Five years of “I do not despair” – revisiting our favourite posts

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On January 1st 2012 I published the first, tentative post on Idonotdespair.com To celebrate my fifth anniversary I have gathered together a small collection of favourite posts. Firstly your top 5 – the posts that have gathered the most visitors,some … Continue reading

The “Utrecht scale” – a new standard for cycle parking

Utrecht cycling

I have a new proposal for how to measure quantities of bikes. It is called the “Utrecht scale” and it is based on the “ocean of bicycles” I described several weeks ago.

I had some hopes of my own. I suggested then that we needed a new measurement for cycle parking. The “Mayne scale” would be based on how long it took to walk the length of the bike park. In the case of Utrecht, it would be top of the scale with over 8 minutes from end to end. When cyclists rule the world we will need a new vocabulary, just like eskimos were supposed to have 40 words for snow and maybe my scale could have become as established as Richter, Geiger or Beaufort. But the Mayne scale is not to be.

No. For for the international comparison of bicycle numbers only the “Utrecht scale” will do now. A scale based on oceans, seas, lakes and puddles will tell us all we need to know about numbers of parked bikes.

It was a simple phrase that started it. I wrote “In Utrecht I saw a sea of bikes. In fact no I didn’t, I saw an ocean of bikes.” And then I linked it to this picture and sent it off on social media.

sea of bikes Utrecht

The rest, as they say, is history.BmiEOFeIEAAqnyw

By the following weekend it had made two local papers and the traffic on this blog had reached heights I could hardly have imagined even a week earlier.

 

We even made a news story about cyBnAowqGCIAEJ7b7cle parking making the news on the ECF web site.

But it was not only Utrecht. Since then people keep sending me their cycle parking pictures from around the world and using the phrase “sea of bicycles” whenever they meet a big quantity of bikes.

The first phase of the huge new underground cycle park in Utrecht opened this week, taking the first 2000 bikes off the streets. So as a legacy of those amazing displays of bikes that may soon be no more, and for the proud people of Utrecht who love their cycle parking here is my first attempt at the “Utrecht scale” for cycle parking.

Ocean of bicycles

Bikes as far as the eye can see. Over 20,000 bikes. Take some emergency rations before you go and look for your bike, this may take some time. Example? Utrecht!

Utrechts bicycle parks

Sea of bicycles

A concentrated mass of bikes. More than 5000 in one place. You may need a guide and some time to get in and out of here. Example? It seems to be almost any Dutch station, but increasingly Flanders including Bruges and Ghent.

Cycle Parking Ghent Station

 

Cycle parking Bruges station

Lake

Now the minimum standard for any decent cycling town is to have 1000 bikes at main hubs like universities and railway stations. An honourable mention now to Bologna, Italy which has the biggest lake of rusty old student bikes round their railway station that I have ever seen.

Bologna Station Bike Park

Bike_parking_Bologna

Pond

Every village should have a pond. Ducks on the water, somewhere for children to paddle and for animals to drink. So every small area of shops, every park, every street corner should have at least a pond of bike parking to cater for local needs. Examples? Hopefully everywhere, but Copenhagen is a perfect example of putting the parking on every corner, including cargo bikes.

Copenhagen corner street parking

Canal

A level especially created for Amsterdam. Or any other city where the bikes are not parked together in a massive body but instead flow through the streets like the waterways that run through the city.

canal of bicycles Amsterdam

Puddle

Well you couldn’t get very wet in that could you? Just one or two bikes? Berlin – could do better!

Cycle Parking Berlin 1

Muddy puddle

As above, but with mountain bikes! From Whistler, where else!

Whistler Bike park, cycle parking

Frozen puddle – Memmingen, Germany, at minus 14 degrees centigrade.

Bike covered in snow in Memmingen

To complement the Utrecht scale I did think of some other useful phrases with a watery flavour

Tsunami of bicycles – what happens when everybody in Utrecht tries to get on their bikes at the same time.

Utrecht cyclists

Desert – Trying to find any evidence of bicycle life here is pretty hard.

pavement parking central Kiev Ukraine

Splash – several bikes thrown together informally, the basis for much of the cycle parking in Salzberg, Austria.

Linzergasse Salzburg Austria

Dried up river bed – speaks for itself.

desert of bicycles

Reservoir – 700 Bixi bikes waiting for Velo-city 2012 delegates to arrive – Vancouver.

Velo-city 2012 Bike Fleet

So now then readers – does this work for you? And what would your watery terms for cycling be?

