Sunday 3 September 2023

Thoughts Over A Beer


This was, unbelievably, the very first beer I had the whole time I was in Amsterdam.  There simply wasn't time for me to stop.  And when I did stop, I had an early start the next day, so I didn't want to do it hungover.  Now it was the final few hours of my time there so I went to the hotel bar and treated myself to a pint and some peanuts.

So what have we learned?  Well, firstly we've learned I'm very easily amused.  I'm glad I don't have to go into the office after a trip away and go through all those tedious "what I did on my holiday" chats.

"Did you have a good time?"

"Yeah, it was brilliant."

"Amsterdam, eh?  All that sex and drugs and partying?"

"Nah, I just hung around a load of railway stations in the suburbs."


Hey, it's a relatively cheap trip.  Discounting my flights and the hotel, of course.  But I bought a GVB four day travel pass through the app on my phone.  One QR code, 96 hours of travel on train, bus and tram, and it cost me... €26.50.  About twenty three quid.  That feels obscenely cheap.  The all zones price cap in London is £14.70 a day.  Admittedly, London is much larger, but that's still more than twice the cost for the same period of time.  It was so easy to use, too; wafting an app at the various readers was a doddle.

It was yet another example of how to do a transport network right.  Make it efficient and clean.  Put it everywhere.  Make it cheap.  You'll get people using it all the time.  Wandering around Amsterdam has turned me from a public transport advocate into a militant.  Take cycle lanes, for example.  Since I came back to the UK I've become absolutely obsessed with the size of our roads.  The acres of wasted space.  The way you could quite easily slot in segregated, clearly marked cycle routes along the majority of main roads.  Not these useless shared spaces with pedestrians, not a painted line on the road; a kerb, a cycle lane, and another kerb next to the pavement.  Fully separate and safe.  I'm going down the Upton Bypass, for instance, and looking at all the pointless grass verge, acres of lawn that has to be maintained and cut, and which could be sliced into for a decent bike lane.  You'd still have plenty of grass and trees behind it but there would be room for you to cycle unthreatened, with your family.

Or the trams.  One of the reasons it took Amsterdam so long to built its Metro was because it already had a fantastic tram network.  It had steel rails running all over the city, centred on a central railway terminus.  You know who else had a brilliant tram network?  Liverpool.  And Manchester.  And Birmingham.  And a load of other UK towns and cities that still have wide roads that were built to handle trams.  Why aren't we putting them back?  Why aren't we investing in our towns?

I came away from Amsterdam profoundly depressed about my own country.  We're a nation that's accepted we're not going to get much better.  Keep calm and carry on, Blitz spirit, make do and mend.  Which is fine when there's actual bombs falling on cities but it's 2023.  The only thing stopping us is ambition and resolve.  Instead of taking taxes and investing the money in our cities, we get a small amount of cash thrown out every once in a while to make it look like something is happening.  London can finally get Crossrail, seventy years after it was first suggested, but there's no chance of it getting Crossrail 2.  Birmingham can only extend its tram line through the city centre one or two stops at a time, and it can get a second line so long as it's mainly on old railway lines and doesn't get in the way of the cars.  Manchester's had all the Metrolink extensions it's going to get now; that little gap between East Didsbury and Stockport town centre will never be filled, no matter how much it makes sense.  And as for the other smaller cities?  No chance.  I don't even mean second tier cities like Portsmouth or Hull or Norwich; I mean somewhere like Leeds, which has one big station in the middle of half a million people and after that it's a lot of buses.  

We've no ambition.  Amsterdam's first metro was a single tunnel in the city centre then going above ground in the suburbs - every large city in Britain should have that at the bare minimum.  There should be a Merseyrail-style link and loop under Manchester and Birmingham and Leeds and Bradford and Bristol and all the others, to get people across town, to free up platform space in the big termini, to make the routes faster and more efficient.  Yes, it'll be expensive, but that's what taxation is for, and you can make it back by building more densely around those stations.  People will pay more for a home or an office that's close to a station with a train every five minutes, that's near a tram stop with connections across town.  A bus stop can be taken away, a bus route can be cancelled, but if you put in infrastructure?  That's sticking around, and so people are confident they can rely on it.  They can lay down roots.  You can build higher and thicker and make neighbourhoods.

Amsterdam was a city that was alive, a city that was driven by its public transport network.  The city was crafted around a concept of getting as many people moved as quickly as possible at all times, and then, as a secondary consideration, cars were permitted as well.  They were undoing the mistakes of the past by driving motorways underground and minimising highways.  They're removing 1500 on-street parking spaces a year.

They can do all this because they've made alternatives to cars desirable.  If you build it, they will come.  Our politicians talk about making our cities better for non-drivers, but they don't follow through on it.  If you punish the driver while cutting buses and trains, you've failed both constituents.  You can't, for example, get rid of ticket offices without there being an effective and easy to use alternative ticketing system in place.  Amsterdam's Metro stations are all unstaffed, but they're also all fully accessible, have ticket machines in them, and feature help points and information boards.  They can afford to do without the ticket office because they've put the investment in.  

I've spent over a month writing about my Amsterdam trip, which means I've spent over a month reflecting on what's good and what's bad about it.  On pretty much every metric it beats the UK.  It has advantages, of course - when you literally make your own land out of the sea, you can lay it out however you like, and there are considerably fewer hills than, say, Sheffield, so cycling is a lot more attractive.  It just felt like a place where you could exist and thrive without a car.  Where in Britain can you say that?

This is all very depressing.  I'm back here, getting pathetically excited that Merseyrail is finally letting its new trains onto the Wirral; I've not actually seen one yet, but I believe they're around.  Yay!  Our fifty year old trains are finally being replaced!  How amazing!  I can't wait to buy a relatively expensive paper ticket to access them.  

Ah well.  What do you reckon for next time?  Copenhagen?  Rotterdam?  Lisbon?  I joke of course.  This time next year we'll all be so much worse off than today, because this is a nation in decline and nobody wants to arrest it.  It'll be like Children of Men, but not quite so upbeat and jolly.  It's hard to be optimistic when you've seen another world.

1 comment:

Stuart said...

A rant indeed, but an enjoyable one. A visit to the extremities of the Prague tram network next please, perhaps finding the elusive section of track where new trams are delivered off the back of main-line freight.