Wednesday 27 February 2013

Amsterdam - Part 1

I have the attention span of a goldfish. Therefore, I thought I'd write this for goldfish and split tit into two parts.

I've visited Amsterdam quite a few times in the past in my university days.

Yes, I realise that the above sentence will have quite a few of you jumping to conclusions about why I was there! In fact I was there with the university judo club for an annual judo competition (It was actually in Eindhoven, but we always stopped off in Amsterdam for a day). Depite all of the 'temptations' available I was always very well behaved, and stuck to the beer.

I can state for the record that whilst there on those trips I did not in any way pay attention to the cycle infrastructure. Cycling at that time was not on my radar.

Things have changed.

I'm not only older, wiser, weigh about 10 kgs more, and a bit more wrinkled, but the sole purpose of this visit WAS to look at cycle infrastructure. As I've discussed in previous blogs I was very lucky to be a guest of BBC Scotland, and spent a full day in the fair city. I boarded an orange and white coloured plane the night before, with some waterproofs (rain was forecast) a change of clothes, a helmet, some gloves and a helmet camera.

One thing was noticeable by it absence.....Lycra.

My flight arrived at Schipol before David's (David Miller the BBC reporter) so upon arrival I set to work straight away by finding the nearest pub and ordering a beer. Dutch beer of course, which was nice. What was odd though, was as soon as the waitress came over to me she spoke English, and yet when someone else sat down she instantly spoke Dutch.

Had she spotted the helmet in my rucksack?

When in Amsterdam....

A while later, and 2 very nice beers later, BBC Scotland arrived in the form of David and Doug  the cameraman.So without further ado we jumped in a taxi and headed to the hotel. This is where I made my first interesting observation.

I happened to be facing backwards in the taxi, and whilst we were chatting about what we were planning over the next day or so I noticed something quite surprising....we were being tail-gated.  We were on the motorway, probably travelling about 60mph and there was a car about 2 or 3 metres back from us. That wasn't a one off either, as I noticed it happening a few times. The tail-gating was actually worse than I normally experience when driving my car back home.

There goes the myth that Dutch divers are better than drivers in the UK!

Following a few beers and for me, a very nice chocolate, chocolate, chocolate and chocolate was off to bed. We had an early rise the next morning as the plan was to film the school run, and in Amsterdam they get to school at 8:30am.

There may have been some chocolate....

Morning comes and after a quick breakfast it was into a taxi to find a good place to film (we ride bikes later...honest!). At first we stopped off at a junction leading up to the school and Doug started filming, as did I. Here is what I recorded.

Wait a minute?!? There is no segregation here! In fact there was no cycle specific infrastructure here at all! Not only that, but we also see a driver parking on a pavement and using their get out of jail flasging indicators! Yes, the driver confirmed once again that dtivers in the Netherlands are no better than here, but it was fascinating to watch the way that this four way junction worked. Cyclists and cars mixed effortlessly.

How did that work!?!?

There is a huge misconception that Amsterdam has city wide segregated cycle paths. It doesn't. This was an excellent example of how you can make cars and bikes mix safely. Keep the speed low. You'll notice that on all approaches to the junction there is a ramp, and that ramp encourages everyone to keep the speed down. Keep the speed down, and suddenly everyone has more time to look around and see what the hazards are, and voila, the traffic (which includes cyclists!) flows freely and safely.

Of course there is more too it than in numbers, most drivers also ride bikes, etc, but designing junctions to slow speeds inevitably makes it safer, which means streets like this where there isn't a huge amount of room for segregation, can still be cyclist friendly.

We didn't stay at the junction for long as we wanted to be outside a school watching how families arrived. So we went along the road a few hundred metres to the nearest school. What struck me straight away was that rather than having a large number of 4x4's parking and jostling outside the school, it had a huge pile of bikes of all shapes and sizes. The camera was set up and we sat just filming people arriving at the school.