To finish – my favourite watery cycling photo. I look forward to your comments!

Coronian Lagoon, Lithuania

Utrecht station cycle parking is absolutely astonishing. See it before it disappears underground.

sea of bikes Utrecht

Recently I went to Utrecht in the Netherlands. My mind is still slightly overwhelmed by what I saw, so despite the delay I just had to post this. With a health warning. As I write this I have a feeling that any “normal” people discovering this blog will wonder how somebody could get excited about parked bicycles.

All I can say in my defence is that I have spent most of my life as a cyclist and the past 15 years in cycling promotion.  The scene at Utrecht station ranks as an extraordinary moment, I am still reflecting on it three weeks later. So maybe I don’t publish 50 photos of parked bikes, but I have to share.

In Utrecht I saw a sea of bikes. In fact no I didn’t, I saw an ocean of bikes. The visual impact of these walls of pedal powered machinery painted a picture in my mind that is hard to let go.

Utrechts bicycle parks

I came out of the station and saw the cycle parking. And the cycle parking. And more cycle parking. I have seen Dutch, Danish and Flemish railways stations before. I have seen the 6000 bike multi-storey bike park in Amsterdam. But I have never, ever seen anything like the number of bikes in around Utrecht station.

I was so astonished I decided to start at one end and time how long it took me to walk to the other end because I couldn’t take it in any other way. Six minutes. Enough said. We have to measure cycle parking here in minutes of walking time.

Start - minute zero

Start – minute zero

 

2 minutes - still going

2 minutes – still going

 

Only another 3 minutes to go

Only another 3 minutes to go

Let me explain the background to these impressions.

Because most of my work is supporting countries and groups where daily cycling is struggling my trips to the Netherlands are actually quite rare, despite its proximity to Belgium. This was my first time in Utrecht. That in itself feels almost impossible, everywhere you go on the international cycling scene there seems to be someone from Utrecht. It is the home of the Dutch Cycling Union, Fietsersbond, so lots of my colleagues come from here, but also there are city staff, Utrecht regional staff, university academics studying cycling and cycling consultants so Utrecht gets a lot of exposure and it features in a lot of study tours. Other bloggers wax lyrical about it. So I felt I should know it.

Cycle paths in Utrecht

Utrecht can call itself one of the “capitals” of Dutch cycling culture with an amazing 50% of trips in the inner city by bike and 30% overall. In a population of about 300,000 that’s one hell of a lot of cyclists. The city centre itself was lovely, sleepily coming to life in the spring sunshine.

Utrecht in the morning

It was just full of bikes and people were meeting, studying and going about every element of life by bike.

Utrecht centre cycle parking

Unfortunately my brief visit was not enough to see much of the city’s celebrated cycling infrastructure or the cyclist traffic jams at rush hour. However I was really pleased to cycle out to the Fietsersbond offices on one of the Blue Bikes on hire from near the station and Saskia, the Deputy Director of Fietsersbond took me around a little of the cycling sights.

Utrecht cycle routes

But at the heart of the tour was the station, where many routes converge on this overwhelming sea of parked bikes.

Utrecht cycling

Saskia showed me several more parks that I hadn’t even noticed in the morning. More people were measuring their cycle parking by time too, the time it was taking them to find their bikes. I can nearly bike to my nearest station in Belgium in ten minutes, I cannot imagine spending at least another ten minutes looking for parking. That’s like being a car driver!

This parking is full Cycle Parking Utrecht

When we returned to the station it was approaching 5pm so the traffic on the cycle paths was beginning to build. The area is currently a massive building site so lots of the routes were temporary which apparently causes short term chaos each time a section is rerouted but the hordes soon settle down to the new pattern.

Utrecht cycling traffic congestion

But this redevelopment will also create the jewel in the crown of Utrecht cycle parking. Part of it is the new city hall with all the civic functions in one modern building. And below the building is a pyramid of sorts, a ziggurat of concrete steps. And inside it will be the world’s biggest bicycle park. 30,000 bicycles moved to one location.

New undergroup cycle store Utrecht

It is something I really look forward to seeing. I often tell city officials – “Whatever number of cycle parking places you think you need – double it”. Now I have seen Utrecht I suspect even 30,000 places may not be enough here. Because when I see this number of bicycles in one place I realise the extraordinary role cycling plays in this city.

