Who are all these self-harming Dutch helmet wearers?

Martin Porter mentions a fun fact about helmet wearing:

Hans Voerknecht has been to a Velo-City conference in Vancover to explain why mandatory helmet laws are not such a great idea.  One of his statistics is that In the Netherlands, where cycling is ubiquitous, 13.3 per cent of the cyclists admitted to hospitals with injuries wore helmets — even though just 0.5 per cent cent of Dutch cyclists wear helmets.

This statistic is both utterly useless and extremely important. It tells us nothing about whether helmets are effective, ineffective or dangerous, but it does brilliantly illustrate the fact that the helmets issue is far from being a simple “no brainer”, and hints at one of the major flaws in the scientific studies of helmet efficacy.

Martin speculates on the reason for the interesting 30 times higher rate of hospitalisation amongst helmet wearers:

Maybe tourists from Anglo Saxon nations wearing helmets are disproportionately represented in the hospital statistics.  Maybe also those with helmets are perceived by motorists or perceive themselves to be less vulnerable.

In fact, it’s obvious who the helmet wearers are in the Netherlands.

Here’s a cyclist wearing a helmet:


while this bicycle user is helmet free:


These cyclists, ready for Saturday morning training, are wearing helmets, but the woman who has just passed them isn’t:


This cyclist is wearing a helmet:


This family out for a ride isn’t:


This cyclist is wearing a helmet:


This chap just has a cap:

tram in the trixie

This guy is wearing a helmet:


This one isn’t:


These cyclists are wearing helmets:


These folks aren’t:


These cyclists are wearing helmets:


And these aren’t:

bicycle path

Can you spot the difference? All of the helmeted cyclists are racing around, head down, feet firmly clamped to the pedals on fragile lightweight skinny tired bicycles — except for the one on a muddy knobbly tired mountainbike. Most of the helmet photos were taken at the weekend. Some of the others were too: a couple of gents leisurely touring the sand dunes in a nature reserve, and a family crossing Nesciobrug, perhaps off for a picnic in the country. But mostly they’re just people making everyday journeys: commuters in Amsterdam, shoppers in Utrecht, school kids in Houten. They’re on sturdy steady bicycles, rarely doing more than 15mph. Their environment is not completely without hazards, but even if things do go wrong, they’re extremely unlikely to find themselves hospitalised. The racers and mountainbikers, meanwhile, are far more likely to fall off or hit something, and at the sort of speeds where that breaks things.

The Dutch wear helmets — and get injured — when they’re doing sports. The Dutch don’t wear helmets when they’re using transport.

This is one of the major flaws in much of our research on helmets, and in much of the British approach to cycling. It fails to account for the differences between using a bicycle and participating in (extreme) sports.

Edited to add, in case it wasn’t clear — for I fear that too frequently in these posts I leave all of the background as taken, having been over it many times before — in the Netherlands these racers wearing helmets are the same people riding utility bikes without them. The folk who get dressed up in lycra and helmets to ride sports bikes at the weekend will, during the week, be riding a utility bike in normal clothes and no helmet, because that’s what the Dutch do. All of them. I mean, they don’t all do the racing, but they all have a utility bike. We don’t expect folk who enjoy a bit of rock climbing at the weekend to continue wearing their helmet all week, or people whose hobby is diving to keep the scuba tank on for the Monday morning commute.

People die of cancer and heart disease, therefore we don’t require oxygen to stay alive

AmCamBike seems to be frustrated with all these folk claiming that a necessary prerequisite for mass cycling is good infrastructure that doesn’t require bicycle users to mix with lots of busy fast traffic. He looks at a survey of people in the Netherlands who both drive and cycle for some of their journeys, and which asks those people why they choose to make journeys by bicycle and why they choose to make journeys by car. It turns out that they do not cite infrastructure as a reason to make a journey by bicycle, and they do not cite a lack of infrastructure on the occasions that they choose not to make a journey by bicycle. Dutch folk just never say: I would have made that journey by bicycle today if only they had built another cycle path. So I take it all back. Fixing our infrastructure is not necessary for cycling. Apparently we just need to shout loud and clear that cycling is healthy, fun and good for the environment. Why had nobody thought to do that before in this country?