I can honestly say that during that time I saw one child being dropped off by car. Just one. I saw every other child either walking with their parents or as the vast majority were doing, cycling to school. In every other way it was just the same as it is back in Scotland:  people are in a hurry, running late, slightly hassled with slightly misbehaving kids....but no-one was fighting for parking, or jossling for road space. Everyone flowed into the school with the absolute minimum of hassle. That's not to say that there wasn't traffic. Just behind where I was stood there was a queue of traffic waiting at traffic lights, but that traffic was through traffic, and most importantly didn't interact, AT ALL, with the school traffic.

You'd be mad to drive the kids to school!

David and Rob chatted to a few parents as they left the school....cycling is safe...cycling is normal....of course I let my kids cycle... Once finished we had a little time to spare so went for a coffee before we were due at Fietsersbond. Fietsrsbond, the  effectively the Dutch Cycling Union is an organisation that represents the rights and requirements of cyclists across the Netherlands. We were going to meet Gerrit Faber, our cycling guide for the day.

So how did we arrive at Fietsersbond? Yes. OK, we arrived by taxi, but this was to be the last taxi we would take until we needed to get back to the airport.....

Hello Fietsersbond Amsterdam!

Upon arriving at the Fietsesbond office and having tea and coffee, we got down to the serious business of chatting about cycling, cycle infrastructure, and the success of cycling in the Netherlands. On the table in the main office was a large map of Amsterdam. At this point Gerrit explained that the green on the map represented routes that were considered safe for cycling, i.e. had specifically been designed or redesigned with cyclists in mind. What was very impressive, was that there was green everywhere. I couldn't see any part of Amsterdam where there wasn't a spiders web of green routes entering and leaving it.


Gerrit did the obligatory interview for camera (mine would be saved for the end of the day) and we looked once again at the map planning our route for the next few hours.

So where should we go?!

Before we could plan anything we needed to work out logistics. We had some equipment to lug around, cameras, tripods etc, so would we need a taxi ferrying the equipment around whilst Gerrit and I went off galavanting?

No way!!

Just a few hundred metres away was a bike hire shop.......I think it should hire cargo bikes as well....

So a plan was hatched. We'd hire a standard bike for me, and a cargo bike for David and Rob. BBC Scotland would be going Dutch!

My bike

BBC bike
So what was it actually like once we got cycling?

Wet. Yes it rained. A lot. Oh and it was cold. It was a good representation of Glasgow.

Oh you mean what was the actual cycling like?

Watch this space for part 2!  

Monday 18 February 2013

Cycling with the Enemy?

Anyone who reads this blog will know that I was fortunate enough to go to Amsterdam with BBC Scotland to film an item for Reporting Scotland and Newsnight Scotland on cycle infrastructure. For background it is worth watching the item here, and reading what I have previously written on the subject, here and here.

Ok, some of you won't read my previous blogs....can't understand why.... but at the very least watch the video.

There were a few controversies surrounding the debate on Newsnight Scotland, and a lot of that focused on what Alan Douglas said during the debate.

The controversial comments can effectively be summed up as follows:

Cyclists should just cycle on the roads, they don't need any new infrastructure...

Cyclists don't use the paths they are provided....

Spending money on cycle infrastructure would take money away from the NHS and nurses....

As a cyclist I know exactly why that would irk many. There was also the suggestion that Alan had colluded with the main presenter Gordon Brewer before the debate started to do a 'hatchet job' on Chris Oliver.

Best to forget about it and move on.....Not quite...

I'm not one to let an opportunity pass, so I asked Alan via Twitter if he would be willing to meet. After a bit of persuasion, and a promise that I wasn't a nutter...I'm not honest...we arranged to meet.

It was a bit cold and it was a bit damp, but as I stood outside the Burnbrae Pub in Milngavie a cyclist dressed in a red jacket and a black cap made his way gingerly across the road towards me. He was riding a slightly rusty, but fully functional ex rental mountain bike which I suspect was a world away from the luxury cars that Alan Douglas is used to driving as part of his day job. It was however, very clear from the start that Alan was making an effort.