However I have just one sneaking thought. Wouldn’t it be amazing to keep those bikes up on the surface as an extraordinary symbol of cycling? Possibly not if you are a city manager, but I felt privileged to see Utrecht’s sea of bicycles in such a prominent position before they disappear underground. I hope this post gives you a taste before they bury it!

The unprepared tourist – an afternoon cycling in Berlin

Brandenburg Gate Deutschebahn call bike

Last week I paid my first visit to Berlin. Fortunately around my schedule of meetings I had a few free hours to myself for an afternoon and the freezing rain relented just enough to make sightseeing a realistic opportunity.

I was horribly unprepared to be a tourist having done almost no prior reading. When I checked my usual source on such matters Tripadvisor’s main recommendations were all places that needed at least an hour each to do them justice. Given that my knowledge of Berlin is entirely made of fragments from spy movies and occasional news footage, not the soundest of starts.

Solitary woman cyclist Berlin

So it should come as no surprise to any reader of this blog that I hired a bike and pottered about with my camera just trying to get some impressions of the city.

I was able to top up my knowledge by chatting to colleagues the following day so I was at least able to answer some of my immediate questions, but here is a brief snapshot of thoughts and feelings from a first afternoon cycling and sightseeing in central Berlin.

First orientation issue – am I in East or West Berlin? I am starting from the middle (Mitte), but checking the map tells me I am in the former East because the Berlin Wall actually encircled the old centre like a bump in its alignment. Not obvious to my eye which was which or that the East had been the poor half because my walk down Friedrichstrasse to hire a bike passed parades of shops and offices indistinguishable from any modern city.

Once a bike was obtained from one of Deutsche Bahn’s many bike hire stations I realised that the layout was very compact and it was a matter of minutes to turn down the main street of East Berlin Unter den Linden and head for the must see monument, the Brandenburg Gate. (above)

Not only an impressive monument but important for my orientation because this was one of the symbols of divided Berlin and I could follow the former line of the Berlin Wall from here, especially as so many tourism landmarks appeared to be along its route.

It turned out to be quite an odd ride, as if the city doesn’t quite know what to do with its legacy, or indeed it’s cycling. Heading south from the Brandenburg Gate towards Potsdamer Platz the road was obvious but almost all suggestions of the wall’s existence were gone. Instead the first landmark was the Holocaust Memorial, a sombre grey feature of large blocks laid out in a grid, completed in 2004. A moody place in the overcast sky and slushy snow.Holocaust Memorial Berlin

At PotsdamerPlatz I encountered my first evidence of the wall with some retained segments placed on the square covered with interpretation materials about the wall and its legacy. This explained more about what I was, or indeed was not seeing. In the transition after the wall came down many sections were demolished leaving the wide open spaces that used to be the former killing zone, the space left for the guards to see anybody trying to cross. Some are still undeveloped over 20 years later and appear as waste land, some quickly got developed or incorporated into road schemes and a few make the site of memorials and museums.

As I left Potsdamer Platz the cycle lane on the pavement disappeared, the road narrowed and I appeared to be on a very ordinary city street with no indication of history. My map said I was following the wall and should take the first left into another very nondescript small side street heading for the famous Checkpoint Charlie and a site called “Topography of Terror”.  It was all very quiet, few cars, few tourist trappings and not unpleasant cycling at all.

I quickly knew I was on the right road because a much longer section of original wall came up beside me. Behind it was a flat plain containing a low grey modern building and some open building foundations. No signs, no obvious clues as to what was going on until I found that “Topography of Terror”  was the site of the core of former Nazi control in Berlin, the seat of the Gestapo and the Propaganda Ministry and the building footings I could see were Hitler’s Bunker and Gestapo rooms. I found out later that the surface buildings had been demolished by Allied bombing during the war and its proximity to the wall meant it was just left as open space for over 40 years. Another uncomfortable memory to be incorporated into the city and the museum was perhaps suitably understated.Berlin wall NiederkirchnerstrasseDisplay Board Topography of Terrors Berlin

Its neighbour across the street could hardly be more of a contrast!Berlin

Shortly beyond was Checkpoint Charlie, the main gateway between the American and Russian sectors which had appeared in many iconic Cold War images and is certainly more of a tourist hot spot now.  visiting Berlin by bike

The motif of the wall was used well to provide photographic displays on the approaching streets which gave the history of divided Berlin in news photographs and information boards.Berlin wall displays

But yet again nearby was one of those ambiguous memorials that really set me thinking – this time the museum of the infamous STASI, the East German secret police.Berlin

I spoke to a colleague later about these many memorials to difficult subjects. He said that because Berlin had stagnated for so long after the war there had been no systematic attempt to “move on” and certainly no civic regeneration programme to remove evidence of difficult subjects. And then after reunification it became recognised that Berlin should not be allowed this past so the city had begun to establish them as part of education and reconciliation. I had the feeling it was a sort of pact – you can become the capital city again but you cannot be allowed to forget.

