Thursday, 8 January 2015

“I just didn’t know this was here!” - The relevance of signage

“I just didn’t know this was here!”

I hear this line regularly from locals while doing cycle route surveying work. Completely surprised about the presence of a cycle route, he/she then also often states he/she “lived here for twenty years”. It painfully shows how many British people hardly ever explore their own area on foot or bike beyond the merits of the main through roads. Rushing off by car, they just don’t have a clue about other ways to get from A to B.

We also notice this when we teach Bikeability to school children. When taking them out and about on local routes near their school, we hear many boys and girls often declaring that “they have never been here before”. This is pretty sad, given the fact we are often cycling within a one mile radius from where most children live.

In my opinion, beyond all the problems and limitations of UK cycle routes, the lack of proper signage is an issue which needs great attention. To get a country back on bikes, you need to show clearly in the field, in the public eye, where cycle routes are and where they will take you. Only this will truly encourage people to explore beyond what they know. Free cycle maps, on-line routeplanners and just that occasional sign as pictured here are all well intended, but generally only serve those who are already on the look out.

In The Netherlands, the authorities only know this too well. To keep the masses on the move by bike, grant visual signage, dedicated to cycling only, is available at every relevant junction. You’ll be clearly directed to common destinations. It is such signage which made me explore locally myself when I was just an eight year old boy; it definitely stopped me of becoming obese at young age!

Just by seeing people using these well signposted routes, other people get inspired to do some local exploration too. This is visible in the UK to some extend in places where new cycle routes are created, but increase in participation in walking and cycling could be so much higher if signage as a tool was taken really seriously.

It still surprises me how councils spend millions on the creation of a new cycle route, but then fail to signpost it properly. In the scheme of things, good signposting is very cheap. With many UK cycle routes not being obvious and hidden away from the main road network, these routes need a towering visual presence on the streets to get known by its potential customers. 

Clear destination signage dedicated to cyclists has been present for a long time in The Netherlands. It all started way back with the so called “mushroom signs”. These signs have indeed the shape of a mushroom. Placed at low-level and with reasonably small print, they provide a wealth of information to the cyclist, with distances to destinations even highlighted in 100m intervals. You can still see these “mushrooms” forming impressive networks in holiday areas where leisure cycling is very popular, such as on the Dutch coast and on the moors in the east of the country.

For day-to-day journeys, white signs with red lettering clearly show the most direct way from A to B. These are really the cycling equivalent of the green destination signage on UK main roads. As a driver you are completely accustomed to a system in which once the name of a town appears on a sign, you’ll be fully directed to the town in question. In that respect, Dutch cyclists receive the same treatment as drivers, and with towering results. At least one in four journeys in The Netherlands is made by bicycle, while in the UK, the poor “one if fifty journeys” figure still prevails. Lack of continuous quality destination signage on existing cycle routes is in my view part of the problem.

Clear and consistent signage is an essential part of the Dutch cycling success story. A good example of the efforts by local authorities is the development of the Rotterdam Regional Cycle Network. Back in the 1990s, Wim van de Poll of UrbanDynamicLabs developed the concept of numbered cycle routes for commuters, in an attempt to bring more clarity in the spaghetti web of existing cycle routes.

Van de Poll came up with a clear network for Rotterdam cycling commuters, building bridges across borders of various local authorities. Work on implementation of the network started in 1995 and was completed by 2010. All commuter routes of this network are clearly branded. Beyond the obvious route numbers, Van de Poll also insisted that every route should have clear destinations in all communications, making it always obvious to any user what the route is about.

You might think that the London “Cycling Super Highways” are signposted in a similar way, but if you have a closer look, there is really not very much about it beyond the obvious blue sway of paint on the tarmac. I don’t intend to discuss the general poor quality of the “Cycling Super Highways” at this point, but it is obvious that its signage doesn’t meet “Dutch standards” either.  Signposts are still isolated features and are not present at every relevant junction.  Also, signposted secondary routes to destinations nearby are often limited to a "one sign only". Once you have left the "super highway" you are pretty much on your own. Compare this with the map of the Rotterdam network, where all secondary routes are fully signposted as well!


In some aspects, the London "Super Highway" signage is already better then the average signage of the National Cycle Network. The London posts give at least an idea about destinations and travel times. This is often lacking in the National Cycle Network-signage (see picture left). I truly have the impression that the majority of the population still doesn't have a clue what is hiding behind those little blue signs with red route numbers... 

