Sunday, 23 August 2009

Ride on, dear friend

We Dutch love our bicycles. Everybody in the family has one. On Sundays we take them out for a ride. Father in the front, leading the way. Mother in the back, picnic basket hanging from the handlebars. The children in between, careering from one side of the road to the other in carefree abandon. Cross country bikes for the boys, pink lady bikes for the girls, tricycles for the little ones. Every school day gangs of children on bicycles terrorize local roads. They ride five abreast so that no one can pass, they make sudden movements and run red lights, and generally ignore every single traffic rule in existence. We curse at them but we've all done it ourselves when we were young.

We pride ourselves on the fact that we can carry out small repairs to our bicycles. For instance, identifying a leak in a tire by submerging it in a bucket of water and looking for the escaping bubbles of air. Or resetting a chain that's come off its cogs. Such skills are part of the standard curriculum for children, necessary for survival out there in the big wide world. A bit like learning how to start a fire by rubbing two sticks of wood together. Only we don't start fires, we look for bubbles.

Owning a bicycle is a given in this country. It's ingrained in our souls. If it hadn't been for the fact that for a very long time the marshy ground made the use of bicycles impractical, I'm sure that the knights of medieval times would have tilted their lances at each other riding bikes instead of horses. Indeed, when at the outbreak of World War II every modern army already made heavy use of fast, armoured, and capacious motorized transport, Dutch patrols still preferred to take to the road on a self propelled single occupancy vehicle consisting of nothing more than an iron frame supported by two thin rubber wheels.

So you see we are very serious about the bicycle as a viable personal transport alternative. For instance, a road isn't considered a real road unless it has a bicycle lane. And by bicycle lane I don't mean those thirty odd meters long burgundy red coloured strips of road with white outlines of bicycles painted over them that you can sometimes find in English towns, and that some local MP has ordered put in so he can prove to his constituents that he's conscious of the environment. To a Dutch person, those odd strips make no sense at all. They seem to start and end arbitrarily at various points on the road. What are they for? Do they mark no fly zones for bicycles? Are you supposed to land your bike at one end, taxi along the bicycle strip, and then take off again at the other end? All silliness aside, though, over the years conditions have definitely improved for cyclists over in Blighty. At least there are bicycle lanes now. This wasn't the case a few years ago. Allow me to pedal down the bicycle strip of memory lane for a bit.

When I went on a cycling holiday to England about fifteen years ago - at that time an expedition considered hardly less challenging than going on safari in a shopping cart - there were so few roads suitable to cyclists that one day we found ourselves hauling along our bikes by hand on the hard shoulder of a motorway, simply because there was no alternative route. At other times we were riding laboriously up a steep hill, hoping that at the top there wouldn't suddenly appear a car from the opposite direction whose driver would be so surprised at the soundless two-wheeled apparitions coming towards him that he'd simply run us over. Looking back on it now, I think we must have been insane.

What seems insane to most non-Dutch people, is the sheer number of bikes in this country. The Netherlands has the largest number of bicycles per capita in the world. Most of these sit snug in garage boxes and garden sheds, or line streets and fill squares. Many can also be found in more unusual places, such as the thousands of bicycles that sleep with the fishes at the bottom of canals. Come to think of it, there are probably more bikes in those canals than actual fish.

"No bikes please" - A Dutch shopping window

Canals are not the only threat to our beloved bicycles. Unfortunately - and strangely enough, come to think of it - thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's bicycle is not in the Dutch Bible. It is in the law books, in a way, but who reads those? In any case, if we don't continually protect our prized mode of transport, some perhaps God fearing but certainly not law abiding miscreant will steal it. In this cat and mouse game between current and prospective owner, the chain lock plays a central role. Used abroad to secure fences and lock doors, its main use over here is to chain your bike to whatever immovable object is at hand, be it a tree, a bridge railing, a street lantern, or a park bench. The bicycle thus anchored, the task now falls to the soon-to-be-offender to dislodge it. And thus the game begins.

A keen observer walking through the streets of a medium sized city will soon spot the victims of this game. Broken chain locks hang from bridge railings, patches of rust accenting the dull metal like dried blood on lifeless skin. Lone front wheels still clamped to bicycle racks, silent witness to the mutilation that enabled their predators to run off with the kill. Sometimes the victim is not even taken, but simply vandalized where it stands, its frame and wheels bent every which way. For what is more fun to do after a night out with the boys than a bit of trampolining on some bicycles, right?

The lives of both bicycle and its rider are fraught with danger. However, challenges faced together strengthen the bonds of companionship, and so maybe that's why we're so fond of our bikes.


