Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Windmills and Wheels: Cycling in the Netherlands with the AoU

Who? Me? Cycling across a country with a motley collection of built environment professionals investigating cycling culture, infrastructure and planning and architectural observations?  Again?  Yes actually.

Again, inspired by the 1000 miles travelled is as good as 1000 books read adage, and the idea that if interested in planning and cities the best way to learn about them is to visit them, preferably by bike, I signed up to the Academy of Urbanism Young Urbanists Windmills & Wheels expedition.

I see this as a kind of continuation, or addendum to the P2P adventure, but much shorter, much closer, and unsurprisingly, much more inviting an environment for a cyclists than cycling across the states.

We arrived in Hook of Holland from Harwich on Friday morning, and set off for some breakfast and coffee.  Nine of us from different areas of expertise, planners, surveyors, engineers, public, private, academic, a pretty broad range with different travel and cycling experience all round. Some having cycled little more than pootling around a park and some, a little more than that, but all interested in experiencing the cycling mecca of the lowlands.

A photo posted by Ben Hockman (@bahockman) on

We easily navigated our way along the shipping canal, flanked by wind turbines and industry, following the bike paths into Rotterdam, where we had a quick geek out at the new central station parking facilities and enjoyed the gastronomic delights of the Rotterdam Markethaal.  Yum, Stroop Waffles (not sure is that's the spelling, but damn they were good).

A photo posted by Ben Hockman (@bahockman) on

We cycled past the cubus houses, and glimpsed parts of Rotterdam and I reflected on my previous trip there in 2010 and longed to have more time to hang out, but I always do.  Even a few short days later the route I forget, but the navigation was a breeze, we cycled on into Gouda through some very pleasant rural towns and villages, taking in the sights, sounds and smells of the country.  Riding on a variety of tracks, roads and cycleways.  All well signed and as easy as could be to follow.  One of the stand out factors of the trip emerged that first few hours in that with the variety of landscapes and architecture we were passing all the different urban predilections were becoming evident from the Young Urbanists; stopping for a picture of some drainage, or a dam, or a church, or some houses and infrastructure, it's a very nice melting pot to travel with like minded, but not exactly minded people with similar professional, and personal interests, which I think was even more evident with the variety of opportunities to indulge those various predilections.

Windmills & Wheels
Windmills & Wheels
Windmills & Wheels
Windmills & Wheels
A photo posted by Ben Hockman (@bahockman) on

After lunch in Gouda (not quite enough cheese for my liking) we headed on to Utrecht, again a pretty seamless ride into the centre of a major urban centre.  We were met by Anita Dirix & Frank van der Zanden who gave a great insight to the redevelopment of Utrecht Central station and surrounds. We started off down in the new cycle parking facility. As with any construction in the pre-existing urban fabric there were lots of battles and negotiations and cajoling to get such a prime facility into the space.  It's kind of heartening to hear that the fight is tough even in an environment where cycling has such a modal share, but the difference is this got built, and is already well over capacity.  It is a bit of a trial run in some ways, with the issue of how to get it to pay still outstanding, but very impressive nevertheless.  We were then given an enlightening, and entertaining (for self confessed planning geeks) look into the way it fits into the wider regeneration efforts, which linked into a little of the history of Utrecht and how it is attracting and dealing with rapid growth.

After our tour we headed down to our very well appointed hotel a little out of town.  It was a shame to be heading out of town on a Friday night.  But we had a wonderful fish dinner, and a few of us headed to sample the local nightlife (being a backie up to the closest pub and a few fine ales).  It was quite evident that there is a lot of pride in Utrecht.  Apparently this is a growing thing, it seems to be a city not so much emerging form the shadow of its larger, higher profile neighbours, but becoming more self assured in its history, central strategic location and other many assets (one of which I notice is that Utrecht remains in a steady third place in the 2015 Copenhagenize Index).

