When cars stop and the world keeps turning
JRtB, 7 June 2017
A family holiday in Belgium in 2016 gave an insight into what a car-free life could be like, with the right infrastructure, attitudes and cars that stop.
No cyclists to see here, to paraphrase Chris Boardman, just lots of people riding bikes. That is the experience of being in Belgium and specifically, Mechelen, a small city just north of Brussels.
We’d spent 24 hours in Brussels. It rained, the whole time. This may have explained my sudden dislike of a place I had previously very much enjoyed. We then boarded a double decker train (so cool) for the 30-minute journey north. The Belgian’s we met on the train were all incredibly friendly and helpful. We received what I imagine to be some good tourist information about the port city of Antwerp. We promised we would go and visit (we will one day, honest).
We arrived in Mechelen to more rain, and facing a trudge from the station dragging those awful wheelie suitcases behind. Despite initial misgivings much of the walk turned out to be alongside a canal. And a canal that was clearly still used for freight, which made my heart soar. To find that the canal path was mixed cycling and walking added to my improved mood: although I would doubt many tourists come into Mechelen this way. We were house-swapping with a family who were half Belgian half English, arranged via a house swap website.
All photos, Credit: JRtB 2016
Whilst it meant an unusual arrival route, it did mean we had access to their family bicycles. It was almost perfect; Mum bike, Dad bike, two girls bikes. We matched that exactly. Perhaps the age different of the children meant my 12 year old had a less good time, looking increasingly like a giant on a toy every time she rode it.
Should you ever get some time in Mechelen, with a bicycle, take it easy on yourself. What takes some getting used to is riding around a city where the car is not king. That’s not to say cars are banned or anything that controversial. There is simply a much better network of cycle lanes. And cars stop for bikes.
Yes, you read that correctly. And it takes a bit of mental adjustment. In Mechelen, when you reach a junction the cars stop and wait for you to ride across the cycle lane. It’s so unnerving I failed completely several times. At first I assumed it was just a one-off; some cycle nut in the car letting cyclists across. By the third time it happened that assumption started to fall apart.
The freedom this brings is invigorating. We very quickly started using the bikes to get everywhere. In particular the shopping. The shopping presents its own challenges, simply related to bringing the goods for a family of four on your bike. The solution is two-fold. Take the whole family with you. Buy them all rucksacks. Whilst the shopping itself is a slower, some might say tortuous, process, with four opinions on cereal, getting it home again is a doddle and fun despite the rain. We cycled out to the science centre for a day out, a journey that looked nightmarish by bus, and too long to walk, but was simply fun on a bike, in bike lanes, where cars treat you with respect.
We found a great little park, which turned into really quite a large park, we cycled to, and then cycled around, and then cycled through, and then, oh joy, cycled up and around a small patch of ground that had been tarmacked and laid out like a mini-town; with traffic lights, a roundabout, lane changing left and right hand turns, and other junctions. It seemed clear it was to help Belgian children (and now my children) to learn about riding safely on roads. It was free to use, just another part of the park attractions. Bicycle training as a free attraction in a municipal park. If children are seeing this as a fun activity, and people in the park can see that the council are taking it seriously …. I was awestruck.
We spent a splendid few days cycling around town. The novelty of running daily chores on a bike had not worn off by the time we packed up. This was helped in no small part by finding a cycle-café on the short stroll into the city centre. It was the day of the men’s road race in the Rio Olympics, and we had nowhere to watch it. My youngest daughter, aged 9, and I walked to the cycling café, and it was thoroughly splendid. A young couple ran the café; he was the mechanic and bike nut, and she ran the café. They told us all about when they gone to the Tour Down Under, and finally met Eddy Merckx, and yes it was ironic that he was their countryman. They chatted to my daughter, who told them about going to watch the Grand Depart in Yorkshire, and then, a year later, going to watch Chris Froome arrive on the Champs Elysee in Paris. The fact she was wearing her ‘Va Va Froome’ t-shirt may have eased conversation here. I drank coffee, we ate cake. We got the point where I asked if we could watch the Olympic road race on the large wall-mounted telly. They jumped up and rushed around, apologising for not having it on anyway. I like to think we were a great omen for them, seeing as Van Avermaert won. I even got talked into a bottle of Cyclist beer. Which is now my favourite beer (of course). And I even bought a jersey from the shop.
Our experience of Belgium was not to do with the country’s deep love of professional road racing and cyclo-cross and of near mythical events such as the ’Spring Classics’. What we saw as a family was a country and a city that does love bikes, but also likes cars too. Belgium is simply a place where a sensible call was made, by the citizens, on how to treat people on the road. And it is a decent holiday destination too.