The Great Big Velo-City 2017 roundup

For this week's Roundup, I'm taking a look back at the week I spent in the Netherlands attending the Velo-City 2017 conference in Nijmegen and Arnhem.

Velo-City is an enormous international cycling conference, run by the European Cycling Federation, and I'm told that this year's conference was the largest yet, with thousands of people attending, and with hundreds of speakers. So a word of warning in advance - given its scale it will obviously be impossible for me to do justice to it, something that Bicycle Dutch has already mentioned in his summary of the conferenceOne glance at the programme shows just how jam-packed the week was with speakers and events.

Indeed, a potential criticism of the Velo-City week is that almost too much is packed in to the few days of the conference. I found myself dashing from one venue to another in an attempt to catch two talks I wanted to attend; with sometimes close to ten talks and events happening simultaneously I did feel like I was missing out on things I wanted to see. One small consolation is that some of the presentations (although not all, for some reason!) are now available online for anyone (not just conference attendees) to look at, although unfortunately there isn't any audio.

Getting there

Nijmegen and Arnhem are located in Gelderland, a province in the east of the Netherlands. It was a fairly obvious choice for me to cycle there from the ferry terminal at the Hook of Holland - it's a trip I'd made before, and I spread it over three fairly relaxed days of around 30-40 miles of cycling each, visiting Gouda and Den Bosch along the way, meeting up with Mark Wagenbuur, who gave me a walking tour of some of the new developments in the city.

I find this kind of 'solo' cycling quite instructive for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I think it gives me a more unvarnished and objective experience of cycling than I would get if I was in a group, or being escorted, as was the case with some of the events and visits during the Velo-City week. Inevitably, being in a group means you feel rather safer than you do on your own, either in terms of traffic safety, or in terms of social safety. Drivers will behave differently around a large group than they will around an individual, so being on your own gives a more 'natural' flavour of cycling, and allowed me to experience (for instance) some pretty awful Dutch driving on some pretty awful bits of Dutch road that I might have been insulated from had I been in a group. Cycling around cities in large parties is fun, and you will learn things, but you're not experiencing the roads and streets in the same way you would on an ordinary, day-to-day basis.

Secondly, cycling across the country (my route took me about 120 miles from the Hook of Holland to Nijmegen) is more informative than cycling around in cities; not just for seeing how cycling works through suburbs and out into the countryside, but also for seeing those parts of the country that aren't quite so focused on cycling. Although the Dutch do cycle an awful lot compared to most other countries, they also drive an awful lot too, with enormous motorways, junctions and new road schemes impossible to ignore as you cycle from city to city. Naturally cycling is built into these schemes, and you pass alongside, under or over them with complete ease, but seeing them makes you realise that cycling is just one mode of transport among many in this country.

Rotterdam motorway junction

Naturally it is completely stress-free to cycle these kinds of trips, even on a fully-laden heavy Dutch bike. The infrastructure is consistently excellent, taking you from city centre, through suburbs and out into the countryside with complete ease, although it is worth stressing that it is far from ubiquitous. In Gouda and Nijmegen in particular there are a number of streets which felt rather 'British'; with nothing more than painted lanes at the side of the road, and Advanced Stop Lines at junctions where you jostle with motorists.

Cycle lanes Gouda

Revealingly, it suddenly felt as if Dutch drivers were rather more aggressive and unpleasant in these locations, but this is simply a function of being completely insulated from them everywhere else. These locations are a brief return to the reality of 'sharing the road', just as unpleasant and as hostile as back in the UK.

The Dutch attitude to cycling

And this brings me neatly to one of the themes I took from the conference. On the opening morning, Kevin Krizek - an American academic at Nijmegen University - gave an impressive presentation, with the standout comment that 'a fish doesn't know it swims in water'. In other words, the Dutch aren't really aware of what they have, or of how lucky they are. They don't experience 'cycling infrastructure' in the same way visitors to the Netherlands do, because they have grown up with it, because it is an almost invisible element of their street environment. They don't really notice it, in much the same way British people don't notice how their walking is enabled by footways.

So I think one of the dangers of this conference was a 'cultural' explanation of cycling in the Netherlands - a lot of talk about how cycling is 'in the Dutch DNA', how it is just something that the Dutch do, without any examination of the underlying environmental context that actually allows Dutch people to cycle in such numbers. There was, unfortunately, an element of this in some of the opening day presentations from politicians, but I'm happy to report that, for the most part, Dutch practitioners are keenly aware of the fragility of cycling in the Netherlands, and are honest about where things are not good enough. Cycling is not something that 'just happens', even in the Netherlands. It relies upon being designed for, with care and consideration. If cycling gets taken for granted, if it gets pushed to the side (literally!) in the way roads and streets are designed, it will disappear from the Netherlands, as it did in Britain and other European countries.

My conference highlights

As I've already mentioned, due to the density of presentations on offer, I wasn't even able to scratch the surface of the conference, but I will talk here about some of the presentations that I managed to catch, and that stuck in my mind. Beyond the aforementioned Kevin Krizek presentation, I really enjoyed a session on Cycle Streets with Peter Furth from Boston, Paul Schepers of CROW and Malin Månsson from Gothenburg - a useful session that focused on getting the key details right, to ensure that these kinds of streets are useful and enjoyable parts of any cycling network. Just before I spoke on Thursday there was an excellent session themed around how cycling gives children freedom - a particular highlight here being the African children saving hours a day going to and from school thanks to donated bicycles.