Wednesday, 5 August 2009


Last Sunday I boarded a train in my hometown of Rotterdam. Shortly after the train had left the station, it passed through a commercial estate filled with large shopping malls and do-it-yourself centers. This early on a Sunday morning the shops would not be open and indeed looked deserted. The windows in the flat-roofed rectangular buildings were dark, and the huge parking lots were devoid of cars. The overcast sky and steady drizzle that blurred the view only added to the general feel of desolation.

As the train passed the next lifeless complex, I was suddenly struck by the sad spectacle those empty parking lots in particular were presenting. The neatly laid out rows of parking places seemed to cry out: "We are here, all smartly presented and available for your convenience! Where are you?", as if they did not know why they had been abandoned now, when only yesterday on busy Saturday, they had been fought over and none of them had been left unoccupied for more than a few moments. Little did they know that custom and routine were the main causes of the unbalanced use of their capacity.

Then I realized that this imbalance is the cause of similar woe among other providers of capacity: office buildings are deserted after business hours, classrooms stand empty during summer breaks, tables are left unoccupied in closed restaurants, and trains idle in sidings during off-peak hours.

Obviously the demand for capacity changes throughout the course of the day. Our numbers, however, don't. At any given moment on a day there's about as many of us as on any other moment of the same day. The trains aren't twice as full during rush hour as around noon because for some mysterious reason thirty percent of the population only exists during those early hours. Queues at supermarket checkouts don't occur mainly on Saturday afternoons because that's when some parallel world where another thirty percent of the population reside is close enough to ours to allow some of its residents to cross over.

Nope, we're all here. The problem is that we like to do the same thing at the same time with as many other people as possible. Why? Because we are bogged down in custom and routine. Custom says we work five days a week, from nine to five, so that's what most of us do. Of course, this causes logistical nightmares around nine and again around five. Routine says we do our shopping on Saturday, because that's when we have our day off. Cue clogged shopping streets and long checkout queues.

This propensity to invade shopping malls en masse during off days has led to a strange phenomenon here in the Netherlands called a "shopping mall traffic jam". This is a traffic jam that occurs on a stretch of road which is normally not very busy during weekends, but happens to lead to a shopping mall where a disproportionate amount of people have decided to recreate because the weather is too bad to go to the beach.

Obviously, if we could somehow spread the demand for capacity more evenly over the course of a day, we would make much better use of that capacity. However, it's hard to get people to make a radical change to their routine, so we probably can't change too much about their activities and the amount of time they spend on them. So how could it be done?

One solution could be to divide the population into seven equal parts. We'll call these parts dies, which is Latin for day. We then assign one of the seven days of the week to each dies as their first working day. In this way we could reduce traffic during peak hours by almost 29%, and reduce shopping mall stress by a whopping 85%.

This solution has some serious drawbacks, though. If your football team happens to have players from several different dies of the population, it may become rather hard to get the team together to play a game. And if you want to go out carousing with the boys, then statistically more than two thirds of the company will not be drinking anything stronger than root beer and will be going home at eleven because they have to go to work the next day.

Another solution could be to shift around hours instead of days. In this solution one hora - to keep with the theme - of the population start their day for instance two hours earlier than the next hora, and so on. The advantage this has over the dies solution is that a working day is still a working day for all horas, and a weekend day a weekend day. Traffic is spread evenly over the entire day, and rush hour would all but disappear.

One of the drawbacks of this solution is a biological one: it has been proven that humans who consistently spend much of their waking time during the night are more prone to suffering mental health problems. And as with the dies solution, people in different horas may find it hard to work together when there are only one or two hours in the day when all involved are present at the same time.

Teamwork problems are common to both systems. It would therefore seem that the best thing to do would be to keep to your own dies or hora. But what if a Romeo from one hora falls in love with a Juliet from the hora most distant from it? Theirs would be an impossible love, consummated only during the brief moments that their horas touch.

On the bright side we could have inter-dies championships. Furthermore, the hora system promotes cooperation, because services need to be managed and provided around the clock, requiring some sort of partnership between people from different horas.

On the whole, the dies and hora systems face serious challenges, and seem impractical. But if the chances of a real life adoption are remote, then the chances are much better that there will be some imaginative writer who will write a novel about the subject. Such a novel might look at how a population would adapt to the enforcement of one or even both of these systems. And who could be more perfect to tackle this subject than a novelist, who after all doesn't have nine to five working days and prefers to do his shopping on Tuesday mornings?