So for the next 40 minutes or so, Alan and I chatted, cycled a little and looked at the infrastructure in the area surrounding the pub, which just so happened to include my infamous rounabout,

Before we had a look at the surrounding 'infrastructure' we chatted for a good 15 minutes.
Alan was very keen to stress that there was no hatchet job on Chris in the Newsnight debate. In fact he pointed out that when he came into the studio before the debate, that Brewer specifically said he wouldn't give any clues about what he was going to talk about, to keep the debate fresh. So he was as much in the blue as anyone about the questions that would be asked. Alan did agree though that Brewer was tougher on Chris than he was him. Alan didn't think that was intentional, perhaps a result of the shortage of time, but it no doubt had an effect on the debate.

I obviously had to probe Alan about his assertions during the debate.

Cyclists should just cycle on the roads, they don't need any new infrastructure...

This topic dominated much of the discussion. We discussed what typical infrastructure was like...i.e. rubbish, and that I often chose not to use it. Which flowed into Alan's other assertion that,

Cyclists don't use the paths they are provided....

I pointed out that generally cyclists would use infrastructure if they felt it would help them, but that generally it doesn't. I was actually surprised when Alan looked at the infrastructure near us and commented on it. He actually listed many of the things that I thought were wrong with it, that it started and stopped, and that it weaved in and out. I got the feeling that Alan certainly understood that a lot of the infrastructure that does exist is poor quality. He certainly didn't spot all of the problems, but he understood that problems existed. His issue with cycle infrastructure was in fact more fundamental than that.

Why do we need it in the first place? Why should we be encouraging more cycling? We are not and never will be a nation like the Netherlands. We don't have the culture.

It was when I pressed Alan on what I thought was the most controversial of his assertions that I think I began to understand more fully where he was coming from,

Spending money on cycle infrastructure would take money away from the NHS and nurses....

This comment partcularly irked me, especially as I work in the health sector and I understand the significant health benefits that cycling would bring. Alan was at first a little coy about this particular comment, he didn't actually retract it. However, he did suggest that it was a 'throw away comment' made under the pressure of the debate. What he was trying to suggest is that for cycling to have funding, that it would have to compete with many other worthwhile ways of spending the money. Mentioning the NHS was just his way of making the point in a way that was quick to comprehend.

Obviously I pointed out that cycling itself was an excellent form of preventative medicine, and Alan certainly conceded this point, though he was a little sceptical of the statistics....but he was quite firm in his concern that cycling would have to compete with everything else for funding. When I suggested that the funding came from transport his suggestion was that the money should be spent on fixing potholes that affect all road users. We certainly agreed that potholes were a big problem for all.

By this time we were both getting a bit cold....we never made it into the we went for a short cycle along towards my infamous roundabout. Alan leading and myself following close behind. It was at this point that I explained his road position wasn't the best. He was cycling in the door zone. I explained what that was and why it was such an issue. I suspect that this was something that he hadn't considered before.

Then came the roundabout. I discussed the incident, I discussed how close I was to being wiped out that day, and I discussed why I thought the roundabout was contributory. 

The roundabout is designed for two things, flow and speed. Speed of approach at this roundabout (including mine) would have contributed to the incident.

My speed of approach was not wrong, and neither was the speed of the HGV excessive... the roundabout is actually designed (possibly by accident) to allow a vehicle to move quickly through the roundabout if it is quiet. The major fault in this incident was that the HGV driver just didn't see me. He could have stopped if he had looked properly. However, had we both had to slow on approach, due to the roundabouts design, it would have increased my likelihood of being spotted and it would have given us both more time to react.

Road design is the key.

Alan definitely agreed with this, and pointed out that this roundabout had evolved this way rather than been designed this way. He agreed that the roundabout could be better designed for cars and cyclists, and yes, perhaps there could be some specific infrastructure for cyclists that could help.

I then showed Alan what I thought could be done with the roads in the area and how the cycling infrastructure could not only be improved to improve the safety of cyclists, but also improve the look and feel of the area and most likely, the flow of vehicle traffic.

This is what we have
Cycle lanes that are  too narrow, are poorly maintained, start and stop without notice, and that actually take cyclists right through the door zone, the most dangerous place for us to be.