Finally there was an excellent session on Inclusive Cycling featuring Isabelle Clement, and other presentations on how e-bikes are improving mobility and activity among older people, and TfL's own Brian Deegan gave two thoughtful presentations on Wednesday and on Friday, both on London - how it is changing, and how to push through that kind of change. The film 'Why We Cycle' - featuring interviews with Dutch people about how cycling gives them freedom - was streamed during the lunch breaks and was genuinely moving. I can only hope it becomes widely available, as soon as possible!

Outside the conference

Beyond the presentations, the other enjoyable aspect of the conference was simply meeting people from all over the world, and discovering that they have exactly the same kinds of problems that we do here in the UK. Whether it was discovering that, in Kiev in the Ukraine, the default urban speed limit is 80kph (which suddenly makes British towns and cities look rather attractive) or that, even in the Netherlands, cycling is not taken seriously in transport modelling, it was comforting to find that our problems are not unique, and that knowledge about how to tackle them can be shared.

And of course there were some wonderful excursions, both formally part of the conference, and informally. A particular highlight was cycling to Arnhem and then back again for an evening at the Dutch open air museum. The trip out was on the new fast cycle path, covered in this Streetfilms video, and described here

Nijmegen-Arnhem Fast Cycle Route

The trip back was... supposed to be on the same route, but unfortunately a combination of inebriation and a lack of clear signage back to Nijmegen meant hundreds of people cycling off at random at 11 o'clock at night. This was perhaps the ultimate Sustainable Safety test - give all the delegates free alcohol for an evening and then tell to them to cycle 13 miles home in the dark. We did manage to make it back to Nijmegen on cycle paths (not the fast cycle route) - perhaps an unintentional demonstration of just how dense the network is in the Netherlands, and how forgiving it is of stupidity.

There were also tours of Nijmegen's cycle streets - my personal view is that some of these are very good, and some are less good, mainly depending on how much through traffic was using them.

The entire conference also managed to transfer to Amsterdam for an afternoon and an evening, via a special train service. This was a fun day out - I cycled around parts of Amsterdam I had never visited before, and chatted to locals - and the logistics were faultless (including supplying the 1000+ conference attendees with a bicycle at the Amsterdam end) but it did seem as if a lot of time that was being spent travelling and queueing for bicycles could have been used used more productively, perhaps staying in Nijmegen itself.

And finally there was the closing Bicycle Parade, which was a slightly surreal experience. I suspect that normally these bicycle parades stand out from what is happening in the city they weave through, but in a mass cycling city a parade at rush hour blended in strangely with the hundreds of people just cycling around the city as part of their daily business - going home after work, or cycling out to visit friends, or for evening activities.

Bicycle Parade Velo-City Nijmegen 2017

Some criticisms

I did have a wonderful time over the week, but I think I could make some minor criticisms. One is that the entry price will almost certainly restrict the types of people who can attend the conference. Now obviously events like Velo-City cost a lot of money to put on, and that will be reflected in the cost of a ticket, but in turn that means that many campaigners (in particular) will simply not be able to attend. Indeed, I was quite grateful to see at least a few familiar faces from the UK who were there during the week, but who were not actually attending the conference itself - Kats Dekker being one of those, and I think her comments here are worth reading.

I'm not sure what the solution is - perhaps a more campaigner-focused (and cheaper!) conference in parallel might be something to consider in future, to bring in the voices of campaigners and volunteers into what is, in reality, quite a corporate event. 'Corporate' isn't necessarily a criticism here - although some have suggested there was too much uncritical focus on technology at Velo-City -  but I think a better balance could be struck.

I can also echo my comments about there being almost too much to attend, particularly when the talks I wanted to see ran in parallel with each other (and this includes events that ran at the same time that I was speaking, namely Carlton Reid's talk on historic cycleways in the UK). Ten streams running at once means that attendees were genuinely spoilt for choice, especially when external cycling tours were also being offered at the same time, interesting events I had to turn down. Again, I'm not quite sure what the solution is here - certainly I would have liked to have seen the audio of these presentations being made available after the event, and not just the slides themselves.

And finally I'd like to repeat my earlier comments, urging the Dutch not to be complacent. The two main conference venues were separated by a large, busy roundabout and Nijmegen's inner ring road - in an ironic twist, perhaps one of the most worst places to locate a cycling conference in the Netherlands! And although there were thousands of ordinary people cycling past the venues, every day, the roads and the roundabout outside the venues could clearly be so much better, and brought up to the higher standard of infastructure seen elsewhere in the Netherlands.

Nijmegen Road Velo-City 2017

And this is perhaps a lesson for tne Netherlands more generally. Yes, cycling is a wonderful success story in your country, relative to other countries, but it shouldn't taken for granted. It's something that needs to be treasured and nurtured, and built upon. When people like me visit your country and tell you how wonderful it is to cycle around it, please pay attention to our explanations of why that is the case, and use that to aim higher, and don't simply rest on your laurels.