There is certainly no avoiding the subject of the wall. I had assumed that when I left the central area some of the references would go diminish but later that evening on the S-bahn railway I learned about the ghost stations where North-South trains ran under East Berlin from two sectors of the West but didn’t stop at the pre-war stations. And the sections of that line that ran almost along the wall with platforms only open on the West side.

Back to my ride. Having passed Checkpoint Charlie I had my fill of wall sites so I swung North East to see more of the older city. First I followed a relatively large road across to Alexanderplatz which was a pretty nondescript public space in the growing gloom but I was then able to pick up the banks of the River Spree and circle around the hugely impressive Museum Island. What actually caught the eye here too was the amount of building going on, this looks like a city going though a construction boom.Museumsinsel BerlinRiver scene Berlin

I then used the river bank to retrace my steps back to a building I wanted to see, the Reichstag.  The historic parliament building became the seat of German government again when its modern dome designed by British architect Norman Foster was finally built into the older frame. Reichstag Berlin

Around it I discovered a huge modern civil service quarter built on the river bank and a series of waterways and parkland which looked really nice environment. If I had been organised I would like to have booked a visit to see the inside of the Reichstag because everything I have heard about it looks amazing. But for now the space in front of the Reichstag was vast, open and increasingly cold so I didn’t linger, I needed to keep moving.

From the Reichstag it was a quick trip through the Tiergarten park back to the Brandenburg Gate and the return of the bike to its hire station as the gloom came in.

Fascinating place – so many questions about the attitude to history, to culture, to monuments and a potentially days to spend. That is without touching the arts, culture, nightlife and even some of the suburbs – so many other things form which the city is known.

And what about the cycling?

Well I found as many oddities about cycling in Berlin as I did about the city itself.

I had been told that about 13% of trips in Berlin are made by bike. That’s in line with the German average which means well above the rest of Europe and especially the places I usually ride. But I have convinced myself I am getting the hang of this mode share business, I am beginning to be able to see what the differing levels look like.

empty cycle parking - February in BerlinBut in Berlin I couldn’t. Whether on my ride or looking at the rush hours I couldn’t see the significant flows I was expecting. Cyclists visible on most streets, yes, but not huge numbers. There were lots of bikes parked round the city but in fact much of the cycle parking was empty. So maybe the weather meant that cycling was quite seasonal I asked? Apparently not, but perhaps I was in the wrong place because the levels of cycling are highly dependent on the routes in from certain suburbs.

Fixie rider Checkpoint Charlie Berlin

Just like everywhere else in Europe it is the middle classes and intellectuals who cycle the most and in Berlin it is the areas where the alternative cultural movement established itself in the sixties that cycling levels are highest. If this is the case then it might explain why cyclists in the city centre really did feel quite isolated.

However in the city centre what I could see was that other indicator of cycling health. Women on bikes are universally recognised as a sign that the population thinks cycling is safe. However maybe they think they are not quite safe enough because I did notice that nearly all the women wore the dreaded cycle helmets – but none of the men!Friedrichstrasse Cycling Berlin

Cyclist Berlin 1The other thing that will be a bit confusing for many cycling advocates was the lack of segregated cycle routes. The vast majority of cycling I did was on the carriageway – I could have been in Brussels or London. That certainly contradicts the message that you need a big segregated network to get cycling levels above 10%. However I rarely felt worried, the drivers were largely respectful of the cyclist and the cycle lane – now that is a big difference. Possibly my view was distorted by the time of day, I was just before the afternoon rush hour, but even the following morning I felt general traffic volumes in the city were really low compared to most large cities in Europe. Maybe Berlin drivers are less stressed than their equivalents stuck in traffic across the world? I still instinctively believe that cycle lanes are just one way of changing the relationship between rider and driver and Berlin seemed to support the notion that respectful driving is a valuable way to create a cycling environment too.

So Berlin by bike?

Flat, compact, interesting, well behaved drivers, loads of bikes on hire. Something I definitely want to do again. But better prepared and able to use the Call Bike system properly, jumping on and off to visit the main attractions properly!