AmCamBike may just have made an important breakthrough in transport planning. I just went to my local station, you see, and asked the folk waiting on the platform why they had chosen to make their journey by train. Not one of them mentioned the tracks. This opens up exciting money-saving opportunities for High Speed 2. Folk in the Chilterns will be relieved.

AmCamBike also notes how strange it is that, in the UK, a survey found that dangerous roads and lack of cycling infrastructure is cited as a reason not to make journeys by bicycle. What a strange result that is, that in a country that lacks cycling infrastructure, a lack of cycling infrastructure is cited as a reason for not cycling. And in a country which doesn’t lack cycling infrastructure, it isn’t. What could possibly explain why it is cited as a reason for not cycling in one, but not the other? It’s a right conundrum, isn’t it?

AmCamBike thinks it would be interesting to see whether that result — from the recent Sustrans research — which found lack of cycling infrastructure to be a reason for not cycling in the UK, could be replicated in other surveys. Well, I suppose there’s the DfT’s 2011 “Climate change and transport choices” report. And the 2001 Scottish “Sharing Road Space” report (PDF). And Southampton’s 1997 “Barriers to cycling” survey (PDF). And Manchester’s 2011 cycle survey. There were Tim Ryley’s 2004 surveys in Edinburgh, I guess. And TRL’s 1997 “Attitudes to cycling” focus groups, 1998 “Cycling for a healthier nation” surveys, and 1998 “Transport implications of leisure cycling” surveys are often cited, though I’ve never obtained the full reports. And obviously there’s the very in-depth Understanding Walking and Cycling project, about which Dave Horton writes lay summaries. But perhaps they all just prompted the participants to give those responses?

I think it would be far more interesting to survey ex-pat Dutch folk to find out what affects their everyday transport mode decisions in their adopted countries. It shouldn’t be difficult: I find that Dutch people are very willing to tell you why they don’t cycle in the UK, before you’ve even asked. Like the Dutch chap on a hillwalking holiday who I met in Torridon last year — jealous of my cycle touring, he volunteered, but unwilling to join me because of the lack of safe places to cycle in Scotland. Or the retired gentleman who had struck up a conversation (wondering why I was photographing roundabouts) on the cycle path at Ernst when I was riding to Arnhem — a fan of my native West Country as a holiday destination, but he has only ever taken a car to Devon and Cornwall because “you’d have to cycle on the road, with 100kmph cars, it’s crazy”. Or the Dutch student I met at the lights on the Bloomsbury cycle tracks, who rides on a carefully planned quiet route to UCL, but to no other destinations, because she couldn’t be sure there would be a cycle route. Isn’t it really odd how, when they’re in the Netherlands, which has cycle paths, they don’t cite lack of cycle paths as a reason for not cycling, but when they’re in the UK, which doesn’t have cycle paths, they cite lack of cycle paths as a reason for not cycling? Why is that? Why won’t they listen to AmCamBike when he tells them that they don’t cycle because of the infrastructure?

Pick and mix and the Hierarchy of Provision

The marvellous Mad Cycle Lanes of Greater Manchester has posted an extract from a history of provision for cycling in the Netherlands:

the government decided to develop a large array of measures to promote cycling, walking and traffic calming, such as:

– Reducing car access to city-centres and create car-free areas;
– Making parking in city-centres more expensive;
– Constructing cycle paths and reducing road space for cars;
– Facilitating cycling through cycle network planning, road design, signalling, parking and enforcement;
– Reducing maximum speed on the majority of urban roads to 30 km/h or less;
– Promoting cycling to encourage the use of bikes and discourage car-use.

But MCLGM draw a rather odd conclusion from this, which is not supported by the quoted text:

Note how most of the measures are about reducing and removing access by motor vehicles.

The key to increasing cycling is reducing motor traffic, the cycle tracks are the follow-up measures.

I tried to post a comment, but of course because MCLGM is hosted on Blogspot it disappeared with a server error page somewhere in the gazillion-step commenting processes. (Seriously Blogspot bloggers, it is way past time you came and joined us on a platform that works.)

I’m going to post the comment here, because it seems to be a very common mistake, and one that needs to be laid to rest.

Er. Not quite. All of the measures are “key”; none of them are “follow-ups”. They are the different solutions that apply to different situations. The British seem desperate to put things in a hierarchy. It’s completely the wrong approach, and it’s certainly not the Dutch approach.

