Ferraris and fear: A Dutch view of Manchester

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Angelique Meyer with her bike in Manchester

In the third of GMCC’s series offering an outside eye on Manchester’s cycling culture, Alex Bailey speaks to Angelique Meyer, the business attaché to The Netherlands government.

Ask most people what’s needed to get more people cycling for day to day journeys and they will probably tell you ‘cycle lanes’. Those who are really into cycling infrastructure might qualify their demand, saying, “but we don’t want more of the crap cycle lanes we’ve got; we want the kind they have in Holland.”

‘Going Dutch’ has been the rallying cry of London Cycling Campaign since 2011 and was the theme of a conference organised by Greater Manchester Cycling Campaign in November. So what would ‘going Dutch’ mean?

Campaigners extol the virtues of Dutch cycle paths, but is there more to Dutch cycling than brindle blocks and asphalt? How is the bicycle viewed by Dutch parents and children? What do bikes and cars represent for people brought up in The Netherlands? And what do the Dutch think of cycling in the UK?

A Dutch view

“A car driver can ride a bike too,” says Angelique. If she were an environmentalist, I’d take it that she meant car drivers ought to cycle. However, Angelique is no campaigner, she is the chief representative of the Netherlands government in Manchester. She is not saying that people ought to cycle, she is saying, contrary to popular opinion, that it is an option. “It’s not like people are pushed into a car.”

The car as status symbol

It’s a good point. For many Brits, the car is the only way to get around and they wouldn’t dream of cycling to work or the shops. Why would they, when they’ve got a car?

I suggest that the car is a status symbol. “It’s completely different in The Netherlands,” Angelique replies, “because our prime minister rides a bicycle and he’s praised for that.” An image crosses my mind of David Cameron cycling to the houses of parliament, his briefcase being carried in a following car, but I don’t say anything. I’m glad, because I soon realise this Dutch prime minister’s motivation is quite different. “If he would show up in a big car, people would say: ‘Hey that’s tax money. You’re using our tax money.’ It’s a different perspective on things.”

She adds: “You don’t see as many big cars in The Netherlands as you see here in Manchester. I’d never seen an Aston Martin until I came here. I’d never seen a Ferrari. Never seen it on the roads.”

Everyone a cyclist

It is not just Dutch adults who view cycling as a means of transport, Angelique tells me. “Cycling is part of our culture,” she says. “First you learn to walk and then you learn to ride a bicycle. I think every kid in The Netherlands that turns three gets a small bicycle and when you’re four or five, you go to school on your bicycle, you mum or dad takes you there. And when you’re six you go there on your own.”

As she recalls her route to school, I picture a junior Angelique pedalling along: crossing roads, cycling on a path beside “a road like Deansgate” and sharing smaller streets with motorists. “You don’t have to be worried about cars. Car drivers ride a bicycle themselves as well and have kids that ride a bicycle, so people are very careful with cyclists… or at least they know they need to keep some distance and not drive too fast. It’s quite safe to cycle.”

I ask what happened when Angelique passed her driving test. Did she use her car instead? The answer is, of course, logical. “You use your bike for short distances. It’s easier… and also cheaper. I use my car only for long distances, when I know I can park.”

Segregation everywhere?

“It’s not completely segregated,” says Angelique. “When there’s not enough space [for cycling on the road], it’s segregated.”

And this is the difference. When space is tight on a UK road, planners sacrifice the cycle lane, even though that’s when it is most needed. When there’s no space in Holland, a cycle path is provided. Angelique is thinking the same thing. “In Manchester the cycle lanes stop when it becomes difficult, or when you’re at a crossing, whereas in The Netherlands you still know where you need to go.”

Is it typical to see cycle paths as wide as roads? “In new suburban areas it’s more like that,” answers Angelique. “In Amsterdam you’re just in the streets and the tram is driving next to you, and the buses. Also in Leiden. It depends how old the city is and how old its infrastructure is.”

Which is better: segregated or integrated cycling? “There’s not really a ‘better’ option,” Angelique replies. “It’s easier to cycle in a suburban area, [but] I think everyone in The Netherlands is so used to cycling together with the rest of the traffic, it feels quite natural to mix. In Amsterdam you can’t make it all segregated.” We’ve established that, in the Dutch model, ‘cycling is planned for’ rather than there being ‘a cycle path along every road’ and, at times, cyclists mix with motorists.

Cycling in Manchester

Angelique MeyerSince she’s used to mixing it, is Angelique okay cycling in the UK? “It took me one year before I actually dared to use my bicycle in Manchester,” she says. “I was quite scared of cycling here [and] I only have to [travel] within Manchester centre. Traffic is so fast here, with the cars, the buses, the taxis. People don’t understand how scary it is if they drive really fast in a car just next to you. Also with the potholes on the road.

“Sometimes it seems Deansgate is being used as a Formula One track, just to show how fast the car is. I’m like, ‘you’re in a Ferrari, I do know your car is fast, but please don’t demonstrate it just when I’m cycling here and people are crossing the street.’ It’s scary. I’m always afraid people will lose control of their car. I mean, I’m not going to survive if they hit me.”

“So what changed?” I ask.

“I had this bike so I thought ‘at some point I have to use it’,” says Angelique, referring to the Dutch bike that her employer sent her. I ask if this is the company car. “Yes,” she laughs.

“My Dutch friend convinced me to start cycling [here]. As soon as I started cycling I thought, ‘Well, I’m not gonna walk any more because it’s way faster to go everywhere on my bicycle.’ Then it was [a case of] getting to know the traffic, but the cycling itself was still the same.

“I still find it scary sometimes because you have the feeling that you’re just a hassle [or] you’re just in the way. People simply want to be fast somewhere else and I’m like, ‘Well, I just want to be at my job as well.’

“People don’t cycle here. They don’t know how it feels to be on a bicycle [or] how it feels to be overtaken by a car really fast – and that you need some room and that you can not really drive close to the pavement, that there are potholes and other things, that you need a little bit of room.”

What’s the difference?

Brits who admire Dutch cycling may assume it’s all about the cycle paths. However, Angelique describes a culture that has put the car in its place, in fundamental ways: it doesn’t view cars as status symbols; it doesn’t fetishise speed; the six years olds cycle to school unsupervised and the teenagers keep their bicycles after they have learnt to drive. It is a culture that has retained the bicycle as a tool for mobility, to the extent that the prime minister would be thought profligate if he used a car instead.

Yet, the car has its place and because people regularly use each mode, they don’t identify as either a cyclist or a motorist. They can choose.

What will get more Brits cycling for their day to day journeys? Maybe there’s not a single solution, but a number of them. However, it’s worth remembering that you get what you plan for. While the British were building a motorway network, the Dutch were scaling down their road-building plans and investing in cycling. Fourty years on, we see cycling as a sport; they see it as a transport option.

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