Ramblings on Amsterdam and Cycling History

Visiting Amsterdam for the first time with my girlfriend was an experience which can definitely be defined as eye opening. Staying in a district a bit outside the city centre, it was difficult not to wander round without constantly being struck by a sense that we had stumbled across some kind of Utopian model of the future.

A lot of this awe and wonder came, perhaps unsurprisingly, from the continual sight of cyclists. Whilst at times it felt as though you had been placed in a game of ‘Crossy Road’, with a continual stream of hazards flying at you from either side, for the most part the sheer number of cyclists was the cause of delight. After spending a good amount of time writing about how wonderful the bicycle is, going to a place which has done so much to cater and support cyclists did feel a bit like arriving at a holy site after a long pilgrimage.

As much as it may feel this way, Amsterdam’s extensive cycling network did not appear by some miracle. A brief bit of research reveals that it was the result of committed activism combining with a general popular support of cycling and politicians who recognised the potential of the bicycle to solve a range of different issues (the best article I’ve found is here). The result of all this is a city where 35% of journeys are completed by bicycle. The effects? People who seemingly enjoy their morning commute to work, roads which are eerily quiet and a general sense of the wonderfulness of it all.

As with most people who cycle, leaving Amsterdam was accompanied by a feeling of why can’t we have something like this where I live? Of course, the location and geographical features of Amsterdam makes it much more naturally cycle friendly than where I live in Leeds. However, lots more could certainly be done to implement Amsterdam’s system of cycling infrastructure in towns and cities around the UK. The question is, how can we make this happen?

The best place to start is perhaps learning from how changes started to occur in Amsterdam, with the combination of activists, a general sympathy to cyclists, and politicians prepared to listen. As was the case in Amsterdam, I would say that the UK is also home to a large number of people strongly committed to promoting cycling. If my Twitter feed is anything to go by, there are certainly no lack of individuals firmly committed to and prepared to argue for building the type of infrastructure that exists around Holland.

The recent C.T.C. survey of politicians in the run up to the general election also suggests that, if there is not a strong political commitment for investment in cycling, then there is at least a general acknowledgement of the benefits which can be brought about by getting more people into cycling.

Just over a sixth of current M.P.s surveyed gave strong support for increased funding towards cycling, a number which includes the current Prime Minister. Writing a letter in response to the survey, David Cameron stated that he is, ‘a huge cycling fan’ who is committed to doubling cycling by 2025 and spending £10 per person on cycling each year. Of course, actions speak much more loudly than words, but responses to the C.T.C. survey at least suggest that there is a level of political backing for promoting and supporting cycling.

I would say that what the UK is missing more than anything (apart from cities built on flat, low-lying land), is a more general popular sympathy and support for cyclists. Whilst there is no lack of committed individuals and groups at the bottom, and a number of people at the top who appear prepared to listen, there is not the general groundswell of opinion required to push through significant and substantial change.

Cycling as an issue never once really threatened to become anything other than a minority issue in the run up to the general election. Whilst prospective M.P.s might agree in principle to questions put to them by the C.T.C., because of the low-level status of cycling as an issue, there is very little pressure on them to now turn their principles into meaningful actions and investments. It is one thing making some general comments to the C.T.C, it is quite another making sincere promises to an electorate.

To begin to see anything like the changes many of us would like to see, I would say that what is required is a general popular shift in attitudes to cycling, from a general disinterestedness and even aggression, to a recognition of the many benefits more people cycling brings to communities, cities and wider society, and a strong commitment to bringing these changes about.

The question then becomes how can we bring about this shift? The obvious answer is by getting more people cycling. More cyclists equals more people realising the benefits of the bicycle as either a means of transport and leisure activity, and a greater agitation for improvements in cycling infrastructure. However, this can quickly turn into a chicken and egg situation. My girlfriend will happily cycle in Amsterdam, but not in Leeds. She would only start cycling if she felt safe doing so, which of course requires a much greater investment in cycling infrastructure. To get more cyclists requires a significant level investment which, as was discussed above, there is little popular agitation for, and as such is unlikely to happen.

This is not to say such an approach is hopeless- more people are now cycling in the UK than ever before, and with schemes such as the ‘Cycling ‘Superhighways’ in London, there is no reason to think that the ranks of British cyclists will stop growing. The results of this (in theory), should be more and more popular support for cycling.

How London’s ‘Cycling Superhighways’ might look. Source: http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2015/feb/04/segregated-cycle-lanes-london-tfl

However, whilst the number of cyclists might carry on expanding, it seems highly unlikely they will reach levels comparable to the Netherlands and Amsterdam in the near future. To bring about a popular demand for ‘Dutch-style cycling infrastructure’, a wider range of approaches are needed to communicate the benefits of cycling to both individuals and wider society.

It is also here that I believe that cycling history can play a (perhaps significant) role. Much of the popular sympathy for cyclists in Amsterdam in the 1970s came from the fact that cycling had remained a fairly popular activity since the 1890s. Cycling as an activity was much more ingrained in the national and local culture than it ever has been over here.

