For those who don’t know what strict liability laws are or how they work, I recommend the following (short) video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4_Bq1vxCUvo
The reason why I raise this issue now is that Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) will debate the introduction of strict liability laws on the 29th of October. In advance of this debate, I contacted all the MSPs whose addresses I could get my hands on in order to outline my reasons for supporting the introduction of these laws and to urge them to attend the debate. Although some of the replies that I received (i.e. from Green/Labour MSPs) were resoundingly positive and supportive of the motion, the reply that I received from Gavin Brown (of the Conservative Party) came across as rather unsubstantiated in its opposition to the introduction of strict liability laws (but perhaps that’s just my prejudice speaking…). Have a look for yourself:
“Dear Mr Walton
Needless to say, I replied to Mr. Brown inviting him to expand on what exactly the Scottish Conservatives foresee as being the “adverse and unintended consequences” associated with a motion designed to protect the most vulnerable road users. I inform him that, as a cyclist who has been on the roads of Europe for 15 years, I am keen to hear about how such policies will have negative consequences that significantly outweigh the positive ones, and also curious as to why he thinks that these negative consequences (such as the emergence of a ‘compensation culture’) will apply to Scotland even though they don’t seem to manifest themselves on the Continent (where strict liability laws are the norm).
I also question Mr. Brown’s reliance on the soothsaying abilities of the Conservative party, and recommend that he just looks across the channel to learn about how these laws work in the numerous countries that have already adopted and maintained in virtue of their efficacy and general desirability. I inform him that, apart from the UK, only Cyprus, Malta, Romania, and Ireland do not operate a system of strict liability for road users, and I further suggest that his opposition to these laws actually maintains barriers to cycling that go against his supposed commitment to the promotion of cycling. I share with him my experience of cycling in Amsterdam, and explain how the psychological effect of these laws changes the way that motorists perceive people on bikes, ultimately providing vulnerable road users with an invisible but highly effective form of protection.
And lastly, I encourage Mr. Brown to give up his car and instead try riding a bike for a month so that he can learn first-hand what it is like to feel vulnerable and disrespected on the roads. I implore him to do this in the hope that the insight he gains in that short time will be more than enough to change his mind.
If you would also like to write to your MSPs to encourage them to attend the debate and vote in favour of strict liability laws, please visit the Cycle Law Scotland page: http://www.cycling-accident-compensation.co.uk/parliamentary-debate.aspx
See BBC coverage here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-22155209
Also of relevance from the BBC: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-21366881
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I just came across this video (embedded in the link above) and after 10 seconds I knew that I had to share it.
The movie illustrates the whole ‘bikes > cars’ philosophy, and shows how it can be made to work for everyone’s benefit even in a busy capital city. When you put bikes first and cars second, the whole urban environment is transformed for the better.
One of the interviewees talks about how people are connected when they are on bikes and I completely understood what they meant – having lived in Amsterdam for a year I quickly picked up on the shared mentality and emergent camaraderie that exists between people on bikes and stands opposed to the isolation of the motorists.
Top video – thorough recommendation
One striking feature of Dutch cycling culture is that (by and large) people tend to ride the same sort of bike; this sort of bike, in fact:
It’s called an ‘omafiets’, which translates as ‘grandma bike’, and this affectionate title is really quite justified; with its classic design, steel frame, reinforced wheels, heavy-duty rack, full-length mudguards, and upright riding position, it won’t exactly win you any races. What we Brits need to appreciate, however, is that this needn’t be considered a problem.
Commuting bikes in the UK have been taking British cyclists in a strange and questionable direction for some years now, and a lot of us (myself included) have been taken along for a ride. I grew up cycling in London and generally went along with everyone else; buying and using the sort of stuff that was sold in the bike shops. What I didn’t know, however, is that urban cycling on the Continent is significantly different from cycling in the UK, and in this post I want to focus on some of the differences in the actual bikes that people use for day-to-day riding.