In some places — residential streets and city centres — we need to reduce traffic speed and remove vehicular access. In other places — main arterial roads and other places with high traffic volumes and/or large vehicles — we need to reallocate space for cycle tracks. You start from the specific problem, not the preferred solution.

That is the key to increasing cycling. Knowing what needs to be done in each situation.

I’ll use this opportunity to expand on this point about putting solutions into hierarchies a little.

In Britain we have a “Hierarchy of Provision”, which recommends some types of cycling provision as preferable to other types. It was developed by the DfT and CTC in 1997, is still endorsed by many cyclists (sometimes enthusiastically so) as well as officials, and is part of the design guidance for cycling infrastructure — Local Transport Note 2/08 — upon which the nation’s Crap Cycle Facilities are modelled.

Specifically, the Hierarchy of Provision states that one should “consider first” reducing the speed and volume of motor traffic, and “consider last” shared use footways. (Note, not: “never ever consider”, the Hierarchy of Provision thinks shared footways should be “considered last”.)

This is, as my lost comment says, approaching things the wrong way around: bringing a set of pre-ranked preferred solutions to a road and trying each one in turn to see which one fits. The correct approach — the one that the Dutch apply — is to start with the purpose and properties of a road: whether it is the main A-to-B road, or a little residential or access street; whether it needs to carry big dangerous trucks and buses; and so on. Once you’ve answered those questions, there is no need to try different solutions on for size: when you understand the problem, the appropriate solution follows.

For many years in the UK there was a Hierarchy of Provision way of thinking, which led, and still leads, to some absurdities, such as the idea that in the Netherlands cycle tracks are a “follow-up measure”. When the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain came along and made the then heretical statement that, actually, for some kinds of roads, we should be asking straight-up for Dutch-style cycle tracks instead of trying to apply one preferred top-of-the-hierarchy solution to every road in the country, this entirely sensible position was often misunderstood. Unable to think outside The Hierarchy, the embrace of cycle tracks was interpreted as an attempt on the crown: to put cycle tracks at the top of The Hierarchy and to campaign exclusively for the construction of segregated cycle paths alongside every inch of road, lane, street and cul-de-sac in the country.

It seems that this misunderstanding is still spread, and by those who should know better:

Carlton Reid @carltonreid Carlton Reid
135,575 km of roads in Netherlands. 29,000km of segregated tracks. So, in UK, there’s a need for separation on *every* road? #cyclesafe
7 hours ago

Jon Smalldon @jonsmalldon Jon Smalldon
@carltonreid Nobody has said or is saying that though?
7 hours ago  Favorite Retweet Reply

Mark @AsEasyAsRiding Mark
@carltonreid Who’s saying that?
7 hours ago Favorite Retweet Reply

Carlton Reid @carltonreid Carlton Reid
@jonsmalldon @AsEasyAsRiding David Arditti coming very close. http://bit.ly/yf7JwZ
6 hours ago  Favorite Retweet Reply

(Readers can follow Carlton Reid’s link that to the essay in which David Arditti explains very clearly and at length, in 3,000 words and two diagrams, his ideas on the interventions which might be appropriate solutions the problems that cyclists face in different situations, placing it in the context of David’s other articles, and can draw their own conclusions about whether Reid is right to sum up David’s argument as a call for segregated cycle tracks on every public road and street in Britain.)

Campaigners seem to be growing more comfortable advocating the full breadth of solutions in the Dutch “Sustainable Safety” package, but even when doing so in the Xmas edition of their magazine, the London Cycling Campaign can’t stop thinking in hierarchies: “the Dutch mantra is mix if possible, separate when necessary,” they say, as if the Dutch have a hierarchy of “consider first: mix”, “consider last: separate”. But as the LCC magazine says elsewhere, the Dutch “start by deciding the function of a road, and from this flows the design.” On a busy trunk road they don’t first consider mixed traffic.

But not everybody has quite come to terms with it all yet, and in attempting to reconcile the comprehensive and detailed Dutch solution with the crude and uncomplicated British hierarchy approach, it seems that many have had to resort to what MCRcycling calls the Dutch pick and mix: we’ll pick the filtered permeability to put at the top of our hierarchy, and campaign for that one, thanks.