This is what we could have

It's actually quite hard to see the cycle lane here. That's the point. The picture is taken from the road and the cycle lane is far away from it, on the other side of the parked cars safely separated from the traffic.

I didn't have the pictures to hand when Alan and I were chatting but I did my best to describe the above possible redesign for the road. As I described it, Alan nodded and agreed that such a change would be for the better, but wouldn't be cheap.

In fact towards the end of our discussions, Alan made one comment that stuck in my mind,

I can't fault any of your logic...

I don't think Alan actually disputed any of the facts that I placed before him, and he didn't deny the health benefits of cycling, or that there would be less pollution, or that there were significant economic benefits to designing our roads for cycling. I think where Alan and I parted ways was in our ideology.

As a cyclist who wants to see non-cyclists cycling, I think that we should be using our admittedly scarce public money to invest in cycling. Alan thinks we should be focusing on repairing the roads as they stand as that would make it safer for everyone. I got the feeling that he was not too bothered either way if more people cycled or not. My contention is that cycling has to be a real option for travel, especially for shorter journeys, and that repairing the roads and building cycle infrastructure could go hand in hand .

Many, many roads are in a very poor state of repair, and have suffered from many years of neglect and poor quality patch repairs. Thus, they are in need of serious amounts of work to bring them back up to standard. So, yes, lets focus on major road repair, but lets kill two birds with one stone. Whilst repairing the road, that's the perfect time to start reshaping the roads.

Effectively the poor quality of our infrastructure represents an opportunity for change. Look at it as a very bumpy blank canvas. On each road you repair, put in quality infrastructure for cycling. Not only will there be more cycling and the many benefits that brings, but there will be fewer cars on the road. the upshot of which will be less wear and tear on the new roads (damage increases to the power of 4 of axle weight).

As you've probably worked out, Alan and I talked considerably more than we cycled. We probably managed only 200 metres of cycling in total. That didn't matter. What matters is we talked, I think we actually enjoyed each others company, we certainly didn't agree, but we both got to see the world from a different perspective.

We shook hands and we both cycled off our separate ways back to our different worlds. Despite the cold weather, I really enjoyed meeting Alan. I haven't changed my convictions in any way, but I think I understand a little bit more about those who oppose money being spent on cycle infrastructure. There are those that are concerned that money spent on cycling will be money wasted on infrastructure that won't be used, and will mean that general road repairs will loose out. Perhaps we cycle campaigners need to address the general state of the roads more in our campaigning.

Did Alan learn anything from me? I hope so, but I obviously can't speak for anyone else. All I do know is that Alan sent me the following in an e-mail after he got home,

If it's a good day tomorrow I might just go out on the bike again...


...but not on the roads. Far too dangerous.

OK, maybe only progress of sorts. What is certain is that progress will only come through conversation and dialogue, so rather than keeping quiet, we need to keep the conversation going, and the most important people to talk to are the ones who disagree with us.


Thursday 14 February 2013

Balance and Vision

I've got a few blogs in my head that I will be publishing over the coming week related to my trip to Amstardam and the footage and the debate that followed. This is the first that came out of my head. there will also be a blog on my own thoughts about my visit to Amsterdam, some blogs about the discussion that took place on the Newsnight item (or here if not available) with specific regard to Alan Douglas' comments. I may even have a challenge for him....

Anyone who knows me in the real world (and not just from my YouTube videos) knows I'm not an angry person. In fact I'm quite a content happy, jokey kind of guy. Yes my jokes aren't always the best, but I like a good laugh.

Yet at the moment I am angry. In fact angrier than I have been in a long time. Not the punch a wall type anger, but the 'absolutely frustrated that politicians really JUST DON'T GET IT!!!!' type anger.

As I've mentioned previously I went on a trip to Amsterdam recently with the BBC, and as a result David Miller has produced some articles discussing cycle infrastructure in The Netherlands and what we can learn here.

I'm certainly not angry with David. In fact, quite the opposite, at last we have had some major media coverage that gets to the heart of the issues, without all the unnecessary side arguments. Brilliant.

