Last month I undertook a whirlwind trip to Europe that included six action packed days in the Netherlands. Most of the things related to cycle paths, traffic management and urban design that I saw could easily be implemented in Australia and would result in more people cycling more often, which in turn would mean more sales of bicycles, P&A and repairs.
Why Is This Important to Bicycle Dealers?
Before I share details about the Velo-city conference itself, I’d like to share some data that underlines why conferences such as these and the people that attend them are actually critical to the business viability of bicycle industry members, especially independent bicycle dealers.
At one session I attended, the presenter showed dramatic differences within a city. You may think that everything is rosy for cycling within Amsterdam, but if you break the data down by the local government regions within the city you will see that even within Amsterdam, cycling is far more popular in some regions than others. If you then overlay the bicycle shop locations you will see that the stronger cycling regions are sustaining many more bicycle shops per head of population than the weaker ones.
Meanwhile, just a week later at the Places for Bikes conference in the USA, Trek CEO John Burke showed a slide that reached exactly the same conclusion in the USA.
As you can see, the attached image compares two pairs of cities that are similar in size and population. But as the maps show, one has a comprehensive cycling network and the other a fragmented, incomplete cycling network. The difference in IBD sales is dramatic, 800% and 400% higher respectively in the more cycling friendly cities.
Finally, if you map bicycle shop locations in Australia, as I have done, you’ll see exactly the same results.
For example if you take Melbourne, there are relatively few bicycle shops in the western, northern and outer eastern suburbs where cycling is far less popular. But if you look at the city centre, inner eastern and inner northern suburbs where cycling is most popular (as measured by the ‘mode share’ of cycling trips using census data) you will find far more bicycle shops.
As Australian bicycle industry members we fret over certain brands gaining market share and certain new retailers opening a store nearby. This is perfectly understandable. As a business owner myself for many years, I’ve done exactly the same thing.
But in doing so we lose sight of the bigger picture… Australia’s bicycle industry could easily double, triple or quadruple in size. Survey after survey in Australia has shown that we have millions of potential customers who would like to start riding, or to ride a lot more than they currently do. By far the biggest factor that’s stopping them is safety. They don’t want to ride amongst motor vehicle traffic.
If we can fix that, then we can dramatically grow our industry.
One good place to start is to learn from the world leaders, the Dutch, hence my trip to Velo-city to share with you what’s happening there. Here is a diary of my trip:
Day 1 Sunday 11th June.
I arrived in Schiphol Airport after about 30 hours of travel time since leaving home, hopped straight onto a train and headed to The Hague which, although smaller than Amsterdam, is actually the seat of government in the Netherlands.
There, a group of Velo-city delegates from around the world were hosted by two cycling planners who work for the city government. We they guided us through a four hour cycle tour all over the city and showed off The Hague’s beauty, history and of course great cycling culture.
We stopped for lunch on a hot, sunny ocean beach which was packed with bathers, beach side café’s and people promenading. It was a scene that you’d more likely associate with the Gold Coast than the Netherlands.
The main difference was that there were thousands of bicycles parked along the esplanade and far more cyclists and pedestrians than motorists.
That evening I had to travel across the entire nation from west to east, a journey that took about two hours by train! Arriving in Nijmegen I found my accommodation in the heart of the old city. I was staying in a lovely typical Dutch 19th century red brick terrace house with steep stairs, compact rooms and a leafy rear courtyard. Airbnb delivers again!
Day 2 Monday 12th June
After picking up my registration tags I used the chip in my wrist band to unlock my free share bike. It was a Nextbike aluminium framed utility bike with a Shimano three speed internal gear rear hub and a quick release adjustable seat post, which unlike most Asian share bikes, went high enough for my 182 cm tall body.
The cable lock plugged into a slot on the frame when the bike was being ridden and locked through the fork blades and front wheel. It was long enough to wrap around a post, fence or other fixed item when locking. I left the bike, along with hundreds of other bikes, locked to the old iron front fence on the street every night with no problems.
My first of many cycling journeys on that bike was to the Nijmegen railway station where I parked the bike right outside the station in a two storey underground carpark, err, bikepark along with hundreds of other bikes. Then it was a short train ride to Arnhem to attend the first ever PEBSS Conference – the Platform for European Bicycle Sharing Systems.
This is a new industry group that has just been set up in response to the booming bike share market.
The conference was very well attended and quite an eye opener.
There is a lot of venture capital pouring into bike share right now and quite a few bright corporate types in the room.
One Chinese man in attendance said that his company was planning to add one million more share bikes to their fleet in the next four months!
Matthew Clark, an urban mobility expert from the UK who was the opening keynote speaker said that the future of transportation was going to be connected, autonomous, shared and electric.
Marius Macku, a senior executive from the car ride sharing company Uber, which has gone to from start up to $100 billion company in less than a decade, gave the closing keynote.
He said that Uber was trialling schemes in several cities including Amsterdam where users had the option of booking cars with bike racks fitted.
Day 3 Tuesday 13th June
There was great excitement, especially amongst the locals, surrounding the King of the Netherlands opening Velo-city. It seems that most Dutch are monarchists not republicans.
