Seeing how the neighbours do it

Last Monday I had a few hours to spare while in London. The perfect opportunity to go and see all the traffic situations I ‘knew’ from following the blogs about cycling in London. The Northern Line turned out to be perfect to get to many of these sites.

Tour of London
Places I visited in a tour to see London’s (bicycle) infrastructure.

Starting at Oval I saw “Cycle Superhighway” number 7 on Clapham Road. Two stations to the North I visited the overwhelming Elephant and Castle gyratory. Again two stations to the North I exited at London Bridge and walked to Bank to see the Thames bridge and some of the huge streets there. I then went to Camden Town and walked through Royal College Street to see some ‘good’ cycle infrastructure as well. From Mornington Crescent I headed back South again and left the Northern line to visit the recently reconstructed traffic situation at Blackfriars Bridge. From there I went to the centre to see Oxford Circus and Oxford street. It was there that it started to rain. Then I had a look around the Vauxhall gyratory and from there I walked back to Oval. Finally I quickly visited Parliament square. Quite a tour and I filmed over an hour of material. Unfortunately I lost the first full SD card in the plane going back home. So all the raw footage up to Vauxhall was lost. I was not too happy about this of course! And though it was the first time this ever happened to me, it cannot be reversed.

But at least I got to see all those sites with my own eyes and most of the traffic situations were so alien to me that I have little trouble to remember exactly how everything is.

From the material I still had available on my second SD card I did manage to make a short video about what was most striking in London from a Dutch perspective.

It was really interesting to see cycling infrastructure where I’d least expected it and no infrastructure where in my opinion it was most needed. Something can also be said about the design of the infrastructure that was available. To a Dutch eye the tracks and lanes are narrow and it is hard to see where they actually are. Because there is not much difference from the footpath sometimes. There are also a lot of obstacles and the surface is not continuous and not smooth enough. The blue paint of Cycle Superhighway number 7 on Clapham Road is already fading away and the fact that buses use it and it is allowed to park on it at certain times is very hard to understand. I saw that the bicycle lanes and tracks are not continued on junctions; where you would need them most. The combined bus/cycle lanes were also strange to see from a Dutch perspective because in the Netherlands we try to keep vehicles with such a different speed and especially mass as far apart as possible. On the other hand there were separated cycle tracks on back streets with little motorised traffic driving at low speeds, something the Dutch would not consider building.

Some streets in London (left) and Utrecht (right) are remarkably similar when it comes to width and the style of buildings. Cycling infrastructure however is very different. A comparison I once made in Google Streetview.

The second video looks at some of the same situations in London again and then combines them with very similar situations in Utrecht filmed two days later. Some people will say these two cities are incomparable. But I would like to focus on the many similarities. The traditional average sizes of buildings and therefore streets in the Netherlands and the UK are often remarkably similar. The sizes of motorised vehicles and indeed people and bicycles are of course also the same. That makes the widths of traffic lanes in those streets very similar and I therefore think you can compare the two very well.

I don’t think I am in the position to draw conclusions from this comparison. But to me one thing became very apparent again. The main real difference in (bicycle) infrastructure the Netherlands and the UK, neighbours separated only by the North Sea, lies in the way the limited space is allocated but not in the space available. It is all about choices that are made.

18 thoughts on “Seeing how the neighbours do it

  1. It would be interesting if you revisited this junction to do a before and after video. Of course, it would also be good to get your thoughts on the other new cycle routes being built in London.

  2. The junction shown in this video has received a massive upgrade for cycling with a new segregated route, however, the rest of the area remains terrible. Fortunately, TfL is currently in the process of redesigning the area to make it much better for cyclists.

  3. great comparison there, Mark! I want to do the same for Dublin so is it possible for me to have your “typical Dutch” video at:

    Let me know if it is possible


  4. Please, go back to London (or you might try Paris, Dublin, Barcelona, etc) and make more videos-comparison like this one!! that’s a nice excuse to expend your summer 😉 – thank you, Mark, your videos are changing the way of Brazilians seen cycle-paths, believe me!!! keep the WONDERFUL work!! thank you!!

