. I am pleased to see Hanover residents supporting the resistance to this horrific idea.
But part of shifting towards a low carbon economy will have to be a change in the demand for energy – including for travel.
Our open house was a bit of fun in the May sunshine, but it was also about looking at things differently. How we choose to travel affects our neighbours, not only in Hanover, but all over our tiny peppercorn planet.