jeudi 22 juin 2017

Another look at Dutch geography as it pertains to cyclists

from the polder layout department

The Netherlands are often held up as a model for good practice in cycle policy. I've made the point already that the country has a number of geographical peculiarities which mean that its methods should be interpreted with caution when considering generalizing them elsewhere. Of course it is possible, indeed more enjoyable, to ride a bicycle in more hilly terrain than any the Netherlands has to offer. But the techniques required by both the cyclist, and the urbanist seeking to encourage them, are self-evidently going to be different. This much is obvious.
But there are a couple of more subtle points to l'exception néerlandaise that have occurred to me since my pilgrimage to Groningen last year:


a map of 20th century Dutch polders
20th century polders, from Hoeksema (2007)
1) Fully 5% of the Netherlands' land surface area has been added to the country between 1930 and 1968. This often seems to have been landscaped à l'américaine, with spacious boulevards that admit complete modal segregation between facing frontages as much as 100m apart. Time pressures obliged me to admire the splendour of the Almere suburb from the window of a train rather than from the bike, but the desire to allocate huge reserves of space to the motorist there was plain enough, as one would expect from any bunch of 1970s planners anywhere.

2) In a country where for centuries the canals have been the main axis of transport between towns, it may be that it seems quite natural to have a "major" and "minor" towpath. I noticed on my trip last May that very often I received strong cues from the urbanists to travel on one side of a canal-line (which was often a mixed-use low-speed residential street), while across the water I could see cars moving quite fast on a higher speed street. I was cool with that as long as getting to the "right" side didn't take me too far out of my way. As a tourist, naturally I just went along with it, but I could imagine being a local resident with a bike and being daily pissed off by the tortuousness of the route I was obliged to follow. (Obligatory) cycle routes along major trunk roads often jink from one side of the motorway to other, adding significant travel distance perpendicular to the desired direction. This sucks.

We should be clear about all these distinctions when considering the applicability of Dutch cycle infrastructure design to other parts of Europe, where the width of roads and streets (their frontage-to-frontage distance) was determined in the era of horse-drawn vehicles. Horses go home at night, and the carts they were pulling too. So three cart-widths would be pretty much enough anywhere: one delivering, two passing in either direction. On-street parking is a twentieth century curse. Where such conditions exist historically in the Netherlands, they tend to mostly exclude motor traffic (as of course you should). Parallel universes of "protected cycleways" may be an option in new towns and suburbs, but in the vast majority of European cities the nettle of private car dependence must be grasped.

lundi 19 juin 2017

Is there "a Macron effect"?

from the department of curious anthropology

My oldest buddy Dan Falchikov, sometime parliamentary assistant to Archy Kirkwood, and still, I believe, a partisan for the Liberal Democrats, asked me on Facebook what I made of "the Macron effect." I was happy to give him my view, and perhaps my remarks may be of wider interest. So here [lightly edited] they are:
[Hi Dougie, just wondering whether you have a take on the Macron effect? Obviously being up against a fascist meant he was always going to win the presidency but I'm more interested in how he emerged from nowhere to beat the more established candidates. Is there any decent analysis you're aware of?]
He [Macron] was pretty high profile in his role as economic minister in the Hollande administration, then resigned early enough to escape (somehow) the backwash from them being found red Tories in practice. Being President is his first elected position! A first round vote for Macron was basically a vote for the status quo, in terms of the relationship between business and the French social contract; Fillon's promise of deep cuts in public service employment was deeply unpopular, and his allegèd filching from the public pocket also played very badly. Mélenchon played a blinder, and came closer than any true left candidate since the 1930s; Hamon was a lowish-profile Hollande minister, and one of the PS rebels in the last parliament, which does not play well in French culture; so triple whammy for him (6%!). Now that my French is good, I can understand what Marine Le Pen is saying, and apart from her obviously distasteful world view, she is frankly someone who does not have the mental capacity to be a serious politician. The FN vote reflects, in my view, three tendencies: 1) people who are racist ultra-rightists (few, though there is plenty of casual racism in France); 2) people who want to smash the whole Paris political class (cf Brexit); 3) a survey result for the number of people in France who are… how can I be polite? … incapable of analysing competing paradigms.
Macron is a weak king: with a first round vote of only 24%, and a second round win against the FN (with near record abstention and 4.4 million spoiled ballots) he has little mandate for his promise to "govern by decree" if he doesn't get his majority in the the Assemblée (though it looks like he will). Personally I find this promise an objectionable rejection of the constitution, and believe a parliamentary committee should generally outperform a presidential decree. But hey! The fun will really start when he tries to pass his new employment laws, or if he tries to build the proposed airport at Notre Dame des Landes. Macron is detested by large numbers on the left, there will be some very heavy demos, and I will be dodging clouds of teargas here in Nantes. Ho hum!
As for your specific point, his rise is unprecedented, (though he has all the qualifications, did well at ENA etc) but he succeeded in rallying large numbers of young middle class people to get the vote out. There is no doubt he is highly intelligent and capable (and his English is remarkably good for a French person); also no doubt he is firmly in the pocket of the big business/lobbyist complex that really runs France. I guess I wish him fair wind, but the moment he does something really stupid my good will (and many others') will rapidly evaporate. I predict an ignomious decline in his popularity over the next 5 years (though I'd be happy to be proved wrong). Thanks for asking! 🙂
[Was there a particular pitch to the young middle classes, or was it more of a shared feeling/shared values?]
That is a good question, and I'm not sure I have a good answer. My impression is that enough of the French public are suckers for someone who is handsome and clever on the telly. There's no doubt there is frustration with the rigidity of French employment practices, and a feeling that France is getting left behind other countries that manage greater flexibility in the labour market. The difficulty is that in France *everything* hangs on your "statut social", which basically comes down to your employment status. (cf Americans and their pre-Obama health insurance). So any changes to the system provoke enormous reaction. The last round of attempts at reform (la loi El-Khomri, which was basically authored by Macron) caused several riots in the streets here, one of which I unexpectedly attended when I turned a corner on my bike on my way to pick up the boy from music! Eek! The political discussion then becomes what to do about the riots, not a reasonable discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of what's being proposed. (I was about 75% against/25% for El-Khomri myself: I don't see any sense in increasing retirement age when there is so much youth unemployment, for example, but I would be in favour of more targeted occupational health examinations). My impression is that people do follow the big issues along better than the UK public does, but there is also an important tribal element, and Macron benefited from young people sick of tribalism, and feeling stuck in the system. The system is very difficult to reform however, and when push comes to shove I'm not sure that Macron's vote will translate into people in the street backing him. But if he governs by decree and the riot police repress the demos against him, then there will be an awful lot of people on the street against him. Certainly here in Nantes, and probably Paris too.
Update 12h02, 19/06/2017. It looks as though M. Macron and La République En Marche have obtained a legislative majority. May the new Assemblée enjoy peace and good fortune in its deliberation of the public interest!