It is my hope that the history of cycling can do something to change this. If a few years of speaking to friends and relatives about my research is anything to go by, there is very little popular knowledge about how the UK’s cycling heritage. Before I started my research, I too knew next to nothing about the UK’s cycling history.

However, as I near the end of my research I now find it difficult to think of another invention which has done so much to both meet individual needs for liberation, enjoyment and freedom, whilst at the same time bringing about wider changes which have benefited society as a whole. I hope that this blog has been able to in some way communicate the many weird and wonderful effects the bicycle had on late Victorian society, from opening up opportunities for romance, allowing individuals for the first time to visit the British countryside, and helping shift conservative notions about appropriate ‘womanly’ behaviour.

Visiting Amsterdam hammered home to me that the story of how cycling can benefit both individuals and wider society is one which belongs as much to the present as the past. Combining these two narratives, of the positive changes which the bicycle both can and has brought about, I believe can create an overarching tale which is relevant to cyclists and non-cyclists alike. It might not create new Amsterdams. But it might do something.

Cycle path in America, 1896. Source: http://narrative.ly/on-two-wheels/cycles-of-fashion/

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6 thoughts on “Ramblings on Amsterdam and Cycling History

  1. Thank you William, for the recent Guardian article and for introducing me to your blog. Regarding cycling, I’m with Eric Hobsbawm.
    I advocate cycling to all around me and cycle more often on an upright bike equipped with excellent lights, while dressed in normal civilian clothes. I believe that it’s important to let people see just how easy and enjoyable a means of transport the bicycle is. You appear to have the same view.
    The bicycle versus car aggression should really be suppressed by all as it is a barrier to the spread of cycling. As such it is we cyclists who must lead the way by being more responsible and courteous to all other road users. Dressing in lycra is useful for sports cycling but serves only to alienate in the general transport environment.

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    • Hi Richard, thanks for your comment, it is a wonderful quote from Eric- not sure I’ll ever be able to reach those heights of historical eloquence!
      And it’s great to meet someone who shares a similar cycling style- I’ve always been a bit of a doddler who wears shorts and a T-shirt if it’s warm enough. And I do share your views on bicycles vs car aggression, although having always cycled in quiet country lanes means I’ve never had to use busy inner city roads at rush hour which might have done something to change my opinion! The thing which I think sometimes gets lost from car vs cycling debates is the fact that everyone wins from more and better cycling infrastructure- more people cycling equals less congestion, and cleaner cities which are much more pleasant places to live. I’ve always tried to write in a way which would be relevant to car users as well as cyclists, because I think the only way we’ll create the facilities to get more people cycling is to create a wider shift in perceptions of cycling which will create more of a demand for investment.

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      • Hello William,

        Thank you for your reply. Yes I’m a shorts and T-shirt man myself whenever weather permits. The thing about dress is that if it reflects that of all other road users it will tend to unite rather than alienate. Of course when I go mountain biking I don appropriate sports gear, complete with helmet. In addition, I strongly recommend good gloves for all riding. I recently had a hard fall on a tarmac road and am grateful for the protection afforded by the tough mountain bike mits I wear.

        I see from your blog that you’re at the University of York. Are you from that area? By chance I will be there soon for a long weekend visiting family. It’s a lovely spot.

        I have lived an worked in France for the past 21 years in an area near to the Swiss Lac Léman, about 40 minutes from Geneva by bicycle. I also cycle mainly on country roads.

        Bon vélo (as the French might say)

        /Richard /

        Tél: 04 50 20 30 55 Mobile: 06 09 03 55 59

        /Skype adresse: richardapalmer/

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  2. Hello William,

    Thank you for your reply. Yes I’m a shorts and T-shirt man myself whenever weather permits. I think that if cycling attire reflects that of all other road users it will tend to unite rather than alienate. Of course, when I go mountain biking I don appropriate sports gear, complete with helmet. In addition, I strongly recommend good gloves for all riding. I recently had a hard fall on a tarmac road and am grateful for the protection afforded by the tough mountain bike mits I wear.

    I see from your blog that you’re at the University of York. Are you from that area? By chance I will be there soon for a long weekend visiting family. It’s a lovely spot.

    I have lived an worked in France for the past 21 years in an area near to the Swiss Lac Léman, about 40 minutes from Geneva by bicycle. I also cycle mainly on country roads.

    Bon vélo (as the French might say)

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  3. William – that was a fun read and one that brings back a ton of memories for me.

    Like you, I arrived in Amsterdam and immediately asked myself, “Why can’t my hometown be like this?” It sounds like the UK and USA have similar attitudes towards cycling. In the States, most of the people that drive cars have a “get out of my way attitude”. It’s almost like we are treated as second class citizens.

    Anyways, I’m glad to have found your blog. You’re an excellent writer!

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    • Thanks Rovo, glad you liked it and the blog! I can definitely relate to the joys of going to Amsterdam and then the disappointments of returning home, hopefully one day we might get something similar but no holding up too much hope sadly.Thanks for the follow on Twitter as well, glad to have found your blog also!

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