Wednesday, 16 April 2014

A Tale of Two Cities - Parliamentary Cycling Trip to Belgium

A dozen delegates led by Lord Berkeley and Adam Coffman visited Belgium. With its impeccable political connections and eclectic mix of Associate members from the world of cycling, the All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group (APPCG) reaches people and places that other technical tours cannot, and this always ensures that discussions explore political, technical, social, legal and financial aspects of cycling. Our party this year included parliamentarians, consultants, Police, a cycle safety equipment inventor and cycle campaigners. 

picking up the hire bikes - look at the width of the cycle track!
Belgium regards itself as Europe’s third cycling nation (behind the Netherlands and Denmark) although there is a marked difference in utility cycling which is split largely between the Flemish speaking north of the country and the French speaking southern part of the country. Cycling is the national sport of Belgium, exciting a similar degree of passion and participation as football does in the UK.
the Lion of Flanders, a familar site to cycle racing fans
One purpose of the trip was to compare and contrast the cities of Brugge (Bruges) and Brussels. These cities are very different. Bruges is a compact small city of 120,000 people known primarily as a tourist attraction.  Brussels is Europe’s capital and one of its busiest multi-cultural cities, attracting residents and visitors from around the world. One is historic, compact, picturesque and flat, the other has expanded beyond its historic mediaeval core area into a sprawling metropolis, home to over 1 million people as well as attracting a large commuter population each day. It is not surprising therefore that cycling in each city is a markedly different experience.

residential cycle parking lockers, Bruges

Our visit started in the historic city of Bruges, famed for its attractive canals, market squares and cobbled streets.  Immediately outside the station was a large secure Fietsenstalling (cycle park) from where we picked up our rental bikes. Around 20% of rail travellers use a bike to access the rail system in Belgium, and over 77,000 cycle parking spaces are provided at stations.

The hire bikes are ‘Blue Bikes’ a national station-based cycle hire scheme inspired by the OV-Fiets system in neighbouring Holland. The bikes can be hired from over 40 locations throughout Belgium for €3.00 per day. The sturdy bikes come with 3 speed gears and a handy basket on the rear rack.
The other immediate impression was that the 5.0m wide two-way cycle track outside the station was considerably wider than the adjacent one-way drop-off lane for car traffic, and it was surfaced in immaculately smooth red tarmac.

We set off on a short journey through the suburbs to meet the Mobility Minister for Flanders (Hilde Crevitz) and other officials from Bruges and the Flanders region. Our journey involved a ‘mix’ of infrastructure, including cycle tracks, shared use paths, cycle lanes and quiet streets. Not everything was perfect. There were some poor surfaces and restricted width in places, but there was a great sense of ‘continuity’ and crucially the busiest intersections were grade separated or had separate signalled crossings.
Patrick D’Haese gave a short presentation about cycling in the region. Some key facts include:

·         Annual cycling budget for 2014-15 is €100m (up from €60m) within an overall transport budget of €3bn. The Flanders population is 6 million people. i.e. €16.6 spent on cycling per head of population.

·         Cycling mode share is currently 12.9%. There has been an increase in city cycling but a decrease in rural areas.

·         Cycling deaths have fallen from 122 in 2000 to 64 in 2012. There are about 1000 serious injury accidents to cyclists each year, a 7% annual decrease.

·         1750km of new or refurbished cycle routes created in Flanders since 2009

·         The Integrated Cycling Investment Programme has identified a future potential network stretching 12,000km. This will include facilities delivered via new developments as well as government funding. Changes have been made to planning policy to facilitate cycle track construction.

·         Cycle track standard is 5.0m preferred width, 4.0m minimum

·         Broad aim is to separate cycling from other modes. General design criteria is <30kph mix with traffic, <50kph cycle lanes, >50kph cycle tracks.

·         There are 72 grade separated cycle crossings (bridges and underpasses) in the regions and many of these are developed as ‘landmark’ projects.