On Saturday morning we made our way into Central Utrecht to meet Herbert Tiemens & daughter who very kindly gave up their Saturday morning to give us a tour of the city, anchored in cycling, but also tracing the wider development of the city from Roman times through to now and the future.  Herbert is a planner for the province of Utrecht and his enthusiasm and understanding of the city shone through.

A photo posted by Ben Hockman (@bahockman) on

Windmills & Wheels
Windmills & Wheels
Windmills & Wheels
Windmills & Wheels

After the tour, ending up on the roof of one of the University buildings in a temporary garden cafe we then collected baggage from the hotel and made our way to a lunch stop at Fort aan de Klop.  I was very sleepy at this point, but we engaged in some traditional bitterballen and other such Dutch delicacies.  fighting through the post-lunch lull we saddled up and headed off down the canal.

Again, we had a smooth ride in fair weather up towards Amsterdam.  Taking in canals and windmills, open fields and well kempt towns and villages, courteous drivers and the other pleasant occurrences of a Saturday afternoon cycling through the Netherlands countryside.

There was an ice cream stop for beer, and the journey continued.  Throughout the whole trip the pace was very gentle, being overtaken by businessmen, couples holding hands, parents laden by multiple offspring, old gents chatting away and cheeky schoolboys.  People were just going about their journeys around us and we kept dawdling the kilometres by, edging closer and closer to Amsterdam with a pace suitable to the challenge and surroundings.

Windmills & Wheels
Windmills & Wheels
Windmills & Wheels
Windmills & Wheels

There was more quite inspiring Infrastructure to enjoy in the bridges approaching Amsterdam.  We arrived at the hostel around 6ish, or maybe later, as the sun was sinking over the horizon.  With time to freshen up and head into the city.

Windmills & Wheels

No time to take in all the legendary delights of Amsterdam, this is the Academy of Urbanism, not Academy of 'erb-anism! (I thank you *bows*).  We were up an' attem early on Sunday after a hostel breakfast (I'm a big fan of those sweet sprinkles things the Dutch have introduced me to).  We were off to meet Pete Jordan, an american who moved to Amsterdam in 2002 who gave a history of the City of Bikes.  We started our tour outside Central Station, where he started to point out that there wasn't really an interest locally in tracing the history of how Amsterdam, and indeed the Netherlands generally came to be so defined by bikes.  Bikes are seen as a utility, so why would there be an interest in a tool like a vacuum cleaner, beyond the odd obsessive maybe.

We cycled as a group around the centre of Amsterdam, tracing different parts of the history of the evolution of Amsterdam as a true cycling city, the impact of wars, economics, trams, political wangling, radical protest and urban planning, all posited around Pete's personal discovery of the city and history of cycling as an interested and passionate outsider, someone coming from cosmopolitan San Francisco who initially couldn't comprehend the level of bike integration.  It is a great way to understand the city as an outsider form someone who arrived as such and follow the story along.  I was taken enough to grab a copy of his book, City of Bikes, to add to my ever increasing library of urban cycling literature, there may be more inspiration in there yet.

Windmills & Wheels
Windmills & Wheels
Windmills & Wheels

Unfortunately as the tour was ending the weather took a turn for the worse.  I took refuge in the  Rijksmuseum having read an article the day before leaving about it winning an award as the best museum in Europe.  I hung out in surrounded by stunning Dutch art and many tourists, and at points with the kind of droopy eyelids I get after a long day of being a tourist in a packed museum taking in too much at once.  The rain curtailed my hoped for exploration of this new city, new to me at least.  I rolled around for a while before settling for my second underwhelming kebab of the journey after having seen such a magnificent example in Rotterdam and passing it by.  Then I went and caught up with Simon at a cool little bar with live Jazz and good beer.  Sheltering from the rain, coulda stayed there all night, but we made our way back for a brilliant Indonesian meal near the hostel as a group and back for a night not as early as it should have been before another 9am depart.