To begin with, commuting bikes in the UK are not terribly practical. At least, they are not nearly as practical as they should be. Here is an example:
Not to pick on Specialized, but the Sirrus is just one of many bikes to exemplify the myriad problems associated with urban hybrids this side of the channel. The first thing to notice is that this picture shows the bike as it would be purchased – you will note that it is pretty naked compared to the omafiets above; it doesn’t, for instance, come with lights, mudguards, a rack, fat + puncture proof tyres, a chain guard, a stand, or even a lock. Sure, you can buy these things as extras, but since they are practical necessities for everyday cycling, wouldn’t it be reasonable to expect them to be incorporated into the initial design from the start? For one thing, the cost of buying these ‘extras’ in addition to the initial outlay for the bike can serve as a significant psychological barrier to cycling as people get turned off as costs begin to mount up. Alternatively, what a lot of people do – and I admit to being guilty of this myself – is spend as much as they can on the bike and then skimp on the ‘extras’. This money-saving tactic turns out to be a false economy as some choose to forego mudguards (SKS Chromoplastics RRP ~ £30) and suffer every time it rains; some forego a rack (Topeak Super Tourist RRP ~ £35) and ride instead with a heavy backpack; some forego lights (CatEye EL130/TL135 RRP ~ £27) and get reprimanded by the police; and some forego a decent lock (Kryptonite Evolution Mini RRP ~ £30) and well… you can guess what happens to them.
Another thing to note is that a typical commuting bike in the UK takes many design cues from racing bikes. OK, the riding position may not demand the full-on flexibility of a yogi (as some TT bikes require), but it is still an aggressive, sporty, and for many, quite uncomfortable position to sit in.
This stands in stark contrast to the more relaxed and stately ‘sit-up-and-beg’ riding style of your typical Dutch bike – a position developed by the Victorians to make cycling as civilised as possible.
Quick-release wheels are another design feature from the world of racing that has trickled down and contaminated commuter components. For sure, being able to remove your wheel faster than you can sneeze is a great feature if you are in a race and are being followed by a support car with spares ready to swap over. Not so useful, however, if you want to lock your bike up in any major city – for commuter bikes at least, the ability to remove your wheel without tools becomes nothing but an inconvenience as it requires you to carry an extra lock or risk the theft of your wheels every time you park up outside. Equip a decent set of tyres (like a Schwalbe Marathons, for example) and you won’t have to worry about punctures. If you do this then you won’t need to remove your wheels very often and so you can afford to have proper wheel-nuts and an altogether more secure set of wheels.
The same goes for quick-release seatposts as well – they simply aren’t suited to the urban environment and neither are they necessary. You at least need a spanner to adjust/remove a Dutch seatpost, and although this by no means guarantees its security, it will at least act as a deterrent to any opportunist criminal.
While we’re on the topic of security, Dutch bikes also have a truly brilliant device called a wheel-lock. These locks are conveniently secured to your bike’s frame, and so you never have to worry about carrying them in your bag or leaving them at home. These locks are so tough that many people in The Netherlands don’t feel the need to carry any additional locks, especially if they are just popping to the shops – the sheer weight of a typical Dutch bike means that thieves are discouraged from simply carrying them away.
Speaking of popping to the shops, isn’t it annoying when there are no spaces left in the (often pitifully small) bike rack outside? Well, again, the Dutch have this covered. Bike stands are a standard feature on most bikes in The Netherlands, and the most popular ones are even integrated into the rack.
Moving on, the issue of weather-proofing is probably the most significant area in which British bikes measure up short alongside their Dutch cousins. Let us first acknowledge the fact that it rains on the planet Earth, and that a disproportionate amount of said rain falls on the UK. The winter months also see a lot of salt and grit on the roads in addition to all of the other contaminants that you might find there. These facts combine to make the notion of exposed drive-trains quite preposterous.
Unless of course you enjoy the wretched ritual of cleaning your cassette and de-greasing + re-greasing your chain every week throughout the winter (or the alternative prospect of buying a whole new drive-train every spring) then you might wonder why bikes in the UK still use derailleur gears. The best reason I can think of is simply the range that they offer, which is, admittedly, very substantial. That said, however, sealed hub gears have become a viable alternative in recent years as technologies have improved and prices have dropped.