·         Other innovations include a specialist machine for analysing cycle track surface quality and special equipment for snow clearance and winter maintenance of cycle tracks.

Following lunch, we cycled to one of the landmark bridges, the impressive ‘Y Brugge’ a forked bridge over the N31 on the outskirts of Bruges. The impressive structure offers a safe crossing over a busy road intersection. It was installed in 2013 at a cost of €4m.
the Forked Bridge, Bruges
Returning to the city centre, we learned that around 60% of traffic entering the ancient walled city area is bicycles. There are 3,500 public cycle parking spaces in the centre, including a section of an underground car park in the central square. In addition, 600 ‘mobile’ parking spaces are available for events such as the Tour of Flanders cycle race which took place the day before our visit. We also noted some on-street cycle parking shelters within the residential areas so that people living in terraced housing with no outside space are able to securely store bicycles.

entrance to underground cycle park and car park, Bruges
Our trip to Brussels was hosted by Kevin Mayne of the European Cyclists Federation (ECF). We picked up our Blue Bikes from the central station and pedalled to the ECF headquarters through some of Brussels quieter streets in order to avoid the busiest roads during the rush hour. The experience was very familiar to those of us used to riding in UK cities, mixed traffic, lots of parked cars, busy roads to cross and the need to ‘take the lane’ in order to turn left (right in UK). It was hard to keep together as a group in the intensity of traffic and with differing ability to cope with the hills, so there were frequent stops to regroup.

contraflow cycle lane outside parking bays, Brussels
Brussels is a useful city to look at for UK planners. It has no inherent ‘cycling culture’. Cycling is more popular among the expat population (about 11% cycle regularly) than the local population (around 3% regular cyclists). Cycling in Brussels currently accounts for about 4% mode share, an increase from just 1% in 2007.

At the ECF we learned about their work with cycling organisations throughout Europe. Their major initiatives include:

·         The Euro-Velo network of Europe-wide cycle routes

·         The Velo-City conference which has become the most prestigious event for cycle planners attracting over 1400 delegates.

·         Involvement in various research projects funded by the European Union as a way to raise the political profile and lever more funding for cycling.

·         Working to influence policy decisions across all relevant sectors within the European parliament.

The ECF has a unique Europe-wide perspective on cycling. It’s aim is to help countries to work towards an average 15% mode share for cycling across the EU by 2020. It is estimated that the current economic benefits of cycling are worth €217bn across the 27 European countries. The UK does not always fully exploit opportunities for funding for cycling from the EU. 6bn There is a target for €6bn funding for cycling during the period 2014-20. Currently countries such as Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic and Germany are all receiving over €100m for cycling projects from Europe. UK politicians can do more to ensure that our partnership agreement and operational programmes incorporate cycling to ensure that funding is made available.

We were also given a brief introduction to cycling in the Brussels region by Frederik Depoortere. Some of the key facts he shared include:

·         Brussels has an €11m annual cycling budget for a population of 1.1m people (i.e. approx. €10 per head).

·         There is 60% car ownership across the region (relatively high).

·         There is >100m height difference across the city including hills in the central area.

·         A 265km network of 19 strategic routes has been identified at approx. 400m spacing. Mainly signed routes on quieter streets.

·         A public bike system (similar to the London scheme) operates in the city centre.

·         Due to the topography of the city with a lack of direct alternatives, a high proportion of cycle trips is on the main roads.

·         Around 80% of one-way streets have unsegregated contraflow, around 400km in all. These streets have a good safety record.

·         Non infrastructure interventions include a ‘3 day bike buddy’ where a motorist is paired with an experienced cyclist, resulting in 80% success in permanent change of mode. Around 400 people per year are involved.

·         There is an annual Car Free Sunday event.