The New Forest National Park has been working beyond the NCN-network and has created another number-based system. It is a network of numbered junctions, which are all clearly marked at these particular junctions. The signs have a bar code on the top of its wooden poles and by scanning the code with your phone, you’ll get a map on your screen, so you can work out where you want to head next…

This looks suspiciously the same as the Dutch “junction” network, on which junctions ("knooppunt") are also numbered and signposted as such. This network covers the whole country and is designed for exploring by visitors and locals alike, away from the Dutch "cycle path next to main road"-network and its direct routes. In the picture left, you are at junction 9 and you can immediately see how to get to junctions 6 and 10. Also important, an overview map can be found at every numbered junction, see the sign of junction 48 below. This is much more inviting to use and more visible for potential customers in comparison to the very minimal New Forest example with its dependence on high-tech smart phone technology.

Although hugely popular in The Netherlands, a junction network has its limitations. Van de Poll, the designer of the Rotterdam commuter network, has been out on his bike a lot and can tell you entertaining stories of lost cyclists, desperately asking him the way to, for example, “junction 48”. “Where do you want to go then?” Van de Poll normally asks in return, just to be replied with added frustration “to junction 48”. This shows how a system also can take over and how the relation to the real world can easily be lost.

In my opinion, there is a lot to be gained with continuous destination signage, making all those back streets routes (which so happily exist on cycle maps and on route planners, but nowhere else) visible. I was delighted to see  some new destination signs, as pictured here, popping up in my town of residence, Barnstaple, Devon. For me, these signs breathe something fresh and new. Also, the smaller font then usual gets pretty close to the style of the Dutch mushroom-signs, meaning it is possible to show multiple destinations on one sign. The reasonably small size of the sign doesn't make the sign taking over its surroundings and still has a great clarity.

Of course, these new signs are isolated and are still failing to form a network (there is a total of three of such signs!). Its design is great though and I feel this could be the way to clearly signpost local backstreet routes to local destinations such as schools, railway stations, shops, housing and industrial estates, etc. Surrounding villages within a three mile radius, should not be forgotten either, as these routes have a great cycling potential.

Together with my local campaigning group, the North Devon Cycling Forum we hope now to inspire the local authority to expand this destination signage and to create a network such as shown in the map in the real world, visually present in the public eye. Of course, there are many routes which still need fixing. But if they are ready to go (even with some shortcomings), routes should get properly signposted.

A visual presence truly inspires people to explore and might allow millions of people to say virtually at the same time “I just didn’t know this was here!”

PS: To achieve all this, cycling still needs proper funding. At the upcoming elections, only vote for people who pledge to implement funding to carry out the Get Britain Cycling report recommendations without reservations!  

You don't need proper signage if you use a high quality "Cycling Dutchman" guidebook!

Cycling in The Netherlands - The very best routes in a cyclist's paradise makes you travel beyond Dutch cliches like clogs, windmills and the Amsterdam red light district, allowing you to truly explore the lowlands. The book features over 700 kms of routes and has special chapters explaining the unique Dutch cycling-minded traffic rules and its cycle route signage systems; 164 pages, colour, wiro bound, fits in standard handlebar bag, see also http://www.cyclinginholland.com.

The London - Land's End Cycle Route Book is designed for those who LOVE cycling, but don't like traffic. The book takes you onto the most beautiful cycle routes of southern England, including the Camel Trail, Devon Coast to Coast Route, Bristol and Bath Railway path, Thames Valley route and many more! What makes the book unique is that the route is completely continuous, including detailed directions and local knowledge all the way. Get inspired; choose your favourite route sections or go for a full summer holiday adventure; 164 pages, colour, wiro bound, fits in standard handlebar bag, see http://www.london-landsendcycleroutebook.com.

Other popular Cycling Dutchman blog articles:

Explaining Dutch cycling infrastructure:




Dutch bike rides and Dutch cycling culture:

The 12 best bike rides of The Netherlands

Dutch style bike rides in the United Kingdom:



Saturday, 1 November 2014

The joys of riding a banana bike!


British people of a certain age will probably remember the revolutionary SinclairC5 electric bicycle (see picture on right). Invented by eccentric Clive Sinclair, this recumbent electric bike looked very much as a mini-car. The Sinclair C5 very quickly became the laughing stock of the country, as British people just didn’t want to ride the thing due to safety concerns.

Had Clive Sinclair brought his C5 to The Netherlands, it might well have worked. Back in the 1980s, the astonishing cycle network of The Netherlands was already very much established and Dutch people may well have gone for it, as they didn’t have to fear for riding among motorised traffic as the British C5-rider had to do (and still would have to do today).  

