Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Cycling in Europe 4 - Friesland Surprises

You sometimes forget when visiting a country like the Netherlands that it is made up of towns, cities, regions, each with their own unique identities. Crossing the 30 kilometre dyke on the Ijsselmeer reminded us of this fact.

South of the dyke is Holland proper, not to be confused with the rest of the Netherlands (cf with use of "England" for "Great Britain"). North of the dyke is Friesland, a largely rural area famous for its cows.

What immediately struck us as cyclists was the change in traffic treatment. Where previously we were given clear priority of crossing motor traffic - at side turnings, for example - in Friesland the approach is more tentative.



Crossings like the one in the picture ask cyclists to give way to car traffic - and car drivers take the hint by driving faster, and with less awareness of what is going on around them in much the same way as Brits.

The first major town we passed through after the dyke, Bolsward, proved to be typical of the region. Here, the town centre has a 30kph (20mph) speed limit, and little or no separate cycle paths. With cycling as popular here as in the rest of the Netherlands, the streets are loaded with brave cyclists and rather aggressive motorists - though thankfully far fewer than in Darlo.

The layout of Friesland roads became apparent as we continued on to Sneek. Small country roads typically have no central line, but instead are narrowed either side with non-mandatory cycle paths, to both warn motorists that cyclists may be round the next corner, and to give them less of a feeling of the open road. Here is one example.



Is this a chicken and egg problem? Does good behaviour follow clear traffic measures that give cyclists priority, or are such measures not possible where motorists are typically possessive about their road space? Perhaps the clue lies in the politics of the different regions, though little can be gleaned from the electoral arithmetic of the 2006 Dutch general election.

But it does make sense, that if strong political leadership is forthcoming, anti-social driving behaviour can be challenged. And what is clear from this experience is that national patterns of behaviour can and do vary. Darlington pundits take note - stop hiding behind the "we are British, we can't do it" excuse for inaction.

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