Monday 19 August 2013

Notes on Copenhagen, Hamburg and The Netherlands

This summer I visited Copenhagen, Hamburg and then cycled from Groningen to Amsterdam through the north of the Netherlands.  The key word was holiday, (rather than scientific assessment) but here are some brief notes and comments for what they are worth.


Wide cycle paths on main roads made cycling easy.  No need to plan your route because there was infrastructure where you need it on main through routes.  There were lots and lots of cycles and cyclists in the center and effectively no cars, or infrastructure. Planners had sacrificed car space for bike space, separated out motor traffic from the center and quiet streets and reduced congestion and traffic accordingly.  The junctions were consistent and it was easy to turn right and to go straight, thanks to the traffic light head start for bikes and space to the right allocated to bikes. Turning left was not always easy and the coping strategy of doing this in 2 stages was apparently the official way to do it, even if it was unclear what, were and when this should happen.

Some parts of Copenhagen were clogged up with cars.  These seemed to be poorer immigrant areas. Cars in the street were definitely not a sign of  wealth, but were a sign of affordable (and very good) restaurants.

Copenhagen was a nice place to walk and be.  The streets there are very similar to Vienna but there was much much less space for motor traffic, and parking and more for pedestrians and cycling.  Copenhagen to me shows how easy it is to transform any city from crappy car park/motorway to a nice place for people. All you need is to win, in part, the political battle of space allocation for people.  I spent a really enjoyable 24 hours cycling here and using a bike to connect with, explore and enjoy this city.


Hamburg follows the German bike infrastructure model of allocating footpath space to cycle infrastructure paint.  I did not cycle here as it was not very inviting.  I walked around a lot which was crappy too.  The parks in the center are fantastic and the idea of being able to sail in the middle of the city is a hit for me but outside this the roads were designed for racing cars.  On the famous Reeperbahn there was a sign that said it was a accident hot spot and so a 30kmph green wave existed.  For me this showed how stupid the traffic planners there are.  First they build a motorway through the middle of a drunken party zone and think that the boy racers who are drag racing each other care about green waves.  THEY ARE DRAG RACING!  They like stop / start you idiots.

I saw a crash here between a cyclist and pedestrian at a traffic light, and the ensuing argument about behaviour, space and who should be where... etc.. etc.. just like Vienna.

When eventually pedestrians got a green light they had to move fast to get across the road before the flag dropped for the next set of drag racers. I could not wait to get out of there as my ideal holiday is not standing at a red light waiting for a male with a small penis to lose control of his car and crash into me.

The Netherlands.

The Netherlands was very interesting and as in Copenhagen I started to think to myself that the motorists there are different and so much more respectful to cyclists.  It was clear that there was a totally different experience to cycling in Vienna or the UK.  I can now absolutely understand why the "different culture" label is used to explain this.  However, after some thought I think the maths explain this better.  I have a theory that 90% of people are really patient and respectful.  9% are impatient and 1% will actively try to kill you to prove a point or just for fun.  I confess that I ride thinking that every driver is in that 1% and that is why I am still alive. However, the vast vast majority of drivers are really great and do not deserve a negative label.  If you have 100 interactions with cars that are unclear and involve conflict that has to be negotiated then you will have one bad experience and 9 unpleasant ones and 90 totally fine interactions.  The trick the Dutch do is that those 100 interactions take 1000km to happen, but with poor road design you get 100 interactions every journey.  So it is probable that you will have a bad experience every journey on a bike in some cities.

What surprised me the most was the amount of separation using traffic planning.  Yes Dutch drivers are more familiar and aware of cyclists but they are also not encouraged to drag race through a drunken pedestrian party zone.  Good Traffic planning and urban design are (I would now say) probably as important as the quality of the detailed infrastructure design.

I was involved in one accident where a car driver impatiently overtook me on a village road where there was a middle black stripe for motor traffic that was not wide enough for 2 cars and red strides on each side.  This was common in villages.  I was not too keen on being a human traffic calming device.  The car over took before a bend, when they should not, and got smashed by a car coming the other way.  So there is impatience and poor judgement amongst Dutch drivers but the speed and consequences of their actions are limited by road design and traffic routing and so only some metal got bent.

Navigating by bike is very easy with the dual network of signs.  The red signs direct you to the next town along a direct route and the green number nodes lead you through the scenic routes.

Dutch junctions were more likely to have cycle infrastructure than their connecting road sections. It seemed like the junctions were important to design rather than abandoning cyclists to sort it out themselves as is popular in Vienna.  This makes sense as accidents do happen at conflict points and junctions are for sure conflict points.  Therefore design to reduce conflict and clearly clarify the situation makes sense. However, in nearly no motor traffic roads insecurity is used to reduce motor vehicle speed.

(Outside Amsterdam) waiting at red lights (even when turning left) was never a real issue. Often there were no traffic lights because they were not needed due to the tight junction corners reducing car speeds, the clear rights of way reducing the need for negotiation and the 90 degree angle between cars and bikes improving viability at junctions.  Motor traffic and bikes flowed and could cooperate with each other much better than is possible in Vienna thanks to the junction design making them meet face to face at the same speed.  Where interaction is not desirable (due to high motor traffic volume or speed) bikes are separated with traffic light phases, different routes or underpasses. Conflict opportunity reduction is clearly key to Dutch road design.

Speed is not an issue and I have never cycled as slowly as I did in the Netherlands.   I cycle at least 5kmph faster in Vienna just because of the stressful space invader video game effect.  The mopeds and many MAMILS in the Netherlands showed that you can cycle fast if you want to but frankly it is really nice to not need to.

Dutch Cycle infrastructure gets used by mopeds, mobility scooters, kids, old age pensioners, MAMILS, Velomobiles, hand trikes, cargo bikes,  trikes, e-bikes, recumbents, touring cyclists,  etc....  It is inclusive diverse mobility infrastructure.

Nearly every Dutch town center and access road is effectively car free.

New Dutch towns have better infrastructure than Amsterdam. It seems you really have to design out bikes to repress cycle use in big cities (as most European cities have done). Some of the Dutch towns have new junctions whose design is just fantastic and deserves a Noble Peace prize.

Cyclist behavior in Copenhagen and the Netherlands is often appalling but it does not matter or pose any real issue.  Cycling 2 abreast is great and you can chat and enjoy another person's company while cycling. Even if I personally find it hard to relax while doing it as a result of the years of  bullying.

The new Dutch infrastructure is much better than the old.  The Netherlands is not perfect for cycling but they are improving it every time they build a new bit of road.  It is a lot better than every other country because they design roads to be used by bikes, rather than expect them to behave like fast motorbikes or pedestrians.

Vienna does not need to change dramatically to be a world leader in bicycle use.  It just needs to get new stuff right and linearly improve the cycle infrastructure quality to get exponential cycle use growth.

One key lesson from my holiday is that bikes are a really really great way to get around and for sure more and more people will discover this.  When will Vienna's traffic planners and road designers?

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