  5. Replace “London” with Chicago and all of your observations about the differences between that city and Utrecht are true. (With one exception: if the street doesn’t need a bikeway, we typically don’t put one there, but we still put the wrong bikeway in places that need them.)

    This is the most misunderstood part of *pedestrian* (the adjective not the noun) transportation design in Chicago: “lies in the way the limited space is allocated but not in the space available. It is all about choices that are made.” We’ve plenty of space!

  6. Fascinating watching the footage. More and more people in England seem to be cycling which is great but there seems to be little consistent support e.g provision of cycling lanes that do not come to an abrupt halt for no reason. Motorists seem to think that it is acceptable to park in cycle lanes with seemingly no penalty ( is this a breach of any highway regulation?) makes a mockery of cycle lanes. Interestingly none of the cyclists in Holland seem to be wearing cycle helmets obviously feel much safer on their bikes than we do in England! Nessa

  7. I’ll forward your blog to cycle advocates here in California for inspiration. While small steps in making bike lanes keeps happening, mostly there’s great opposition from the addiction to speeding in big vehicles. Perhaps the next big gas crisis will bring more cyclists into the streets.

    My new clip which joyously advocates cycling for all ages, mostly recorded in Amsterdam, “why cycle! or: go ride a bike” :

  8. Thank you, Mark, I hope this will appear in more languages, such as Brazilian Portuguese – It is a pity when you are in Brazil watching a seminar about cycling and they give to you a London example, and everyone applaud, as, after all, they are “First World Country” – 😦

  9. Fascinating comparison, and absolutely spot on. Sadly many UK cycle campaigners aspire to this sort of “infrastructure”, and councils are only too happy to oblige. We’re still building this crap!

  10. From a US perspective, what’s interesting is that neither London nor Utrecht has required that buildings be set back from the street, with off-streetc car parking in front. Most US cities hold on to that requirement, which makes it pretty difficult to allocate space for Dutch-style cycle tracks. I suspect that’s true in Australia and Canada, as well. For cycle campaigners in those countries, mandatory setback ordinances should be the first target.

    (And Severin, having visited the UK, I agree with you — the obstructionism of US engineers is still better than the incompetence of UK engineers).

    1. I think the opposite is possible… but we have to get rid of this notion that every street needs to have (often free) on-street parking. Private motor vehicles, given how much space they occupy, should not be parked on public land…

      1. I absolutely agree. Though to say this out loud is pretty brave. Can you imagine the howls of pain from the motor lobby if this were to be seriously muted!

    2. Building set-backs are more common in the suburbs, but it is true that in central London most buildings front directly onto the street, and this also occurs in the downtown areas of certain US cities. If you were walking around Stratford (near the Olympic Stadium) then you would be more likely to see setbacks.

  11. Seeing the crap facilities in England is probably the only thing that remotely makes me appreciate the rigidity of our standards and the unwillingness to make something which does not adhere to our standards. I’ve also been told in California the new the minimum width of a single direction bike path should be 8-feet and it requires a two-foot wide shoulder. It seems our standards are higher than the English, but I doubt we’ll see cyclists getting 10ft space dedicated on the street for a single direction….

  12. Brilliant video Mark. A great pity that you lost the other footage. The side by side comparisons are particularly useful. I think this will become a particulalry useful video for lobbying purposes. Excellent point about the allocation rather than availability of space.

  13. Very interesting post, Mark. The *allocation* of space makes all the difference. Sadly cycling is not seen as a valid form of transport in many of these cities – neither is walking really when you consider how little space is given to pedestrians.

    The situation in Australian cities is much the same. We have some bicycle infrastructure which is unnecessary or leads nowhere in particularly, then on busy roads we have little or no infrastructure. Often we will have a section of road with 4 or 5 lanes for motorised traffic and car parking, with narrow footpaths cluttered with poles for signs for motorists… and almost nothing for cyclists (except maybe a painted bicycle symbol).

    We just don’t have a clue and we’re so arrogant that we’re unwilling to look to countries like The Netherlands to learn how to do it properly. Australians arrogantly turned down Dutch help when Brisbane flooded in 2011; The USA arrogantly turned down Dutch help when it came to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico…. it seems that we have a habit of ignoring best practice.

    Thanks again for the post! Need to book another Dutch Holiday! 🙂



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