Today, we see regularly C5-inspired bikes on their way in The Netherlands. Some are also nicknamed banana bikes, due to their shape and colour. A cross over between recumbent bike and the C5 concepts, it is a distinguished feature on Dutch cycle paths. Wytze Bijleveld is a happy Dutch banana bike owner and in this month’s guest blog, he tells the story of his banana bike:

"The purchase of a banana bike was a logical progression for me. After riding a sitting bike, my first recumbent (Flevo Bike) and  a recumbent racer (Challenge Hurricane), I was simply ready to ride an enclosed recumbent bike. The ability to make longer journeys and the joy to be less affected by rain and wind were the main reasons to get a banana bike. I haven’t looked back since.

The official name for a banana bike is a Velomobiel (either the Quest or Mango model) or Sunrider, depending on the brand. Its riders form a small community in which people know each other very well. You are either part of the “open” recumbent rider’s community or the “enclosed” recumbent group (such as the banana). I don’t keep up with their events regularly, but I try to visit the annual Cycle Vision event, just to keep an eye out for the latest innovations. My main interest  though is the relaxation that cycling brings.

The banana can cater for daily commutes up to 40 kms (25 miles) one way. This distance would take you about an hour on the flat. Longer journeys are easily possible too, but could be tiresome on a daily basis. I have done family visits with rides up to 100 kms (65 miles) each way. Such a distance only takes me 2.5 hours. On a normal bike, it would have taken me five to six hours.

During Spring I did a circular ride through The Netherlands, Germany and Belgium, mostly following the Rhine River routes. The banana bike proved to offer plenty of space to bring a tent and cooking utensils, especially if you pack everything in various smaller items, allowing you to use every inch of space on the inside. I quickly became a sight anywhere where I stopped. When pausing on Cologne’s Central Square, I found myself surrounded by a crowd admiring my banana. With so much interest from the locals, I decided to park it up safely for the night in a car parking garage. As the banana fitted under the car park barrier, I managed to park for free!

The banana is holding itself together on hills just as well. Obviously the speed drops, but that is mainly because of the weight (especially when riding with all the camping gear). It is easily possible to ride a very low gear without getting wobbly. I found the sensation similar to riding a normal bike up hill. Going downhill is a different story; you can go fast, very fast! I don’t let go the speed above 80 km/h (50 mph), but I know other banana riders who let it go to 100 km/h (65 mph). I think that is irresponsible. Personally, I keep a close watch on the performance of my brakes. I didn’t have any issues with them so far.

The banana bike remains a special sight on Dutch cycle paths and roads, although nearly everyone I speak has seen one around or says to know a banana rider. About 2000 banana bikes have been sold in The Netherlands so far. On a total bicycle population of 14 million, its market share is still very tiny!

So what is the general perception of the public in response to my appearance with the banana bike? Well, I have been called a “lazy git”, a “dodger”, an “idiot”, a “green freak” and obviously an irresponsible person making our roads extremely dangerous! Fortunately, my banana gives me also plenty of spontaneous encounters with interested and open-minded people, who secretly might want to own a banana too!

For next spring, I am looking at a longer international camping trip again, possibly north to Denmark or further south into Germany from Cologne, so look out for that banana bike!"

Wytze Bijleveld, Lelystad, The Netherlands

What about possibly encountering a banana bike yourself with a high quality "Cycling Dutchman" guidebook?

Cycling in The Netherlands - The very best routes in a cyclist's paradise makes you travel beyond Dutch cliches like clogs, windmills and the Amsterdam red light district, allowing you to truly explore the lowlands. The book features over 700 kms of routes and has special chapters explaining the unique Dutch cycling-minded traffic rules and its cycle route signage systems; 164 pages, colour, wiro bound, fits in standard handlebar bag, see also http://www.cyclinginholland.com.

The London - Land's End Cycle Route Book is designed for those who LOVE cycling, but don't like traffic. The book takes you onto the most beautiful cycle routes of southern England, including the Camel Trail, Devon Coast to Coast Route, Bristol and Bath Railway path, Thames Valley route and many more! What makes the book unique is that the route is completely continuous, including detailed directions and local knowledge all the way. Get inspired; choose your favourite route sections or go for a full summer holiday adventure; 164 pages, colour, wiro bound, fits in standard handlebar bag, see http://www.london-landsendcycleroutebook.com.