No, I'm angry with the politicians. In this particular case, Keith Brown. Before you read on, have a listen to this item on Newsnight (from 7m19 seconds onwards). Just now I'll focus on Keith's comments, I'll focus on others later.

I'm  going to cut to the chase here. Keith suggests that there is no target for 10% of journeys by bike until 2020, it's a 'shared vision'. A WHAT? Yes a shared vision. I've been around long enough to know what that means.

Translation: Shared Vision - It'd be nice, if it happens, but we are going to do bu%%er all to get there.Good luck with that....

Yes effectively Keith has let us all know that the current Scottish Government couldn't give a monkeys if we do indeed end up with 10% by 2020. If it happens, sure they would bask in the glory. Well done Keith! If it doesn't happen they will shrug, point back at us, and claim its our fault. Bloody cyclists. Then, more than likely, they will set a new shared vision for 2030 and voilĂ , it will be someone else's problem. Sorted.

Also in the interview Keith suggested that us cyclists need to realise that 'balance' is required. We aren't the only ones needing money. We have to realise that we have our place in the balance of things, and that what we really need is modernisation.

So what does balance actually look like? Interestingly the BBC did a picture feature on that very subject recently. We don't live in a landscape any more, we live in a carscape. Where ever you are, stop what you are doing. If your inside, look outside, if you are already outside, just stop and look around. What do you see?

Look really hard.....

You see an environment that has been shaped by one overpowering force: an unstoppable, insatiable need to travel from one place to another in a fully enclosed, temperature controlled radio 4 filled, 4 wheeled, inefficient machine. The car. Everything you see is there to serve the needs of people who drive cars. Everything else has to work around that. Everything.

I use a car, I sometimes even enjoy it, but I baulk at the environment we have created. We hear about how we are ruining the environment by driving our cars, but the fact is, the car has already ruined our environment, it has shaped it and contorted it to fit it's needs.

So Keith has asked for balance. I completely agree, the time has most definitely come for balance. However, I suspect that the balance that Mr Brown is talking about is that we should spend enough to keep the cycle lobby quiet, and spend as much as we can 'modernising' Scotland's infrastructure by building more roads, so more people can get to more places car.


So what is modernisation? Is it building more roads that encourage more journeys by car? Is that what I witnessed in Amsterdam? They are most certainly modernising, and yes, when they build a new area of land, as I witnessed when there, they do put a road in. People will need cars for some journeys. However, modernising Dutch style is making sure that the infrastructure is in place, and even prioritied to ensure that people can travel by foot and by bike. They are given the option, and most importantly the option is made as easy and as safe as possible.

So Mr Brown, you keep on with your way of modernisation, but I can assure you I will not be voting for you and I certainly will not be supporting independance if this is an indication of the 'modernising' priorities of an independent Scotland.

It would appear that our current government needs to visit the doctor, as both it's vision and balance seem to be failing fast.

Monday 11 February 2013

The Bias of Newsnight Scotland

You may have noticed from my previous blog post I was a little angry. You'd be right. I was angry with Keith Brown and his governments inability to understand what modernisation should really mean for Scotland, and that they are probably going to try backtracking on their target (or non-target) to get 10% of journeys made by bike by 2020. Turns out that he is in disagreement with Nicola Sturgeon on the issue of vision/targets. It would appear to be a target after all. It will be interesting to see how that pans out....

For anyone who has watched the Newsnight programme (if that link no longer works you can see it here), you will understand that my anger was not restricted to Keith. It was after the Amsterdam item finished that the presenter of Newnight, Gordon Brewer introduced two guests Chris Oliver of CTC Scotland, and Alan Douglas, an ex-presenter, newspaper features writer and car/driving enthusiast..

Both Brewer and Douglas appeared to be very anti-cyclist (that was the appearance, the underlying reality may be different)

First let me deal with Brewer. When you are the programme presenter, is it not your job to enable the debate, help drive it forward, but stay neutral? Is that correct? Isn't it also the presenters job to be well informed on the debates he is hosting?