Generally considered to be amongst the best hub gear options are Shimano’s Nexus-8 and Alfine 11, NuVinci’s 360, and the legendary (though prohibitively expensive) Rohloff Speedhub. Below is a graph showing how they compare to each other and also how they weigh up against various derailleur set-ups:
To illustrate what this means from my own experience, you should know that my everyday bike weighs around 25kgs and is ridden around the notoriously hilly city of Edinburgh. The bike is equipped with Shimano’s brilliant Nexus 8-speed gear hub, which you will notice has the smallest range (308%) of all the gear options on the table. I use the bike to carry shopping, cargo, and even friends around town (we also used it to move house, but that’s another story). The point I’m making here is that the biggest selling point of derailleur gears is invalidated by the sufficiency of the alternatives. Hub gears are also fully sealed from the elements and require much less regular maintenance. In addition to this, hub gears also provide a straight chain-line which means that I can protect my chain with a chaincase.
The weatherproofing of Dutch bikes also extends to the fact that their designers acknowledged the fact that you will, at some point, have to ride in the rain. For this reason, simple things like a waterproof saddle and full-length mudguards make the whole experience a lot less harrowing. The lower speeds associated with Dutch cycling also mean that riding with an umbrella is not uncommon, and so even though it might be pouring outside, people in The Netherlands can arrive at their destinations miraculously dry and unfazed.
From the perspective of most British cycling commuters, this is frankly unheard of. It is totally normal for cyclists in the UK to carry a complete change of clothes alongside full waterproofs in case of a sudden downpour. Not only are waterproofs expensive, but it is also a hassle to carry them around and change in and out of them. Carrying these extra clothes also adds a weight penalty to what might have once been lightweight bike, and a time penalty in terms of the time it takes you to change in/out of them.
Without going into too much detail, the brakes on Dutch bikes are also protected from the elements by encasing them inside the wheel hubs. This protection ensures that stopping power is consistent whatever the weather/season, and also that braking surfaces don’t get degraded by external contaminants. Hub brakes are typically less powerful than disc brakes, but they are much quieter and much less temperamental.
Aside from the inclement weather, life in Northern Europe brings with it many months of darkness. Standing in opposition to the blinky, easily-stolen, often-forgotten, battery-operated lights favoured by the British commuter, the Continentals favour a dynamo set-up that is permanently fixed to the bike. Power is generated either by a hub or tyre-driven dynamo to provide an unlimited supply of energy. Capacitors in modern dynamo lights even store up electricity to keep the lights glowing brightly when you stop at traffic lights. My Busch and Muller Retro Classic front light, for instance, stays bright for about 3-4 minutes after I stop, but the Philips Lumiring that I use on the back stays bright for about 5 minutes.
Although there are many other areas in which I could draw out the advantages of Dutch bikes in terms of their suitability for the urban environment, I think that this post has addressed at least the most salient points that I wanted to make. In light of its many adaptations for practical transport in and around the urban environment for the majority of short to mid-distance commuters, I think that the case for more Continental design features is strong. Even if you disagree, there can be no denying that Dutch-style bikes offer something that is missing from the landscape of British cycling, something that could definitely make cycling far more accessible and appealing for many people. The insane durability of these machines is one reason why so many of the bikes you see being ridden in The Netherlands are so old and beaten up – they simply refuse to die. Low-maintenance and as utilitarian as you like, there are many reasons why Dutch bikes can be thought of as cheap and environmentally friendly alternatives to cars for city dwellers. Even the school run is possible by bike, but I’ll devote another post to that soon.
Although I haven’t covered all the bases in this post, I hope at least to have shared some of the knowledge and insight that I gained from my year in Amsterdam. More to come soon!
A few days ago my girlfriend needed to get to the other side of town. She needed to get there in about 20 minutes, and for one reason or another she couldn’t take her own bike.
“What ever shall we do?” she despaired, half-fainting as the back of her hand met her forehead.
“Fear not pumpkin,” I replied heroically, rising from my seat and gesturing towards my bike, “for I can give you a lift”.
Having lived in Amsterdam for the past year, this solution was both obvious and intuitive to me. Giving bicycle lifts was STANDARD PRACTICE in the Netherlands, and it is such a common occurrence as to be an almost mundane part of everyday life for the typical Dutchman.
Look, it’s not even a thing:
I offered to give my girlfriend a lift because I love giving lifts to people. Even though, as the ‘driver’, you are taking responsibility for your passenger’s welfare, it’s still a really fun way to get around once you’ve got the hang of it. And it’s not particularly difficult, see:
At any rate, giving her a lift would provide an opportunity to test out my hub gears and roller brakes with a ‘loaded’ bike.* So we saddled up and hit the road.