Our Monday mission was only to make it back to Hook of Holland for our 10pm ferry.  A journey of some 85km with a weary contingent after a packed itinerary all weekend, with headwinds promised it seemed a little unnecessary and I kept carping on about investigating the truly multi-modal nature of Dutch public transport by slinging my bike on a train and meeting the gang back at the ferry.  This isn't how teamwork works however, and I'm sure I can sample the fine train system of the Netherlands sometime soon.

Windmills & Wheels

As it happens, funnily enough, the ride was smooth and gentle with no noticeable adversity at all beyond the requisite group faff factor.  The route was clear and George's guidance, as it had been all through the trip was impeccable.  It helps that the routes are very forgiving, and any minor route error is swiftly corrected at the next turn, but it is an incredibly relaxing and freeing experience being able to follow your compatriots through a foreign land in such a care free manner, distanced from the road traffic so that any grouping to assess the route can be done safely, barely even eliciting a tut from passing bikers whose path is briefly blocked.

Windmills & Wheels
Windmills & Wheels
Windmills & Wheels
Windmills & Wheels

There was a mild headwind, but nothing to severely impinge the day.  We made good progress with a few brief stops, tracing the routes of canals and waterways stopping for a lovely lunch break overlooking a boating lake.  The afternoon rolled by leaving enough time for a celebratory Heineken, and some Dutch delicacies from the local supermarket before embarking to return to London, work and maybe a few days out of the saddle.

Windmills & Wheels
Windmills & Wheels
Windmills & Wheels

So in summary then:
Order & architecture
The influence of water on the landscape and need for planning
Wind power all over
Good sized windows
Self build - variety and order at the same time
Smartphones - WhatsApp, Google Maps & internet make these kind of trips almost too easy
'normal' cycling - no tribes, no fetishisation
Gutted we didn't go to Delft

I don't think any of my broader findings are revelatory in anyway.  As I've heard mentioned so many times; planners and politicians from the UK are taking trips, study visits and jollies to the Netherlands and other successfully planned cities and regions around northern Europe, return enthused and enlightened, but then there is a massive gap between this new knowledge and understanding how to implement it.

Overall from what I saw and the visits we paid, in terms of cycling, there were a number of factors that contributed, not least of these being strong political will.  Of course the geography is a big contributing factor, the fact that the country has to be so well planned around just keeping it's land above water.  Cycling infrastructure has been an integral part of any new development, particularly in the last 40 years, means that it isn't an option not to include it which creates the sense of connectivity.

The Comfort is spot on, paths are smooth and clear. Even with members of the group who are trepidatious cycling in a city (London specifically, so fair enough) the comfort of the ride all along was spot on. I didn't spot a single pot hole, and the drains are kept off the cycle way! what a revelation, compared to my swervey ride to work avoiding bumps lumps, drains and cracks. Apart from the long hours in the saddle taking their toll as they would, the day to day riding conditions were very comfortable. This is even more evident in the way that facilities are improving, such as the cycle parking improvements at rail stations and other significant interchanges.

Consistency is also very strong, signage, surfaces, routes and intersections are very good indeed. Certainly not perfect, and as ever there is room for improvement, but taking into account the whole ride, which would have been in the region of 300km around, there was never a point when we felt that we should be somewhere else or in unfamiliar territory. There is variety between cities and rural, but as expected. A few parkland paths on the way to the ferry were a little lumpy, but these were in very rural places. The countryside roads were as consistently smooth and easy to navigate as the segregated cycleways in the modern urban developments.

Connectivity, again, is notably superior to almost anything I've previously experienced, certainly in terms of long distance riding on clearly signposted routes. It made navigation very forgiving indeed, in that a group of strangers in a strange land could tootle around from one city to the next and not once find ourselves in a dead end, motorway slipway, canal lock or grimy crack den. From end to end each trip was a dream, and so void of adversity I don't think the trip can be referred to as an adventure, rather an enlightening, relaxing study trip.