Other popular Cycling Dutchman blog articles:

Explaining Dutch cycling infrastructure:




Dutch bike rides and Dutch cycling culture:

The 12 best bike rides of The Netherlands

Dutch style bike rides in the United Kingdom:

Friday, 3 October 2014

Long distance cycling with two toddlers!

How did you do it? What did you bring? Which routes did you take? How much distance did you cover in a day? These are all regular questions to be answered by those who completed any long-distance multiple day cycle trip. I can usually answer such questions myself, but when talking long distance cycling with toddlers I have to turn to a friend of mine. Tom Burslem is a GIS and mapping specialist who recently spent the summer cycling across The Netherlands, Germany and Denmarktogether with his wife and two small children. This is their story:

We have always enjoyed cycle touring, and have undertaken numerous trips both in the UK and Europe. However since having children we’ve had to hang up our panniers thinking that touring with babies, toddlers and the associated paraphernalia which goes with little ones would be too difficult.

Emily (3) and Sebastian (15 months) are both very used to travelling on bikes in either a seat mounted to the rear rack or in a trailer, and they seemed to be happy to be transported this way for just as long as they are willing to sit in a pushchair. This got us thinking - maybe a cycle tour would be possible.

We were still put off a bit by thinking about how much stuff we would have to take. Clothes alone for 4 people would require pairing down to the bare minimum. But what is the bare minimum? How many t-shirts do you take for a 15 month-old boy who has a magnetic attraction to all things messy? With this, and a thousand other questions in mind, we did a mini cycle tour close to home and decided what was essential and what wasn’t. This trip gave us confidence and we started to think about where else we could go. It needed to be easy to get to. It needed to be flat, and there needed to be plenty of campsites and playgrounds. 


We plumped for the Hook of Holland to Denmark for a number of reasons, the main one being the cycle friendliness of the countries we would go through. With this in mind we booked a one-way ticket from Harwich to the Hook and started worrying about how long we would be able to last. From the Hook we travelled north up the Dutch coast, via the Afsluitdijk to the Frisian part of the Netherlands, and then via Groningen into Germany


In Germany, we took ferries across the Weser and Elbe rivers and then headed north to Flensburg, where we crossed into Denmark. In Denmark we cycled and took ferries via Sonderborg and Svendborg to end up in Rodbyhaven. We then took the ferry back to Germany, got a train back to the Hook and a ferry back to the UK. We cycled just under 1000 km (over 600 miles) and were away 6 weeks.

Equipment

Travelling with kids meant taking a lot of stuff – hence the need for a flat route! We took a bike seat for the back of Tania's bike and a 2 berth trailer (Burley d'lite for those interested in such details) which I towed. Our trial runs taught us that it would be good to have options in swapping the kids around, and they tend to start unsuitable hitting competitions if they are both in the trailer. The Burley was excellent, but not perfect. It is waterproof but water does get in when it is raining very hard. The straps are a bit fiddly and the tyres supplied aren’t great. However the kids are happy in it so must be comfy, and the boot is nice and big, even with two children in the front.

Our decision to take a bike seat in addition to a trailer meant that we could not take rear panniers for Tania’s bike. We therefore needed the boot space in the trailer. We also took a rucksack which we attached to the bike seat when both kids were in the trailer. We allowed Emily one bag of toys and books, which she chose when we were packing. Space was also made for two favourite soft toys, both of which very much enjoyed the experience.

A typical day

We very quickly established a daily routine. Seb usually wakes us up at about 6:15. He is very vocal until he has breakfast so we rush to do this before he wakes the whole campsite. We then packed up and were away by 9:00. Both kids loved camping. However Seb got very nervous when he saw us packing up in the morning. He worried that he would be forgotten so we put him in a sling to assure him he wouldn’t be left behind. This made packing quite a time consuming process.

In the morning Seb went in the trailer and Emily in the bike seat. Seb went straight to sleep and we cycled until he woke up. We tried to get the majority of mileage done while he was asleep. He could easily do 90 minutes. Emily loved the bike seat and was constantly asking questions about the passing scenery, most of which started with 'why'. 

When Seb woke up we would have a long break at a playground and lunch, and then they swapped berths for the much shorter afternoon cycle. The daily distances covered were typically 30 to 40 km. We would arrive at the campsite early which meant we could put the tents up, make dinner, find yet more playgrounds, wash and get the kids to sleep by about 7pm.

The kids' appetites increased hugely on this trip and they started eating - something we didn’t anticipate, and our small Trangia stove wasn’t big enough to cook a meal in one go so we ended up cooking and eating in shifts.

