On football, belonging and being a Liverpool-supporting Londoner

Come on you reds: the victory parade. Image: Getty.

There are 15 professional football clubs in London, and I don’t support any of them.

I was born and grew up in Lambeth, London, and I can see the Oval cricket ground from my window. If you ever cross the River Thames at night, you’re seeing my favourite view in the world. One side of my family is German, the other’s from Kent, but I love being able to say I’m from this city.

And yet, aged 5 – seeing Michael Owen’s goal against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup – I decided to support Liverpool. And apparently nobody in my football-hating family was minded to correct me.

In terms of the distance from my house, it might as well have been France’s Paris St Germain, Belgium’s Anderlecht or the Netherland’s Feyenoord.

It’s one thing Liverpudlians debating the notion of “Scouse exceptionalism”; it was quite another being a teenage Londoner arguing with other geographically-confused friends about the Manchester Ship Canal.

As a student, shuttling between Bristol and Liverpool by coach provided an outlet for the energy. Thoughtfully, Bristol continues to abstain from top-flight football, which gave us an excuse to head up the M5. The 2011-12 season was particularly memorable, as Liverpool rewarded our endeavour by cheerfully hitting the post and crossbar more times than any other team in Premier League history.

Belonging is normally something inherited, but club football has been global for decades. And if nobody’s there to indoctrinate you, then you do it yourself. In Official Supporters’ Clubs from San Francisco to Seoul, people re-structure their lives to wake up and stare very hard at this strange, infectious, red thing. They fall in love with the heroes and the miracles. They learn about Hillsborough, and Heysel, and managed decline.

I know that university friends now living in Nairobi, or Washington D.C, still sometimes feel guilty about how much mental energy goes into guarding the flame.

Can you really belong to something you’ve chosen? If we do tell ourselves stories in order to live, do we weave ourselves into the stories of the things we love – or do we weave theirs into us?

On Saturday 1 June, Liverpool beat Tottenham Hotspur to win the Champions League, European football’s premier club competition, for the 6th time.

The following day, a crowd of 750,000 people attended the victory parade in Liverpool. The last time Liverpool won the competition, in 2005, the BBC reported estimates that the crowd reached 1 million – or to put it differently, 2 per cent of everybody in England at the time.

For emphasis, those are the two largest crowds ever seen outside London. After the 2003 Stop the War March, the 2nd and 3rd largest crowds in all of British history were to celebrate Liverpool winning the Champions League.

These people could have gathered for religion, or music, or ornithology, but they didn’t. It’s true that many will have gone with friends and family, or for the spectacle, but just as many will have gone there for communion. Whether you care about football, and especially if you don’t, it’s important to appreciate the depth and power of self-selecting communities – and the lengths we go to sustain them.

As with any kind of fanaticism, it becomes your escape, soundtrack, punctuation. It’s how you measure time. You seek out your own media (or create it yourself), develop cultures and habits, and wage factional conflicts. You marinate in it.

It’s supposed to be a leisure activity. But I’m not the only one who, after a horrible week, has irrationally needed a result from my team like a personal favour. And I’m not the only one who has felt that when your team is doing well, they’re doing it for you, personally. Uncomfortably, unforgivably, it’s also likely that the “sanctioned madness” around football goes some way to explaining why rates of domestic abuse soar during international football tournaments. It’s supposed to be a leisure activity.

The club season has officially ended, and the fever has temporarily broken. Irrationally, I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t a little relieved. We can all pretend we’re excited for the Hampton Court Flower Show now, or the Proms.

But this enduring weirdness, this addicted worm, clearly isn’t going to go anywhere. Kindly, firmly, it’s sat itself down in my frontal lobe with a lifelong tenancy agreement. But come August, I’m glad the decision’s been made for me.

Samuel Kerr works in events for the New Statesman.


How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 

Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first

On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them

A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.