Culture is the thing I probably dig the most. It makes me realise I need to revisit my draft post on the fetishisation of cycling, expand the current form into more of a rigorous essay. But it is so evident that the cycling culture isn't even a culture. cycling is just a way to get around. Efficiently, smoothly, almost effortlessly, I'd take it over a ride on the Northern line at rush hour any day. There is no armour, no high viz, no clipless pedals and lycra, no leggings so worn that knickers are clearly visible through them in the morning sun, no decathalon jackets or aggressive strava jockeys, no cycling culture. Saying that, there clearly are the cycling sub-cultures of weekend warriors and a few hipster fixies about. But by and large a bike is a tool to get you there, and it mixes into whatever your style is, some people look effortlessly cool, some look effortfully cool, most look like regular people going about their day, and a few look like scruffy sods going about their day. That cycling in the Netherlands is so ubiquitous means that you aren't defined by your means of transport. Undoubtedly there are still passionate advocates and people fighting to improve facilities and infrastructure within the many battles for space in the urban fabric, but a certain amount of the fighting is weighted in your favour when just using the term 'cyclist' doesn't ellicit the type of hackle raising response so often seen in the letters pages of the Standard.

It was interesting riding as part of a group again.  Unlike with P2P, our apartness was more from clearly being tourists, with some high viz and cycling specific clothing it was clear we weren't from round 'ere.  But being on a bike isn't a novelty like in the States.  We didn't have waitresses cooing at our cool accents or insane adventure, more an understated Dutch pride that these brits are coming over to check out their cool country.

I am still a little in the dark about the Cash situation.  It seems that funding will be apportioned
more to cycling as it has such a big modal share.  But, as always there are battles.  We heard of the battle to get funding for the swanky station parking in Utrecht, and coming in at 2,200 euro a space (i think that was the figure) there will be someone trying to do a decent cost benefit analysis on that.  Pete Jordan told of how the funding for cycling advocacy groups from the city has been slashed,  in relation to the spiralling costs of a new, long delayed metro system, it seems almost spiteful to cut the funding for advocacy of a huge group of commuters, when the value they add seems to have been well established.  You will still need to fight for funding, whatever it is you're doing 'in the public good'.

Interestingly enough the Copenhaganize index of bicycle friendly cities was released the day we got back, with Amsterdam at #2 & Utrecht at #3.  Another excuse for me to try and get back to Copenhagen again, and Strasbourg, Malmo, Berlin, Eindhoven...etc etc. And I can't say I disagree with the analysis of Amsterdam, even in my short trip, there is a feel that being where they are, they could go further in making new steps to improving the bikability of the city.  But it is still a dream compared to anything in London.  We'll see, maybe these roadworks over Vauxhall Bridge will be a first step in the right direction, but there are so many more steps.

Right, that's too much prattling on.  A great, enlightening trip, my only gripes would be, as always, it would be great to have had an extra day or 20 in the cities exploring, better weather, and more central accommodation.  That said, as with my findings of general planning and cycling infrastructure, finding points to improve in the trip seems churlish when everything works so well.

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Step Up 3,2,1

 The blurb said:
Step Up 3,2,1: 71 stories, 6.1km run from Westminster to the City, through the centre of London:

  •  Portland House, Victoria – the first vertical dash to the 27th floor, followed by a 2.4km run to Trafalgar Square and tower number two
  •  5 Strand, Charing Cross – only eight floors to climb this time, with West End views at the top to help you get ready for the final push
  •  20 Fenchurch Street, the City – this is the big one. After a 3.7km run, you’ll be climbing up 36 floors.

I don't think I've run that far since the 90's.

I arrived at Portland House around 10 am, working my way around the ongoing planned chaos of regeneration at Victoria.  I worked next door to Portland house for a while, passing the building frequently, and just the word 'Portland' links back to my last fundraising charity adventure.  So for these reasons and others this seemed like a good starting point for my next mini-adventure.

"Portland House is no masterpiece, but it has got a spark, it is a real live idea of a building, where the dead fish all around it are just so many square feet of lettable office space to exist in loveless apathy until the time comes for their demolition." Ian Nairn, Nairn's London (1966)
And that reference to the ongoing change in the area still stands.  Milling about outside, watching people stretching and warming up, waiting for my younger sister, Lara who suggested getting me into this event, I couldn't help feel I was in a little over my head.  Regretting that last beer last night and wondering how I could sufficiently stretch to avoid any sort of mischief.

