Saturday 27 Aug 2011
I took a trip to Gouda - pronounced in a similar way to ‘how-da’ with a more guttural first letter - today, as much for the ride as anything else. It’s about 40km from Utrecht, just enough to know you’ve cycled somewhere. As ever in this cycling country, by making a list of waypoints from a map I could find a whole series of red on white cycle signposts to guide me for the route. You can’t underestimate the importance of this, as it gives the concept of travelling by cycle the same level of kudos as motor vehicles enjoy. Even a closed bridge in IJsselstein had diversions marked for the cycle route, if I’d had the confidence to follow the huge signs that I thought couldn’t have been meant for me.
That’s not a typo with the capital ‘IJ’, by the way. It’s a digraph, where two letters represent one sound, and this one is often referred to as the Dutch ‘long i’. When typed, the two symbols ‘i’ and ‘j’ are used, but when written by hand it’s represented by a rounded ‘y’ with two dots.
The route from Utrecht to Gouda runs right through the middle of the ‘Groene Hart’ - the Green Heart - a rural area of land in the centre of the Randstad which is protected from urban development. As you cycle through it, the busy city of Utrecht seems a world away, just ten minutes up the road.
Gouda is legendary for its cheese, and a first view of the central market area doesn’t disappoint. Not only is the large main square around the 15th century town hall full of various market stalls, but there’s plenty with strong whiffs of very powerful cheeses indeed. Go armed with ear defenders too - the carillon in the bell tower is surprisingly loud, and dominated the city sounds as I sipped a coffee in a bar whilst sheltering from the late August showers. Clearly Gouda is keen to capitalise on its cheese reputation, as large round cheeses can be seen suspended above the city streets, in shop windows and anywhere else a cheese might come in handy. The iconic town hall with its Gothic features and the multilingual cafes surrounding the main square add to the temptation for the visitor.
The late summer showers were becoming heavier and I wasn’t sure I liked the idea of a 40km soaking, and the railway offered the trip for €5.60. A final torrential burst confirmed the decision. The double-deck carriage was clearly marked for cycles, but as I climbed aboard I realised the space for two bikes was taken up with a pram, baby and parents. Not a problem, as I propped my bike against the side of the carriage. Plenty of space - and I don’t think I’ve seen a railway system that does explicitly cater for very young people anyway. As he checked the tickets, the guard gestured to my machine and announced as I didn’t have a ticket for it he would have to charge a €35 penalty. Rules is rules. Normally the Dutch railways charge €6 for a daily ticket for a bike, no matter what distance, but in my experience it’s rarely enforced. In this case it would have cost more than the ticket for me. We discussed the issue and I promised to buy one next time. But it set me thinking about marginalisation. What made my space-efficient contraption liable to a charge - and penalty - when another contraption taking up a lot more space could travel without such restrictions. You have to be careful with such arguments, as the last thing I’m suggesting is that tiny people carriers should be charged extra. But it did seem a little iniquitous. The fact that he did not attempt to sell me a cycle ticket was significant, suggesting that he had been instructed to issue penalties rather than collect fares.
The best example I’ve seen of catering for miscellaneous numbers of personal wheels is on the medium distance services of the German railway. Half of one carriage is flexible space, with flip-up seats and a level access to the platform. Bikes, buggies, prams - anything goes, no ticket, no booking. There’s room to pile cycles five deep if necessary, and cooperation makes it work.
The maalstroom outside, five minutes after I arrived home, convinced me that the train decision was the right one. But I wonder if I’ve spotted another chink in the armour of a national pride in cycle provision. The unequal treatment of wheeled contraptions, with possibly an increased enforcement of tickets for cycles, makes cycle use for longer distances just slightly less appealing.