Yet, Brewer goes into a long winded attack during the debate on how we've all missed something and that it rains all the time here, there are gales, a different climate, oh and we have hills. All this aimed at Oliver, who understandably was a little surprised by this approach.

So was Brewer informed? No.

Brewer had one last chance for revision had he actually watched the Amsterdam item. I suspect that Brewer was in fact having a wee natter with Douglas at the time, as he failed to miss one glaring problem with this line of was bl**dy cold and wet when I was filming in Amsterdam! So much so that by the end of the shooting, the cameraman couldn't feel his fingers, I was starting to loose the feeling in my fingers (and I had thick gloves on), David Miller's trousers were soaked through and Gerrit, our Dutch guide was visibly shivering!

To be fair, we had been cycling around for a good few hours, and most folk in Amsterdam would not have be cycling for that long at any one time, so we were a special case.......but that's the point. During my time cycling around in the cold and the rain I saw hundreds and hundreds of cyclists cycling around, without film crews following them. They were using their bikes, despite it actually being colder there than it was in Glasgow that day. I've got plenty of helmet camera footage to prove this, which I'll edit when I get a chance.

There is no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothes! The people of Amsterdam had the right clothes.

As for hills, well, it just so happens that the the two closest and cheapest cities to get to from Glasgow were Copenhagen and Amsterdam, so when the BBC wanted to organise a trip these were the two options offered.  I'd have been more than happy, perhaps happier if we went elsewhere. Switzerland and Austria aren't known for being particularly flat and tropical and yet they both have several areas where cycling modal share is at or above 15% (see here for out of date and thus probably low figures). Hilly, doesn't put people off cycling, safety does.

So it would seem that research is something that Brewer does not do before asking daft questions, and that he's not one for neutrality.

Now onto Douglas.

Let's face it, Douglas made some controversial comments. He suggested that cyclists don't use the 'wonderful' facilities provided for them, and that 'plenty' of money has and is already being spent on cycling. He also asked a question, do we want more cycle lanes at the expense of nurses etc...He wasn't holding any punches.

What is my response?

Let's talk.

I invited Douglas to meet with me for a chat about his thoughts and feelings on the subject and he accepted. I'm hoping he will explain the reasoning behind his comments. I will also take him for a look at some of the 'infrastructure' that I am expected to use on a daily basis. I'll explain to him why I often chose not to use it. It will be interesting to hear and see his response.

I'll be meeting him over the weekend, and then I'll share my thoughts on our meeting here on this blog. I'll also offer Douglas to post a guest blog here too. He may or may not chose to do so.

I've been sharing the Mind of Helmet Camera Cyclist here for a good few years now. Perhaps it is now time to see if we can understand the Mind of Cycling Sceptical Driver 

Monday 4 February 2013

A Day in Amsterdam

Wow. Just wow.

I had the privilege of spending a day in Amsterdam in some great company. I spent a day with David Miller of the BBC, Doug the camera man (Eek, I didn't get his last name, sorry) and Gerrit Faber of Fietsersbond (The Dutch Cyclists Union).

What a day.

It was memorable for many reasons, including the rain and the cold. However, as the main purpose of visiting Amsterdam was to produce some footage that BBC Scotland I'll hold off sharing my experiences until the item has shown.

When is it on?

The plan is for BBC Scotland to cover the issue of cycle safety and cycling infrastructure over the course of Thursday the 7th February. There are plans for a discussion on Good Morning Scotland, Reporting Scotland, and Newsnight Scotland. Barring any major breaking news it should air as planned.

Don't worry though, I have plenty of thoughts that I want to share here with you guys about what I saw, what I didn't see, what I experienced, and what I didn't experience.

In the mean time, here are some photos I took with my phone (no sneaky looks at my helmet footage just yet!). Hopefully it will whet your appetite....

Doug hard at work filming the school run.

There's never enough parking outside schools....

My main bike for the day.

BBC Scotland's Transport for the day (I had a go later)

At Fietsersbond with our guide for the day Gerrit Faber

Not just for cyclists and pedestrians, surely?!?

You wait years for bike parking, then 2500 come at once.