I love cycling in The Netherlands. There cycling is the norm and you become one of the crowd. You don’t get strange looks from onlookers, and your fellow road users are so polite. We’ve never experienced threatening behaviour from drivers, or the impatient revving that you get in the UK. We put this down to cyclists having their own space and the fact that most motorists are also cyclists, but maybe it is just because the Dutch as a nation are not in so much of a hurry to get from A to B.

I find crossing borders very exciting, but the crossing from the Netherlands into Germany was a bit of an anti-climax. It was nothing more than a bridge over a canal and a man gave us a very strange look as we stopped to take a photo. There wasn’t even a sign mentioning the fact we were going from one country to the next. 

I'm always surprised how different things are immediately after you cross a border. The scenery was the same (flat and agricultural) but everything else was completely different. In the Netherlands most villages have a playground, whereas in Germany it is rare to find one. The campsites have a very different feel to them as well. The Dutch use campsites as places to spend a family holiday, but in Germany were quieter and a little run down.

The other main difference was of course the language. We immediately went from being understood by nearly everyone to being understood by almost no one. The Dutch spoke English very well, which made us very lazy about learning their language. We were just catching on to saying ‘hello’, ‘thank you’ and simple phrases by the time we left. However in Germany we learnt much more very quickly.

The border between Germany and Denmark was similarly unremarkable but still an unmanned hut on both sides where once upon a time you would have had to show a passport.

The journey home

To get home we travelled by train from Puttgarden in Germany to Hook of Holland. We did it over a number of days to ease the pain. I was expecting problems travelling with two bikes and a trailer on a train, but it couldn’t have been easier. We travelled by Deutsche Bahn Regional train to Hamburg. These were double-decker trains, and they have a dedicated space for bikes on a lower deck of one carriage. You buy a ticket for your bike and can just turn up and get on. There is plenty of space and we didn’t have any problems. We then travelled from Hamburg to Amsterdam on an Intercity service. We had to book this (ourselves and the bikes) but it was not a problem either. We needed to book three bike spaces (two for the bikes and one for the trailer). Amsterdam to the Hook was also not a problem.

The most stressful part of the return journey was wondering whether the British rail network would accept two bikes and a trailer. It is not possible to book and there is nothing telling you whether you are allowed to take a trailer. We were lucky and had no problems travelling on quiet trains in the middle of the day. I would not like to travel on a crowded service however.

Would we do the trip again?


Cycle touring with toddlers is hard work. The cycling was the easy bit as they are strapped into the trailer and bike seat. However once you have done the cycling, they jump off the bikes full of energy, wanting to run around and play just when we wanted to sit and relax.  But we had a great time. The kids were outside almost continuously for six weeks. They became urchins and looked ridiculously healthy. We stayed in 25 different campsites and visited about 50 playgrounds, and Emily learned to say thank you in three languages. We worried that the children would get both sunstroke and hypothermia (though not on the same day). We questioned our sanity on a daily basis, but are very glad we did it. Maybe next year we’ll head for France...

For a full account of the cycling trip see Tom's Cycling Toddlers Blog.

What about going for a traffic-calmed cycling holiday yourself with a high quality "Cycling Dutchman" guidebook?

Cycling in The Netherlands - The very best routes in a cyclist's paradise makes you travel beyond Dutch cliches like clogs, windmills and the Amsterdam red light district, allowing you to truly explore the lowlands. The book features over 700 kms of routes and has special chapters explaining the unique Dutch cycling-minded traffic rules and its cycle route signage systems; 164 pages, colour, wiro bound, fits in standard handlebar bag, see also http://www.cyclinginholland.com.

The London - Land's End Cycle Route Book is designed for those who LOVE cycling, but don't like traffic. The book takes you onto the most beautiful cycle routes of southern England, including the Camel Trail, Devon Coast to Coast Route, Bristol and Bath Railway path, Thames Valley route and many more! What makes the book unique is that the route is completely continuous, including detailed directions and local knowledge all the way. Get inspired; choose your favourite route sections or go for a full summer holiday adventure; 164 pages, colour, wiro bound, fits in standard handlebar bag, see http://www.london-landsendcycleroutebook.com.

Other popular Cycling Dutchman blog articles:

Explaining Dutch cycling infrastructure:




Dutch bike rides and Dutch cycling culture:

The 12 best bike rides of The Netherlands

Dutch style bike rides in the United Kingdom: