Subtitle: Imagination taking power

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Travels in my Time Machine Part Two: the Utrecht bicycle rush hour

In my ongoing search for the actual sounds of a successfully realised radically lower carbon future, a more just, fair, equal, beautiful world, I’ve been off adventuring once more in my Time Machine™.  I’d just had it serviced, so this time I wanted to experience, and to be able to share with you, what a pedal-powered city would sound like, in particular what bicycle rush hour would sound like in a city where the huge majority of journeys are made by bicycle. What would a city where people, children, goods, tools, food and so much more are moved around the city in a fossil fuel-free way, and in a way that promotes health, clean air, and conviviality, actually sound like? I’d always wondered.

Well, I’m pleased to report that my journey was successful, I found it, and I have a recording to share with you. It’s part of the ‘Field Recordings from the Future’ project I’m creating with the brilliant ambient music artist Mr Kit. I travelled to the city of Utrecht in the Netherlands, a beautiful place, with its canals, its beautiful Autumn leaves and its delightful but human-scale architecture.

Holland is the country that is way out in the lead in terms of promoting cycling, and in seeing its benefits in a joined up way. Their government invest €0.5 billion per year in road and parking infrastructure for cycling, but estimate that that leads to total economic health benefits of €19 billion a year. It is estimated that these measures prevent around 11,000 deaths a year, and that as a result, Dutch people have a life expectancy of 6 months higher than the European average.

The city of Utrecht has 420km of bike paths and the city is home to 21 bicycle parking facilities which can together accommodate 30,000 bikes in the area around the station alone, the largest being the largest in the world, with space for 12,500 bicycles. 33,000 cyclists travel use the city’s busiest cycle route every day. 56% of the city’s residents use bicycles to visit the city centre, and 94% of Utrecht residents own at least one bicycle. Everywhere you look there are smaller areas of bike parking too.

I spent the morning in the city in order to experience the bicycle rush hour around the station. It was like nothing I’ve seen anywhere else, apart from when I visited China in 1990 and cities were just a sea of bicycles in the mornings. But unlike the lycra-clad cyclists one might see in a big city in the UK, in Utrecht it was all a bit more, I don’t know, a bit more commonplace, a bit more everyday, a bit more unremarkable.

As you approach the city centre, you meet these signs, like you see elsewhere else for cars, which tell you the spaces available in different bike parks. This is what the future will look like.

I spent time recording the cyclist rush hour and watching those flying past me. It was fascinating. There were people taking 3 or 4 kids to school in one cargo bike. There were people cycling while chatting away saying good morning to their families on their phones. There were people so into the music they were listening to in their headphones that they were singing along, karaoke-style, at the top of their lungs, safe in the knowledge that as they were moving, no-one would be able to hear that much of it, lost in their own world.

There were groups of school friends cycling together chatting animatedly as they went. There were people whistling. There were bells being rung. There were people cycling while also reading the morning news on their phone (my first sight when I arrived was the police stopping someone cycling while using their phone and telling him to put it away). There were people carrying big bags, art folders, rucksacks.

There were people in smart office clothes, and people off to work on building sites in their luminous jackets. There were the postmen, off to do their rounds with electric cargo bikes full of post. There were long skirts, short skirts, and everything in between. There were people cycling with umbrellas up (not sure what even the Dutch Highway Code would say about that!!). There were people with big headscarves they could only just see out of. There were very few cycle helmets on display. Many of the bikes were big clunky sit-up-and-beg things, not super fast road bikes. There were a few electric bikes, but most weren’t.

In some ways, it wasn’t even cycling really, not in the British sense. It was just how people were getting from one place to another. Nothing remarkable, just how it is. At junctions, on red lights, the number of cyclists would build and build, and then when the lights changed there would be a huge pulse of cyclists all setting off at once.

And those bicycle car parks were amazing. Scattered through the town centre, they were like something from a cyclist’s dream. The main one, near the train station, also features a bike repair place where you can leave your bike to be fixed during the day, a bike hire place, and really cool bike escalators, alongside the stairs coming back up out of the underground bike parking, where you roll your bike into a groove and it pulls it up to the top. And people have a swipe card to book their bikes in. State of the art. So impressive.

Those bike escalators.

Of course I didn’t actually travel to 2030, rather to October 2022. But for someone coming from elsewhere, where such well thought out infrastructure is something we can, as yet, only dream of, it was like travelling to 2030. Just amazing. I hope my recording gives you a taste of how 2030 could yet be. Close your eyes, and as you listen to it, imagine that that’s what the rush hour in your home place now sounds like, and how much healthier everyone is as a result. As Rilke once said, “the future must enter into you a long time before it happens”. I hope this recording gives you a taste of that.

Rob Hopkins · The Utrecht bicycle rush hour.

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