We are past the darkest time of the year again, the days are already slowly getting longer. But it will take a long time before we notice that it really is getting lighter again. In winter it is more hazardous to cycle than in summer. That is not because of motor traffic. The separate cycling infrastructure reduces interaction between motor traffic and people cycling to an absolute minimum. Snow and ice are also not what comes to mind first in this country, because we sometimes have winters completely without any snow and ice. (Last winter was such a very mild winter.) There is the cold and the wetness, but you can dress for that and that is also no different from any other season. What we do always have is the winter darkness.
Being on the latitude that The Netherlands is on, it means we have a big difference in daylight hours when you compare summer with winter. It is not so dramatic as in Finland, but even here, the longest day in summer is nine hours longer than the shortest day in winter. And that is just looking at the times of sunrise and sunset, not taking into account that there is a much longer dawn and dusk in winter and that a dark winter weather can make it much darker too. It means that in a large period in winter both the morning rush hour, as well as the evening rush hour, take place in the dark.
That’s why we have laws that when you cycle there should be working lights on your bicycle. Not everybody has working lights and luckily for these people we have this traffic system in which there is only little interaction between motor traffic and them in general. But it is not a very bright idea (ahem) to cycle in the dark without lights on your bike. Hi-viz is not necessary. There are three people cycling by in hi-viz in the video below. And it is interesting to see that their hi-viz doesn’t really help them to be more visible in a group of cyclists. Only when car lights hit hi-viz it starts to radiate. Bike lights don’t do that trick. So in a society where most of the cycling takes place away from motor traffic hi-viz is pretty useless.
The dangers, this time of the year, are hidden in cracks in the surface. And they come from bollards obscured in dark shadows, kerbs which are almost invisible due to the lack of contrast and all kinds of such obstructions that simply cannot be seen well enough in the darker environment.
As with the nights in this time of the year, my video this week is very long as well. I was inspired to make this video by Chris from the “I love biking SF & OAK” blog. He visited The Netherlands for a month last November to cycle off-season as if he was a Dutchman. We rode through Utrecht during a dark rush hour and it was great to see his enthusiasm. He almost didn’t want to leave this place, because he was mesmerized by wave after wave of people passing by on their bicycles. I can see why it is so appealing. There is almost no other sound than that of the bikes rattling as people ride by. The sounds of motor traffic crossing in the distance don’t reach us, or only occasionally when a bus honks. Bus drivers can get impatient, but if you look carefully you can see that the light for cycling is green sometimes, when buses are still in the way. So these bus drivers should perhaps not honk so fast: their own behaviour is also not always as it should be*.
Two interesting vehicles pass by in this video. A tandem (6:57-7:02) and a velomobile (10:54-11:13). I have caught tandems before, but a velomobile ‘in the wild’ is even more special.
This is near Utrecht’s Central Railway Station. And because of all the building activities all the bicycle traffic gets funnelled to this particular spot, making it the busiest place in the entire city. You may think it all looks very peaceful and safe, and it really is safe. But it is telling that you hear only a few conversations and that of these few conversations, most are about the traffic situation and about how busy and ‘dangerous’ it is there. I will translate some of the remarks you can hear.
At 02:21 a girl jokes: “Joeh, en weer overleefd” which means “Phew, and we survived again”.
At 04:25 a mother tells her son: “Let goed op. Hier is het fietsverkeer heel gevaarlijk.” Meaning: “Pay attention really well. Here the bicycle traffic is very dangerous.”
At 05:34 a girl curses at a moped rider. Who was honking, presumably at her. She shouts “Jezus!” which needs no translation I think. She is assertive enough not to move aside for the moped rider.
At 11:23 someone says, with a bit of surprise: “Gevaarlijk hier joh”, “Man, it’s dangerous here”
Other people make more observational remarks:
At 08:20 a man sees the light turn green in the distance and he shouts to his friends “Hop, naar het groene licht!” which could be translated as “Come on: let’s try to make it through that green light”.
At 10:30 you can hear a man say: “Ja het is hier altijd druk”, “Yes it is always busy here”. Which sounds like an answer to someone who is surprised about the traffic volumes at this location.
At 12:55 a man and a woman have a similar conversation: “Het is altijd druk hier. -Ja. -Dit is echt…” He: “It is always busy here.” She: “Yes”; He: “This really is…” and the rest of his sentence gets lost in the night.
But it is all about perspective. Objectively it is not so dangerous here. If there were cars as well, it would be really dangerous, but perceived danger is bad enough. It is a good thing that by the end of 2015 this building site will look very different. This area should be finished with a permanent type of infrastructure that should be suited for the high volumes. There will also be more routes, so traffic will be thinner at every location. The people cycling in Utrecht can’t wait.
A 15 minute video showing the evening bicycle rush hour at Smakkelaarsveld in Utrecht.
How terribly dangerous the buses in the distance can be, was underlined the same afternoon this post was published. As I rode to the station after work, the whole area was closed by the police. In the distance I could see a bus and an orange sheet that was held up to prevent people from seeing what nobody wants to see anyway. I could only suspect someone was under that bus. That proved true. A six year old boy on his bicycle was run over by the bus and he was pinned under that same bus. A helicopter arrived and landed to get the boy to a hospital as quickly as possible. But it was too late. The boy did not survive. An investigation has started. A very tragic start of the year in Utrecht.
Because people asked whether the crash happened at the location of the video I published this update. It is not the same location, but it is close.