All about cycling in the Netherlands
“Everyone is on a Dutch cycling high after VeloCity 2017” tweeted Australian cyclist/journalist Michael O’Reilly yesterday. If you could see my Twitter Timeline you would understand he hit the nail on the head with that remark. What a wonderful week it was for so many people! The global cycling summit in the Netherlands was a big success and a feel-good boost for many who (re)visited the Netherlands, but also for the Dutch themselves.
King Willem-Alexander arrived to open the conference on Tuesday. To my knowledge it was the first time a head of state opened a Velo-City Conference. It surprised many that the king did not say a word. Apparently royal protocol dictates that the king either says something or does something. This time it was far more important that he came to do something: ride a bicycle. He rode it, part of the way, to Arnhem on the fast cycle route. The king was surprised when he found out what type of bicycle the organisation had chosen for him: “a back-pedal brake! That is a long time ago!” he exclaimed just after he mounted the bike.
That the king was there is a clear indication of how serious the Dutch take cycling. Further indications were the high number of high-ranking officials who were also there. Among others, the mayors of Arnhem and Nijmegen, the alderman for traffic of Nijmegen, the Director General for “Accessibility” (Bereikbaarheid) of the ministry of Transport and the Environment and last but not least the minister of that same department.
Minister Melanie Schultz van Haegen held an impassioned pro cycling speech on the opening Tuesday. It surprised many when later that same week she criticized Amsterdam’s plan for a cycle bridge over the IJ. She said the projected bridge would only be attractive for people who’d also love to climb the Mont Ventoux. A big exaggeration since the new bridge would only have to be 11 metres tall to allow container ships with 4 stacked containers to pass. (Making it just 2 metres taller than the Utrecht Daphne Schippers Bridge.) Usually when people inflate their story this way there is a reason. The minister would prefer a cycle tunnel, because the government has just spent 1 billion euros to enlarge the docks near IJmuiden for tall ships to be able to reach Amsterdam, to improve business opportunities for the Dutch capital. The minister won’t be able to stop the Amsterdam bridge though.
It is interesting to see that some people only grasped the full meaning of the motto of the conference “The Freedom of Cycling” after they had been in the Netherlands for a week: “#vc17 conference theme of happiness seemed trite to start with but having cycled in Holland [sic] for a week I am a convert to the happiness index” is what London-based cycle planner and engineer Brian Deegan tweeted.
This year’s global cycling summit was one that broke records. The organisation reported there were more than 1,500 delegates, over 260 speakers, 107 sessions in two conference halls and an added 60 outdoor sessions or excursions. One of the excursions was a trip with a special train to Amsterdam. There, 700 delegates chose to “be an Amsterdammer for a day”. I had to work that day, but I saw the train pass my workplace in Utrecht. Not everyone was happy that the conference changed location for half a day, but I think it was good the delegates got to experience the unbeatable combination formed by the train and the bicycle. A viable alternative to the car, also for longer distances.
Of course, the Netherlands is not always a Cyclists’ Paradise. The street both venues were on was a testament to that. The traffic circle of Keizer Karelplein could serve as a monument to the era of the private motor car. I found the traffic volume and the noise it creates very a-typical for the Netherlands. So it was good there was a bicycle tour through Nijmegen that showed the delegates another side of the city. I am not entirely sure how long that tour was, (I’ve seen reports about the distance varying from 12 to 16 kilometres) but I personally could have done with a shorter tour. (Video of the full tour.) It was of course nice to see so many people enjoying themselves. I was proud to represent the Dutch Cycling Embassy with a Dutch orange flag that matched my hat, T-shirt and sun glasses.
It is impossible to get into the details of the many sessions. I saw quite a number and the topics were very varied. I chose some that dealt with the future of cycling: children. We need to get children to take up the bicycle. They were the key to the success of Dutch cycling, they could be the key to improving cycling in other countries too. If cycling is safe enough for a child, it is safe enough for everybody.
The conference drew a lot of attention from the Dutch press. No matter who I told where I had been this week, every Dutch person had heard about Velo-City. This may be very good for cycling in the Netherlands too. That we should be proud of what we have achieved so far is what people got to hear. But there is still a lot of work to do, even here and we should take that work up with more vigour at some locations. Hopefully some decision makers were made more aware of that now.
On the closing day, another high-ranking official played an important role. EU Commissioner for Transport, Violeta Bulc, received a suitcase with the EU Cycling Strategy Recommendations from the hands of the Secretary General of the European Cycling Federation, Bernard Ensink. A team of the ECF had prepared these 11 chapter long recommendations with the input from approximately 1,000 stakeholders (NGOs, academics, businesses and cities) from 37 countries. The recommendations are directed at the EU, and decision makers on a national, regional and local level. If implemented, they will improve conditions to get more people cycling and this will lead to enlarged co-benefits and an added value of cycling in Europe. Bulc told the audience: ‘Be careful what you wish for, you’re gonna get it.’ A promise that she would study the contents of the suitcase carefully and use the 2 years until the next European version of Velo-City in Dublin in 2019, to come with a concrete plan.
This week’s video is a longer look at the four-day conference.
(Note how Nijmegen returns to “normal” after the conference in the final shot…)
Finally, the mayor of Rio the Janeiro received the Velo-City bicycle from both mayors of Nijmegen and Arnhem. Rio will organise the next summit: Velo-City 2018. It meant the 2017 version was closed with a bang: a mini Brazilian Carnival.