At the European Parliament we met Brian Simpson, Chair of the European Transport Committee. He was able to update us on the European Infrastructure Safety Directive and in particular progress on HGV design (passed by Parliament on 15th April) to make them safer for pedestrians and cyclists.

the politicians pose for the Het Nieuwsblad photographer

Local politicians joined us for lunch, and were able to talk to them at length about how cycling was perceived locally, and how progress was achieved through general consensus among the main parties. We rounded off the afternoon with a visit to some of the cycle infrastructure that has been introduced in recent years. This includes cycle contraflow lanes alongside parking bays, adjacent cycle tracks at footway level, ‘cycle streets’ where cars are required to wait behind cyclists and cycle lanes to the offside of right-turn lanes to help reduce conflict from ‘right hook’ turns (left hook in UK). There is some tension between regional level government and city level. An example of this is that a cycle lane was painted overnight (replacing a traffic lane) on a road administered by regional government to avoid discussion about capacity with the city officials!
cycle lane through junction to offside of right turn lane, Brussels

shared use cycle contraflow with signal control crossing, Brussels
The study offered an excellent contrast between what is possible where cycling becomes more fully established and accepted as a main mode of transport and the challenges of introducing cycling to congested cities where space is at a premium and cycling is regarded as a fringe activity.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

A DNS on the start sheet

Spring can be a bittersweet time for many people. The end of the dark winter days, warmer weather, spring flowers and lambs in the fields. It should be a great time of optimism, indeed a time to put a spring into your step.

For me the site of daffodils often reminds me of a day 20 years ago this year when I decided to take my own life. It was a beautiful crisp bright day, cold and sunny with that hint of a smell of summer to come in the air. The daffodils in question were all over the grassy banks below York's historic city walls. I was in the midst of a lengthy and protracted break up with my girlfriend of 5 years, we were squabbling over the sale of our house, my work was going badly and as often happens in a divorce, friends thought it might be helpful to 'take sides'. I didnt want them to be nasty about my ex, and I was stunned how some people reacted to me when she and I were attempting to part as amicably as we could. Slowly but surely I withdrew from the world, only maintaining the social contact required of my job. I wasn't particularly feeling sorry for myself, it was more that I was determined (in the words of Simon and Garfunkel) that I would be a 'rock' - cos a rock feels no pain. The line from that bloody song I am a rock, I am an island, cos a rock feels no pain, and an island never dies was almost an internal mantra throughout that time. It is surprisingly easy to become isolated. Say no to invitations a few times and soon the phone no longer rings, probably more so if you are a divorce bore or just plain miserable!

That day I realised that I was feeling nothing, there was no pleasure to be had from the spring sunshine. There was nobody to share it with. Thanks to a quick witted passer by, a community psychiatric nurse and the Samaritans I lived to tell the tale. It wasnt the best time in my life, but during that recovery I could feel myself getting mentally stronger.  But like many people I kept it quiet, didn't tell my family what happened, told work I was ill for a week and then went straight back. Just one person knew about it. I often wonder how many people go through these dramatic events completely unremarked.

Last night, as I sat in a hotel room in Belgium I had a phone call. My best friend, a cycling buddy that I've known since I was 15, was found in a lonely part of Halifax with deep cuts to his wrists and legs. He's still in the intensive care ward but he is going to pull through. We've been on some pretty brutal hard bike rides together over the years, through all that the Yorkshire hills and winters can throw at us. I know that together we can always keep going.

I should have seen the signs.    He stopped cycling, then stopped going to the pub, then I hadn't  heard anything for a few weeks. But of course I was busy, and that day I rode past his house without stopping I was training for an event, and then I was working away a lot,  and well, yes he just hasn't been as much fun the last few times we went out.....

I'm visiting him tomorrow. Making time for that visit that I didn't make a few weeks ago. Because   he's important to me now.  He won't be lining up with me this Sunday morning for our local spring audax ride, but he should be. I'm going to make sure we are both there next year.

Cycling is a great way to keep the 'Black Dog' at bay, but everybody  needs a little extra help from friends at times. We should never forget that, and we should talk about it.