Tuesday 27 January 2015


I know a bit about cycling in the city; in the early 1990s we lived 12km North of Dublin and I worked in the very centre of the city.  Bus-service was iffy and using a car to commute was only really an option at nights or weekends when it would take about 15-20 minutes.  On my 6-gear pink road-bike I could do it in 40 minutes - much quicker than the bus in those days before bus-lanes. So over 5 or 6 years I clocked 40,000km in the traffic = the circumference of the globe. I won't exaggerate the accident that put a stop to me gallop as a Near Death Experience, but several bones were broken and my poor bike was pretzelled. I remember writing to my pal Oisin who was a) mad about the bike b) emigrated to Canada when 700m of cycle-path was opened alongside Fairview Park on my commute-route.  For the other 11300m of my journey I was still compelled to weave and jink between moving cars.

They do things differently in the Netherlands where to can cycle from Rotterdam to Nijmegen more or less on a dedicated Fietspad [cycle-path] a lot of it along the top of the dijks separating the River Maas/Rijn/Waal from the roads and farmland below.  In all the major cities, the three main users of the streets - pedo velo auto - have their designated space.  Where possible cars are separated from bikes by little kerbs or plantings of bushes. It is cycle-heaven. Of course this is helped by the fact that most of the Netherlands is flat as a pankoek.  But it took a huge political and economic re-think to achieve this two-wheel nirvana.

In the aftermath of WWII, the Dutch economy picked up on a re-building boom and real wages doubled in about 15 years. The newly affluent bought all the stuff that was becoming available and this created more jobs and the economy grew as capitalism desires. Cars were high on the list of items to be acquired and the infra-structure of many Dutch cities was stretched or smashed to accommodate all the vehicles, market squares became car-parks, roads were widened and a comprehensive system of motorways was constructed to link all the major population centres at home and abroad. If you had a car, you could aspire to a home with a neat garden in the suburbs. The average commute distance grew from 4km in 1957 to 23km in 1975.  You'd have to be bike-bonkers to undertake a 25km commute every day, so cars must have been part of this equation (although the Netherlands, in contrast to Ireland also has an integrated and functional public transport system). This all came with a cost, however: in 1971 there were 3,300 deaths on Dutch roads, 400 of them younger than 14.

One of those tiny tragedies was the child of a journalist who helped start the Stop de Kinder Moord [stop the child murder] campaign, which took to the streets, the airwaves and the print-media to demand that something be done about the slaughter. The oil crisis of 1973 providentially added an economic push to the band-wagon and Car-Free Sundays showed city dwellers what it might be like if cars were excluded from city centres. Propaganda movie. In the famous case of De Pijp the children of a crowded inner city district of Amsterdam took to the streets [L - "more play-space"] demanding the right the play in the streets the way their parents had. In the movie-clip you can clearly hear an angry van-driver being told that his stroppy behaviour is "Niet gezellig" [not nice]; being gezellig is deeply embedded in Dutch social consciousness. They are packed like sardines: 400/sq.km so need to be more sensitive to the needs of others than in Ireland 65/sq.km or Ukraine 75/sq.km.

This grass-roots movement took on the tyranny of the car and the whole society started off in a different direction.  Many cities restructured the street-scape to allow for permanent cycle-paths and in Tilberg, the leading light, cycle-use increased by 75% having fallen by 6% over each of the previous 20 years.  I'll repeat: in 1971, 400 children were killed on the roads in the Netherlands; in 2010 it was 14! Everybody cycles - young/old; fat/fit; suit/shorts - and nobody wears a helmet. You can cycle holding hands. You can cycle carrying a bed, an umbrella, your kids, or some flowers.
 I've spent about a year of my life living in the Netherlands mostly in big cities (Dublin is bigger than Amsterdam, they are none of them "big cities" like New York let alone São Paulo) including Wageningen, Utrecht, Nijmegen, Amsterdam and Rotterdam.  Each town is civilised with its little neighborhoods and I just love the streets, they are so neat, so accessible, so fit for multiple purposes . . . so gezellig.

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