Over the past couple of years, the breadth of the successful Dutch approach to street design and cycling has begun to be explained and appreciated in this country, thanks initially to the likes of David Hembrow’s blog, Mark Wagenbuur’s videos, and occasional articles like this, and recently spread even further by the Dutch Cycling Embassy and London’s Go Dutch campaign. The activity stirred up by The Times CycleSafe campaign will, I hope and expect, lead to its much wider dissemination. I imagine that attempts to arrange the continent’s engineering into a hierarchy of provision will keep people occupied for a while yet.

You have one new message

On the scruffy one-way motor race track in the centre of Eindhoven. Bits of Eindhoven were really dominated by motor traffic, with massive arterial roads into the centre, and the fast noisy one-way system around the pedestrianised core. Noticeably less pleasant than the similar sized Utrecht and Groningen. And yet, by British standards, it was still a paradise of tranquil but thriving living streets.

The Friday photo column is just an excuse to plug my photography stuff. Don’t you think they’d make good Christmas presents?

Getting to school in the countryside

This post is part of a series, starting at “What would you do here?”, on making utility cycling attractive in rural Britain.

In the Netherlands, children cycle to school. Almost all of them. Unaccompanied from the age of 8 or 9. You only wouldn’t cycle if you lived so close that it’s quicker to walk, and even then you might cycle sometimes anyway, so that you can go places with friends afterwards. Children there are fitter, healthier, and freer, less dependent on the parents’ taxi service. British authorities talk a lot about wanting children to walk and cycle more and to be ferried around in parents’ cars less, but have so far done little that has actually succeeded in making that happen. What would it take to make cycling to school possible in our rural British case study subject?

Continue reading “Getting to school in the countryside”

Strange streets and rural ratruns in the Netherlands

On the path from Nijmegen to Eindhoven, following signs for an intermediate town, I stumbled upon the equivalent of a trunk road, the N324 Graafseweg on the edge of Wijchen, being dug up:

The cycle route here followed a series of short access streets parallel to the main road — non-through routes for motor vehicles but which are joined up with cycle tracks.

But at one point even the cycle route/access streets had been taken over by the construction crew, and bicycles were sent around a short and excellently signed diversion, along a suburban lane with cycle tracks:

And onto a little lane, Urnenveldweg I think it must have been, with no need for bicycle infrastructure, but with traffic calming — not very good traffic calming:

I imagine that this lane is normally little used. It runs parallel to the main road and doesn’t connect much other than the few properties here. So it’s interesting that the verges are so bare — what has killed the grassy edges? In addition to being the official bicycle diversion, quite a few motorists had discovered that it also makes a through route for cars, and they were determined to push their way through. Perhaps it was a self-selected sample of bad drivers — they were, after all, choosing to ignore their own diversions and instead ratrun down the country lanes. It was one of the few places in a 1,000km where being on a bicycle was anything less than completely comfortable and relaxed, and it destroyed the illusion that Dutch motorists are more considerate and better behaved than the British.

This is what they were doing with the main road:

According to a Google Translate of the council’s project page, they’ve reduced it from two lanes to a single lane in each direction, cut the speed limit to 50kmph, and put on a quieter surface — all measures to cut the noise pollution in this suburb. But the other thing they’ve done is built those walls: stone walls facing the main road, with gentle grassy banks facing the parallel bicycle/access streets and houses behind, another noise abatement feature. It’s a bit odd. I’m sure it’s preferable to having a 100kmph dual carriageway outside the front door, but it still looks like a funny sort of place to live.

On country lanes

This post is part of a series, starting at “So what would you do here?”, on making utility cycling attractive in rural Britain.

I was sent a CPRE book last week. It reminded me of these lines from Betjeman:

Let’s say goodbye to hedges
And roads with grassy edges
And winding country lanes;
Let all things travel faster
Where motor car is master
Till only Speed remains.

A common objection to dedicated cycling infrastructure is the size of the British road network. You can’t put cycling infrastructure on every road in the country, therefore you shouldn’t put it on any. I disagree, not just with the conclusion, but with the premise too. We can put cycling infrastructure on every road in the country. It just depends on the definition of “road”.

Country lanes like the one below, a narrow 4km long link between the north-south A357 and the east-west A30, are currently “roads” — used primarily to get motor vehicles from one place to another. How could you separate bicycles and motor vehicles here without demolishing buildings, cutting down hedges and paving over the countryside?

It starts as a little street squeezed between two old shops in a tiny town centre:

Continue reading “On country lanes”

On the village high street

This post is part of a series, starting at “So what would you do here?” and On rural main roads, on making cycling an attractive mode of transport in rural Britain.