This year’s conference had around 1,500 delegates which was apparently just above the previous record.
Fortunately for the large contingent of Australians and other ‘Anglos’ who attended, all sessions were in English and virtually everyone attending from around the world along with all the local waiters and shopkeepers were fluent in English.
On each conference day there were a wide range of speakers and topics, the details of which are beyond the scope of this article other than to say that it’s both fascinating and informative to see presentations and hear first-hand reports from speakers who have come from all around the world.
During the lunch break I attended the world premiere of a new documentary film, ‘Why We Cycle’. The film makers were on hand to introduce their film and to be applauded at the end for a job well done.
At the end of the first conference day most delegates piled onto busses while the rest rode their bikes about 25 kilometres to a welcome reception at the Holland Open Air Museum. This is a ‘mini Holland’ full of windmills, old farm houses, blacksmith, wooden boat builder, tram museum (and of course a bicycle collection) and many other buildings that have all been relocated there brick by brick from other parts of the country. Apparently it’s the second most visited tourist attractions in the Netherlands, which would not surprise me, as it’s well worth a visit.
In mid-summer the sun does not set until around 10 pm and the weather was perfect, which added to the memorable atmosphere.
Day 4 Wednesday 14th June
After half a day of conference sessions we piled onto a long, specially chartered double decker electric train to be ‘Amsterdammers for a day’. Once again the event was extremely well organised with everyone given guided tours on free bicycles.
I did the ‘Seven Wonders Tour’ which showed seven of the best urban design and cycling facilities in Amsterdam.
Despite having visited this city several times previously, I learned a lot and saw many sights I’d not seen before.
Amsterdam is growing fast in terms of population and the number of cyclists is now so great that bike parking and bicycle traffic jams are serious issues. So even though the cycling facilities are already far superior to those in any Australian city, they are spending money on upgrading them at over ten times the amount per head of population per year than we are here. It’s still dirt cheap compared to motor vehicle infrastructure costs.
Given that they have learned so much about what works best, not only are they spending more money, but spending it more cost effectively, so that the gap between our two countries looks set to widen even further.
We finished our tour at a local park where a huge old industrial building had been booked out by Velo-city for a massive dinner, with various displays and entertainment until well into the night before a sleepy train ride back to Nijmegen.
Day 5 Thursday 15th June
There was a another full day of conference sessions, but I took time out to go on one of the many excursion options on offer. This was to the world’s largest bicycle show room, De Fietser. You can see photos and more about this in my previous article here.
After another full day, all conference delegates joined the locals for a huge bike parade with perhaps 5,000 or more cyclists riding on roads that were all closed to motorised traffic for this event, right throughout the city and along the river front.
There were hundreds of families outside their houses cheering on the passing parade with kids high-fiving the riders, bikes and houses decorated for the occasion, local bands playing along the route and plenty of bell ringing.
The ride went for close to two hours, finishing at a huge old riverfront industrial site called the Honig Complex that has been turned into a series of galleries, bars, cafes and of course a bike shop. The influx of hundreds of cyclists from around the world made for a long, lively evening, once again with live bands and other entertainment on offer.
Day 6 Friday 16th June
This was the fourth and final day of Velo-city proper. A slightly shorter program with a half day of regular sessions was capped off by a closing ceremony to remember.
Velo-city has been running each year for several decades and has reached a level that cities have to win a competitive bid to host the conference in future years. Each even year it’s held outside of Europe and each odd year within Europe.
Rio de Janeiro will be hosting Velo-city 2018 so after a short and lively speech from the Mayor of Rio inviting everyone to Rio next year, loud drumming started and dancers and acrobats took over the old theatre in Holland and turned it into a replica of Rio’s famous annual Carnival, with the audience clapping along and some joining in.
I think that quite a few delegates were making up their mind to make the trip to South America next year.
Meanwhile there was one last long summer evening that the event organisers were not going to let go to waste. The grand finale was called Velofest, held in the beautiful Sonsbeek Park in the heart of Arnhem. Once again this was a fantastic event, open to the general public with a grand old mansion turned function centre in the middle of the park booked exclusively for conference delegates.
There was a slow bike race where ‘track stands’ were allowed. It was open to all comers but the finalists were guys who take their sport seriously and the ‘winner’ (last person across the finish line) took over 18 minutes to cover about 20 metres.
There were also more bands, food stalls, pro rider interviews and various other side shows that ran late into the night.
An early start, train ride to the airport and long flights back to Australia via Singapore were on the agenda today.
Velo-city 2017 had been an outstandingly well organised event that was both well attended and highly informative. During my total stay of six days I’d ridden extensively around three different cities, attended many different conference sessions, some of which were quite intense, visited every expo booth and been to every evening event.
This is not a ‘core’ bicycle industry event. Instead it centres around how to get more people cycling more often. But in the long run, because that goal is of great relevance to the health of our industry I think it’s a pity that more bicycle industry members do not attend.
I flew out of Holland feeling very glad that I had taken part, but with a simple question on my mind… why was I feeling so tired?