Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Cycle City: Hackney vs. Amsterdam

Guest feature by Hackney writer, Imani Backes:

Amsterdam is Europe’s most famous cycling capital, with nearly half of all traffic movement made by bike.  From nannies to bankers from school kids to senior citizens, everyone in Amsterdam likes to cycle. So, as our borough of Hackney attempts to raise its two-wheeled profile, who better as a source of inspiration than the clog wearing capital. Surely Hackney should take a leaf out of Amsterdam’s book and try to emulate this radical city?

From the 1960s onwards, Amsterdam transformed itself from a congested, traffic laden, commuter nightmare to a cyclist’s paradise. Statistics currently show the preferred mode of transport at 35% bicycle, 40% car and 25% public transport. Impressive? Not quite as impressive as the borough of Hackney. Our cycling achievements easily match the Dutch capital, and it’s about time we got some recognition for it.

Despite London being one the most congested capitals in the world, Hackney refuses to follow suit. In fact most people in Hackney use public transport or walk to get around, with the level of car drivers at just 19%. And although the percentage of cyclists is only 8%, that’s four times the Greater London average.

Hackney Council has recently introduced a “Move by Bike” scheme, which includes a free five-minute bike check up for cyclists and a chance to purchase lights and reflectors wholesale. The scheme offers free cycle training, promotes the health benefits of cycling and makes plans to improve security. Hackney has passed an historic motion in favour of 20mph limits on all residential streets, which is more radical than any other London borough, and even makes our Dutch counterparts look tame.

It does help that a quarter of elected councillors are themselves regular cyclists, including the mayor and the leader of the Conservative group. It’s a shame that the biggest streets in the borough remain under Transport For London control, and TFL refuses to budge on its rather conservative cycling policy.

Hackney should be proud of its cycling feats and its similarities with the renowned Dutch capital. Both Amsterdam and Hackney boast a beautiful and popular canal system, they’re both full of creative movers and shakes inspiring a new cycling revolution and making cycling glamorous too, from pink BMXs to vintage Bromptons. And finally, both Amsterdam and Hackney have a strong and established cycling community holding it all together – in our borough, there are  over 16 bike retail and repair shops and even unique dedicated cycle cafes like  Lock 7.

But Hackney is steering clear of Amsterdam’s biggest mistake: schemes that segregate cyclists and car drivers. Trevor Parsons, a leading light of the London Cycling Campaign (, believes that integration is the way forward. He says that “[in] the Netherlands people are compelled to ride on separate cycle tracks and paths where they exist and Dutch police shout at people for cycling on smooth, empty carriageways. We don't want that over here. Our view is that the whole street network is the cyclists' network, and we want to take the 'permeability' approach, which means minimising diversions, removing blockages and re-introducing two-way cycling as a way of maximising people's route choice.”

In immigrant communities, cycling is often looked down upon as a ‘lower class’ hobby, and children don’t usually see their parents cycling. Amsterdam has plans to promote cycling to ethnic minorities, but in this area Hackney has stolen a march: the Council actively promotes cycling to Jewish schools and has released a DVD on road safety specifically for young black Africans. It has undertaken a range of initiatives to encourage people with low incomes to take up cycling: installing lock-ups on estates, promoting the bike purchasing scheme and selling cycling accessories very cheaply, or at cost. 

Hackney council says: “We are always looking for innovative ways to encourage as wide a take-up of cycling as possible. One example was our Wheels on Heels in London fashion week. We knew that not as many women were cycling, and this show was designed to show that you could be stylish and fashionable on two wheels.” Cycling could soon be as fundamental an aspect of being a Hackney citizen and as iconic as Hoxton fringes, Saturday markets and Pearly Queens.