Has Christmas come early? Cycling infrastructure planned for Edinburgh?!

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Has Christmas come early? Cycling infrastructure planned for Edinburgh?!

A good friend linked me to this (disappointingly brief but) incredibly promising article on the BBC website: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-edinburgh-east-fife-24729900

According to the article, George Street is to undergo a radical transformation in order to make it more friendly to pedestrians and cyclists. The massively wide Georgian street has been described by Edinburgh Evening News as “Edinburgh’s most prestigious shopping district”, and it currently uses its space to accommodate four lanes of traffic as well as curb-side parking and parking along the length of its central reservation. The fact that it doesn’t even have a cycle lane makes this new bicycle-friendly proposal all the more astonishing!

Not even a cycle lane! This new proposal comes totally out of left-field
Not even a cycle lane! This new proposal comes totally out of left-field.

Pedestrianising George Street will undoubtedly increase footfall and therefore increase spending in its notoriously overpriced shops. In spite of the fact that this program of pedestrianisation was thus likely to have been motivated more by economic ends than environmental ones, I am hopeful that the benefits of having a space like this will initiate significant knock-on effects. Even though this is just a modest first step in the grand scheme of things, the fact that it is being implemented so centrally means that city planners are at least beginning to question the antediluvian rationale that prioritises the motor vehicle over everyone else. That said, they haven’t actually implemented anything yet, and so I’ll withhold my praise until I’ve seen it with my own eyes and ridden it with my own wheels.

On the Dutch 'fietsstraat', cars are guests. This means that they can still drive here, but they must respect and prioritise people on bicycles
Cars are considered to be guests on the Dutch ‘fietsstraat’. This means that although they can still drive here, they must drive slowly and treat people on bicycles with due respect.

This news comes just days after a number of articles were published on the topic of cycle safety regarding the ‘lethal’ tram tracks on Princes Street : http://www.scotsman.com/news/transport/cyclists-condemn-dangerous-edinburgh-tram-lines-1-3147144. Perhaps the idea is to get cyclists to avoid tram-routes altogether by providing good infrastructure elsewhere…

Dutch-style bike lane pilot in London

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Dutch-style bike lane pilot in London

Believe it or not, London is actually piloting what seems to be a decent Dutch-style *segregated cycle-lane* complete with genuine *bus-stop bypasses* (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uEoer6Erh1o&feature=youtu.be).

bus-stop bike bypass (with temporary bus-stop sign)
bus-stop bike bypass (with temporary bus-stop sign)

This is a monumental step forward in protecting people on bikes and a truly positive sign the Britain might be starting to take cycling infrastructure seriously. The author of the article rightly points out that the steep curb angle could cause problems (and that sloped curbs would be preferable), but the fact that this sort of thing is actually being built is something worth celebrating.

Let’s hope it’s the first of many, eh?

http://ibikelondon.blogspot.co.uk/2013/10/londons-first-truly-super-cycle-highway.html

Strict Liability Laws in Scotland – let’s catch-up with Europe!

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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

Thank you for your correspondence.
The motion raises the issue of strict (or presumed) liability and provides the opportunity to fully debate the arguments in favour and against in the chamber.
The Scottish Conservatives want to see a safer environment for cyclists and support cycling being promoted as a carbon free alternative to short car journeys and as a worthwhile leisure activity to promote a healthy lifestyle.
Whilst every effort should be made to improve cycle safety we consider that there are adverse and unintended consequences associated with the inclusion of strict liability in any wider package of reforms.
However please be assured that we will listen carefully to the various views which will be expressed on the subject during the course of the debate.
I hope this is helpful.
Kind regards.
GAVIN BROWN MSP”
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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
A
lso of relevance from the BBC: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-21366881
and: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-edinburgh-east-fife-20302932

Absolutely brilliant short film about Amsterdam as a city of cycling – top recommendation

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Absolutely brilliant short film about Amsterdam as a city of cycling – top recommendation

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

The many advantages of Dutch bikes for urban riding

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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:

Typical Dutch omafiets
Typical Dutch bike with a step-through frame – a classic English design

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:

Specialized Sirrus - standard fare for British commuters
The Specialized Sirrus – standard fare for British commuters

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.

commuter clobber
Racing or commuting? Surely it needn’t be this hard to tell…

 

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.

This lady knows what's up
Observe the dignity and elegance – this lady certainly knows what’s up. This riding position may be less ‘aero’, but it gives you a good view when navigating through traffic

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.

Do you reckon he's in the middle of a race? Or perhaps the victim of a quick-release nightmare?
Do you reckon he’s in the middle of a race? Or perhaps the victim of another quick-release nightmare? Even the mighty D-lock is powerless to stop this common crime.

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.

Just like a car, the bike is immobilised until you put the key in the ignition
Just like a car, the bike is immobilised until you put the key in the ignition. These locks laugh at even the biggest and baddest bolt-cutters.

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.

The stand comes as part of the rack and can be folded up and down with ease
The stand comes as part of the rack and can be folded up and down with ease. The world becomes your oyster as you no longer necessarily need to find a bike rack or lamppost every time you want to nip into a shop. Supreme convenience.

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.

The rusty bike chain - quite often the first nail in the coffin of many commuter bikes
Cars don’t have an exposed drivetrain, and this is one reason why they don’t require such regular maintenance. Why should bikes be any different? The inevitably rusty chain shown in this photo is all too often the first nail in the coffin for many commuter bikes.

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.

When all your gears are encased inside the hub, gear maintenance need only be an annual thing
When all your gears are encased inside the rear hub, gear maintenance need only be an annual thing

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:

The top four are all hub gears, the bottom four are deraillieur set-ups
The top four are all hub gears, the bottom three are deraillieur 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.

This chaincase has an added security feature
Apart from protecting the chain from the weather, a chaincase also protects my clothes. This chaincase has bonus thief-deterring properties

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.

So long as it's not too windy, I find that cycling in heavy rain is actually more difficult without an umbrella.
(So long as it’s not too windy) I find that cycling in heavy rain is actually more difficult without an umbrella. For this, it helps to have your brake lever/hub gear shifter are on the same side of the handle bar so you can operate them with your non-umbrella hand.

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.

The epic cooling-disc on Shimano's IM81 rollerbrake helps maintain consistent braking. It also adds a hint of modern tech to many classic bike designs.
The epic cooling-disc on Shimano’s IM81 rollerbrake helps maintain consistent braking. The shiny shiny design also adds an element of modern tech to many classic bikes.

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.

The dynamo on this bike is encased inside the front hub. Some hubs contain both a roller brake AND a dynamo
The dynamo on this Brompton is encased inside the front hub. Some hubs contain both a roller brake AND a dynamo – these are the ones to go for.

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!

Dutch bikes - an altogether more civilised way of getting around town.
Dutch bikes – an altogether more civilised way of getting around town.

 

Passengers on bikes – first UK test

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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:

couple on a bike
passenger on a bike – casual, no sweat
Looks like fun, huh?
Looks like fun, huh?

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:

these guys aren't having too much trouble
These guys are practically embryos and they can do it

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.

An altogether nicer way of getting around town
An altogether nicer way of getting around town

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.

True utility – Dutch style

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True utility - Dutch style

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.