Big busy fast main roads are the major barrier to making journeys by bicycle for most of the rural British population, and proper high-quality cycle tracks are the most plausible solution to that problem. It would be nice to be able to reclaim all the roads from the fast cars and big trucks, make them places where people can happily ride bicycles again, but that doesn’t seem likely for a long time. At the moment, providing dedicated inviting space for bicycles alongside them is the only proven solution.

In some cases the same solution could be applied to rural settlements: enabling cycling by reallocating some of the roadspace from general traffic to bicycles, as in this village on a busy road and intercity bicycle route between Arnhem and Nijmegen in the Netherlands:

But more often the reverse is true of rural villages. Not only is it difficult to provide cycling space because of the constraints of very old streets, but the political will is the opposite within villages than without: speed is unpopular and most residents want the cars tamed and the streets reclaimed for people. It is just about possible to calm these streets, with the right engineering, and the will to do it exists — not because of anything to do with cycling, but because people live and work and shop and raise their kids in these places.

That’s part of the Dutch model, where they recognise that roads, whether we like it or not, have become routes for motor vehicles, while streets must be places for people but where, with the right engineering, a limited number of motor vehicles can be accommodated.

On this country road near Assen the speed limit drops to 20mph when it enters a village… Continue reading “On the village high street”

On rural main roads

This post is part of a series, starting at “So what would you do here?”, on making cycling an attractive mode of transport in rural Britain.

The Dutch model of making cycling attractive and popular is known for the policy of providing high quality dedicated cycle tracks alongside roads. What, all roads? Yes. Pretty much all roads.

But the crucial detail is that the Dutch make a clear distinction between roads, country lanes, and town streets. The roads — equivalent to Britain’s ‘A’ roads and some ‘B’ roads — have cycle tracks. The country lanes and town streets are treated differently — the subject of posts later in the week.

The Dutch concede that roads (roads, not lanes or streets) are for motor vehicles: for getting people and goods from one place to another quickly. That concession is a great bogeyman to many British cyclists, but the reality is that most British people have also conceded that roads are also for vehicles: they will never cycle on them, just as they long ago gave up walking on them, riding horses on them, and letting their children play on these roads. To solve that problem, we could either build high-quality dedicated cycling infrastructure, so that there would be no need to mix with the fast cars and big trucks, or we could calm, slow, and the reduce the numbers of cars and size of trucks, reclaiming the main roads. I think I know which one of those is more achievable and politically acceptable.

Here’s a rural British main road not so far from the case study area, linking the market towns of Blandford Forum and Wimborne Minster, 14km apart, via a few small villages:

Continue reading “On rural main roads”

Blijf uit de dode hoek

“Stay out of the blind spot”

Where have I heard that before?

Fixed that for you.
But these posters were repeated on a dozen lamp posts here:

It is, surely, irrelevant? Unlike London’s “superhighways”, there can’t be many Dutch roads left that could create this kind of situation, especially not in Amsterdam, where I spotted the avenue of posters. The kind of roads that carry big trucks generally give bicycles their own dedicated space; and the city streets where bicycles and traffic mix generally do not allow such big trucks. And in the few situations where bicycles and trucks could mix like this, the truck driver would not overtake the cyclist while preparing to make a turn (sorry, what am I talking about, these situations are always the dead cyclists’ fault for positioning themselves on the inside of a truck, never the surviving truck drivers’ fault for passing a cyclist while turning).

It’d be interesting to know how big a problem this really is in the Netherlands — and why the Dutch government (for I believe it was they) thought it important to put up posters about it.


Here’s another bascule bridge undergoing a transformation, Hogesluisbrug, one of many crossing the canals of central Amsterdam. The city is currently rebuilding it, with modern foundations and electric lifting mechanism but with the original exterior design and decorations.

In the meantime, they’ve put a temporary bridge alongside the old one. A temporary lifting bridge. A temporary lifting tramway bridge:

A temporary lifting tramway bridge that gives priority to cyclists:

When the space gets narrow, no “cyclists dismount” signs here: the trams and vans must take turns on the remaining available space.

I didn’t go looking for this bridge, I had no idea these works were going on — it’s just the sort of thing you stumble upon when vaguely and unhurriedly navigating by instinct through a Dutch city…