We’d done this a million times in Holland, and were familiar with the dynamics of travelling with a 2:1 ratio of humans to bikes. That said, and in spite of the fact that we were in a hurry, my girlfriend is kinda important to me, and so I was cycling with all the heightened awareness and care of a new parent. In addition to this, if ever I do anything even vaguely dangerous on the bike I am met with the alarm call of “Egg on board! Egg on board!” because a few years ago I referred to her a ‘precious egg’ and she reasoned that “we wouldn’t want to endanger an egg of such rare and exquisite value by cycling dangerously”. Oh, no no.
But alas, I digress.
The bike itself performed admirably. The sturdy steel frame held everything together and felt just as solid and responsive as usual (most bikes tend to feel increasing like a wet noodle as you add weight to them). Even Edinburgh’s hills were no match for the 8-speed Nexus hub, and although I will admit that it did require a substantial and sustained effort to get us up some of the bigger hills, I would also add that this was only because we were in a hurry – had we been out for a simple joy-ride on a sunny afternoon then I would have dropped it into first gear and just pootled along a walking pace. The Shimano roller and coaster brakes also performed superbly; even when we were going downhill there didn’t seem to be any loss of power due to overheating (a common problem with older versions).
The last thing that I want to mention about our journey is that although we did turn a surprising number of heads (two people on a bike – is it really so novel?), I can happily report that people seemed pretty positive about us. For the most part we were seen for what we were: just a guy giving a girl a lift – albeit in a rather ‘eccentric’ fashion by UK standards. Quite a few people even thought we were cute, and (according to Kristina) one girl quite openly chastised her boyfriend for never doing anything so romantic (sorry dude). Others – a minority – looked on with disapproval, but the unfamiliar is often greeted with suspicion and distrust, and I’m sure that they’ll catch on eventually.
All things considered it was a great experience. Of course, it would have been better if we’d had segregated cycle paths, better quality road surfaces, and more considerate drivers, but I will address those issues elsewhere. The point is, we did it: we brought a little bit of Dutch cycling culture to the streets of Edinburgh and it was fine. We’ll keep it up, and I’ll keep you posted.
* please don’t tell my girlfriend that I referred to her as a ‘load’. She’s really very svelte.
- “I want to ride my bicycle, I want to ride my bike…..” (letsridebirmingham.wordpress.com)
- Dutch City Hailed as Most Bike-Friendly (outsideonline.com)
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I don’t have a car. I don’t even have a driving licence. It might seem crazy to some, but I don’t feel deprived because of either of these things. I’ve been using bikes as my primary means of transportation for the last 13 years, and for longer journeys I just put my bike on the train. It really is just that simple.
The ‘pastoorsfiets’ (or ‘priest bike’) in the picture is my pride and joy, and also my reason for starting this blog. I spent most of 2012 living in Amsterdam, and I learned a great deal about how cycling can be a cheap/viable/safe/fun/sustainable transport option for an entire city so long as there is good infrastructure in place, laws to protect cyclists, and a positive attitude towards cycling amongst the population. We typically lack these things in the UK, but in my lifetime I hope to see that change; in fact, I intend to effect that change as much as possible.
Over the coming weeks and months, I would like to share with you all that I have learned about bikes, and how car ownership is largely unnecessary and often a limiting factor on the quality of life for many people living in urban areas. Alongside this aim, I intend to use this blog to talk about Dutch utility bikes, how they are different from what we are used to in the UK, and how they really can replace cars for many people (especially young families).
My ultimate goal is to start a business importing/building Dutch-style utility bikes for a UK market, as I believe that this might be the key ingredient that is currently holding back a real revolution in British cycling. If people are supplied with the right tools to enable them to give up their cars, then maybe the changes will snowball and we can all flourish in the two-wheeled utopia that follows.
To get the ball rolling on this one, I’d like to invite you to take part in a supremely basic poll. In short: what do you think of my proposal? All constructive/supportive advice or critical/brutal opinions will be appreciated.
- Social Innovation Requires Action: How the Dutch got their bike lanes. (designandpolicy.wordpress.com)
- Why do so many Dutch people cycle? (cyclingnelly.wordpress.com)
- Why London needs space for people on bikes, not “cyclists”, and how you can make it happen (cyclelove.net)
- Why we need space for cycling (aseasyasridingabike.wordpress.com)