The week before my Amsterdam holiday I saw a video on social media of a bicycle-priority roundabout: bikes zooming freely around, while cars gave way, clusters of cyclists gliding in formation around the curves, individuals peeling off to different destinations like the lead cyclist in the velodrome when they’ve had enough of leading the pack. It seemed like a special sort of utopia to someone who, on her daily commute, lays down the gauntlet to the buses, lorries and kamakazi taxi-drivers of Glasgow’s Dumbarton road. Or along Churchill Drive in Hyndland where a narrow strip of road painted green and purportedly a bike lane, has nose to tail cars parked in it and you are constantly on the look out for a car door opening road-side.
A bicycle priority roundabout, along with some of the school run in Amersfoort this morning pic.twitter.com/y7V9XuhZEK
— Hackney Cyclist (@Hackneycyclist) June 27, 2019
When I arrived in Amsterdam I was not disappointed by the sheer volume of bike traffic. In two minutes we counted ninety-five cyclists at 7pm in a not particularly busy part of town. That is 2850 cyclists per hour. Everywhere, thousands of bikes on segregated cycle lanes shot past in all directions with not a helmet, nor any lycra, in sight. A woman on a hefty cargo bike, with two kids in the box on the front and one perched on a makeshift seat on the panier rack, chatted animatedly to a friend on the bike next to her, their skirts billowing as they cycled. Men in suits, teenagers in a chatty slow-moving peloton, women in summer dresses, a girl in a hijab giving her friend a backie. It was all too wonderful for words. And then I got out of the tram and reality struck, or rather I was nearly struck by an extremely fast-moving bike.
Bikes have priority over all other road-users, and the roads are set out to facilitate this, to the mortal danger of tourists who haven’t worked out the system yet. The buttons to operate the pelican crossings are located the other side of the cycle track, which is not subject to the traffic lights, so I have some sympathy for the cyclist who shouted a few choice expletives at me as I stepped right in front of him to press the button. This priority for bikes and segregated cycke lanes physically separated from the car /tram carriageways on almost eery street meant that bikes are mass transport – virtually no one was in a private car.
After a couple of days of gingerly walking around Amsterdam in constant fear, expecting, at any moment, a bike to shoot out of nowhere to mow down my entire family, I decided ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ and we went off to rent some bikes. I would see what it felt like to cycle, wind in my hair, as cars, trucks, tourists and trams shuddered to a halt before me.
I dived into the melee: it was terrifying. Bikes were all around me and coming at me from all directions. Sometimes bike-lanes were one way, and sometimes two way. I hugged the kerb muttering ‘drive on the right, drive on the right’ as bikes came whistling past my left shoulder overtaking in the narrow space between me and the oncoming bike from the opposite direction. I was concentrating so hard on not hitting any of the other cyclists in my swarm that I didn’t notice the enormous intersection coming up ahead – I didn’t know what to do, cars were coming from left and right, and ahead and there was at least one tram. But the cyclists beside me and ahead of me didn’t even turn their heads – they kept chatting, or checking their phones or just plain cycling. I couldn’t stop anyway, there were 50 bikes on my tail so I put my head down and carried on against all my instincts. And the cars stopped. Like the parting of the red sea, a path opened up and we flowed right on through that intersection. I was ecstatic. Flanked by my herd we took junction after junction. As we came out of the busiest part of town and the cyclists thinned out I attached myself to a pair of teenagers who took it all at a leisurely pace which suited my slightly cautious approach, but when they turned up a different street I was alone and approaching another junction. I saw the cars coming towards me and I felt sick – I slowed and looked frantically around hoping another cyclist would appear to guide me through, but they didn’t. I cycled on with my fingers crossed and my jaw clenched, but as I passed the point of no return, the whole junction came to a stand sill and I cycled majestically through.
I tried to imagine what Glasgow would be like if they instigated a similar scheme of bike priority. I pictured myself at the junction of Dumbarton Road and Byres Road sailing past on my bike as taxi, bus and LGV drivers waited patiently for me to pass (that took a bit of serious imagining). It seems as likely as a snowball in hell, but the Victorians certainly made Glasgow’s streets wide enough to accommodate the Amsterdam model, with segregated, priority bike lanes on all streets. It’s the car parking on both sides of every road that precludes it, not to mention lack of political will. And almost as if to make my point, when got back on my bike in Glasgow I discovered that Glasgow City Council had reconfigured the bike lane along Churchill Drive. Instead of a bike lane along the kerb and a wide carriageway, it now had painted parking bays all along the roadside (soon to become charged-for presumably) and a narrow bike lane painted between the parking bays and the, much reduced, carriageway. This seemed more of a pretendy bike lane, as it would be completely impossible for a bike and a car coming one way to safely pass a bike and a car coming the other, therefore making the whole system far more dangerous for cyclists.
If we seriously want to make our cities more livable, reduce climate emissions, and pollution we need to take this seriously. Amsterdam has shown what is possible, we need a sea-change of numbers of people cycling and that won’t happen unless we stop futtering about the edges of cycle policy and start thinking about how to make Glasgow more Amsterdam.