Participants were being set off in groups of 10 or so.  As we step up to the first flight the timers were set.  The first four or five stories I flew up, but pretty quickly that tired, and taking two steps at a time, in a slightly slower manner was enough to keep me ascending steadily.  I neglected to time myself on the various sections, but that first building wasn't so bad, enough to break a sweat and get properly warmed up.  Once we got back down we headed off down Victoria Street, around Parliament Square to Whitehall and on to The Strand. I tread these streets often now, but I still love the iconography and significance of the buildings and streets.  My overriding thought though was that I was super stunned that I managed to run the whole way.

Then the eight flights of No 5 The Strand.  Again, I attempted to sprint up, but with some pretty foul language just trudged up the last half.  A quick pic of the view, then off down to Embankment.

Not many pictures of this part.  Sweating heavily and stomping like an elephant.  Just past Waterloo Bridge I had to slow to a walk for a bit, my shins were killing me and needed to ease off a bit.  I was stunned I'd run that far, and don't think I'd have been able without the motivation of not being out run by my little sister.  Anyway we walked on for a bit until Blackfriars bridge and then a bit more jogging on to our final peak.

The famed walkie talkie was gradually looming, and as we turned the corner up Botolph Lane there was quite a lot of swearing about the last part of the challenge.

Can't say it wasn't a slog going up, and a bit monotonous, and the hand rails were much needed, but we did it, with a little more foul language.  Met at the top with water and towels and sweets and stretching.  And a text to say I'd made it in under an hour.  Though I had set no target, that it was pleasing to me not to just stagger over the 1 hour mark.

Then there was some celebratory bubbly and taking in the views.

According to the chip timer I came in 69th with a time of 57.07. I'd like to say I could have been much quicker if I'd not been hanging around for Lara, but I can't imagine my timing would have been any quicker without her, especially as I'd have likley walked the vast majority of the route rather than run.

Thanks to the generosity of many lovely friends, family and colleagues we have managed to raise over £1,400 so far between us, and there is still time to donate here or here

And get to know more about Mencap, as the work they do really is terribly important, visit their website and then you can always donate direct to the charity itself

I did have a big diatribe to write about the necessity for these kind of charity events and the rise of charity fatigue.  But quite frankly I'm a little too fatigued for that right now, so lets talk about it over a beer some time.  or maybe on a gentle jog around the park.

Another of the themes for this is that stair wells should be much more intrinsic to the set up of a building.  I appreciate it's very rarely that people will choose to climb 30 odd floors to their desk. But while training at work I notice the preference of most people to take the lift, even a floor or two.  Designing more movement into peoples lives in simple ways could start with making stairs the first choice.  Again, I understand a bit of the functionality of stairwells being at the core of the building and fire regulations, blah, blah.  But on a building like 20 Fenchurch St surely they could be a little bit more inspiring steps than all bland concrete?

And on the Walkie Talkie, I've not been a fan of it going up, and interestingly it was given permission by the Secretary of State and I really should dig out the decision letter to see the reasons for that.  Since signing up for this I was looking forward to be able to assess the slightly controversial 'Sky Garden' for myself.  It reminds me of the movie silent running a little.  And nice as the views are, it is a little stark, and the restaurant up top just seems boxy and incongruous.  As a 'punter' I'm glad to have visited but think there are many other spots around the city, many of which you can of course see from the top of the 'talkie, that stand above this space as pleasurable London experiences.
Overall though I have grown slightly fonder of the building on the skyline.  And why not, it's there to stay, like it or lump it!  But eating lunch in Victoria Tower Gardens, or glimpses cycling round Vauxhall gyratory have pushed me closer to appreciating it, if not exactly liking.  And of course now I can point to that and say "I climbed all the way up there, I did, and helped raise some money for a jolly good cause in the process."  Which is nice.